(On DVD, December 2010) Few contemporary writers elicit a variety of reactions like Harlan Ellison. With his substantial body of work, long personal history and contentious personality, Ellison can be admired and reviled, often by the same people at various times. Famously cranky, extremely intelligent, extraordinarily outspoken and connected to a variety of subcultures from Science Fiction fandom to Hollywood professionals, Ellison is an ideal subject for a documentary and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, twenty-five years in the making, is meant to offer an overview of the man and his career. A compilation of archival footage, interviews with Ellison, readings, testimonies from friends such as Josh Olson and Robin Williams and a minimal amount of on-screen captions for context, Dream With Sharp Teeth is not an objective view of its subject: director Erik Nelson is too much of a fan to seriously question the Ellison mythos (although he lets Neil Gaiman come closest to an objective assessment by leaving a reference to Ellison’s career as performance art) and the film is substantially stacked in Ellison’s favour. People familiar with the Science-Fiction field will delight in spotting appearances by Dan Simmons, Connie Willis (!), Michael Cassutt and Ronald D. Moore. (Those same SF fans may quibble with how Ellison’s troubled relation with fandom is illustrated by his presence at the 2006 Nebula weekend: The Nebulas are a professionals’ event; couldn’t Nelson go to the fannish 2006 L.A. Worldcon instead?) But the star remains Ellison… in all of his overblown personality, important friends, nice house and tortured history with Hollywood and the SF&F field. Is it an interesting documentary? Sure. Is it the best possible documentary about Ellison? Heck no –but documentaries being works of passion, it would be unlikely to see one made by someone who wouldn’t already be a fan of Ellison. There are so many fascinating things that could be discussed about Ellison dispassionately, but for that, we will probably have to wait for an unauthorized biography. In the meantime, Ellison fans and SF readers will be happy with the film as-is. The DVD comes with a set of generally superfluous readings, but also an overview of the film’s premiere (with unlikely guests such as Werner Herzog and Drew McWeeny) and a curiously interesting pizza chat between Ellison and Gaiman, in which Ellison isn’t being Ellison (much) and in which, if you know what to listen for, you can even hear a reaction to Ellison’s 2006 L.A. Con IV fiasco. As SF fans with poisonously long memories (or even a look at Ellison’s Wikipedia page) will tell you, Dreams with Sharp Teeth only tells a chunk of the full Ellison story –which can’t be solely told by his friends.
St. Martin Minotaur, 2003, 357 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99468-0
It’s a widely-held belief that Dan Simmons can excel in any genre he chooses to write. While that’s not always true, it’s hard to find counter-examples. (In hindsight, his foray in techno-thriller, Darwin’s Blade, was enjoyable but ultimately ridiculous thanks to an accumulation of talents in its protagonist.) With Hard as Nails, Simmons at least keeps proving that he can write a hard-boiled mystery series as well as anyone.
This is private investigator Joe Kurtz’s third adventure, and it’s just as harsh and unpleasant as Hard Case and Hard Freeze. Buffalo-area Kurtz’s life so far has been filled with shootouts and broken bones (his and others), so we know that Hard as Nail is going to remain true to form when the novel begins with “On the day he was shot in the head, things were going strangely well for Joe Kurtz.”
Both Kurtz and his parole officer end the first chapter at the hospital, badly wounded. But Kurtz wastes no time in getting pampered by the American medical system: he self-checks out a few pages later, popping aspirins and putting himself on the case. It’s not as if he’s got too few enemies to suspect: in between decades of lousy behaviour, a stint in prison, and the events of the first two novels, Kurtz is going to have more trouble finding out who doesn’t want to kill him. Especially given how most of those who don’t want to kill him always add “…yet.” to their reassurances. By mid-book, headache-ridden Kurtz has been promised death so many times that it looks as if his first-chapter survival was just one more bit of bad luck.
It wouldn’t be a Kurtz book without multiple antagonists, and so Hard as Nails multiplies the complications, landing Kurtz in the cross-hairs of rival criminal gangs, a mafia princess, the police and a serial killer who enjoys what he does. Recurring paid assassin “The Dane” is soon added to the mix. If you think that Kurtz will need an army to make it to the end of the book, well, you’re not wrong.
The muscular nature of hard-boiled mysteries is ably reflected in the author’s no-nonsense prose, which charges forward without fuss or fanciness. Simmons is a professional, and he knows when to stick to efficient prose: At a snappy 357 pages, Hard As Nails is a pleasure to read and a remarkable page-turner.
It’s also, obviously, a bit of a mess. There’s a price to pay for outrageous plotting, and Hard As Nails often goes over the top. As in Hard Freeze, the mixture of straightforward mob crime drama and grotesque serial killer mystery remains a challenge to manage efficiently, and it’s the serial killer angle that ultimately exasperates with self-conscious labels such as “The Artful Dodger” given to the serial killer in question. There’s also a tendency for the plot to become so complex that readers will stop trying to piece it together and just accept what happens, shrug, and go on. It would also be best for new readers to read all three Kurtz novel in short order in order to keep in mind all of the various bit players in Kurtz’s life. It may be no accident if the ending comes as a bit of a melodramatic deus ex machina that cuts through complications with a precise kill, exactly like the end of the second volume.
All of which may explain why, five years after publication, Hard As Nails remains the last volume in the Joe Kurtz series. I presume that Simmons’ well-demonstrated desire to keep writing new things is at play here (Hard as Nails was followed by the SF dyptich Illium/Olympos, then by the horror-thriller The Terror), but genre fatigue may also be a factor when it looks as if every single hardboiled plot device has been crammed in those first three books.
But even if this ends up being the last Joe Kurtz adventure, the result is a generally enjoyable third volume in an equally good series. Joe Kurtz has taken more damage than anyone would reasonably expect: A little rest can only do him good.
EOS, 2005, 690 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97894-6
Well, it’s over and it was about time it was.
It’s not that I disliked Dan Simmons’ Ilium. But even ambitious novels trying to tie together science, literature and the human condition can leave some lingering resentment after lasting about twice as long as what they should have. Obviously, mine was a minority view: Ilium went on to earn critical raves and was nominated for the 2004 Hugo Awards. But it was still, after all, half a story and now that Olympos is out, we can learn how it all ends.
It ends well, fortunately. Olympos is not without its own considerable lengths, but at least it ties everything together and enlightens us as to the nature of Simmons’ artistic and thematic choices for Ilium. Picking up a few months after the Iliad-changing conclusion of the first volume, Olympos continues the adventures of the humans, moravecs, post-humans and even stranger entities of a far-away future. At last, issues are settled and questions are answered. (Not the least being “why the parallels with classic works of literature?”)
Olympos is an epic work not especially because of the subject (which is ambitious, but still small-potatoes compared to some of the most overblown space-operas out there), but because of the amount of time readers are expected to sink into the entire 1,100-pages story before getting a good payoff. The “eloi” plot thread never started cooking for me until well into the second half of Olympos, and given the density of the book’s 600-odd pages, that’s a long time awaiting. (Simmons fan will note that a similar problem affected the Endymion diptych: The first volume wasn’t terribly useful, but the second one was the whole point of the setup.)
This being said, it’s entirely possible that the Ilium/Olympos series may be too big for my own little head to contain. The references to classical literature kept eluding me (heck, says “Achilles” and I picture Brad Pitt in TROY.) and the thematic underpinning of the book seemed a lot more obvious after reading an interview in which Simmons himself explained what he was trying to do.
Still, none of my perceived inadequacies at understanding the text invalidates my feeling that it ought to have been much, much shorter —say, the entire story in a slim 500 pages. There’s a notably jarring sub-thread about a doomsday submarine that I found particularly out-of-place, especially given how it relates to one of the book’s most egregious plot-cheats, a honking big coincidence that ties two threads together. Neat stuff, but it may have been better as a stand-alone novella than a part of the series.
On the other hand, there are a number of lovely images and concepts here and there, from the nature of genius to a road sliced through the ocean. The moravecs are interesting characters (some will say that they’re more human than the humans) and the reconstructed twentieth-century human observer Hockenberry is still a dependable viewpoint character. There’s also a pleasing complexity in the levels of technology exhibited by Olympos‘s assortment of gods, demi-gods, robots and humans of all descriptions. This isn’t a simple side-A-versus-side-B type of arrangement, but something scaling all the way from plain humans to the functional equivalent of world-altering magic, and all points in between.
Obviously, this isn’t quite enough to overcome my lack of patience with the book’s length, and for that reason alone I would suggest to leave it out of the Hugo Award ballot next year. There are already a number of faster, more interesting works out there this year, and Olympos certainly isn’t a perfect candidate. (It’s a candidate from a well-respected, well-known writer, however, and that changes things.) I suppose that readers with patience and a classical education will have another take entirely.
EOS, 2003, 576 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97893-8
Anyone who’s been paying attention to Dan Simmons’ career know that the man can write anything in any genre, from horror (Carrion Comfort) to thriller (Darwin’s Blade). But even with impressive credentials in other genres, Simmons started out as a science-fiction writer, and it’s still in SF that he produced his most impressive work, from dozen of excellent short stories to the massively successful Hyperion quartet. So any new SF work from him is a major event: Expectation for Ilium ran high as soon as the book was announced.
At first glance, it appears that Simmons has delivered the goods with Ilium, the first part of a duology to be concluded in Olympos. (In a rare feat of honesty, the American EOS hardcover edition says as much both in the liner jacket and on the back cover. Hurrah for honesty!) An adventure tale set in a far-flung future packed with nanotech, quantum tunnelling, moravecs and other exotic technology, Ilium alternates between three plot threads: The story of a Greek scholar resurrected to report on the real-life recreation of the Iliad, the travels of two robots going from the Jovian system to a mysterious terraformed Mars and the adventures of a small group of humans on a very different future Earth.
The first thing of note in Ilium is Simmons’ considerable literary ambition in telling a story which almost-literally takes place during the Iliad, featuring robots likely to quote from Shakespeare and Proust, and minor characters named “Caliban” for relevant reasons. The amount of research involved in writing this book must have been staggering; as a relatively ignorant reader (who had to rely on memories of TROY and visions of Brad Pitt as Achilles) it’s easy to be snowed under the weight of paragraphs packed with references to the Iliad, from character names to interpretations of Homer’s intentions to the complete back-story of even unseen characters. (Heck, this novel even has Greek gods as major characters.) Other literary allusions are just as likely to fly high above any non-scholarly heads, though the presence of such allusions is unlikely to be missed. In short, it’s easy to see classics-loving non-SF readers go nuts for Ilium‘s depth, even as it may not be totally successful in other areas.
Things like pacing or plotting, for instance. Yes, it’s a long book, and one which doesn’t start to cook until well after the halfway point. There’s a ton of exposition (it’s difficult to do otherwise when quoting from Homer), a lot of scene-setting and plenty of description. For Ilium is first and foremost and adventure tale in which plenty of words are spent describing how characters go from point A to point B. There is a complicated plot, oh yes, but for the longest time it’s hard to see the difference between movement and progress.
All of this is complicated by the fact that Ilium is, after all, the first half of a bigger novel. The three hundred pages of setup are for the 1100-pages entirety of the duology, not just for a single book. Some things don’t make a lot of sense; we can only hope that they will once the second half comes out. Similarly, the sense of pointless exasperation sure to strike any reader during the last few pages has to be tempered by the knowledge that the answers so preciously withheld should be coming up in early 2005. (Few of the book’s lines are so ominous as Zeus’s “We’re not?” [P.522]) Frustrating; it’s not for nothing if I usually wait until all the books of a series are out before digging in.
Stylistically, it’s a Dan Simmons novel, so you can bet that there’s plenty of good quotes throughout the entire thing. I was particularly taken by the mixture of Greek mythology and easy swearing from scholic Hockenberry’s narration. (As a proud 20th-century representative, he’s our champion in this post-humanistic tale). The squabbling gods are a lot of fun to read about, though the “post-human” plot line is more often that not an exercise in impatient finger-thumping.
All in all, a solid book but (at this point) not an essential one. I have a feeling that the sequel will deliver on more than enough intriguing suggestions, but a more definitive assessment will have to wait until Olympos.
Morrow, 2000, 368 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97369-3
If you’ve been browsing the web for longer than six months, chances are that you’ve heard of the Darwin Awards, those dubious honorifics posthumously given “those who improve our gene pool… by removing themselves from it” (see their web site at www.darwinawards.com) or, more prosaically, to people so stupid they deserved to die. Darwin Awards lists get forwarded through the Internet regularly, cramming stories of fatal mishaps in countless email boxes at depressingly predictable intervals. (There is an interesting lack of self-awareness in blindly forwarding stories of stupid behaviour to everyone on your contact list, but I digress.)
Darwin’s Blade begins with a fictionalization of what may be the Darwin Awards’ most famous stupidity-induced death. I won’t spoil it, but this bizarre accident manages to showcase the deductive skills of one Darwin (“Dar”) Minor, an accident investigator with far more skills than one may suspect. Chapters later, as Darwin out-drives a pair of Russian thugs, he finds himself thick in the middle of a sordid insurance-scamming business where families die and billions of dollars are defrauded. Firefights, dogfights, sniping, romance and more wacky insurance cases are quick to follow.
Dan Simmons hops from genre to genre with great skill and success: Hyperion and its sequels rocked the science-fiction world and Summer of Night blew away more than one horror reader. Now, Darwin’s Blade is Simmons’ entry in the (techno)thriller genre. The action moves furiously from one thing to another, there is a pleasant density of technical details for just about every new gadget, military matters are mixed with detective work and the action ratchets up to (no kidding) a mano-a-mano duel in the middle of a grassy plain. Mixing high technology with primitive human stupidity, Darwin’s Blade is one tasty book for readers with a penchant for thrillers about unusual knowledge. As with his previous novels, Simmons has studied a genre and understood what readers want. Also obvious is Simmons’ penchant for recycling: Darwin’s Blade immediately evokes the similar accident-investigator story “Entropy’s Bed at Midnight” (from Lovedeath) and at one point echoes an idea from his short-short horror story “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” (in Prayers to Broken Stones).
Like most thrillers, the appeal of Darwin’s Blade depends a lot on its protagonist. In Darwin Minor, we’ve certainly met a capable hero, perhaps even a little bit much so. For he’s not simply a top-rated accident investigator (one whose eponymous aphorism states that “the simplest solution is usually stupidity.”) Oh no; Excellent driver, PhD-holder (in nuclear physics, no less), Vietnam veteran Marine, expert sniper, champ sail-glider, world-class chess player, literature-lover, Darwin Minor packs enough interests to fill a full trilogy. But in what may be one of Darwin’s Blade most amusing flaw, his multiple talents are uncovered as the story requires them. By the time a flashback describes how a 19-year-old Darwin, already PhD in Nuclear Physics, defends a Vietnamese nuclear power plant against attack without it having a link to his academic background, well, it’s not hard to feel as if Simmons has crammed one too many talents in his stoic hero. Fortunately, there is a point to all of those skills besides the demands of the plot… but it’s made a bit too late to comfort the least indulgent readers.
The other not-quite-so-amusing flaw of the novel may be glaring to some and transparent to others, depending on their degree of familiarity with, yes, the Darwin Awards. Many well-known stories are simply transplanted in Darwin’s Blade with scarcely any winks to the knowledgeable audience. Besides the first few pages, the worst instance of this takes place at the end of Chapter 14, where the punchline of the whole sequence is obvious as soon as we read the words “chicken cannon”. Nearly everyone who knows what a chicken cannon is and how it’s used is also familiar with the one single famous anecdote about it. Unfortunately, Simmons takes five pages to spell it out.
But no matter: those quirks aside, super-protagonist Darwin Minor is one heck of a hero and the density of ideas, concepts and gadgets in Darwin’s Blade more than outweighs the faults it may have. Thanks to Simmons’ delicious prose and efficient plotting, the book roars along with the speed of an Acura NSX and delivers plenty of fun thrills despite the occasional disbelieving giggle or two. Simmons fans should be comforted; the man has successfully genre-hopped again.
Warner, 1989, 884 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35920-3
One of Carrion Comfort‘s main characters is a Hollywood movie producer of the shlocky kind. It’s not hard to imagine someone like him taking a look an an early version of this novel and berating the author: “I want more sex! I want more violence! I want more action scenes! Give me helicopters, Nazis, explosions, gay sex, conspiracies, religion, chases, nuclear submarines and destroyers! Give me more! I want more! More! More!”
Because Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort has it all; it’s the epitome of the blockbuster horror novel, the type of book designed to be so over the top that you can’t but admire its audaciousness. You’ll cheer as you cringe, and laugh while you’re disgusted.
The premise itself is endlessly rich in sadistic possibilities: Simmons postulates the existence of a group of “psychic vampires” (so to speak) that have the Ability (or Power, or Talent) to take control of other people’s minds, effectively controlling them for as long as they want. From that point, it’s ridiculously easy to imagine these Mind-vampires indulging themselves in gory violence, simply because they can. Lack of accountability has its privileges.
Expanded from the novella of the same name, Carrion Comfort tacks on 850 pages to the original story, taking it much farther than Simmons’ initial effort. What gradually emerges isn’t an expansion of three Mind-vampires’ game of remote killing, but a power struggle between highly-placed forces of evil. The French Translation of the novel is aptly titled Evil’s Checkerboard (L’échiquier du mal, actually)
In theory, it sounds impressive. In practice, it has numerous great moments but suffers too much from unequal pacing to be epic horror. At 880-odd pages, it’s inevitable that there are long stretches in the book, but the second quarter seems to serve no other purpose than to kill off a main character. The third is dedicated to preparations for the fourth quarter. (It doesn’t really help that by mid-book, we have a pretty good idea of where the book’s going to end, and with whom.)
To be fair, some of the action set-pieces are so good that they elevate the book to “should-read” status anyway. There’s a spectacular helicopter explosion. A few great confrontations between the Mind-vampires and our dedicated protagonists. A momentous final chess game. A great set-piece inside a semitransparent airplane where the ultimate villain reveals himself to be far more powerful than anyone suspected.
And to be frank, the characters are developed with a lot of skill. Despite the large cast of characters and the multiple double-crossing parties, the plot remains easy to follow and to enjoy.
Did I say “enjoy”? Truth is, Carrion Comfort isn’t for the weak-stomached among us. It’s filled with gratuitously grisly material, pushing violence and exploitative sex to levels which might be unbearable for some. But then again, why would these people read horror?
In any case, this big bad horror package is exactly what you should read if ever you start wondering what Hollywood could do with an unlimited budget and none of those pesky parental ratings problems. Granted, Carrion Comfort isn’t subtle, particularly original, or even better than competent in its execution (making it a great horror novel would require editing out maybe three hundred pages) but it’s a whole lot of fun.
Nazis, Vampires, explosions, sex, violence, religion, money, power… wrapped in carefully-chosen psychobabble to give it a sheen of respectability. I tell you; this book’s got it all. Don’t feel too guilty for enjoying it; after all, mom told you to eat properly, but that never stopped you from enjoying that occasional burger, right?
Bantam Spectra, 1997, 579 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10652-X
There’s SF and then there’s SF.
The difference between the two, as the saying goes, is unquantifiable yet evident. The difference between the average SF novel and the Hyperion series is similarly hard to isolate, yet there is no doubt that it is there.
The Rise of Endymion is the fourth -and last, we’re told- volume of the enormously popular “Hyperion” series, by Dan Simmons. Since the first two volumes came out in 1989 and 1990, most serious SF fans have since read the two first volumes of the series. The Hyperion Cantos (Simmon’s name for the first two books) delighted jaded and newer readers alike with a complex story that seemingly used almost every Science-Fiction device in existence. The style was marvelous, the ending was apocalyptic and the ensemble was simply awe-inspiring.
Endymion fast-forwarded a few centuries after, and posited an empire built by a Christian Church with the literal power of resurrection. But most of the novel’s 500-odd pages was about an extended chase between the Church and a trio composed of a young girl, a blue android and a wholly average man called Raul Endymion.
At the beginning of the fourth volume, events conspire to bring the young girl, now destined for messiah-status, out of hiding and in direct combat against the Church. More adventures, more revelations, more ends of empires ensue. Characters meet fates that are mostly tragic.
The Rise of Endymion has the merit of not only being a good book in itself, but also of enhancing its prequel. Whereas Endymion seemed to go nowhere slowly, The Rise of Endymion finally delivers the payoffs of all setups. Enigmas held mysterious ever since the first volume (the identity of the Shrike, the role of the cruciforms) are explained, and the seemingly senseless travelogue of book three now makes more sense. (It’s still too long, but that’s a flaw shared by this book too.)
Simmons weaves into his tale a great many thoughts about information ages, religion, sentience, poetry and theo/philosophy. Yet, surprisingly, this space-opera is not harmed by such statements as “love is one of the universe’s major forces” and a ritual of blood-drinking that’s part salvation, part bizarrely Christian. These musings go on for pages at a time; whether or not you’ll find them interesting is up to personal preference. As a heroine, Aenea is a bit of a cypher… but that’s completely intentional.
There are also a few inconsistencies, much of them due to the inherent nature of A> time travel, B> the gift of prophecy or C> antagonists set up as all-powerful but ending up being fought with bare hands.
Old friends of the Hyperion saga make their final (sometime surprising) appearances. The role of Colonel Kassad and Rachel Weintraub, in particular, are quite unexpected, but still logical. No long-standing fan of the series should be disappointed by the pilgrims’ final fates.
Ultimately, though, it’s not the galaxy-spanning tale of corrupt religion and messianic fate that holds The Rise of Endymion together: It’s the love story between Aenea and Raul Endymion. In a genre where romance is so shoddily treated, it’s nice (yes, nice) to find at least one example of solid SF married to solid romance. It does takes a while to begin, and a further while to be believable, but the payoff is one of the most gripping conclusion in recent memory.
The characters are great (all of them), the prose is superb (truly some of the best in the genre) and this novel has the unusual quality of making you feel in addition of making you think. For this, and more, The Rise of Endymion isn’t only good, but great. Read it and weep.
[April 1998: Rise of Endymion is nominated for the 1998 Hugo Awards.] [September 1998:…but doesn’t win.]
Bantam Spectra, 1996, 468 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10020-3
The original Hyperion (Considering both Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion as a single volume) was one of these books that comes one in every decade or so: A brand-new universe, incredible characters, suspenseful plot and a heaven-sent style. What was fascinating about it was the ingenious re-use of several traditional SF elements, re-used in a terribly fresh way.
Thus, it wasn’t difficult to get excited about a sequel. Questions abounded: Given what happens at the end of Fall of Hyperion, is it even possible to have a sequel? Is Simmons able to maintain the same frenetic idea-throwing imagination present in the first book? Is this going to be another one of those insipid sequels?
Well, the book has been read and it’s very probable that you’ll only half-like the answers.
First off, an important caveat to the would-be buyer: Endymion is the third volume in a four-book series. Yeah, I was flustered too, especially when you consider that this isn’t explicitly mentioned anywhere on the cover…. Be reassured, however, that Endymion offers a real sense of closure, unlike other books that we shan’t mention…
Endymion is the story of Raul Endymion, a young man assigned to protect a young girl named Aethena. The book, predictably, is a succession of adventures on various worlds where Raul protects the girl. Fair enough? Of course, things are more complicated than that, involving TechnoCore AIs, a renewed church, multiple deaths and resurrections (literally) and, of course, Simmons’ usually delightful prose.
Casual and litt’reary readers alike will devour this entry of the Hyperion Cantos with gusto. However, chances are that most will feel a little disappointed with the meal. Why?
For all it’s various qualities as an adventure novel, Endymion is just that; an adventure novel. Of course, portentous things happen and we get a few tantalising glimpses of What’s Going to Happen in the Next Volume, but that’s it. Most of Endymion is Raul and Aethena and A. Bettik battling the odds beyond any reasonable chance of survival. Fun, no doubt about it, but once expects more from Simmons.
A good novel, certainly worth the price when it’ll come out in paperback, but smarter readers will read it when the sequel is published.
Well, here we go for another year on the painful coals of anticipation…