Friday, February 29, 2008

The Hyperion Cantos - Dan Simmons

The Fall of Hyperion
The Rise of Endymion

In the days before Ilium, Dan Simmons was my super-duper number one favourite author of all time, and the main reason for this was Hyperion. The original book is a real classic, combining elements of sci-fi, horror and fantasy in an intelligent piece of space opera based roughly on the Canterbury Tales, with quite an awesome breadth of imagination and invention. It's set in a far-future galaxy where humanity is scattered across hundreds of worlds, following the "Big Mistake" which destroyed Old Earth, all connected by FTL travel and wormhole technology, and united under the Hegemony. Among the various colonised worlds, all sorts of strange artefacts have been found, but none are stranger than the Time Tombs on Hyperion - alone in the universe, they seem to be travelling backwards in time, and a series of mysterious cults has sprung up around both them and their vicious guardian, the Shrike.

With Hyperion under attack by the space-dwelling post-human Ousters, the last group of pilgrims are making their way across country to the Tombs. To pass the time, to work out why they have been chosen as pilgrims over the thousands of other supplicants, and to increase their chances of surviving the Shrike, the pilgrims exchange their histories and search for connections; what emerges is a patchwork portrait of a human race on the verge of destruction, the rise of strange gods, intrigues in high places and enemies closer than you might think. Hyperion is the one wild card which could shift the balance of mankind's fate one way or another, and somehow these pilgrims hold the key...

If not for the open-ended conclusion and the number of trailing plot threads, this would work very well as a stylistic standalone. It's essentially six short stories cobbled together with a loosely linking plot, but all of these stories are very good, particularly the Priest's Tale. Simmons slips in a lot of intelligent theology and literary references (notably Keats, who even makes an appearance as a character) between the grand genre ideas, and the only real flaw is the drunken poet Martin Silenus, whose forced humour and ostentatious poetry-quoting foreshadows Ilium like the ominous tramp of doom. However, when we get into book two, the cracks start to show.

The Fall of Hyperion starts off as standard sci-fi, with space-battle tactics in the Ouster war, plotting and scheming among humanity's leaders and the AIs in the TechnoCore, and plenty of SF-tastic jargon. The narrative is split between the first-person view of another Keats, who is privy to all the political and military action, and a third-person view of the pilgrims still on Hyperion, about whom he dreams. Now, the contrivance of one resurrected John Keats cybrid analogue I could just about deal with; the appearance of a second one, with the ability to telepathically communicate with his implanted double, I found much harder to swallow. Simmons had obviously done his research on Keats's life, and made damn sure we knew about it; the historical and philosophical infodumps, along with the literary quotations, go from being an interesting device to just gratuitous showing off, and stay that way for the rest of the series. Still, despite several boring passages and some dubious exposition, this book still serves up a decent conclusion to the pilgrims' stories.

The second duology is set a few hundred years later. With the relatively benign Hegemony effectively destroyed at the end of the second book, the human galaxy is now controlled by the Pax, a horribly twisted form of Catholicism. Endymion tells the story of the Pax's pursuit of annoying prodigy Aenea, time-travelling daughter of one of the original pilgrims and potentially a threat to their existence. We get the dual viewpoint of Raul Endymion, assigned to protect Aenea, and Father de Soya, who has been sent to capture her. Essentially, this consists of a chase across several worlds, spiced up with the odd contrived bit of drama; it's really all worldbuilding and backstory rather than an actual plot. De Soya's viewpoint is actually a lot more interesting than Raul's; he gets an interestingly conflicted personality and some dark political machinations to explore, rather than just running away from stuff. Later on we also, bizarrely, get the viewpoint of boringly evil super-robot-soldier Nemes, sent back in time to deal with Aenea, in a plot twist that looks suspiciously like that of Terminator 2.

The Rise of Endymion starts off with more of the same with Raul traversing several new worlds, though we also get a lot more detail about the scheming at the heart of the Pax, and the real reasons behind humanity's plight. Once he gets going, Raul's chapters are not too bad here, and there is a truly awesome passage describing his journey through a gas-giant. However, this then derails completely for the second half, which is just painfully dull. Aenea is now several years older and has become the One Who Teaches, which basically means that she gives long speeches explaining the plot and dumping in huge quantities of rather suspect philosophy to bulk up the page-count. The series' ending was quite moving, but getting there was so arduous that the impact was very much lessened; the entire second half could have been trimmed down to a fraction of its size without losing anything important.

While my first reading of this series had me missing food and sleep (and even an entire weekend of snowboarding), going through a second time was really quite a chore; the only book that still stands up well is Hyperion itself. I've found this a lot with Simmons' books - however great they seem first time round, they are much less interesting once you already know what's coming. In addition to this, what seemed, on the first read, to be nagging loose ends and inconsistencies, now appear as gaping holes in the plot, all hand-waved away and patched over with more dodgy authorial tinkering. The ideas are just too large to be held together by the weak plot links, and Simmons has a nasty habit of explaining away earlier inconsistencies by blaming unreliable narrators, rather than just getting it right in the first place. I'd still recommend reading the entire series through once, just because the scope and ideas are so dazzling, but don't expect it to hold up to multiple readings.

10/10 (Hyperion)
6/10 (the rest of the series)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sellamillion - A R R R Roberts

I like parodies, but I prefer them short. Actually writing a book-length one and publishing it is something that smacks of a cheapo cash-in. When I was reviewing the Diana Wynne Jones book recently, I was planning on excoriating books like this one and the Barry Trotter series, but hesitated for two reasons - one, I've met Adam Roberts and he seemed like a nice chap, and two, it's rather bad form to be slagging off books you haven't actually read. I had a quick Google to see if my prejudices were justified, and was surprised to find that the ARRR Roberts parodies were generally pretty well received. My interest thus piqued, I decided to try one of them for myself; I'm less familiar with The Silmarillion than I am with most other Tolkien, but this one was cheaper than The Soddit, so away I went. And frankly, it's not bad at all.

Obviously, many of the jokes consist of awful, awful puns, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and neither is the amount of gratuitous knob jokes. Come on, don't tell me you can read about the Tale of Belend and Lüthwoman and not crack a smile! Despite moving some distance from the original story, the source material is generally treated with respect - though perhaps a little too much respect, as often the funniest bits come from the sharpest barbs (for example, the asides on fellow author C John Lewis and his Nerdia series, subtle Christian propaganda with titles such as "HIV is God's Punishment for the Immoral"). There's also something strangely funny about characters having hissy fits and childish arguments in formal language, which happens quite a lot here, and the section where Dark Lord Sharon finds out the exact disadvantages of being a disembodied eyeball had me laughing out loud.

Obviously, with something like this, there will be hits and misses (for example, the Tony Blair gags are already starting to look dated) but it's no worse than anything you'd find in Bored of the Rings, with the added advantage of using British cultural references rather than American ones. It's not funny all the way through, but it's definitely funny enough to be worth a read, and the story is actually quite good as well. Overall verdict: Not Bad, and I'll probably even pick up The Soddit at some point.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Myth of Mars and Venus - Deborah Cameron

Don't you just hate all that Mars and Venus crap? All those bullshit pseudoscientific articles about how Cave Men had Genetic Imperative X, so women should make allowances for Modern Behaviour Y? That sort of thing never ceases to annoy me, but for the last decade or two it's been massively popular, while at the same time allowing the authors to claim that they're somehow brave iconoclasts striking a blow against the PC establishment. Equally fed up, it would seem, is Oxford language professor Deborah Cameron, who comes out at full swing against the received wisdom that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. It's a well-researched, vitriolic and often very funny analysis of the existing data on the topic, and a fine antidote to all those made-up headline-grabbers about women's genetic predisposition to like pink, or whatever.

Cameron's particular target is not just the popularist fluff, but also the "scientific" research that seems to confirm gender differences, for example Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference and Pinker's The Blank Slate. With good use of meta-analysis across a broad range of studies, she comes to the conclusion that much of this research is beset by sloppy design and confirmation bias, and overall shows such a miniscule difference between the sexes' abilities that it's hardly worth reporting on, and that in fact there is vastly more difference within the sexes than there is between them. The fact that any perceived difference is picked up so readily by magazine journalists and self-help writers, argues Cameron, is nothing more than a desire to justify existing prejudices.

The concept of differing communication styles may seem a bit abstract, but the real-life consequences can be severe. Call-centre managers have admitted to hiring mostly female employees because men's communication abilities are perceived to be inferior, and the outcome of rape hearings is often contaminated by the idea that it's exclusively the woman's job to communicate her reluctance, not the man's job to understand it. Obviously, these issues are so endemic in our culture that we've a long way to go before they are fixed, but this book is certainly a step in the right direction, and the more that this nonsense is highlighted, the better. There are some extracts from the book available at the Guardian website, but I recommend reading the whole thing.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Love is Not Enough: The Smart Woman's Guide to Making (and Keeping) Money - Merryn Somerset-Webb

I was never that bothered about finance until we started buying a house. However, during the long, long wait for the chain to complete, the market movements all started to take on an ominous significance. Would rates go up again before we finalised our mortgage offer? If it all fell through, would house prices have spiralled out of our reach entirely? Like most other first-time buyers, I found the relentless property-ramping in the press utterly sickening; how on earth could it be a good thing for house prices to shoot up so far ahead of wages? A rare voice of reason was Somerset-Webb's publication Moneyweek, one of the few papers that saw the house-price boom for the unsustainable overhyped bubble that it was; even after the sale completed, to our great relief, I found I'd become really quite interested in this whole economy thing. Deciding to finally get my finances in order, her book was the obvious place to turn.

Don't be put off by the cheesy title, the pink cover and the chick-lit layout; this is not about how to afford more shoes, but a sensible and entertainingly-written plan for sorting your money out and making sure you have financial independence. As you'd expect, it is somewhat skewed towards the needs of us ladies, but only in the sense that it contains extra information about the pay gap, maternity leave, married tax credits and so on - most of the information here would be just as useful to men. Somerset-Webb does occasionally slip in a bit of pop-psychology nonsense about how "women are naturally better at X" but you can safely ignore this, in the knowledge that she's an expert on finance, not biology. The same can be said of the rather unnecessary end section on how to achieve happiness (no, I don't need to get religion, you weirdy blinkered Christian) - stick to the money stuff and there's all kinds of good information in here.

The book gives a practical action plan for sensibly managing your money, with most of the technical stuff spelled out in easy layman's terms, and the financial jargon made easy to understand. Basically it boils down to this: earn as much as you can, spend as little as you can, get out of debt, start saving, then start investing. Somerset-Webb goes over the various types of products available for borrowing, saving and investing, and provides useful pointers on which ones to avoid, and how to tell a good deal from a bad one. Some of it is obvious, but a lot of it is not, and whatever your level of financial literacy you'll probably learn a few things here (unless you're actually an investment banker). The writing is accessible without being patronising, and I found the whole thing very useful indeed.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible - Austin Grossman

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I really love stories written from the bad guy's viewpoint. This is a particularly fine example - in a world full of superheroes, we get the perspective of aging supervillain Doctor Impossible, newly escaped from prison and making his latest plans for world domination. The band of heroic do-gooders, the Champions, had split up some years previously in unfortunate circumstances, and their reunion is fraught with internal politics and the loss of some of their members. Doctor Impossible has been defeated by them many times before, but this time he thinks his evil plan might just work...

It sounds terribly cheesy, but there is in fact a quite touching and human centre among the glorious technicolour superhero action. Because there's none of this evolved-humanity nonsense from X-Men or Heroes - the superhumans here all gained their powers in the traditional manner from lab accidents, aliens, mystic artefacts and ancient gods - they all have personalities affected by their origins, and often some sad and poignant tales as well. Doctor Impossible has the classic tale of a misfit trying to get even, but we also get the viewpoint of rookie superhero Fatale, newly admitted to the ranks of the Champions, and a misfit trying to fit in. The Champions themselves are superstars as well as superheroes, and act rather like the clique of prom queens and jocks, but even they have interesting back-stories, full of tragedies, messy divorces, and the pressure of trying to live up to their superhero predecessors; the whole book is full of these neat little character sketches.

One of the book's greatest joys is putting these characters against a backdrop where superheroes are just a matter-of-fact part of life, and yet have them maintain their campy tights-and-cape comic-book ways. There are some great moments here, for example the Champions "documentary" that Fatale watches, which strongly resembles a normal superhero TV series; I was also very fond of the side-character The Pharoah, a pathetic villain who pretends to be Egyptian, and shares a name with a more famous hero who can't even be bothered to enforce the copyright issue. It's not laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, but then it's not really supposed to be; instead, it's an entertaining, feelgood story with a real affection for its source material, and if it weren't for a couple of plot holes, I'd be awarding full marks. Highly recommended.