#76 – Ilium Review – Dan Simmons

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No other author that I know of is better at infusing Science Fiction with elements of classic literature and epic storytelling than Dan Simmons. Where other writers are content to work within the confines of the genre’s establish parameters, Simmons seems intent on showing us how speculative fiction is simply an updated vehicle for dealing with themes and conflicts that have occupied writers for centuries. Who else has the courage (and the writing chops) to let sentient robots and quantum teleportation exist side-by-side with discussions of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or a complete re-imagining of Homer’s Iliad – not to mention allusions to H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor? Even more so than Simmons’ breakthrough masterpiece Hyperion, Ilium uses one of the most famous texts in the English language as a framing device to explore issues of power, honor, and hubris. That these issues arise from the actions of near-god like beings thousands of years in the future is all part of the fun. Like your favorite English professor in college, Simmons is able to bring even the most uninspiring pieces of literature to life in a way that makes you appreciate both the power and significance of the original work and the feats of imaginative brilliance that it took to integrate it seamlessly into this new creation.

Ilium Summary: The plot of Ilium follows three distinct story lines, each with their own group of primary characters. The first story line (and you could argue the most central and important) takes place on a terraformed version of Mars thousands of years in the future and centers around the events of the Trojan war, which seem to be taking place in real-time under the supervision (and sometimes intervention) of supremely powerful creatures who have taken the form of Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.) Whether this is simply a recreation a Homer’s Iliad by a group of bored super-beings, some sort of virtual reality simulation, or the actual Trojan war manifested on Mars through some sort of quantum disturbance in time and space, Simmons doesn’t reveal for the majority of the novel. While it may seem frustrating at first to be left in the dark about whether the events that are happening are real or not, it actually provides a tantalizing hook that helps draw you into the narrative in unexpected ways.

While we may be unsure about the true identity of the seemingly all-powerful gods that are observing and influencing the legendary fight between the Greeks and the Trojans at the siege of Ilium from atop Olympus Mons (the largest volcanic mountain on Mars), we are at least given one character who we can identify with. Thomas Hockenberry, a portly 21st century Homeric scholar from Indiana, is somehow resurrected by the gods and asked to observe the events of the war to see how closely they are matching up to Homer’s recounting of the tale in the Iliad. Given a set of powerful tools from the gods, including the ability to morph into the body of anyone in the war and to teleport in and out of battles at will, Hockenberry and the other resurrected “scholics” have been observing the famous Greek and Trojan warriors as they each fulfill their part in the narrative. It is only when Hockenberry is given a secret assignment by the goddess Aphrodite and makes a series of fateful decisions that the war begins to veer from the path laid out in the Iliad.

The second story begins on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and involves a group of sentient robots (called Moravecs) that are planning a mission to investigate and hopefully terminate the increased amount of quantum activity that seems to be coming from Olympus Mons. As we’ve seen that the Gods on Mars have access to quantum teleportation, we can only assume that they are the cause of this increased activity. When the expedition’s spacecraft is destroyed by a mysterious robed figure riding a flying chariot above Mars, the two remaining Moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu, are forced to try and deliver a mysterious weapon to Olympus Mons on their own. As sentient robots, the Moravecs act more like humans than traditional robots. So much so that Mahnmut is an expert in Shakespeare while Orphu is something of a Proust scholar. Their debates about literature and the works of two of the most important writers in the English language provide a bit of levity and humor throughout their journey. This intertextuality also allows Simmons to parallel the events in the novel with the themes and ideas expressed in these classic works of literature.

The third and final thread takes us all the way back to Earth where a small group of “old-style” humans are kept docile and taken care of by a mysterious race of mechanoid nanny-type creatures known as voynix. Relegated to living in blissful ignorance and isolation, the humans live on the few unspoiled patches of land left on the planet and are allowed to live for 100 years before being, supposedly, taken to the Earth’s new equatorial rings to live with the mythical post-humans who left the planet after a series of natural and man-made disasters made it virtually uninhabitable. While most of the humans are content to live their simple lives (Simmons refers to them as being like the “Eloi” in H.G. Wells’ famous novel The Time Machine), a small group of inquisitive ones struggle to find answers and meaning in the series of events that have led to the majority of the planet being off-limits to them and their lives monitored and controlled by the mysterious voynix creatures.

Ilium Review: While I’ll admit that I had some trouble at first with the disjointed nature of the narrative and the lack of concrete who/what/when/where/why answers, it didn’t take me long before I got over my initial confusion and just started to enjoy the novel for what it was and what it was trying to do. Simmons has a history of posing profound questions and intriguing central mysteries without providing definitive answers, and this book is no different. And while he does reveal a good deal about the events that have brought about the current state of the Earth, the question of who or what the Gods are and why they are trying to recreate the Iliad (if that’s even what they’re doing) is left only partially answered. Since there is a sequel to the novel, Olympos, there’s a good chance that this mystery is eventually revealed, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up to find out sometime soon. But taken on its own, I still think that Ilium is an incredibly engaging and thought-provoking novel and one that doesn’t mind taking big risks in terms of structure and scope in the service of big ideas and literary transcendence. So, if you can handle a little enigmatic uncertainty, this book is well worth a read.

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#74 – Citizen Of the Galaxy – Robert Heinlein

Citizen Of the GalaxyThe concept of slavery is not one that is dealt with very frequently in Science Fiction. Maybe that’s because people want to believe that the future is going to be glorious and egalitarian, free from the violence and oppression that have marked mankind’s history up til this point. Even in dystopian stories where characters live under the threat of harm from a totalitarian ruling state, the idea that a person could essential own another person isn’t really discussed. But revealing hard truths makes for compelling literature, and Robert Heinlein is a master at both. In Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein reminds us that slavery, while being one of the most universally loathed human practices, has been going on for nearly all of recorded history and will most likely continue in some form even as human beings begin to populate the stars. While most people in the industrialized world think of slavery as an artifact of the past, the reality is that the level of slavery and human trafficking is greater today than at any point in history. And as humans (hopefully) begin to colonize more and more planets throughout the solar system, there will be inevitably be a greater opportunity for these practices to take hold in the dark, unprotected reaches of the galaxy.

While the story isn’t technically about slavery, it does use it as a prominent backdrop and motivation for its main character Thorby, a young slave boy who we first meet on the planet Jubbul where he is being auctioned off by slave traders. When the scrawny young boy gets few bids, he is eventually bought by a beggar named Baslim the Cripple for a paltry sum and taken to live with him in an underground dwelling. Instead of treating Thorby as a slave, though, Baslim takes him on as a sort of foster son, teaching him the ins and outs of begging, as well as a bunch of other topics you wouldn’t suspect a beggar to be knowledgeable about, including math, language, and history. In addition to begging, Baslim begins to send the boy on missions to deliver messages to various people on the planet about the comings and goings of slave trade ships through the port. And, with great foresight, he makes Thorby memorize a message to give one of the ‘Free Trader’ starship captains in the event of his death. Thorby slowly begins to realize that Baslim is more than just a crippled beggar, although he doesn’t discover his true nature until much later.

When Baslim is captured and murdered by the local authorities, Thorby is able to contain his grief long enough to approach Captain Krausa of the starship Sisu and deliver the message. Thorby learns that Baslim once saved an entire ship of ‘Free Traders’ from the clutches of a slave trading ship. In return, Thorby is adopted by Captain Krausa and taken to live with the rest of the clan on the Sisu. Now, the free traders are more than just an ordinary group of traders. They are a fiercely insular clan with a rigid social structure built around a matriarchal figure and the trading of goods between spaceports. Each starship is like an extended family or clan, and Thorby spends the next few years adjusting to life on the ship and learning the customs of the free traders, while also adjusting to life as a “free man.” But Baslim’s message to Captain Krausa wasn’t just to take care of Thorby, it was also to help him find out who he really is. With no memory of his parents or how came to be a slave in the first place, he could literally be anyone. To help Thorby on his journey, Captain Krausa helps him enlist in the Terran Hegemony military, where he eventually learns more about Baslim’s true identity – as well as his own.

Citizen of the Galaxy works as both a thoroughly engaging coming of age tale and a scathing indictment of slavery in all its forms. Whether it’s the Terran military’s lack of enthusiasm for fighting the slave trade or the implication that wealthy interests on Earth are actually benefiting from the forced labor of slaves, Heinlein seems to be raging at the complacency and casual acceptance of such a horrific practice. And in his portrayal of Thorby as the average, every man, citizen of the galaxy, he also seems to be showing us how anyone can can be a slave. In Heinlein’s view, everyone has the potential, though education and experience, to make a difference in the world – both ways both small and large. And to restrict or suppress that potential in any way is the worst thing possible.

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#72 – The Door Into Summer Review – Robert Heinlein

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Like most of Robert Heinlein’s protagonists, the main character of The Door into Summer is a thinly veiled reflection of Heinlein himself. Much like his creator, inventor and engineer Daniel Boone Davis is a rugged individualist and scientific thinker. And while at times Heinlein may use Daniel as a means to pontificate on his own theories and insights on various topics, he more than makes up for it by sending him along on a fast-moving, ingeniously plotted and ultimately satisfying tale of betrayal, revenge and time travel. What starts out as a simple case of backstabbing and corporate intrigue, eventually turns into a time-bending story of one man’s attempt to get back what was taken from him. While some critics and fans have expressed discomfort at the romantic elements of the novel (which involve Daniel’s friendship with an emotionally mature 11 year old named Ricky), I don’t personally have a problem with them. In the end, Heinlein cleverly uses time travel to mitigate the age difference. In fact, compared with some of Heinlein’s other works, this is relatively tame stuff and shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the book.

The Door Into Summer Summary: When we first meet Daniel, he’s been drinking for a while – drunk and despondent at losing control of the company he founded with his business partner Miles Gentry, Hired Girl Inc. While the company specialized in robot vacuum cleaners, Daniel was hard at work on an all-purpose household robot, tentatively named Flexible Frank. Through flashbacks we learn that Daniel was hoodwinked by the company’s beautiful and manipulative secretary, Belle, into giving her just enough stock in the company to team up with Miles to gain complete control. After objecting to the sale of the company to a large corporation, including the rights to Frank, Daniel is given a large financial settlement and fired as the chief engineer of the company.

In his grief, he decides to take the “cold sleep,” a form of suspended animation, in the hopes of awakening into a better future with the value of his stock in the company having multiplied. Unfortunately, the doctors at the sleep facility won’t let him make the decision while drunk. After sobering up and mailing his stock certificate to the one person he knows he can trust, Miles’ 11-year old stepdaughter Frederica “Ricky” Gentry, he unwisely decides to confront Belle and Miles in their home. After injecting Dan with a drug that makes him temporarily complacent and docile, they go about forging documents giving the corporation ownership over his remaining shares. Their final act of betrayal is to put Dan into cold sleep anyways so that he can’t cause them anymore trouble. Dan wakes up 30 years later with no friends, no money, and almost nothing to live for…except revenge.

The Door Into Summary Review: I won’t spoil the fun of learning exactly how Dan exacts his ingenious revenge. I will say, however, that Heinlein’s use time travel paradoxes to foreshadow and then reveal how Dan manages to reinvent and re-imagine his own timeline is a thing of beauty. While his ability to understand complex engineering details and causality paradoxes and seamlessly weave them into his stories makes his a master of Hard Sci-Fi, his ability to use those concepts in the service of a compelling story is what truly sets him apart from almost every other science fiction writer in history.

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#70 – Sphere – Michael Crichton

Sphere

Michael Crichton has always been a writer more concerned with Big Ideas and scientific rigor than in developing believable characters and relationships – and that’s fine up to a point. But when the central conflict of your book revolves around whether or not the main characters are going to survive their encounter with a strange and mysterious entity,   you need at least some reason to care about whether or not they make it out alive. In Crichton’s Sphere, he unfortunately abandons the book’s most interesting ideas and implications in favor of the frenzied survival of a group of arrogant, self-centered, childish characters we have no emotional connection with. While it follows the same basic formula as The Andromeda Strain (diverse team of scientists are brought together to investigate a strange phenomenon that has the possibility of affecting all of humanity), the story ends up devolving into a basic psychological thriller/action/monster movie. And although the fascinating premise is able to sustain the suspense and intrigue for a good part of the book, in the end it’s not enough to rescue it from a profound lack of characterization or insight.

The book begins as a group of scientists are brought to a naval vessel in the Pacific Ocean under the guise of investigating some sort of plane crash. Norman Johnson (psychologist), Harry Adams (mathematician), Beth Halpern (biologist), and Ted Fielding (astrophysicist) are are taken below the surface to a deep-sea habitat where they are shown exactly what “crashed” in the ocean (hint: it wasn’t a plane). In fact, it’s actually a spacecraft. While their investigation initially assumes the craft is of extraterrestrial origin, they soon discover that it’s an American ship, having traveled back in time before it was constructed. But that’s not even the weirdest thing about the discovery. Upon further investigation, the crew discover a giant mysterious sphere made of an unknown material. Deducing that it was some sort of artifact picked up by the ship when traveling through whatever worm-hole like phenomenon was able to transport them back through time, they try to open it to learn more about where it came from and what it is.

When the crew learn that there is now a raging storm up on the surface and that all of the military vessels had to evacuate, they start to realize that they may have to survive down there for a while without any help. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at penetrating the sphere, Harry is somehow able to mysteriously open it up and enter. But when he returns, he is unable to tell them anything about what happened inside the sphere. That’s when things start getting really strange. First, the scientists started to get coded messages from the ship’s computer (even though outside communication has been cut off). Harry, the mathematical genius, is able to figure out the code and determines that it’s coming from whatever entity is contained in the sphere. When the demanding, childlike temperament of the entity becomes bored with their conversation, a host of strange sea creatures start appearing around the habitat, culminating in a giant squid which tries to tear it apart. The scientists eventually come to the conclusion that the entity, named “Jerry,” is somehow able to manifest these creatures basically from thin air. But as the creatures become more and more aggressive, and the scientists become more and more unstable and frightened, we start to realize that there may be more going on than just a malevolent entity trying to harm the crew.

Crichton undoubtedly still has the ability to create taut, suspenseful scenarios interspersed with fascinating scientific tidbits that help lend an air of credibility to these fantastical events. And his flair for cinematic writing is part of the reason that so many of his books have been adapted into movies. But in Sphere, the exposition is clunky in a way that makes it seem more like the characters are talking just to help inform the reader about a specific topic that the author wants them to know about, rather than in a way that is natural for their character or makes sense in the context of the scene. While Crichton presents some interesting ideas, they seem more like talking points than real things people would say (especially in a tense, dangerous environment a mile below the sea). And because we know very little about these characters, aside from a few basic psychological traits that seem to define each of them (Beth resents the lack of respect that women scientists get, Ted is arrogant and just cares about his legacy, Harry was a child prodigy who grew to resent everyone, etc.), when Crichton tries to explore the psychological implications of their interaction with the Sphere, we aren’t as invested in the outcome as we could have been.

As a fun beach read, you could certainly do a lot worse than Sphere. But if you’re looking for something a bit more substantial and compelling, I’d probably give this one a pass.

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#96 – City Review – Clifford Simak

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I came across Clifford Simak’s CITY unexpectedly while on my honeymoon in Greece. After browsing around one of the coolest book stores I’ve ever been to (Atlantis Books on the Greek Island of Oia), I stumbled on this paperback in the science fiction section and was immediately struck by the cover art. An evil looking robot holding a dog, while flanked by a menacing black tower seemed at the same time sinister, absurd, and almost comical. Judging by the cover of this book alone, I initially had a hard time believing that it was actually one of the top science fiction novels of all time. After finishing it by the pool in a day of feverish reading, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a lot further up on this list. The book manages to flawlessly create a cohesive overarching narrative through stories that could just as easily stand on their own.  For sheer scope of vision, imagination and audacity, it doesn’t get much better than this.

City Summary: With a structure and tone similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, CITY is made up of eight loosely connected stories that are told in the form of “Legends” by the narrator, who prefaces each tale with a bit of commentary and academic notes on the story to come – and who also happens to be an intelligent dog. These legends provide an episodic recounting of the twilight of mankind and the emergence of dogs as the dominant species on the planet. Speaking from some point in the far future, the narrator, in recounting these oral legends to the next generation of pups, makes it clear that, while the stories make mention of a creature called “Man” and a thing called a “City,” there is no proof that they actually existed. In fact, the narrator even mentions that most dog scholars who’ve studied these legends actually believe that idea of Man is simply a literary device used by the original authors to account for the existence of dog culture, much the same way that our human legends and origin stories mention gods and beings who no longer exist.

The first story shows mankind in the midst of a great sociological transformation. With the emergence of near instantaneous transportation options and advanced hydroponic farming methods, the need for humans to live in crowded cities (or “Huddling Places” as Simak describes them) becomes unnecessary, causing many people to move back to the uncrowded countrysides to live a pastoral life. After the initial set up, we are introduced to the Websters, a wealthy family living in a large mansion in the countryside with their faithful robot servant Jenkins. It is through them (and subsequent generations of Westers) that we begin to trace the history of mankind’s eventual obsolescence and the rise of the dogs. From renowned brain surgeon John Webster (whose bout with agoraphobia results in the loss of a potentially groundbreaking philosophical breakthrough for mankind) to John’s son (who develops an interstellar drive enabling man to travel outside of the galaxy) to Robert Webster (a master geneticist whose experiments on dogs provide the groundwork for what is to come), the Webster clan pops up throughout the subsequent stories – to the point where, in the future, the term “Webster” is used by the dogs to describe any Man.

City Review: At this point I don’t want to give away too much, as half of the wonder and excitement of the story relies on experiencing the subtle transformation on your own. I will say, however, that the fall of man is not due to any violence or deceit by the dogs – in fact, the dogs are forever loyal and obedient to their masters. Instead, what makes the story so tragic in the end is how mankind, in failing to achieve enlightenment and unable to truly connect with each other on a spiritual level, end up abandoning our universe (and in some cases the physical world altogether). It’s a counter-intuitive vision of the apocalypse – one in which mankind isn’t destroyed by a nuclear weapon or an invading alien species, but by their own sense of loneliness and isolation from each other. It’s a melancholy eulogy to a species that is constantly evolving and trying to improve their physical surroundings while never quite getting around to developing the spirituality and enlightenment necessary to truly be happy.

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