#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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#57 – The Sirens of Titan Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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As I mentioned before in my review of Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite novel that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. If this were my list (and I may make one someday), I would surely have this book a lot higher up, maybe even in the top 5. But since this isn’t just about my favorite books, I’ll have to settle for giving it a glowing review in the #57 spot. This book contains all of the various elements that are usually associated with Vonnegut: dark humor, wry observations, a sad-sack protagonist who is swept up in an adventure of galactic importance, discussions of free will and destiny, and nothing less than the revealing of the ultimate purpose of the entire human race. With a description like that you’d think the book was a thousand word treatise on philosophy (or something equally as boring). Instead, what we get is a brightly colored carnival ride through time, space and the solar system in which we meet a host of characters whose seemingly insignificant actions end up having an effect on the course of human civilization.

Sirens of Titan Summary: As far as Vonnegut main characters go, Malachi Constant is a bit more upwardly mobile than most. As the richest man in the 22nd century, Malachi has lived a playboy’s life due to being born into wealth and then having tremendous good fortune to turn that money into even more money. But like most wealthy gadabouts in literature, he hasn’t really done anything meaningful with his life outside of make and spend a lot of money. That soon changes when he is invited to witness the reappearance of one Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy inter-planetary space explorer who came into contact with a strange phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum – causing him (and his dog Kazak) to appear and disappear at regular intervals on a variety of planets, including Earth. Besides being stretched as thin as a wavelength across the vastness of space, Rumfoord is also able to view the past, present and future – making him an oracle of sorts (albeit a mischievous one). While it’s not immediately apparent, Rumfoord has a very peculiar plan for Malachi which includes, in part, in being a major figure in his newly formed “Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”.

To give a full account of the events that follow would be an almost impossible task and would rob the book of it’s unique charm and novelty. Let’s just say that it includes a stop on Mars (where an invasion of Earth is being planned), a brief period on Mercury (where kite-like creatures known as Harmoniums live on soundwaves), a number of trips to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in the universe that Rumfoord can exist as a solid form, and even a brief description of the Vonnegut staple Tralfamadore, a planet whose residents (and one messenger in particular) are responsible for the entire course of human history.

Sirens of Titan Review: Where some might see Vonnegut’s ultimate revelation of civilization’s purpose as an absurdist slap in the face to those who want to believe in humanity’s central place in the cosmos, I tend to think of the final reveal as less important to the true aim of the book, which is to poke fun at all of the things we take too seriously in our lives – whether it’s religion, money, patriotism, beauty, or even love to some extent. Vonnegut is the eternal court jester of Science Fiction, poking fun at everyone and everything in ways that not only serve to make us laugh, but also to ponder why the things we hold sacred are even sacred at all. Although searching for meaning and order in the universe is a hobby as old as time, the rituals and stories that we come up with to make sense of it all can be as detrimental to our personal well being and spiritual evolution as the emptiness and meaninglessness that they serve to mask. Vonnegut isn’t telling us that our lives have no meaning. Instead he is trying to warn us to be skeptical about the things that we assign meaning to and the conclusions that we draw from the meanings we give them.

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August 12, 2010

#52 – The End of Eternity Review – Isaac Asimov

Time travel is an idea that has been examined by science fiction writers for almost as long as the genre has existed. Whether it’s being used to provide a shocking glimpse into the far future of humanity (as in H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine), as a convenient device to construct a non-linear narrative (as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), or as a clever mechanism for revenge and redemption (as in Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer), the peculiar scientific, philosophical, and practical questions that time travel raises have captivated millions of readers over the years – this one included. But for all of the time travel yarns I’ve read in my life, I can’t remember one as thrilling and unpredictable as Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. In general, I’ve always considered Asimov to be an interesting, thought-provoking, and imminently readable author. But nothing quite prepared me for how much I would enjoyed his unique take on time travel. After powering through the book in two days, my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.

The End of Eternity Summary: The novel is set primarily in a mysterious netherworld known as Eternity, a realm that exists outside of time and provides the means in which to travel to almost any century imaginable. Eternity is used by a small group of humans (known as Eternals) who have been plucked out of various time periods and tasked with monitoring the course of human history and making changes to reality in order to prevent any major events that might threaten humanity. Using a complex organization of specialists, including Observers (whose job it is to provide detailed notes on the current situation in each century prior to a change), Computers (who are able to calculate the effects of those changes on future societies and individuals), and Technicians (who are in charge of actually performing the “Strategic Minimum Actions” necessary to bring about a reality change), the Eternals noble goal is to perform changes to the temporal world that will minimize human suffering in the long run. While these changes can be as minor as leaving a door open where before it was closed (as illustrated by the theory of The Butterfly Effect), the eventual effects of those changes can often be quite drastic (erasing innocent people from existence altogether).

While the idea of silent observers altering the course of history is a fascinating idea (one that one my favorite TV shows Fringe seems to have borrowed), what’s even more fascinating is Asimov’s description of the different centuries that the Eternals have access to and the difficulties that arise from living in many different eras. By traveling “upwhen” and “downwhen,” in time, the Eternals can travel to almost any century they want through the use of a temporal elevator known as a kettle (which, in a brilliant bit of hard science, is supposedly powered by the almost inexhaustible power of Nova Sol, our exploding sun, hundreds of thousands of centuries in the future).

The only eras they can’t go to are the Primitive era before Eternity was created (pre-24th century) and the “Hidden Centuries” (above the 100,000th) that are blocked by some unidentified force. Some centuries look much like our own. Others are “Energy-Centered” and bear no relation to our own. But no matter how far they travel (one character is from the 30,000th century), they notice that man is still basically the same throughout the centuries. It’s as if human evolution stopped after Eternity came into being. Another thing they notice is that, while many centuries have developed space travel, all of them have eventually given it up after finding the universe a crowded, hostile place.

The story’s protagonist is Andrew Harlan, a technician who becomes involved with a non-Eternal woman (also known as a Timer) named Noÿs Lambent. After finding out that a change in her reality will end up causing her to have never existed, Harlan attempts to protect her by hiding her away in one of the furthest centuries of Eternity while he tries to make his case to save her. In the process of trying to save Noÿs, Harlan begins to realize that he is actually part of a much larger and more complicated plot that has to do with the very existence of Eternity and the Eternals efforts to preserve it.

 The End of Eternity Review: What really sets this book apart in my mind is the fact that it kept me guessing up until the very last page. There are so many tantalizing questions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Will Harlan be able to save Noÿs and live happily ever after? Who is Noÿs anyways? Who is the real creator of Eternity? What role is Eternity playing in stunting the evolution of humanity? What does that have to do with space travel? Who or what is keeping the Eternals from reaching the “Hidden Centuries”? While Asimov’s deft explanation of the various paradoxes that arise is fascinating and masterful, his skills at misdirection and subtle foreshadowing are what make this book so great and lead to such a satisfying conclusion. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel back in time to before I read this book so I can read it all over again.

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#23 – Slaughterhouse Five Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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I should probably be clear about this from the very start: Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers of all time and Slaughterhouse Five is probably the best book he’s ever written in my humble opinion – and if that clouds my review in any way, well…so it goes. Blending equal amounts humor, history and absurdist fantasy, the book amounts to nothing less than a treatise on free will, the nature of the universe and the inevitability of human conflict. It is thought provoking, side-splittingly funny and eminently readable, while also being an unflinching look at one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. Not many authors can juggle this many themes and topics together in one book (all while using a non-linear narrative), but Vonnegut is definitely one who can. Now that I think about it, Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the first book to get me interested in Science Fiction – and to make me realize that events in a novel don’t necessarily have to be realistic to make profound statements about the realities of the human condition.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary: Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death) recounts various moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim, a reluctant soldier during World War II. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the narrative skips around to various moments in Billy’s life out of chronological order. Vonnegut describes him as being “unstuck in time,” uncertain as to which moment in his life he will be “re-living” next. During the course of the novel, we see Billy as a German prisoner being held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden (during the Bombing of Dresden), as a captive of an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore who exhibit him as part of their zoo along with a porn actress, as a married man in post-war America, and even during his death. The totality of his experiences, along with a revelation by the Tralfamadorians about the 4 dimensional nature of the universe, eventually leads Billy to accept the predetermined nature of his own life (and that of a humanity that believes foolishly in free-will). While the book may be consider an “Anti-War” novel, it could just as easily be classified as an “Inevitability of War” book, as Billy’s reaction to some of the novels most disturbing revelations about death and the nature of mortality is the oft-repeated phrase…so it goes.

The pivotal event in the novel is the now-infamous firebombing of the city of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force in 1945. Vonnegut himself was actually a German prisoner of war during the bombing and was forced to help dispose of the bodies after the attack was over. The profound meaninglessness of the bombing in the overall scheme of the war along with the astronomically high number of civilian casualties had a profound affect on him, and the reality of that experience can be felt distinctly throughout the book. It is inevitable that Billy Pilgrim is often seen as an extension of Vonnegut himself, even though the voice of “Vonnegut” the narrator also makes brief appearances at various points in the novel. One of his other alter-egos, struggling Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout, also makes a cameo, along with a few other characters that would become or had been characters in other of his novels, including Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Eliot Rosewater.

Slaughterhouse-Five Review: While Slaughterhouse-Five is often accused of being “Fatalistic” and that Vonnegut seems resigned to the atrocities of man as pre-determined and inevitable (as well as being frequently censored due to its “obscene” content and irreverence when talking about issues that are often cloaked in solemnity and reverence), it is also one of the best examples of how post-modern novelists often try to examine the absurdity of our search for meaning and transcendence in the face of such blatant assaults on our notions of decency and human compassion. To me, Vonnegut isn’t telling us that war is a fact of life that we should just accept. Instead, he is showing us the ways in which we attempt to rationalize and normalize these experiences so as not to be overcome by their inherent meaninglessness. And the fact that he is able to do this while at the same time being a ruthlessly funny and compelling storyteller is a testament to his ability as a writer and social satirist. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are a fan of Science Fiction or not.

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September 8, 2010

#16 – The Time Machine Review – H.G. Wells

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Although it clocks in at less than 150 pages long, H.G. Wells’ is still one of the most influential Science Fiction novels ever written. Not only was it the first book to popularize the notion of time travel, it was also one of the first works to help bring the genre of Sci-Fi to mainstream fiction fans. Along with Jules Verne, Well is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Science Fiction and The Time Machine is one of his best known works. The novel is also known as one of the first examples of the Dying Earth sub-genre, in which events usually take place in a distant future where the Earth (or even the Universe) is seen in a state of advanced decline.

The Time Machine Summary

The main character in the book (referred to only as The Time Traveler) is a scientist and inventor in England who has been able to construct a machine that will allow him to travel back through time. At a meeting of dinner guests, the Time Traveler recounts the story of how he first tested his machine by traveling over 800,000 years into the future. Once there, he discovers that society as he knows it has fallen into ruins and that all that is left are remnants of crumbling buildings and overgrown vegetation. Instead of modern humans, he comes into contact with two species: First, the Eloi – a pint sized group of androgynous simpletons who seem to do no work and subsist mainly on fruit. Second – the Morlocks, scary ape-like creatures who live underground and come out only at night. The Time Traveler spends a good amount of time trying to decipher the relationship between the two species (whether it is symbiotic, predatory or something else completely).

After briefly losing and then recovering his Time Machine from the Morlocks, the Traveler then escapes into the distant future (30 million years) where he witnesses events on Earth at the end of its life. As he travels further in short jumps, he slowly sees the decay and degeneration of life on Earth – including the eventually dimming of the sun and the slowing down of the rotation of the planet. After coming to the end of life on Earth, he then decides to return to his own time and eventually finds himself back home.
Review

The Time Machine Review

The Time Machine is a quick and enjoyable read that you can probably get through in an evening. Wells doesn’t dwell too much on the mechanics of the Machine or how it works – and that’s probably for the best – as even a theoretical basis for time travel wouldn’t be discovered until much later. While in some ways it is an adventure tale about a brave inventor who travels into the distant future, it is also a somber vision of the future of man unlike anything that had come before. Where most Science Fiction novels show us a future in which mankind is more technically advanced and powerful (either in a Utopian or Dystopian way), Wells instead posits a future in which the degeneration of intellect and curiosity has somehow caused us to revert back to our primitive ways. And while it may not be as technically dense and complicated as some of the other books on this list, The Time Machine is still a work of great imagination that can be read and appreciated by both Science Fiction and Non-Science Fiction fans alike.

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September 15, 2010