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Hugo Reviews: American Gods and Hyperion

Some more literary thoughts here!

American Gods – Neil Gaiman (Winner, 2002)

This kept me sane on some long flights to and from America itself over the summer, but didn’t help much as a guidebook if I’m honest! American Gods is an epic tale of the new gods of a modern age supplanting an older pantheon of immigrant deities brought to America in the minds and folklore of its historical settlers, and the war between them. Sounds clunky, but works well, with strong characterisation in the hidden maneuverings of the New Gods; Media, Technology, The Freeways, etc and the crafty countering of the Old; Odin, Anansi, Thoth, etc.

In to the middle of this invisible battleground comes Shadow, an ex-convict just released from prison to find that news of his wife’s death and infidelity has severed all ties to his old life and left him at a loose end. Taking up a job as bodyguard for the enigmatic Mr Wednesday leads into an increasingly surreal hidden world which is very much at war.

It’s all very Gaiman, echoing many of the core themes of Sandman, Neverwhere, Good Omens, etc; the personification of much greater concepts; gods and memes as actual people, walking the earth and the trials and tribulations they then cause, and face. Firmly in Magical Realism territory, Gaiman really runs with the All Myths Are True premise of the work and does it well; attempted by anyone else, it would seem very cluttered. There’s also a huge sweep of Americana running through the work too, a captivated fascination with cheesy mid-western roadside attractions I’d previously only seen treated this way in Sam’n’Max: Hit the Road and the whole book feels like a kind of textual version of ‘Nighthawks‘, only with more Vikings. I’ve no idea how this comes across to the American reader, but I quite enjoyed it.

The flow of story is quite a meandering thing, which takes its time to get anywhere specific, and which makes a huge number of lengthy detours, particularly the “Mr Wednesday Recruiting Allies” bits, but perhaps this accurately reflects the “road trip” nature of the story itself, a thing of whimsy as well as action. Anyway, enjoyed this one a lot, despite it not having any atomic jetpacks or laserbeams!

Give it a go if you like; Mythology Made Modern, The Largest Ball Of Twine In The World, Road Movies, Just About Anything Else Gaiman Has Ever Done.

 

Hyperion – Dan Simmons (Winner, 1990)

On the eve of war between the 28th century Hegemony of Man and the post-human Ouster barbarians, seven pilgrims begin the journey to the enigmatic Time Tombs on the outback world of Hyperion. Each seeks out an audience with the alien and awesomely powerful Shrike, a creature beyond conventional science and limits, with a bloodthirsty reputation. One will be granted a wish, at the cost of the lives of the others, while in the skies above, powerful empires and factions manoeuvre to gain the upper hand from the outcome.

Hyperion is one of those finds which is precisely why I’m working through this list in the first place. Why hadn’t I read this before? Simmons skilfully blends the epic space opera format with intense personal stories and characterisation in a way I’d only really seen done well by Iain M Banks, and there are many similarities of style, although Simmons’ Hegemony is a much more earnest place than Banks’ wilfully irreverent Culture, and while the Culture is interesting enough, the Hegemony is us; human beings, into a fantastical future, complete with future history; how we get there from today, which always fascinates me. The sci-fi is not especially hard, but certainly internally consistent enough, highly inventive and thought provokingly woven into the story, rather than just used as deus ex machinae or plot device; the tech is relevant and important to the plot.

The story is structurally interesting as well. The pilgrimage itself is a well crafted travelogue across a fascinating and exotic planet on the brink of interstellar war, and believably so; refugees fleeing, a sense of panic, urgency, and this would make an excellent short story by itself. But to pass the time the seven pilgrims, each expecting to die at the end of the journey, decide to pass the time by each telling the story of why they are on the pilgrimage in the first place, making the trip a framing story in which are contained ‘The Priest’s Tale’, ‘The Soldier’s Tale’, and so on in a very Canterbury Tales style of device which is brilliantly executed. Each of the contained stories is interesting and highly thought-provoking, examining various quirks of sci-fi physics, and the world and society in which they live. Remarkably, none of them feel like filler! It initially comes across as a bit of a short-story anthology, but soon reveals how connected each pilgrim already is to the Shrike, and Hyperion.

An absolutely cracking read, I immediately went out and bought the sequel, ‘The Fall of Hyperion‘ (spoilers abound in there) and am reading it right now. Highly recommended and just my cup of tea!

Give it a go if you like: Iain M Banks’ Non-Culture Novels, Quirky Public Transport, Sweeping Sagas Of Future Empire, Chrome Spikes

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Hugo Reviews: The Fountains Of Paradise and Blackout

I keep meaning to talk more about books on the podcast, but we usually run out of time with all the gaming we’re doing these days. I’m still as voracious a reader of Science Fiction as ever and never gave up on my plan to read every winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, which is actually going quite well!

I can’t enjoy a thing unless there is an arbitrary collection-based secondary gameplay achievement element to it all. And a list! I’ve read a couple since last posting about any of it and here are some thoughts! I’d be keen to see yours in comments!

The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C Clarke (Winner, 1980)

A relatively short work, The Fountains of Paradise is a fairly hard-sf exploration of the Space Elevator concept, (Which I think is awesome, but not nearly as awesome as the Space Fountain). Being responsible for popularising the idea of the geostationary satellite, Clarke typically examines his sci-fi flights of fancy in meticulous technical detail and the design and construction challenges of the space elevator form the fascinating core of the story as we follow the life and magnum opus of Dr Vannevar Morgan, a kind of 22nd century Isembard Kingdom Brunel.

Intertwined with these tales of heroic mega-engineering is an intricately detailed series of flashbacks to the turbulent times of Kalidasa, the 5th century ruler of the island of Taprobane, a made-up island which becomes the future ground station of the elevator. The B-story here is interesting enough, but I did wonder how much of it was a relevant attempt to draw parallels between the two men’s troubles, and how much was just Clarke wanting to go off on one and write a load of stuff about his clearly beloved home of Sri Lanka and also do something historic for a change. He even admits as much in the foreword!

Overall, it has that excellent ‘old-school sci-fi’ feel very characteristic of its time; the grand projects of The Future which were very much driven by the spirit of the age in which this was written; a vibrant scientific 60s and 70s in which the Apollo Program was merely the start of an awesome age, rather than a highpoint or faded unreproducable history. I love that sort of sci-fi, full of boundless optimism, and conquerable horizons of knowledge and self; an antidote to a more modern, grubbier and less ambitious current age.

Give it a go if you like: The Engineer As Hero, Man Conquering His Universe, Big Stupid Objects, Sri Lankan History

 

Blackout/All Clear – Connie Willis (Winner, 2011)

I’m not sure if I can technically tick this one, since I only read Blackout, and the award went to both novels as a ‘diptych’, which I didn’t even know was a word! Blackout focuses on the trials and tribulations of a group of Oxford University History Students from the year 2060 who use the ever knotty technology of Time Travel to do their coursework through some very primary sources indeed. When four students are sent back to observe different parts of 1940’s Blitz-riddled London with fake personas provided by ‘Wardrobe’, troubles begin as their return-trip ‘drops’ start failing to appear, leaving them stranded in the past during a very inhospitable age.

To be honest, I’ve no idea why this is a Hugo winner in the first place. While ostensibly a book about time travel, the usual examinations of The Rules, Treading On Butterflies, Not Killing Ones Grandparents, Multiple Coexistence, The Trousers Of Time and so on are mostly glossed over in favour of a highly detailed exploration of Life In London During The Blitz, turning this from promising sci-fi jaunt into lengthy period piece. Brief talk of ‘Slippage’ (Time Travel destinations being moved or blocked by other time travelling) and crossing your own stream and so on happens just enough to pique my interest, only to be lost in forty page descriptions of an air raid shelter and everyone in it. Mostly the time travel comes across as hasty handwaved plot device and wouldn’t leave the book in any worse shape if it hadn’t been there at all. It all left me quite unsatisfied really, with a faint hint of bait and switch. Does historical WWII fiction sell worse than sci fi?

Still, credit where it is due; as a piece of believably researched historical fiction it is very good indeed. The horrors of the average person’s life in the Blitz are lavishly painted and interesting characters abound; the ‘contemps’, natives of the time, are interesting and believable people (Binnie and Alf in particular), with a wry Britishness barely masking a genuine terror of sudden death from above in the middle of the night. The problem is with the time travellers themselves, who mostly spend the entire book dithering and second, third and fourth-guessing themselves as they get helplessly buffeted about by unfeasible amounts of bad luck and missed timing. Not only is this highly irritating itself, to the point where I was gritting my teeth, letting out strangled groans and wanting physically shake some them, but it also undermines the credibility of the entire premise. Who the hell allows these idiots to time travel in the first place? Would you install a largely unsupervised time machine in the common room of your university? Exactly! (See Asimov’s’ End of Eternity for a far less aneurism-causing treatment of time travel)

All in all, it was okay, but not really what I was after. Finished it, but not going to buy the second half, as I got so irritated by the protragonists that I no longer care what happens to them in the end.

Give it a go if you like: Second World War Stories, Not Having To Worry About The Details Of Time Travel (a.k.a “Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey“), Hilarious Misunderstandings Which Aren’t Actually That Funny, Smug People With Lists of Historic Bomb Sites Being De-Smugged Quite Abruptly.

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