Book reviews

The one huge problem with Dan Simmons’ sci-fi mystery Hyperion

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Hyperion is not what you would expect if the only Dan Simmons you’ve read is The Terror, a slab of historical fiction with an uneven supernatural glaze. It’s overlong, tedious, confused, and ultimately flat. You’d never guess it was written by the same person who wrote Hyperion, a sparkling collection of multi-faceted science fiction, with carefully built characters, a lovingly detailed world, and a glaring problem that threatens to undermine it all.

But we’ll get to that later. The first thing that’s clear in Hyperion, which I don’t remember being a takeaway from The Terror, is that Simmons is an adroit writer. Maybe it helps if you’ve been reading someone who isn’t.

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Is epic-length fantasy epic Deadhouse Gates the second of ten or the last of two?

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You don’t read Deadhouse Gates to read Deadhouse Gates. You read it because you just read Gardens of the Moon and you’re about to read, uh…hold on, let me go look up the next book. Memories of Ice. You read it because you’re reading Steven Erikson’s bloated drawn-out Malazan series and this is the second book of, good lord, ten? There are ten of these?

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What the heck is up in Fup, the weird tale of a mallard hen?

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Most of Fup feels like a comedic short story. Like more profane Charles Portis or less absurd George Saunders. Maybe the sort of thing John Kennedy O’Toole might have written if he’d been alive to keep writing. But Fup stands apart for where Jim Dodge goes with his humor. He’s writing to amuse, to be sure. But he’s also writing to bring you someplace philosophical, perhaps even spiritual, but without any of the weight of philosophy or spirituality. It’s ultimately a tangle of homespun wisdom that lapses into folklore. The punchline isn’t really a punchline. It just might be a parable.

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Welcome to Lovecraft Country, where cosmic horror is a white people problem

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In Lovecraft Country, being called a nigger, refused service at a restaurant, harassed by the police, or treated with contempt by an elite coven of warlocks is just another day. This cast of black characters living in Chicago in 1954 is accustomed to America. They have learned to navigate it. Literally. One of the main characters publishes a travel guide called The Safe Negro Travel Guide. It steers black people around — or, if necessary, through — the more virulent racism in America, especially where Jim Crow laws are still in effect. Which restaurants will serve black customers? Which highways should you not be on after dark? Which garages can you call if your car breaks down?

So the characters in Lovecraft Country don’t seem terribly surprised by the idea that maybe the universe is a vast and ancient expanse of indifference at best, outright hostility at worst. Why would someone go insane from learning what minorities know every day? If you look into the abyss long enough, you still have to ride in the back of the bus on your way to work. Continue reading →

Best thing you’ll read all week: The Three-Body Problem

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Republican Congressman Mike Bost invoked something called “struggle sessions” last month. While talking to journalists, he explained why he wasn’t holding any town hall meetings, which have provided angry constituents a forum to make themselves heard by their Republican representatives. Bost felt holding such a meeting wasn’t a good use of his time. He compared it to “the cleansing that the Orientals used to do where you’d put one person out in front and 900 people yell at them.” That’s how I learned about “struggle sessions”, a form of public humiliation used in Communist Russia and China. Bost later apologized for using the word “Oriental”, but not for shirking his duty as a representative.

The Three-Body Problem, an award-winning “Oriental” science fiction novel, begins with a struggle session during China’s Cultural Revolution. It is the catalyst for everything that happens in the book, which might include the end of the world. It is also an example of the novel’s uniquely Chinese cultural identity.

You’d never know from its beginnings that despite this identity, The Three-Body Problem is literally universal. Continue reading →