Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe

August 28, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe is a writer of difficult but surpassingly wonderful novels. Even at his most accessible, he is too indirect to ever really achieve the popularity he deserves. Unusually in this age when it is not unfairly alleged that established writers write short fiction just to win awards, he is extremely prolific when it comes to writing short stories. With any other author, I would interpret this as merely evidence he or she has a lower standard than most. But this is Gene Wolfe, the most intimidatingly sophisticated writer in the genre…he wouldn’t lower himself to churning out mediocre stories to make a quick buck, right?

Well, apparently he does. There’s no other way to put it. This is billed as a fantasy collection, but in truth most stories are either short folk tales or horror stories. Now, there’s nothing wrong with folk tales or horror stories, but these are really your stereotypical folk tales and horror stories: The former are cute but specious and the latter are an exercise in cheap thrills. Wolfe turns out to be very much into ghost stories, and it doesn’t help that I am not, but for the most part there’s nothing remarkable enough to be worth reading (or, I would have thought, worth writing). It’s humorous that even many of the people who are turned off by what they would say is the purposeless complexity of his novels will here be turned off by a lack of complexity.

This is still Gene Wolfe, so there are a few caveats for this mostly negative review. First, the writing is for the most part extremely sharp. No surprise there. I just wish he was writing about something I can bring myself to care about. Second, this book was headed for two stars until I hit some relatively strong stories in the second half. It starts with “Houston, 1943”, a story which was confusing and bizarre the way Wolfe’s novels are, but (for me at least) without the rush of understanding towards the end. It doesn’t help I could barely understand what the characters were saying. Nevertheless it seemed like something was lurking under the surface. Then, a couple stories later, “The Night Chough”, which was the best story of the collection, but I am willing to admit much of my enormous enjoyment came from its connections to Book of the Long Sun. Finally, the book closes on a very high note with “The Lost Pilgrim”, which was–in tone, not literally–a longish (by this collection’s standards at least) cross between the Latro novels and the Wizard Knight books and quite fantastic. Not sure that two or maybe three stories justify purchasing a collection…perhaps not, but I gave the book three stars anyway. If you do really like simple ghost stories, run, do not walk, to your bookstore to get this. Otherwise, think about grabbing it from the library for the stories I mentioned.

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Olympos by Dan Simmons

August 7, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Typically, when faced with the all-too-common reality of one story spread across several volumes for publishing reasons, I review and rate them as one work. I make exceptions, however, when the quality of the work changes significantly between them. Dan Simmons has written two excellent science fiction novels, Hyperion and Ilium. Unfortunately, Fall of Hyperion wasn’t so much a sequel as a necessary second half, and an inferior one at that. That duology remained good enough for me to recommend. I’m not so sure I can say the same thing about Olympus. I give it three stars because in spite of its many flaws it has some compelling scenes and much of it is competently written.

It’s not a new observation in science fiction criticism that it is easier to pose fascinating mysteries than resolve them, and it is unfortunately true here. However, unlike Hyperion, most of Ilium‘s charm came not from the mysteries it posited but from the characters and the use of the Trojan War setting. It is unexpectedly disappointing that neither of these qualities carries over to the sequel. We don’t find out anything new about the characters in Olympos and they don’t grow very much, either. I’m not going to spoil anything here but suffice to say the Iliad is left behind in Olympos and indeed, except for some very unnecessary riffs on Euripides and the usual long Proust quotes, most of the literary aspects are left behind. The characters move around the world, enduring action set pieces here and there and only occasionally learning anything. Simmons seems to have a blind spot which manifested in the Endymion books but is even more prevalent here. He has two characters talking, one of vast knowledge and power and the other an ordinary person, and the former refuses to say anything the other person has a prayer of understanding. Instead of speaking simply, they speak in riddles. And not because Simmons is going in a Gene Wolfe sort of direction and writing a puzzle-narrative, but for no good reason. The reader can more or less follow what the powerful character says and is meant to. Instead of someone who knows just saying what the voynix are in simple terms, for example, we have to endure it being said forty times in different vague ways. There’s no good reason for the various characters in the know to be obscure, they all just are obscure by nature, even though they are of many different natures. The reader will understand after five or no more than ten oblique explanations but the book’s ordinary characters must continue wondering. Meanwhile, these already annoying conversations are made considerably worse by having the response to each bit of information inevitably be, “I don’t understand.”

Of course, the mysteries from Ilium are basically resolved. I say basically because while at the end the reader understands everything, most of the explanation is handwaving in any case. People who read the Hyperion and Endymion books will be familiar with Simmons’ approach to science: have enough science concepts floating near the surface (leaving aside just how scientific string theory really is) to make for long, tedious explanations but ultimately grounded in good, old-fashioned magic. Sorry, but the word “quantum” does not give free reign to do whatever one likes. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with magic, but if Olympos was more honest on this point it would make for a more readable and streamlined narrative.

In the two books–probably clocking in at around 500,000 words–Simmons wields a formidable array of characters and stories. He does this with the competence you expect from an author of his experience and reputation, at least until the end. The end is deeply perplexing to me, for it resolves some issues with the status of humanity in its various forms, but does nothing to clear out some of the dozen or so petty gods floating around the narrative, many of them profoundly malign and the rest with interests best described as perpendicular to the characters we are supposed to care about. With these agents still outstanding, nothing has really been resolved. If this was a trilogy it might be understandable, but I’ve heard no evidence of that and the way the ending is handled suggests it is meant to be The End. His failure to deal in any real way with the Quiet is particularly obnoxious. He explains everything else at length but leaves this rather obscure reference to reader to decode. I’m not sure which is worse, not understanding what he means as I fear most will not, or understanding as I’m pretty sure I do and wishing he’d done more with it.

Some people will no doubt find deep meaning here, for Simmons has left things just ambiguous enough that enterprising readers can imagine some flame of greatness is casting all the shadows. For myself, as fond as I am of some of his literary invocations in Ilium, I can’t condone what (little) he does with them in Olympos. His attempt at making some sort of grand statement on suffering and fate founders due the characters being left behind alternately in the trivia of his metaphysics and the directionless action scenes. I’m glad Simmons aspires to great things, but I wish he would consider a more streamlined approach. I think he overuses literary references, but since his books run off the rails without these references supporting them I will instead ask that in the future he simply consider simpler narratives. If you haven’t read anything by Simmons, Hyperion and its first sequel are worth your time. If you really like it, by all means read Ilium and the rest. If you aren’t a fan of Hyperion, give Olympos and its predecessor a pass.

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