Monday, January 27, 2014

A Month of Sci-Fi

A Month of Sci-Fi

Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1971)
Childhood's End - Arthur C.Clarke (1953)
Foundation - Isaac Asimov (1951)
Hyperion - Dan Simmons (1989)
Dune - Frank Herbert (1965)

For some reason I have spent the last few weeks on a strict diet of science-fiction. Perhaps it was the aftershock of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I went through quite a bit of sci-fi in my teens, and return to it every now and again. Indeed a few of my Top 100 are sci-fi. (Riddley Walker, Cities of the Red Night, War with the Newts, A Scanner Darkly, the Day of the Triffids ... ) However I haven't read a lot of the classic sci-fi books and thought I might try to plug at least a few of those gaps. Recently I had found the Dune and Foundation novels in a charity shop and I have a few shelves full of sci-fi so thought I'd pick a couple from there as well.

I have also been falling behind my reading in my blogging and I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone by lumping all five sci-fi novels into one post, therefore catching up with my reading. It seemed like there might be some interesting parallels that might emerge from such a post. Either that or a long incoherent mess. Maybe something will emerge, maybe not. Whatever happens, I will learn a little more about sci-fi in the process. Firstly I will tackle each book in chronological order.

Foundation - Isaac Asimov (1951)
"It was childish to feel disappointed, but childishness comes almost as naturally to a man as to a child"
Although first published as a single book in 1951, Foundation's roots go deeper and four of the five parts of the novel were published in sci-fi magazines in the early forties. So this dates back to the Second World War as it's tendrils push thirteen thousand years into the future.

The book opens with young graduate Gaal Dornick arriving at the city of Trantor from which a huge galactic empire is run. He  is looking to work with a famous psychohistorian Hari Seldon. Psychohistory is the projection of current trends into the future, a sort of mathematical Tarot, somewhat like some strands of science fiction itself.
He arrives in the middle of some political intriguing as the powers that be come down on Seldon as they consider his predictions of the collapse of the Empire as insubordination. It ends with Hari Seldon and one-hundred thousand others being sent to Terminus, a planet on the edge of the Empire. They are sent there by those in power in order to get rid of them but it is the outcome Seldon has been hoping for as he aims to shorten the dark ages that his studies predict are on their way.  To this end a foundation is created which shall run Trantor and work on the production of an "Encyclopedia Galactica". How Seldon expects this to play out into the future is something we find out as the novel progresses. He has set up a series of messages which play at specific dates in the future which will help future leaders through the crises he has predicted.
There are many ideas in this book. It seems to value the individual of action over the committee. One of the regular tropes of classic science-fiction is that mankind will become/becomes lazy when comfort becomes widespread and active curiosity is dampened. What if there were a Utopia where all the pressing difficulties of existence were solved? Would a humanity that was overly deferential to its 'elders and betters' be healthy? - "It amounts to a diseased attitude - a conditional reflex that shunts aside the independence of your minds whenever it is a question of opposing authority. There seems no doubt ever in your minds that the Emperor is more powerful than you are, or Hari Seldon wiser. And that's wrong, don't you see?" This question is also dealt with to some extent in Childhood's End and Another Roadside Picnic.
Seldon's motives are questioned by those above him, who clearly distrust anything that claims not to be self-interested. Seldon himself claims that his motives are for the betterment of humanity: "Call it idealism. Call it an identification of myself with that mystical generalization to which we refer by the term "man"."
This early section of the book (the one added to aid publication as a novel) ends after less than forty pages and we jump fifty years into the future into the section called The Encyclopedists. On Terminus "the Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Committee has been given full administrative powers." They are presented as divorced from political realities and when the nearest planet leaves the Empire and a kingdom is established on it, the cities mayor, Salvor Hardin sees a problem while they don't. He is a consummate politician and a realist, and starts to try and manoeuvre for the power to act. "Hardin"..."speculated idly as to just what it was that made physical scientists such poor administrators. It might be merely that they were too used to inflexible fact and far too unused to pliable people."

He sizes up this new king and his sabre rattling - "He's merely the product of his environment. He doesn't understand much except that "I got a gun and you ain't."" and tries to buy time with the threat of nuclear power but his political juggling is not aided by the committee, who undermine his form of diplomacy - "What is left of our bluff of atomic power may force them to move slowly, but they will move none the less." There is what will come to be known as a Seldon crisis and we discover some more about Seldon's reasons for picking Terminus and setting up the Encyclopaedia. It becomes clear that his intentions were hidden even if his motives weren't. Some of the choices he made in setting up the colony on Terminus were to engineer a certain future path.  "... had you penetrated the fraud of the Encyclopedia earlier; for then, by knowledge, your freedom of action would be expanded and the number of additional variables introduced would become greater than our psychology could handle."

The section ends with Hardin in power and the third section is called The Mayors, indicating that it is now they who wield the power. The titles of final two sections The Traders and The Merchant Princes suggests how power will shift as time passes.

The book plays with the idea of religion as a useful form of social control, using science which has been forgotten on the surrounding planets to perform 'miraculous' acts. "The priesthood has sole control of the instruments of science we have given Anacreon, but they've learned to handle these tools only empirically. They believe in this religion entirely.." The connection between really advanced cultures and religious beliefs is something of a recurring trope in sci-fi, with the cargo cults of the second world war era a clear influence.

The book also speeds through a number of various systems of governance and time periods without creating any characters that stick in the mind. One almost feels as dismissive as the book is of the history of many planets - "And now that the Empire had lost control over the farther reaches of the Galaxy, these little splinter groups of planets became kingdoms - with comic-opera kings and novels, and petty, meaningless wars, and a life that went on pathetically amoung the ruins."

One of the more interesting ideas of this history is how it places technology and innovation at the centre of power. The very absence of many materials from Terminus coupled with the presence of so much scientific knowledge drives them into innovations that ensure that their technology surpasses that of the planets around them. These can then be used to leverage power on other planets through the grant and withdrawal of those technologies.  "Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects' welfare for what they consider honour, and glory, and conquest. But its still the little things in life that count..."

The idea that hardship creates certain skills also forms a central element of Dune. While Foundation is an interesting enough read it has many flaws, not least that it is overwhelmingly schematic and contains little of the love and betrayal that mean that the plans and orders of the ruling elites rarely come to pass quite as cleanly as they wish.  Humanity is a messier proposition than Asimov seems to contend. Perhaps he was better on the motivation of robots.

Childhood's End - Arthur C.Clarke (1953)

This book begins with man making its first halting steps in space exploration before the now cliched arrival of a space fleet with huge spaceships hovering over each major city. The aliens stay in these ships and after some initial shows of power they start to solve many of the worlds problems, both social and economic and usher in a time of peace and plenty. Indeed the powers of the Overlords, as they become known, are almost divine. Not only can they track almost everything going on the earth at the moment but they can call up recordings from much of human history. Attempts to attack them with atomic weapons are a total failure and are simply ignored by the Overlords.

Not all humanity is happy, for many reasons, not least the fear that after some years of this rule "Humanity will have lost its initiative and become a subject race." There is also that trait which we share with dead cats, curiosity. As long as the Overlords choose to remain hidden there will be a part of the human imagination projecting their worst fears onto the Overlords. Attempts to get them to reveal themselves are initially unsuccessful but they promise to reveal themselves after fifty years.

Another reason to worry is the known history of mankind; "History was not reassuring; even the most peaceable of contacts between races at very different cultural levels had often resulted in the obliteration of the more backward society."

The rule of the Overlords seems very benign. The only major limitation that the Overlords put on humanity is that they debar them from interstellar travel. Various resistance  groups are formed. Amoung these are the founders of a Colony. It is sited on two islands named Athens and Sparta and dedicated to such pursuits as art and allows Clarke to indulge in some meditations on the future of various strands of culture. They are set up by a team who try to predict their development and the effect that the environment and numbers of people etc will have on it, similar in many ways to the creation of the Foundation in Asimov's book: "someone had once defined the Colony as a system of interlocking committees. But the system worked, thanks to the patient studies of the social psychologists who had been the real founders of Athens." However Clarke is not taking us on a journey through an eternally cycling history but towards an evolutionary leap.

Here are some of his thoughts on life under the Overlords, technology, arts, the problems of Utopian society etc etc

On TV:
"Do you realize that every day something like 500 hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that's available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating." What would he make of the almost infinite torrent of 'content' being produced across so many platforms today? He had the trend right but didn't quite imagine the scale. However he does come up with a wonderfully pithy definition of TV: ""I've invented a new definition for TV," he muttered gloomily. "I've decided it's a device for hindering communication between artist and audience.""

On conflict free living:
"Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias - boredom." This again is something that comes up again in other books, the question of what to do when there is a lack of conflict and change. Will life become boring and ultimately depressing - "a safer but less interesting place"? Are we designed to constantly solve problems? Perhaps that explains why we create so many problems to solve?
"When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure." Their are many people today who will never come close to war, hunger or disease but who crave adventure and danger, and this has led to the growth of adventure sports.
At the beginning of the book all contact with the Overlords is through the head of the UN, Stormgren. He feels a bond of friendship with Karellen, the head Overlord. He does not bemoan the absence of causes that people find worth fighting for. "Words - empty words, thought Stormgren. The words for which men had once fought and died, and for which they would never die or fight again. And the world would be better for it."
And much of the Utopian creation comes down to us, who if we stopped fighting and exploiting each other have the capability of creating a edenic world. "With the energies of mankind directed into constructive channels, the face of the world had been remade."

On the news:
"One had to be very old indeed to realize that the papers which the telecasters printed in every home were really rather dull. Gone were the crises that had once produced banner headlines. There were no mysterious murders to baffle the police and to arouse in a million breasts the moral indignation that was often suppressed envy." The telecasters in every home are not a million miles from our world of phones, tablets and P.C's. The reliance on 'actual news' is a little exaggerated.

On consumption:
"As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with powers and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams." It has always struck me how hard it is to give up possessions that we never imagined having a few years earlier. This is similar to the boredom hovering over Utopia.

On idleness:
With everything organised on much more efficient lines and hunger and want eliminated there is less need for people to be enslaved to a career. "Western man had relearned - what the rest of the world had never forgotten - that there was nothing sinful in leisure as long as it did not degenerate into mere sloth." This sloth, he guess is not as likely as some people have speculated.
There is almost something heroic in total idleness, which is as close as my lifestyle has come to being described as heroic. "There were, of course, some drones, but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed." Ah to be noted as the member of an elite.

On History and Religion
The art of speculation on historical events becomes less necessary when the Overlords make many of their recordings of events during history available to the curious. This leads to the quick disintegration of most religions, as access to their historical underpinnings is clearly visible as something less than divine. "Though it had always been obvious mind that all the world's religious writings could not be true, the shock was nevertheless profound. Here was a revelation which no-one could doubt or deny: here, seen by some unknown magic of the Overlord science, were the true beginnings of all the world's great faiths. Most of them were noble and inspiring-but that was not enough. Within a few days, all mankind's multitudinous messiahs had lost their divinity."
Clarke then refers obliquely to the title, saying "Humanity had lost its ancient gods: now it was old enough to have no need for new ones."

On Science
Here it is speculated that there would be little drive to discover on our own what would undoubtedly remain far behind the science of the Overlords. "It seemed futile to spend a lifetime searching for secrets that the Overlords had probably uncovered ages before."

The loss of impetus in our scientific energies is not overly mourned, it's flip side being very bit as dark as it hopes were exciting. "If they had never intervened, we might have reached Mars or Venus by now. I admit that it is equally probable that we would have destroyed ourselves with cobalt bombs and the other global weapons the twentieth century was developing."

On 'Toons
Clarke predicted the rise of photorealistic animation :"The hundred years since the time of Disney had still left much undone in this most flexible of all mediums. On the purely realistic side, results could be produced indistinguishable from actual photography - much to the contempt of those who were developing the cartoon along abstract lines."

He also speculated on the sort of purely internal journeys that were to form part of Philip K.Dicks repertoire. There is a "team working on 'total identification'" - "First, sound,, then colour, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old 'moving pictures' more and more like reality itself." "Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became part of the action. To achieve this would involve stimulation of all the senses, and perhaps hypnosis as well, but many believed it to be practical. When the goal was attained, there would be an enormous enrichment of human experience. A man could become - for a while, at least - any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary." "when the 'programme' was over, he would have acquired a memory as vivid as any experience in his actual life - indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself." We can remember it for you wholesale.

On the sea
One of the closest things to space exploration that we see is a journey to an underwater research station - "not one thread in the tapestry of sound could be disentangled and identified. It was so alien, so remote from anything he had ever known, that it set Jan's scalp crawling. And yet this was part of his own world----"
He also provisioned the Octopod, describing the undersea research centre as "a cluster of spheres standing on tripod legs."

On empire
The Overlords have studied history, paying particular attention to empires, as these have much to teach them about how they should manage humanity. "They (the British) found themselves possessors of an Empire before they knew what to do with it, and were never really happy until they had got rid of it again."

Clarke provides some genuinely surprising twist and also envisages some alien lifeforms in a sequence where a boy seems to access the wider universe and its myriad lifeforms in a series of dreams. "The planet was absolutely flat. Its enormous gravity had long ago crushed into one uniform level the mountains of its fiery youth - mountains whose mightiest peaks had never exceeded a few metres in height. Yet there was life here, for the surface was covered with a myriad patterns that crawled and moved and changed their colour. It was a world of two dimensions, inhabited by beings who could be no more than a fraction of a centimetre in thickness."

The ending is very memorable but I will say nothing about it for fear of spoiling it for those who haven't read it.

Dune - Frank Herbert (1965)

Like Foundation, Dune is the first in a series of novels that constitute one of the most popular series in the canon. Also like Foundation, there is an Empire which seems to have returned to a largely feudal system within which a series of families rule their own fiefdoms while answering to an Emperor. The families are united in the Landsraad which acts as a counterweight to the power of the Emperor and of individual Houses. Other influential bodies are the Spacing Guild who have a monopoly on interstellar travel and the Bene Gesserit a matriarchal  organisation which trains women in many skills, some of which seem magical and lead some to fear them as witches. They aim to preserve certain bloodlines and hope, through selective breeding, to create a man who will have their skills of insight and prescience, the "Kwisatz Haderach".

I find their aims of more than dubious morality. "The original Bene Gesserit school was directed by those who saw the need of a thread of continuity in human affairs. They saw there could be no such continuity without separating human stock from animal stock - for breeding purposes." This seems to smack of Nazi era eugenics and indeed my experience of the book was somewhat marred by the importance given to 'breeding'. However, this may be turned on its head as the series unfolds. Some clues point that way.

The key characters are the Atreides family, father Duke Leto, concubine Lady Jessica and son Paul. The Duke remains unmarried so as to keep the possibility of marriage to a woman from one of the other houses for political reasons.  Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit, had a son in defiance of instructions from above. It seems that she hope to be mother of the "Kwisatz Haderach" and in view of these hopes "she had trained him in the Bene Gesserit way - in the minute of observation."

Paul has to undergo a test administered by the "Reverend Mother" and at one point "Paul found himself obeying before he could think about it. Using the Voice on me, he thought." It appears the Bene Gesserit are future disciples of NLP. Paul survives the test, which means hue may in fact be the "Kwisatz Haderach", as few males take the test and less survive. "Your mother survived this test. Now it's your turn. Be honoured. We seldom administer this to men-children."

The Atreides family have to move from the planet on which they are settled to Arakis a.k.a. Dune. This is because the Emperor has told them to and although they know they are walking into a trap they have no way out and just a small sliver of hope. The family who have run the planet are the Harkonnen who have a longstanding feud with the Atreides. Baron Harkonnen is not far from Bond villain territory.

Their hopes of coming through alive centre on making an alliance with the Fremen, nomads who wander the deserts which cover most of the planet. The very hardship of their life has made these people tough and resourceful. Amoung them there is an ecologist who was appointed by the Emperor and has plans to green the desert.

The desert is also home to enormous sand worms who are somehow involved in the production of a substance called 'spice' which is where the wealth of Dune resides. It gives those who consume it an extended life span and some people are able to develop an ability to see into the future when they take it. One group who relies heavily on it are the Spacing Guild's navigators. Control of the Spice trade is also something which Duke Leto and his Mentat see as offering them some hope of manoeuvring out of Baron Harkonnen's trap.

A Mentat is a highly trained human who performs an information crunching role. This is necessary because at some point in the past Artificial Intelligences were banned. There is an impressive mythical world built up behind the world of this novel through details such as this. You sense a closely worked back history has been developed. In some ways (as has been noted elsewhere) it is more of a Fantasy novel and somewhat similar to Lord of the Rings, another book somewhat marred by it's apparent support for the idea of inherited nobility.

Paul Atreides develops an ability to see into the future, or more accurately into a series of different futures. One features a bloodthirsty Fatwa across many worlds and he aims to try to avoid that particular future. However he cannot avoid certain points where the outcome is uncertain. He sees his own death in some 'visions' and sometime recognises that he is in one of these possible death scenes. This reminded me of one of my favourite sic-fi novels, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and also of the multiple parallel realities beloved of Philip K.Dick.

I enjoyed the book as a page turner and will explore the series further.

Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1971)
(translated by Antonina W. Bouis)
"We don't understand a thing, and they understand how much they don't."
For me, this was the stand-out book of the five. I was initially attracted to this as it formed the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's hypnotic, meditative Stalker, a film that haunted me for weeks after I saw it. The book is similarly haunting.

There has been a group of visitations from an alien species across the globe and the areas where they landed, the Zones, contain strange leftover objects. These objects defy the known laws of physics and many cause injury or death. The title refers to one theory about these visitations, that the aliens simply stopped on earth for a 'roadside picnic" and that these objects are simply the junk they left behind.

The book tells the story of Red Schuhart, a "stalker" who lives in Harmont, a town in Canada next to a zone. Stalkers enter the Zone and retrieve objects which have great value on the black market. There is also an institute beside the Zone which is a centre for official research. The objects point to a technology so far beyond the comprehension of the scientists who are studying them, let alone the common man, that they are approached with the kind of superstition early man showed the basic elements of nature. There have been unexplained events such as people going blind after hearing a loud noise, many dying in an area called the Plague Quarter near the Zone,

At the books opening, Schuhart is working in the International Institute for Extraterrestrial Cultures, having apparently given up his work as a Stalker. He works with a scientist called Kirill who is trying to understand "empties", "two copper disks the size of a saucer, about a quarter of an inch thick, with a space of a foot and a half between them. There's nothing else. I mean absolutely nothing, just empty space. You can stick your hand in them, or even your head, if you're so knocked out by the whole thing - just emptiness and more emptiness, thin air. And for all that, of course, there is some force between them, as I understand it, because you can't press them together, and no one's been able to pull them apart, either."

Kirill is getting nowhere and is starting to grow "grey and silent, and his eyes looked like a sick dog's". When Schuhart tells him of a "full empty" that he has seen in the Zone Kirill comes back to life and is blasé about what amounts to an admission from Schuhart of his past as a Stalker. They then set out on one of the three sorties into the Zone that form the core of the book. There is a strange normality to the Zone, terror hiding in the mundane. "I don't like those trucks! They've been exposed to the elements for thirty years and they're just like new."

Schuhart has a superstitious regime rather like that of many athletes and is upset when Kirill mentions a colleague who died just before the enter the Zone. "My skin crawled. You so-and-so fool. Who talks about such things before setting out? You can beat these eggheads over the head with a two-by-four and they still don't catch on." It is clear that Schuhart has little by way of an understanding of the Zone and its hazards but needs to be in a state of total awareness. He does not try to explain what he comes across, just avoid what he can't understand.

The scientist, however, need to have an explanation: "They're all like that, the eggheads, the most important thing for them is to find a name for things. Until he had come up with a name, he was pathetic to look at - a real idiot. But now that he had some label like graviocentrate, he thought that he understood everything and that life was a breeze."

After leaving the Zone Schuhart goes to a bar which is also a centre for the Black Market trade in objects from the Zone. Gutalin, a friend of Schuhart and an ex-Stalker has embraced a religious position and drunkenly yet forcefully insists that no further objects should be taken from the Zone. "You can't get away from it. Wherever you go, whoever you talk to, it's always the Zone, the Zone, the Zone. It's easy for Kirill to talk about the eternal peace and harmony that will come from the Zone. Kirill is a a fine fellow and no fool - on the contrary, he's really bright - but he doesn't know a damn thing about life. He can't even imagine what kind of scum and criminals hang around the Zone. Now somebody wants to get his hands on the witches' jelly. Gutalin may be a drunk and a religious nut, but maybe he's got something there. Maybe we should leave the devil's things to the devil? hands off."

There are many other strange events in this world. Children are born mutated, including Schuhart's own child, known as Monkey. There are even stranger events such as the dead digging themselves out of their graves and returning to their houses, again including Schuhart's own father.

The way of navigating the Zone is compelling. The Stalker carries a number of nuts (of the nuts and bolts type) which he/she throws ahead, watching carefully for any irregularity in the flight of the nut. Then they walk to the nut if there was no irregularity spotted. It is stressful and all visitors must remain on high alert. "He'd knock off ten pounds today, this was better than any diet."

It is when you map the various strains of speculation onto the world the Strugatzy's were writing from and about that the many layers on which this book can work become apparent. The many hazards of the Zone and the need to avoid potentially fateful pitfalls could describe the plight of a Soviet Era writer trying to commentate on the system. Indeed anyone living in the country had to be aware of the rules, many unwritten but often brutally enforced.

The black market that has built up around the Zone also reminds me of the illicit trade in western goods that built up around another walled in Zone, West Berlin. People would go into East Berlin wearing extra layers of jeans because brands like Levis or Doc Martens attracted a very significant premium. Many of the people involved in this trade are ruthless and amoral. "It smelled of expensive tobacco, French perfumes, the soft natural leather of stuffed wallets, expensive ladies of the night, and solid gold cigarette cases. It reeked of everything, of the lousy fungus that was growing  on the Zone, eating, exploiting and growing fat on the Zone and that didn't give a damn about any of it, especially about what would happen later, when it had eaten its full and gotten power, and when everything that was once in the Zone was outside."

There is also a likely relation to the closed towns of Soviet Russia, often places where nuclear power plants and armaments production were set. Some of these had major accidental releases of radioactive material. In a strange way, the book is now enhanced by the existence of the Zone around Chernobyl. Science Fiction is supposed to have predictive powers. And the book does say that humans would create something like the Zone, even if aliens hadn't."And suddenly, from nowhere, a wave of despair engulfed him. It was all useless. Pointless. My God, he thought, we won't be able to do a thing! We won't have the power to contain this blight, he thought in horror. Not because we don't work well. And not because they're smarter and more clever either. It's just that that's the way the world is. And that's the way man is in this world. If there had never been the Visitation, there would have been something else. Pigs always find mud."

Indeed the prognosis for humanity in this book is rather dark: "reason is the ability of a living creature to perform unreasonable or unnatural acts."  He sees our "need to understand" as a double edged drive that can lead to ignorance as quickly as to knowledge: "There is a need to understand, and you don't need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing."

The question is, can we understand that which is utterly not us? To xenophobia I can now add  "Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. It's based on the false premise that human psychology is applicable to extraterrestrial intelligent beings" It is false "Because biologists have already been burned trying to use human psychology on animals. Earth animals, at that." The truly alien may be too far beyond us for us to even perceive.

Hyperion - Dan Simmons (1989)

"The Consul thought of the Shrike, free to wander everywhere on Hyperion, of the millions of indigenies and thousands of Hegemony citizens helpless before a creature which defied physical laws and which communicated only through death, and he shivered despite the warmth of the cabin."

Hyperion tells the story of a strange pilgrimage to the strange metallic Shrike, a killing machine/organism worshipped by many as The Lord of Pain on his home planet of Hyperion and elsewhere across the book's universe. This universe is dominated by three forces, The Hegemony, the Ousters and Techno-Core, an entity made up of myriad AI's. The Church of the Shrike also has followers and temples on many worlds.

There are seven pilgrims, The Consul, a former governor of Hyperion; Father Lenar Hoyt, one of the dwindling number of  catholic priests left; Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, also known as The Butcher of South Bressia; Martin Silenus, a poet; Sol Weintraub, a Jewish academic and his infant daughter, who is ageing backwards; Brawne Lamia, a private detective and daughter of a Senator and Het Masteen, a Templar, who captains the Treeship Yggdrasill that brings the pilgrims to Hyperion. All have been selected by the Church of the Shrike and have their reasons to go to/return to Hyperion, and reasons to want meet the Shrike. We get the stories of most of the pilgrims on the way, in a manner somewhat similar to The Canterbury Tales. This is not the only literary reference in the book. The title refers to the Keats poem and Keats plays a part in the book, or at least an artificial intelligence built to be as like Keats as possible. It also allows Simmons to pass the judgement of time on his own era: "The twentieth century's most honoured writer, William Gass, once said in an interview: 'Words are the supreme objects. They are minded things.'" He also tips his hat to sic-fi great Jack Vance, by using The Dying Earth as the title for Martin Silenius' book and mentioning that "a records search showed a novel by that name five hundred years earlier, but the copyright had lapsed and the book was out of print."

This book is seeped in religion, which seems to be central across all these books but is most central in this one. The bird that gives the Shrike its name impales its victims on thorns, and the Shrike has a similar tree of thorns that it impales its victims on. The relationship to the Crucifixion and the Crown of Thorns seems strong. The Templar ship, the Jewish academic, the soldier of Palestinian origin (Colonel Kassad); the catholic priest - it all builds a sense of the Crusades and the birth place of Christianity.

The technology in Hyperion is more sophisticated than in any of the other books. Within the Hegemony distances between stars have been eliminated by far caster doors. You walk in one side and come out of another door somewhere else, anywhere there is a door. The super-rich have houses on multiple planets where you walk through the door of your sitting room which is light years from your kitchen. You can have views lit by different suns.

Outside the reach of the far casters interstellar travel happens in spaceships with travellers in a cryogenic state and due to this and/or the speed of the ships the crew end up with time debt, with friends, family and lovers ageing or even dying in their absence. The poet Martin Silenus completed a long journey from Earth which has left him largely a man out of time. There are also sophisticated anti-aging treatments that somewhat disguise the ravages of time.

The pilgrims are transported on the Templars' treeship Yggdrasill. The treeship is an enourmous living tree powered by some alien life form that also generates shields.

But the strangest part of this story is the Shrike and the empty tombs that, surrounded by anti-entropic  fields have brought the Shrike backwards through time, and it is an offshoot of this that has led to Sol Weintraub's daughter growing younger.

It is a strange and at times fascinating book but I felt it had more style and atmosphere than anything else, not that they are often enough. There is also a element of confusion in the telling of the pilgrims stories, where the viewpoint of the narrative voice seems odd. This undermines the characters, who should come alive as they tell their stories. However, there is a kind of grandeur and power to the imaginings within.

It also brings up some of the tropes of sic-fi covered in the other books. The decay of the scientific mind: "We are in a comfortable Dark Ages of the inventive mind"

The future of religion:"If the Church is meant to die, it must do so - but do so gloriously, in the full knowledge of its rebirth in Christ. It must go into the darkness not willingly but well - bravely and firm of faith - like the millions who have gone before us."

The environment: "help the Colonists do what they do best - destroy truly indigenous life."

People setting up or seeking alternative communities, colonies "Sad King Billy's five seedships floating like golden dandelions above a lapis sky. White cities rising on three continents: Keats, Endymion, Port Romance . . . the poet's City itself. More than eight thousand of Art's pilgrims seeking escape from the tyranny of mediocrity and searching for a renewal of vision on this rough-hewn world."

The motivations of humanity: "As if we fucking humans were ever motivated by human logic!"

It is a strange but flawed book, and left me interested enough to seek out its sequel.

Well, despite saying that I would finish this post with some further meditations on science fiction I think it is best to bring it to a close as it is quite a behemoth already (over 6,500 words) and it is highly unlikely that anyone will make it this far! If you have, thanks!

I myself got quite swamped trying to organise this post especially when I realised that it had run far beyond the pithy reviews I had intended. Now when I hit 'publish' I can get back to reading, hopefully finishing (and blogging on) Kenzaburo Õe's The Silent Cry in time for January in Japan.


  1. Blimey this brings back some memories - I read Dune when I was doing my o levels , and at the time read quite a bit of sci fi - I seem to remember a series by Julian May that I loved and ended up being (apart from the odd classic title eg Triffids , Drowned World etc and some fiction that tip toed around the edges ) the last sci fi I read. I kept thinking nothing else would be as good as this series.. As I've got older I do have a nagging feeling that I need to go back and read more (thus the random searching out a "classic" but even these tend to be very much earth based) but I always seem to have a shelf of fiction that needs reading. Well the post ha prompted a visit to the sci fi section of Waterstones to see what catches my eye

    1. Sci-fi is a pretty broad church and I enjoy lots of it. When it's good it can be very good. It also satisfies a desire for pulp every now and then. Thinking of doing a similar immersion in crime fiction later in the year.

  2. If you do try out Philip kerrs berlin trilogy. Start of an ongoing series but the initial trilogy is best. A pi in nazi germany

  3. Wow, this was some month!

    The Foundation, Dune and Childhood's End are among my favorite all time books. I do recognize the flaws inherent in these works but there is a nostalgia factor for me. Though I gave reread both Dune as well as Childhood's End in the past few years it has been a very long time since I have read Asimov. I may need to give that one reread soon.

    1. I would have loved these as a teenager with few reservations, I'm sure. I still enjoyed all three, especially Childhood's End.

  4. Five pretty good choices. All pretty seminal in their own way too. It strikes me that the selection traces the changing mood in SF from boundless confidence in science and progress in the 50's (Foundation and Childhood's end), to doubt and pessimism (Dune) to a sense that understanding may be beyond us (Roadside Picnic ) to outright mysticism (Hyperion). I am probably stretching it a bit though. By the way the Fall of Hyperion is not, in my view, a sequel. I think that together they are one book broken into two parts. You really have to read that one to get the whole thing.

    1. Yes, the end of Hyperion is pretty abrupt. It makes sense if it's only the first half of the book. I'll have to get that one.
      I like your theory about the changing mood although the boundless confidence of Foundation and Childhood's End is quite "bound" really, especially in Childhood's End.