Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, November 25, 2013

2005: The Best Science Fiction of 2004 (Haber, Karen & Strahan, Jonathan)

Poor proofreading of good stories, yet already feels dated (3/5)

I love variety, so I love the SF short story length and collections thereof. I prefer single-author collections or thematic collections, but when my shelves are nearly bare of short fiction, I get desperate… so I buy a “best of” anthology. Gasp. Yet, I’m always leery about buying a “best of” anthology because they fall in one category or the other: (a) the stories most heavily laden with accolades, awards, and praise from some collective and distant opinion or (b) some editor’s avuncular back patting for his author buddies. This 2004 collection falls into the first category; I think the editors name drop about every single SF award there is to be offered and they just love to praise, praise, praise each author for their respective awards or nominations.

I’d like to see subjectivity in an anthology, one based on an author’s honest opinion or idea rather than a objective spew of praise… that seems easy, lazy, and profit-driven. Now I’m reconsidering reading or even keeping two other anthologies in my shelves: a Dozois collection from 2008 and a Carr collection from 1979. Now, I’m thinking I’ll junk (read: sell to the second-hand bookstore) it and keep the Carr collection, which includes Varley, Leiber, Ellison, Disch, and Kelly. Fingers crossed.


The Best of 2004 has a distinctive feel to it being infused with two themes from the years around 2000: (a) nanotechnology, in line with Greg Bear’s Slant (1997) and Collapsium (2000) and (b) zaniness, in line with Adam Johnson’s collection Emporium (2003) and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Neither of these themes strum the strings of my heart, but it does give the 2004 collection the feeling of being a period piece… which is strange given that it’s only nine years old. Sign of the times? Bad editing?

That said, this collection is also full of typos. Not just a dropped letter or two, but some very grievous typos which any proofreader would have edited if they had just spent one minute looking at the page. If you’re not going to respect the stories for their supposed superiority, then at least respect the reader for their purchase of the collection and their time spent reading it. There are no excuses for such terrible proofreading. Like mentioned in the second paragraph, this collection must have been pumped out simply for the profit rather than the art. This seriously dampens the overall rating of the collection, dropping it from 4 of 5 for the stories, to 3 of 5 because of the laziness.


Kelly, James Patrick: The Best Christmas Ever (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – Albert Paul Hopkins is the last man on earth but he is accompanies by “biops” which shift form to random celebrities of the past. The biops, specifically Auntie Em and Dr. Watson, call him Bertie while his cat calls him Mario and his dog calls him Buddy. Attempting to enliven Bertie’s spirit, Auntie Em organizes a Christmas shopping trip but the only gift Bertie requests is a Glock-17 handgun, the severity of which his human girlfriend doesn’t quite grasp. 21 pages

Rowe, Christopher: The Voluntary State (novelette, 2004) – 2/5 – A Tennessean painter by trade, Soma spends his life indulging in his profession… until his car is vandalized. While the car mewls in pain and as Soma applies the car’s salve, he phones the healer, Jenny. Seeking retribution for the crime, Soma enters the Kentuckian state; there, he is kidnapped and subjected to tranquilizers while his captors carry out sabotage on Tennessee through their steampunk ways. 50 pages

Wolfe, Gene: The Lost Pilgrim (novelette, 2004) – 3/5 – Encumbered by memory loss, an academic traveler in time struggles to identify his mission. He knows that being aboard Captain Eeasawn’s ship isn’t right, but perhaps the adventure could take him closer to his elusive target. Seemingly in the waters of ancient Greece, the crew of the ship, along with the translator- and camera-equipped academic, battle nemeses, ply the winds of trade in the straights, and pray for favorable winds from the Gods. 38 pages

Haldeman, Joe: Memento Mori (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Nanozooans have the ability to make humans immortal but sometimes even their miracle of medical science can go awry. Rather than destroy its host, the nanozooans default to safe mode when an error occurs, such as when a woman dies a physical death. With her death, a professionally-transmogrified doctor incants the process to adjust her state with terrifying yet predictable results. 5 pages

Baxter, Stephen: PeriAndry’s Quest (novelette, 2004) – 4/5 – Old earth was a simple place actually, where all its atmospheric and geological strata pass at the same rate; this, of course, was before the Formidable Caress, which varied the subjective sense of time. PeriAndry lives on the pampered Shelf where time is ten times slower than in the Attic. During his father’s funeral, he sees and lusts for one of the lovely Attic girls but his brother warns him of the taboo; regardless, he seeks out the aging Lora. 27 pages

VanderMeer, Jeff: Three Days in a Border Town (shortstory, 2004) – 5/5 – The myth of a phantom city crossing the desert drives one mournful woman to experience its crossing because she knows that the prismatic caravan city is real. In the border town of the desert, the woman seeks knowledge and contact with anyone else who has witnessed its passing, an investigation which she finds comfort from her companion, The Book of the City. Her restive eagerness has its root in a tragic past. 30 pages

Stross, Charles: Elector (novella, 2004) – 4/5 – Mankind’s technological singularity bastard child has been named the Vile Offspring, who have altered the solar system’s inner-most planets, save Earth, into a Matrioshka brain of Dyson Spheres. Corporeal humanity has fled to Saturn where they co-exist with tailored reconstructions of historical figures. One political camp sees the Vile Offspring as a threat and are willing to embrace new-found alien technology… yet some are not. 78 pages.

Reed, Robert: Opal Ball (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Cliff, along with much of society, hedges his bets on the most inane aspects of life and makes some decent money from his intuitiveness and research. Other punters also gamble on their research into personality types from DNA and its probable effect on a person’s life. Cliff met the woman of his dreams yet punters have him an 8% probability of success unperturbed, he unknowingly heads for disaster. 9 pages

Kress, Nancy: My Mother Dancing (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – On a distant Jovian planet, humans plant the seed of the Great Holy Mission—cybernetic replicators programmed for sentience, culture, and eventual contact with the species that created them. Returning years later, the seedlings had created a culture of their own but have only reached one-third of their predicted population size. The crew of the observation ship, called “Mother” by the diaspora, listens to the spore’s story with concern and leeriness. 18 pages

Bacigalupi, Paolo: The People of Sand and Slag (novelette, 2004) – 5/5 – Consuming sand and mud, amputating and implanting razors into each other’s bones for fun, and nuking invaders of their Montanan mine, the employees of SesCo are your typical post-human gods impregnated at the molecular level with weeviltech. Out in the acidic slag of their strip mine, the crew discovers a real live dog, an original organic animal fragile and needy. Debating whether to keep it or eat it, they experience the dog’s needs, wastes, love, and weaknesses. 29 pages

Harrison, M. John: Tourists (shortstory, 2004) – 3/5 – Jack Serotonin machoistically sulks at the Black Cat White Cat bar on Strait Street when a client enters the bar to seek his service—entering the “event site”. The bizarre topology of the site unsettles the human mind yet Jack is able to remain calm during the chaotic city penetration, unlike his client who runs away screaming. Unnerved, Jack returns to the bar, orders two drinks, and sits amid the bar’s seedy goings-on. 21 pages

Emschwiller, Carol: All of Us Can Almost… (shortstory, 2004) – 4/5 – After generations of aesthetically breeding for strength and size, an avian race has fallen from their skyward grace and freedom. Now imprisoned to the ground, waddling as they go, the avian race’s only right to brag lays in their past, which they embellish to the naïve pawed natives who admire their feat. However, their lies of flight ability damped their progress and one woman may make a promise she can’t keep. 13 pages

Williams, Walter Jon: The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid (novelette, 2004) – 4/5 – “Competing secret organizations of Andean street musicians” (366) descend on a sunken cargo linear off the Chinese coast. Both are undercover with their respective pleasure cruise ship, but the Hanansaya moiety has ingenuity on their side having the water ballet team of the Outrageous Water Ballet of Malibu. The competing Ayanca entourage sabotage their efforts by killing their client, but the Hanansaya band have the perfect opportunity for their own sabotage. 58 pages

Monday, November 18, 2013

2002: Archform: Beauty (Modesitt, L.E., Jr.)

Lack of art in dialogue, character development, etc. (2/5)

I had never heard of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. before seeing this beautiful little paperback on the shelf of my favorite second-hand bookstore. Sounded good so I picked it up—one of those blind faith purchases. Surprisingly, he’s been writing since 1982 and has more than forty novels, thirty short stories, and a collection published. At this point in the introduction, I would usually note, “This author is most famous for his…” or “Most notably, this author has written…”, but in this case, all that fails me.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Four centuries in the future the world is rich. Every basic need is provided for, every desire can be fulfilled. It should be Utopia…

But a darkness lies at the heart of this future Earth. A police investigator, assigned to study trends, begins to see a truly sinister pattern behind a series of seemingly unrelated crimes and deaths. Meanwhile a news reporter is beginning to glimpse the shadow world that lies beneath the headlines of the day.

Across the planet, one by one, people are realising that something is very, very wrong with their world—and that they may be powerless to change it.”


By the twenty-fifth century, society has fallen and risen from two catastrophes. Nanotechnology is no longer a modern wonder but an ingrained daily need. The “filch” (a tongue-in-cheek designation used for the filthy rich) “get full nanite protection and self-clone replacements” (122) while three other levels of society getting decreasingly protected against disease and immortality: sarimen (salary men), permies (permanently corrected individuals guilty of offenses), and servies (the uncared for dregs of society).

As a whole, our society was richer than any before it, and yet there were still bioweapons and terrorism across the entire globe, and tensions between Earth and Mars despite more and more material affluence. There were still students glassy-eyed on soop [a common, accepted drug for the youth], murders despite ever more restrictive surveillance and improved nanite shields, and a quiet dissatisfaction that verged on desperation. (184)

Homes and private transportation now use fuel cells, a well-regarded technology and inherently safe for the user. Yet, a string of suicides and accidental deaths are caused by the result of these fuel cells malfunctioning. A researcher for NetPrime, name Parsfal, is the first to begin connecting the dots of the various news stories he is researching; death by fuel cell malfunction is unheard for thirty years and additional death by nanite failure is becoming to seem increasingly unlikely. Due to rigid and sanctified private personal information laws, Parsfal is limited to skimming public records and open statements; even then, a pattern begins to arise, a pattern suggesting murder for cover-up.

Also sensing an uneasy pattern behind a string of unlikely deaths is Lieutenant Eugene Tang Chiang, a Trends Analysis Coordinator whose job is similar to Parsfal’s: connect the dots. In Chiang’s case, however, his job is also to predict patterns of crime. With Parsfal’s intuitive precociousness and Chiang’s wedge of authority, the duo work closely in mining the truth of supposed suicides, vehicular accidents, and death by fuel cell immolation in addition to the spontaneous deaths of some youth who had visited a razrap concert and ingested the drug soop—What is killing these innocent concertgoers? Combined, their divining rods of suspicion indicate a deep, unpleasant, and ominous betrayal. This betrayal, manipulative of the perpetrator’s circle and treasonous against their own country, may pin the social divisions against each other or even destroy an entire generation.

Innocence radiates from an adjunct professor of classical music and voice training, Luara Cornett, whose Music 101B class on Understanding and Appreciation of Music should be the utmost of her professional worries; however, the dean tells her of another budget cut, less hours for her, and possibly a cut in her private voice training at the university. She’s miffed by everyone’s ignorance of real music because of the popularity of rezpop and rezrap, a genre of music relying on resonance and auto-tune: “Today, the rezrappers and poppers don’t practice. They just spew it out. The systems reformulate the sound as they attempt to sing, add in rhythmitonal resonances based on the audience profile” (68).

Classically trained but in need of money, Luara both sings at soirees and sings for commercials, which also use resonance. Laura laments, “working singers in our world—those who don’t want their voices twisted and turned by technology, those who want to preserve the inherent beauty of voice and song—we don’t have much choice” (78). It is at one soiree where Luara gets a chance meeting with a politician, though who exactly that politician is is unknown to her, for she has little care for the nefarious dealings in the nation’s capital, Denver. The passion behind her words in support of classic music woos the politician, yet Luara may not be prepared for the limelight.

Oh, and the ebol4 virus has been killing millions worldwide… and shards of a rocky asteroid, once mined by the Martians, are headed towards Earth, something which Mars is dearly sorry about.


“[Y]ou can’t improve people or society by pandering to them. You have to challenge them, and give them examples of good singing, and good art, and excellence” (264). Ah, the idealism of Luara! She’s a bit of a tiresome character—very one-dimensional in regards to her denouncing modern music and lauding the virtues of classic music—thereby making her appearance tiresome.  But honestly, the entire cast is equally as one-dimensional and tiresome, thus making the entire book rather boring.

I wish Modesitt understood the art and beauty of dialogue as much as Luara understood the intrinsic human need for real music. The dialogue is often painful, monotonous, and droning; it ping-pongs back and forth for pages and pages studded by intermissions with additional dialogue via communication link; it blatantly foreshadows every nook and cranny of the proceeding plot. There’s nothing intricate or enlightening from the words uttered other than the occasional glimpse of opinion which Modesitt decided to slide into the novel as a substitute for a soapbox.

Whether it’s about the decline of music appreciation or the fall of penmanship, Modesitt’s injected ideas are nothing new, nothing unheard of; for example, “Almost no one even knew how to write by hand anymore. There were times like this [letter of condolence] when that anachronistic touch was vital, because it showed more than special care” (273). Luara’s love for art and lamentation for the decline of art appreciation reflects the common thought that today’s world is always worse off than a generation ago. The age-old adage is even more tiresome than a string of uni-faceted characters… then writing a book around that idea is eye-rolling.

Considering the novel’s place in time—the twenty-five century—the reader would think that technology would play a key role in society, that some innovations would make life drastically different than modern life. Well, the reader would be wrong in a number of ways. (1) The resonance of rezpop and rezrap sound a lot like auto-tune, an unfortunate and ridiculous technology which sprung to fame with Cher’s song “Believe” in 1998, pre-dating Modesitt’s novel by a hardy five years. (2) Parsfal uses a search engine to limit his investigation to scholarly articles, a technology much like Google Scholar which was launched one year after Modesitt’s novel in 2004. (3) People seem to be without mobile phones, they seem to be only contactable through their respective office; whether this is a technological discrepancy or privacy issue of the future, it seems that the limitation of the ease of communication is screwy.

But Modesitt did nail one thing—the explosive concern, or awareness at least, for privacy. In the twenty-five century, privacy is held sacrosanct. With online data mining by vast corporations, questionable cookie reading, and virulent social media, people’s privacy has shrunken greatly when compared to 2003, just ten years ago. Most of “our lives are open screens” (101), letting most of our information remain private yet when sifted, a great deal about our personalities and habits can be lifted from the data. “All we see of the filch [or the rich, in general] are beautifully decorated covers … They’re shielded by privacy laws, by their credits, and my other filch” (101). Teams of lawyers and modes of harassment can shield you privacy further, but for the common man, only street smarts and careful consideration can protect your privacy. When laws are written by the powerful for the powerful, the modern day equivalent of sarimen, permies, and servies can only fend for themselves.


Nothing inspiring here. This is a dud of a first read for my Modesitt experience… if there’s a one-off novel that sounds interesting, I may give it a shot but I sure as hell am not going to invest my time in one of his eight series, fantasy or SF. If I haven't summed it up well enough, Ian Sales offers this:

1995: Fairyland (McAuley, Paul)

Overwhelmed and Underwhelmed (0/5)

I’m an adventurous reader, one willing to delve into an unknown book or an unknown author. I’m also a forgiving reader, one who gives second chances… and on occasion third, fourth, and fifth chances (Silverberg instantly springs to mind). The adventurous reader in me wanted to try a new modern author, so I picked up Paul McAuley’s In the Mouth of the Whale (2012) when it was first published; it was a confusing, wild ride which I didn’t enjoy the least bit. Then, the forgiving reader in me decided to follow a recommendation and read McAuley’s Fairyland. I’m also a bitter reader—these novels sucked.

Rear cover synopsis:
“In the twenty-first century Europe is divided between the First World bourgeoisie, made rich by nanotechnology and the cheap slave labour of genetically engineered Dolls, and the Fourth World of refugees and the homeless, displaced by war and economic turbulence.

Alex Sharkey is trying to make his mark as a designer of psychoactive viruses in London whilst staying one step ahead of the police and Triad gangs. He finds an unlikely ally in a scary-smart but dangerous child named Milena, but his troubles really begin when he unwittingly helps Milena quicken intelligence in a Doll. It is the first of the fairies.

Milena wants to escape forever to her own private Fairyland, but some of the Folk she has created have other ideas about where her destiny lies…”


I’ve finished many bad books. I suppose I had been enduring the long struggle for the valuable payoff at the conclusion of the novel, but those payoffs never came, hence my reference to the books as “bad”. There’s one book, Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune (1985), which I didn’t even bother to put a dent in before sloughing it off; I think I was about 5% of the way through and saw that the future looked bleak. Then here’s Paul McAuley’s Fairyland which I… just… could… not… finish.

I haven’t been this angry with a novel in a long while. Pardon me while I tear into this novel with some colorful language; much of it is exaggerated for entertainment sake.

I finished about two-thirds of it and gave up. Whatever payoff the novel had in store for me was NOT worth slogging knee-deep in self-referential bullshit. It felt like every other page had some new character or technology or new word to capitalize, but none of which added any direction towards the already meandering plot. How do I sum it up? It was like a wind tunnel-cum-circus mirror maze with projectile ping-pong balls. Visualize that then try to imagine the analogy to the novel. Even after reading 239 pages I still had no clue what was happening, who anyone was, what they were doing, why they were doing it, and in what fashion they were doing it… completely dumbstruck through all 239 pages.

There are more transient characters without personalities than any TSA staff lounge; each one was as useless, unremarkable, and forgettable than the next. It was like a mobile Mad Hatter’s tea party full of introverted window lickers; there was definitely pace and speed in the novel, however, there was no direction, no destination. As soon as I began to ask myself, “Who is this character?”, I would immediately realize that (1) I didn’t care or (2) they were abruptly gone a few pages later or (3) they were replaced by an equally as untalented sack of potatoes. I would rather have watched a quadriplegic mime act out the Vagina Monologues… in slow motion. I just couldn’t find a shred of care anywhere in my being to give to Fairyland, I couldn’t dredge up enough respect to apply any respect to the novel, I couldn’t spend another minute of my dying life to use any more brain cells trying to dismember the mutant bastard of a novel which landed on my lap. Mary Shelley would have been impressed with the deformity, ugliness, and foul stench of this enigmatic afterbirth.

“Fairyland isn’t a place … it’s a hyperevolutionary potential. It is where we can dream ourselves into being” (237). And like dreams, the content of Fairyland lacks any meaning. The odd offerings found in the novel attack the reader like a swarm of gnats—ignore it as much as you can, but in the end you start to swipe at the nebulous cloud, achieve nothing and get sweaty and irritated in the process. Don’t fight, just transplant yourself—move away from the swarm, move away from the novel.

Perhaps if you like Jeff Noon’s novel Pollen (1995), then you may actually like Paul McAuley because there are elements on cyberpunk in each along with bizarre dalliance of plot direction (or aimlessness). William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) was good but not fantastic for me, but some aspects of Gibson’s novel are blatantly found in McAuley’s novel, too; for example, the overuse of exotic-sounding nationalities of a globalized world. In Neuromancer, it was unique, but in Fairyland it’s repeated ad nauseam: Afghan, Albanian, Nigerian, Malaysian, Norwegian, Korean, Uzbekistani, Tongan, Lithuanian, Armenian, etc.

McAuley needs Ritalin and I need some Valium.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

1981: Strength of Stones (Bear, Greg)

Roving cities of morality crush the spirits of the outcast (4/5)

Concerning Greg Bear’s bibliography of science fiction, I’ve red most of it… except the FBI-centered novels Quantico (2005) and Mariposa (2009), which act as a terrorism-inspired precursor to Queen of Angels (1990) and its sequels. Nor did I read Vitals (2002) or Dead Lines (2005). I guess everything after 1999’s Darwin’s Radio sucked (up until Hull Zero Three [2010])… and please don’t get me started on his 2008 catastrophe called TheCity at the End of Time.

However, there was a time…

I absolutely loved Greg Bear when I started reading science fiction in 2006 with the Forge of God duology (1987 & 1992) and the better part of The Way series (1985 & 1988). Most of his writing between 1979 and 1999 is quite entertaining with mixtures of hard science fiction, broad imagination, and infusing humanity’s far-reaching abilities and disabilities. His fix-up novel Strength of Stones (1981) is one such novel which synergizes all of the above elements.

Rear cover synopsis:
“They were built to hold the hopes of Mankind. They exposed only his folly…

In the deserts of God-Does-Battle the Cities stand alone, as beleaguered as the aspirations of Mankind. Those still alive are silent—life stars in a dying universe they await dust and decay. Yet within the living plasm of their fragmented structures an ancient programme works still, implanted by the human creators they cast out a thousand years ago. Before long, it is clear, some of the Cities will fight extinction. And many will do battle in a quite unexpected way…”


Strength of Stones is composed of three novella-length stories: 

Book One: 3451 A.D. Mandala - The original form of the first story was titled “Mandala” (1978) and can be found in Bear’s excellent collection The Venging (1992) or the earlier yet briefer collection of The Wind from a Burning Woman (1983).

Book Two 3460 A.D. Resurrection – This second story was originally published, as is, in Rigel as “Strength of Stones, Flesh of Brass” (1981).

Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant – this story was previously unpublished.

Prior to the start of Book One, Greg Bear frames the story with a short introduction, which includes savage war fought in the 1990s and religions tolerance leading towards the Pact of God in 2020. However,

        Having spoiled their holy lands, there was no place where they could unite geographically …. The Heaven Migration began in 2113. After decades more or persecution and ridicule, they [Jews, Christian and Moslems] pooled their resources to buy a world of their own. That world was re-named God-Does-Battle, tamed by the wealth of the heirs of Christ, Rome, Abraham, and OPEC.
They hired the greatest human architect to build their new cities for them. He tried to mediate between what they demanded, and what would work best for them.
He failed. (7)

The architect, Robert Khan, created and constructed the 153 spiring cities, which, after a hundred years of furnishing and testing, were put into the control of the city maintenance computers. Once living from the land, the inhabitants of God-Does-Battle tore down their villages and moved into the massive, roaming cities. “Problems didn’t develop until all the living cities were integrated on a broad plan. They began to compare notes” (43).

Once each city had compared observations, they made a conclusion only after a century of thought: humans desire and desire is sin; therefore, all humans are sinful and must be banished. “One awful morning, the cities coordinated and cast out all their citizens. In accord with emergency procedures guaranteeing the ostracism of spiritually diseased communities, the links between the cities broke down” (72). Once inhabiting the technological wonders abiding by their every need and whim, the ostracized people now meandered under the skirts of their city, begging for forgiveness or foraging new lives away from their once roving homes. Rather than living in bucolic bliss, society descended into violence exasperated by starvation.

A thousand years after the 153 cities exiled their own citizens, the cities began to crumble, to perish from the loss of its objective: house humanity and foster decency. Without humans, the cities had no purpose; “most of the cities—dying for lack of the citizens they had once exiled—were no longer able to defend themselves” (146). Most saw the towering metallic structures as monuments of their presumed sinfulness where others, the Chasers, simply kept pace with each city to use its dying city parts for their own need, for their own idea of progress. In reality, “there was no progress, only guilt” (183).


Book One: 3451 A.D. Mandala – 5/5 – Denied his right to wed his prearranged wife due to his inability to consummate the marriage with his flaccid manhood, Jeshua flees his village ashamed and enraged. In his initial escape, he find a man named Thinner who turns out to be a minion of the roving city Mandala, just the place Jeshua hopes can repair his one handicap. Still bitter and alone with awakening sensations, Jeshua is given shelter, for better or for worse.  50 pages

Book Two 3460 A.D. Resurrection – 4/5 – Reah, a moslem woman in the village of Akkabar, is spared a horrific death by stoning, yet she is exiled from her hometown and sent with nothing but her sorrow. Her misery is multiplied after she’s raped by soldiers. She turns, as a last refuge, to the rolling city of Resurrection. There, she establishes herself as a fake “retired” city manager come to revive the city as a benevolent city manager. Outside the city, an influential bandit named Durragon also hopes to take control of the city, yet his motives are as nefarious as his roaming soldiers. 78 pages

Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant – 4/5 – The Architect himself is reloaded into a body with the same image and likeness as his original self. Unaware of the global disarray his cities had caused, his name doesn’t exactly welcome into the underprivileged parts of the world. Meanwhile, Jeshua still lives as a simulacrum and intuitively seeks out the Architect. Together, with the disembodied head of Thinner, the duo seek to undermine the efforts of Reah’s bastard son Matthew to destroy all the cities. Determined, they search for the remote cities which harbor the bewildering Bifrost device. 86 pages


The number of cities—153 to be exact—is interesting in regards to the plot’s background. God-Does-Battle was founded on the principle of religious unification, this unification is reflected in the Bahá'í Faith, a “monotheistic religion emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind” (Wikipedia). In the history of the planet, the people seem to have unified their faith and even Gods, thereby creating a common monotheistic God/Allah. Jeshua called this entity “BiGod” (40). The number 153 originated from the Bahá'í Faith’s text called Hidden Words, which is “a collection of short utterances, 71 in Arabic and 82 in Persian” (Wikipedia), where 71 + 82 = 153.

The mythical device called the Bifrost in “Book Three: 3562 A.D. The Revenant” is derived from Norse mythology, where the Bifröst is actually “a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Midgard (the world) and Asgard, the realm of the gods” (Wikipedia). This mythological definition gives extra light to the devices actual use.

When looked at more closely, Greg Bear’s Strength of Stones shows a careful plotting based on the planet’s history compounded by intrinsic human flaws including the chief flaw of ignorance: that humanity could create its own utopia and that an inhuman intelligence could govern that utopia. This may not be Greg Bear’s most entertaining work, but it certainly inspires the imagination and tickles the intellect.

Monday, November 4, 2013

2013: The Abominable (Simmons, Dan)

Authentic and innately fearsome, yet monotonous (3/5)

Read Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990) in 2008 during my second full years of reading science fiction—loved it. Read The Terror (2007) in 2010—loved it. Read Summer of Night (1991) later in 2012—thought is OK even though I’m from a small Illinois town myself. While not a flawless author, Simmons certainly infuses some of the most chilling scenes in his novels. The Terror remains one of my favorite novels about isolation, struggle, predation, and death. The most captivating thing about The Abominable is the similarity of the four themes: isolation, struggle, predation, and death.

Inside flap synopsis:
It's 1924 and the race to summit the world's highest mountain has been brought to a terrified pause by the shocking disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine high on the shoulder of Mount Everest. By the following year, three climbers—a British poet and veteran of the Great War, a young French mountain guide, and an idealistic young American—find a way to take their shot at the top. They arrange funding from the grieving Lady Bromley, whose son also disappeared on Everest in 1924. Young Bromley must be dead, but his mother refuses to believe it and pays the trio to bring him home. 

Deep in Tibet and high on Everest, the three climbers—joined by the missing boy's female cousin—find themselves being pursued through the night by someone, or something in a nightmare that becomes a matter of life and death at 28,000 feet. What is chasing them? And what is the truth behind the 1924 disappearances on Everest? As they fight their way to the top of the world, the friends uncover a secret far more abominable than any mythical creature could ever be.”


After the failed Everest attempts of 1922 and 1924 and the resulting tragic deaths of George Mallory and Andre Irvine, three Alpine climbers concoct a scheme to have their own attempt at the yet-to-scaled peak of the world. Also killed on the notorious Himalayan mountain was “thirty-two-year old Lord Percival Bromley, brother  of the fifth Marquess of Lexter, and a German or Austrian climber … identified as Kurt Meyer”, both having died from “being swept away by an avalanche” (37). Due to his secret wealth and social stature, British Great War (WWI) veteran and renowned climber commonly known as “the Deacon” (Richard Davis Deacon) sets up a meeting with Percival’s (Percy) grieving mother at her luxurious English countryside manor. Under the guise of recovering the body of young Percy (or returning his living form, as his mother insists), the trio of mountaineers secure enough funds to achieve their ill-thought-out dream—to scale Everest.

Near of the end of 1924, England is having continually frosty relations with war-stricken Germany and difficult relationships with the country of Tibet, too. Nepal has never been open to foreigners and the Indian province of Sikkim is sympathetic and antagonistic about the English debacle with Tibet. England is unlikely to have another official attempt at the peak in the near future as the only viable route passes through Sikkim. However, the plans that the trio have are for their “very unofficial and almost unreported Deacon-Clairoux-Perry Himalayan Expedition of 1925” (47). Their German climbing colleagues, a tense brotherhood infused with hate for each other’s nationalism and respect for the profession, offer clues to the whereabouts of Percy. Their words are naturally distrusted, but Bruno Sigl were the only living eyes to see him from a distance—a black dot descending a slope. The atmosphere of mistrust is exasperated by the eerie hero worship of Herr Hitler in the Munich beer hall Bürgerbräukeller.

Relatively ignoring the German advice but adopting the German climbing techniques, the trio of mountaineers make way for India. To facilitate the tetchy tyrant in Sikkim and monitor the funds of the expedition, Lady Bromley insists on attaching Percy’s cousin, Reggie, to the trip; however, this cousin must be met at the Bromley family’s tea plantation in Darjeeling, India. Free money rarely comes unattached with agendas or prerogatives. Cousin Reggie, as it turns out, is a beautiful woman with serious experience in mountain climbing, including an admirable effort in scaling Everest itself. With her expertise, she gathers sherpas and equipment, where the three-man team suddenly blooms to a five-man crowd surrounded by porters. Miffed to say the least, the Deacon eventually accepts the situation because without Reggie, this expedition to 29,000 feet would never have left the docks on sea level.

Along with the Deacon are two fellow climbers trained in the art of Alpine ascent: (a) Jacob Perry, a young Harvard university graduate who has climbed in Alaska, the Rockies, and especially the Alps where he is exceedingly skilled at traversing rock faces which have a high degree of difficulty; (b) Jean-Claude (nicknamed J.C.) Clairoux is an inventive climber who is becoming intrigued by the inventiveness of German climbers using rigid steel equipment for pinions and crampons. As the Deacon has ascended Everest with the now deceased Mallory on two separate occasions, he is well aware of the dangers from its base of 17,000 feet up to its treacherous First and Second Steps at 28,000 feet.

More mysterious than the icy secrets and hidden dangers of Everest are the motives of Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer. They weren’t part of the official 1924 expedition and interviewers have said that they trailed behind seemingly traveling alone without any support. Could he be living up to his reputation as a “wastrel, a disappointment to his family, a discredit to his country during the War … a debauched playboy … a deviant” (479) or could he be tracking the mythical yeti, a “one of the many demons who the locals [of the Himalayas] believe live in or on the mountain … a real, living, breathing, blood-eating man-thing” (160). To Perry and J.C., the actual motives of young Percy are beyond their grasp of reality when both the Deacon and Reggie fill them in on the truth.

Elated to have the opportunity to climb the famous yet infamous mountain, Perry may be young and eager, but he is also professionally hesitant: “I’m not afraid of trying to climb Mount Everest, but I’m almost frightened to be in the presence of those men who’ve become world famous by attempting and failing to do so” (91). This fear of tarnished legacy strikes him quickly as he’s one of the first to suffer altitude sickness (or “mountain lassitude”), a result of his prior illness when passing through the steamy jungles of Sikkim. His rasping cough progresses from the sensation of a chicken bone being caught, to steel burrs scraping, to razor blades slicing down his throat. Meanwhile, the five mountaineers (the Deacon, Perry, J.C., Reggie, and her doctor-friend Pasang ascend the mountain, establish camps I, II, III, IV, V, and VI but they also must descend to acclimatize and carry good from camp to camp.

This acclimatization only helps the climbers to a point, but the more time they spend around the Yellow Band of Everest (at 28,000 feet), the more brain cells they kill and the more sluggish they react—a combination with the cold which is fatal without companions or diligence. Still, all the common symptoms of “mountain lassitude” manifest themselves, obviously or unknowingly, in all members of the party:

[O]ur hearts were swollen, our muscles were failing, our kidneys, stomachs, and other internal organs were not doing their jobs properly, our blood was too thick and ready to spawn embolisms, our red blood cells were doing without the oxygen they needed, and our brains were oxygen starved … We were metaphorical inches from hypothermia. (557)

Even with the sickness, the ache, and hardships, and the atmospheric torture, Perry still reflects, “But for that moment, we were very happy” (557). Including his accomplishments on Everest, Perry again reflects, even if he lived another seventy years “this would be the climbing effort I would be most proud of” (587). Situated at Camp V for the night, their atypical ascent of Everest is shattered not by the percussion of wind gusts, but by the solitary scream approaching their tent. Later, they would approach Base Camp and see dismembered torsos with their limbs scattered about, all surrounded by pools of blood. Who or what had committed this travesty upon the humble sherpas at Base Camp? Due to these circumstances and truths yet unveiled, the search for Percy’s body now becomes a necessity rather than a detour.


As much as my and the book’s synopses both emphasize Perry’s expedition on Everest, sadly, the reality of The Abominable is stifled by Simmons’ obsession with climbing gear and types of terrain—the mountaineering lingo is absurdly unabashed, like the gratuitous three-page spew on pages 205-207. It’s not that I’m ignorant, I just get sick of reading about hammers (31 times), traversing (45 times), crampons (75 times), ropes (86 times), and camps (102 times)… then there are the cwms (8 times), moraine rocks (24 times), crevasses (56 times), summits (132 times), and ridges (132 times) atop of the continual climbing on ice, rock, and snow. The monotony doesn’t seem to affect Perry but it certainly begins to feel blasé after 500 pages. Thankfully, Simmons is equally as diligent with his plot as he is with his climbing—Perry’s pain comes through the pages.

While the mystery of young Percy’s disappearance on the mountain is metaphorically buried under an avalanche of mountaineering (pun intended to reinforce the annoying topic), there remains a niggling persistence of fear from the perilous mountain and the continual exposure to the sherpas’ fear of the yeti. As they climb cliffs, you can sense the yeti looking down upon them; when they wind their through pinnacles, you can feel the yeti around every corner; when they scale a chimney, you can see death rain from above. For the first 444 pages (including Parts I [The Climbers] & II [The Mountain]), the fear is nebulous, but with the onset of Part III (The Abominable) the fear penetrates, becomes subdermal. Finally, the fear strikes the blood, racing to the heart shortly into Part III.

As monotonous as the scenery is and as persistence as the climbing lingo is, all of this pales in comparison to one huge speed bump early on in the book where Simmons allows himself to digress from mountaineering in order to describe the “9,000-acre estate beyond Stamford” (59) simply called the Bromley House. This lengthy and utterly irrelevant dalliance of Simmons’ extends for eleven pages. It reads like Simmons did his homework on some wondrous manor in England and just simply had to include everything into the book which he did research on. I’ve done a master’s thesis, I know the pain of doing peripheral research for a few weeks only, in the end, to leave the data unused. Allow yourself to digress from the central focus and you might as well append the dictionary, the Bible, and an issue of Playboy to the appendix.

Further qualms with Simmons’ writing lays with two repetitive phrases, one issued from the speakers and one issued from Simmons’ own writing style. The first is the repetition of the non-native speakers asking, “How do you say?” or “What’s the word?”—gaps in the conversation which feel jerky. In reality, this happens quite often but I very much doubt that the narrator, Perry, would remember such petty details when writing about his Himalayan expedition. These would have been better left deleted. The last annoyance is one I can’t quite get over and which I can’t quite describe my hatred for it, but I hate the adverbial phrase “all but”… which he used about 24 times.


The Abominable wasn’t as good or as trialing as The Terror, but it still provided a creepy haunting, an innate fear of shadows and myth. When this finally manifested, it lacked punch; the fear dissolved into irksomeness. I’m glad Simmons had the chance to follow his mountaineering fancy and indulge himself in the terminology associated with his passion; while this makes the narrative authentic, it doesn’t make the story very engaging to the reader. There were just too many dalliances by Simmons’ own whim to make it a focused, engaging read while, at the same time, being creepy and terror-striking—as a reader, I felt disassociated.