Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is another of my occasional foray’s outside of the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. The Secret History is, for lack of a better term (and I’m really not fond of this term) a ‘psychological thriller’, but one that is steeped in literary references and intelligence. The Secret History is in parts truly fascinating and contains some of truly interesting characters, but is let down by some pretty glaring issues with plotting and structure with these characters generally seeming at first more interesting than they actually are. We’re left with a novel divided into two clear parts, one of which works a lot better than the other.

The Secret History is set is a fictional elite college in Vermont named Hampden. The protagonist Richard, from whose perspective the story is told, joins a small tight knit group of exceptional students who study Greek with the mysterious and charismatic Julian. As the semester goes on, Richard slowly and inadvertently begins to uncover some distressing facts about the group, as we see his gradual shift from bemused outsider looking in to a fully fledged member of the group itself.

The Secret History is a sort of reverse murder mystery; we find out the victim, perpetrator and method of the murder in the first few pages. This is therefore not so much a ‘whodunnit’, but a ‘whydunnit.’ The first half of the novel is focused around the build up to the murder, as the protagonist discovers more and more about the people with whom he has surrounded himself. It’s an excellent structure, and gives the first half of the novel as interesting sense of urgency, as well as a palpable dread as we get closer and closer to the inevitable crime. Alas, the second half of the novel, which deals with the fallout of the murder and the effect that it has upon the group, is much less compelling. The narrative feels aimless and without direction, with the pounding energy of the first half lost. Large amounts of the final half all blur together, a seemingly random series of events completely at odds with the memorable and interesting first half.

The Secret History is exquisitely written, in a first person narrative. The novel is chock full of literary references, particularly to the Greeks, but with many clear references to figures such as Dante and Marlowe. A few reviews have criticised this novel as rather up itself, filling itself with intertextuality so that the author and smug readers can prove their intelligence. I disagree however, all of these references serve a clear purpose, and perhaps shouldn’t be taken at face value. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Henry, a vastly intelligent young man who is completely uninterested in modern Western culture, immersing himself in that of the Ancient Greeks and other ancient societies. While he is able to invoke obscure Persian texts, and lives his life upon Greek aesthetic standards of beauty over truth, he is in many ways utterly useless when it comes to facing reality and a serious crisis. The emptiness of an obsession with ancient thinking is exposed in this novel; don’t get me wrong, this novel isn’t a criticism of Plato and Homer, but perhaps suggests that their philosophies aren’t truly relevant to the world of today and that an obsession with them can lead to a moral vacuum.

There’s an uncomfortable snobbery in this novel, although whether can be taken as reflecting Tartt’s own views or just that of Richard is unclear. The depiction of the ‘nouveau riche’ Corcoran family is, whilst incredibly funny, utterly cartoonish and ridiculous. Compared to the refined Hampden scholars they’re a bunch of clownish buffoons. Of course, perhaps Tartt is poking subtle fun at this snobbery; the Corcoran’s are a happy family unit, whilst the ‘refined’ Hampden lot are mostly a miserable and damaged bunch. Tartt treads an interesting line between a veneration of the Classics and an odd sort of contempt. Whatever the answer is, what’s more important is that Tartt asks the question so well, really leaving the the of passing judgement to the reader, which is how it should be.

The narrator of The Secret History freely admits his habit of idealising the people he is with, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the characters of this novel are largely impenetrable. Easily the most interesting character is the aforementioned Henry, who sees himself as an ancient soul trapped in the modern world. The only other particularly well developed character is Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, a tremendously entertaining blowhard, whose rude bluster is a source of many of the laughs to be found in the novel. There are an entertaining bunch of minor characters around the edges, such as the shallow yet good natured Judy Poovey and the hapless drug dealer Cloke. We never get a real feel for these characters, but that’s sort of the point. Richard is constantly surprised by his new friends, and is truly terrible at judging character, but this serves a decent literary purpose of allowing a curious distance between the reader and the characters. Although this is interesting, it does mean that it’s difficult to be as invested in these characters as we would normally expect to be. However, this emotional distancing is a very Greek thing to do, and reflects Tartt’s intention to incorporate Grecian ideas regarding tragedy and plot into a contemporary setting.

The Secret History has such a great first half that it really pains me to come down hard on this novel. There’s such depth and quality here, and the writing is never less than excellent, but there are some serious plot problems in the second half of this novel. This novel is considered a modern classic, and in many ways the second half feels like the literary equivalent of ‘Oscar bait.’ All of the depth and intertextuality in the world can’t save you if the plot is a mess, and sadly that is the case in the second half. There’s a lot to like in this novel, but I can’t encourage you to rush out and purchase it.

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The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The Hydrogen Sonata is the newest novel from Iain M. Banks, and his first return to ‘The Culture’ since 2010’s Surface Detail (which I loved). I always look forward to Bank’s ‘Culture’ novels, as I’m convinced that ‘The Culture’ is one of the most unique and entertaining sci-fi settings ever created. In many ways, the setting is one of almost limitless possibilities, acting as a unified setting for the box of literary toys which Banks brings out to play. However, as much as I love the series, not every novel is great (I remember really struggling with Excession) and sadly The Hydrogen Sonata is not one of his best.

This novel actually deals indirectly with the Culture, instead taking place in the civilisation of the ‘Gzlit’, a humanoid species who helped form the Culture ten thousand years before this novel takes place but decided to retain their independence at the last minute. Plenty of ‘Culture’ mainstays make an appearance, with a prominent role given to the multitude of amusingly eccentric ‘Minds’ which have always been one of the most entertaining aspects of the series. This novel explores one of the most interesting aspects of Banks’ universe, Subliming. We learnt all the way back in Consider Phlebas that certain civilisations reach a state of advancement that they ‘Sublime’ from the base reality into some greater one, somewhere between a parallel universe and heaven. The Hydrogen Sonata takes place in the month running down to the Subliming of the Gzlit people, and rather than giving us a lot of explanations as to exactly what Subliming is (although we do get some meaty clues to chew upon), Banks instead opts to explore the effect that such a humungous change would have upon a people.

The Hydrogen Sonata features a wide range of view points and characters, but the central narrative revolves around Vyr Cossont, a young woman who has had an extra pair of arms grafted onto her so that she can master an infamously difficult piece of music, the eponymous ‘Hydrogen Sonata.’ During her youth, she had journeyed in the Culture, and had met a man named Ngaroe QiRia, who claims to be almost ten thousand years old and to have been present at the original foundation of the Culture. A ship bearing a shocking revelation is destroyed by a Gzlit regiment to keep its message a secret, and suspecting that the truth of this message lies with QiRia, Cossont is recruited by another regiment to find her old friend and discover the truth about the ancient past of the parallel Gzlit civilisation and the Culture.

This central narrative is a lot of fun, and the most compelling of the novel. Sadly, many of the side plots serve only the confuse and slow down the pace of the novel. Although not hugely long by the standards of genre fiction, not a huge amount happens in this central arc due to constant flashes to other, somewhat less compelling, story arcs. This story contains far too much of something which really bugged me in Excession; Culture Minds talking to each other. The Minds are my absolute favourite part about the Culture series, but they are entertaining and interesting in comparison to the organics they interact with, and when a bunch of them spend most of their time talking with each other it is difficult to gather a real sense of personality from any of them. I firmly believe that Banks is at his best when focusing upon a relatively small group of characters in a tightly structured narrative, such as with Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, although one of my personal favourites, Surface Detail,was an exception to this. If Banks had focused more specifically upon Cossont, I believe that this could have been up there with his best.

If there is anything that I will remember from The Hydrogen Sonata it will be some of the wonderfully bizarre and hilarious images that he conjures. Banks’ talents as a comic writer are on full display, most notably in a description of an orgy featuring a man with over forty penises (penii?) which had me in stitches. Although I wouldn’t call any of Bank’s works ‘comedies’, he remains possibly the funniest writer in the genre today. The snappy and naturalistic dialogue that is one of Bank’s trademarks is very much present, but sadly the author’s flaws are on full display too. The action scenes remain as impenetrable and difficult to envision as ever, and we never get a particularly coherent vision as to what the Gzlit are actually like. There’s a potentially interesting aspect of Gzlit culture which is entirely unexplored; all Gzlit are enrolled into military service and hold rank, yet they are also a profoundly peaceful people. This intriguing disconnect begs for exploration which just isn’t there. Banks is such a wonderful writer, but he very often falls into these same traps with his sci-fi. Despite these criticisms Banks is still a joy to read, but perhaps he needs to hire a better editor or take slightly more time honing some of the action scenes.

While Banks’ characters are not always necessarily the most complex, they are always entertaining. A motley crew of characters are almost all interesting and well defined, such as the neurotic sentient blanket Pyan, the sleazy and manipulative politician Banstegeyn and the usual bunch of eccentric AIs which populate the ‘Culture’ universe. Cossont is something of a departure from the incredibly competent hardened fighters who often act as his protagonists such as Sharrow in Against a Dark Background and Zakalwe in Use of Weapons, exceptional only in her musical talent. There’s often a feeling with Banks’ protagonists that they’ve seen it all before, that the events of the novel in question is simply a culmination of dramatic and often violent events which have shaped their past. Cossont on the other hand is not scarred and traumatised by her past, is in fact relatively normal (four arms notwithstanding), which far from making her boring serves instead to raise the narrative stakes, as we are dealing with someone who doesn’t possess a honed fighting instinct, and would rather be at home practicing the Hydrogen Sonata.

If you’re as big a fan of the ‘Culture’  books as I am, this review is somewhat irrelevant, as you’ll be getting this book either way. The Hydrogen Sonata isn’t a bad book by any stretch, but I must confess to being somewhat disappointed. This in no way shakes my faith in the series however, and I still eagerly await the next novel. For anyone who hasn’t read a ‘Culture’ novel before, and they can be read in pretty much any order (although you should read Use of Weapons before Surface Detail), this isn’t necessarily a great place to start. If you do want to give the series a go, start out with The Player of Games, which is also one of the shorter novels in the series so if you hate it you won’t have sunk too much time into it.  

Sleeping Dogs for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Sleeping Dogs had a very troubled development cycle, and was in fact cancelled for several months last year. Originally intended as part of Activision’s GTA clone ‘True Crime’ series, originally known as ‘True Crime: Hong Kong’, the lack of success for the previous game in the series and concerns about how a single player focused game would perform (this is Activision after all) led to its cancellation. Although I’d had absolutely no interest in the series before, the prospect of an open world crime game set outside of America intrigued me, and the free running aspect shown in trailers looked appealing too. I was therefore rather saddened to hear of its cancellation, and equally pleased to hear of its revival by Square Enix as ‘Sleeping Dogs.’ The answer to the question as to whether Square Enix should have bothered rescuing this game is a resounding yes, as Sleeping Dogs delivers possibly the definitive open world crime game experience so far, although it also exposes the need for further innovations in the genre.

The real star of the game is the city itself, Hong Kong. It is so incredibly refreshing to be playing in somewhere outside of the US, and Hong Kong makes an excellent location for a sandbox game, being an island which such games naturally favour. Hong Kong looks best at night, with the neon glow creating a wonderfully seedy atmosphere. Although Hong Kong is a great setting visually, other aspects somewhat let down the immersion. Nothing quite breaks immersion like bad voice acting, and although the voice work for the main characters is excellent throughout, that of the random pedestrians more often than not devolve into ridiculous stereotyping. Rather than opting for the pedestrians to speak in Cantonese with the odd bit of English thrown in, as is apparently the norm of Hong Kong, we are instead get broken English in a silly accent. It feels uncomfortably like pandering to a Western audience, and I wish that the developers had been slightly braver and trusted us with subtitles. Overall though, although Hong Kong may not feel as organic and lived in as Liberty City did back in GTA4, it is still an excellent location for a sandbox game and a lot of fun to explore.

The main deviation from GTA that the True Crime series had is that the protagonist is an undercover cop rather than merely a gangster. Although I’m unaware how well this was played in the True Crime games, it is very well handled here. You are Wei Shen, a Chinese-American man who grew up in Hong Kong but worked in the US for most of his adult life. Due to his somewhat brutal and violent nature, Wei is recruited by Superintendent Pendrew  of the Hong Kong police department to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, one of the leading criminal Triads in the city. Wei has contacts with the organisation from his previous life growing up in Hong Kong, and soon makes contact with an old friend to bring himself into the organisation, working in classic GTA style all the way to the top. Although the story doesn’t really offer much that hasn’t been done before, what Sleeping Dogs does really well is to convey the difficulties that Wei has in reconciling his conflicting loyalties. Wei, and by extension the player, forms close friendships within members of the Sun On Yee, fully in the knowledge that he must one day betray them. Wei is one of that most rare breed; a badass who is also capable of being emotionally engaging. A lot of credit must go to Wei’s voice actor, Will Yun Lee, for his excellent work in helping to create the best protagonist of an open world game since Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston.

Purely in terms of its mechanics, Sleeping Dogs puts other games in the genre to shame. Of particular note is the hand to hand combat, arguably the weakest aspect of GTA4, which fits into the Arkham Asylum/Assassins Creed mould. The player is encouraged to use the environment to their advantage, with often brutally violent context sensitive attacks giving the combat a real sense of flow and dynamism until now lacking in the genre. The driving mechanics have a pleasantly arcade-y feel to them, which make the inevitable races genuinely exciting affairs. Gun crime isn’t nearly as prevalent in Hong Kong as it is in the US, and the game matches this. The shooting aspect is very clearly secondary to the hand to hand combat, and never manages to be as entertaining as grabbing your foe and wrestling them off a roof. That said, the shooting mechanics are very much competent, and also has a well implemented bullet time mechanic. The cover system isn’t truly awful, but isn’t any better than 2008’s GTA4’s. Wei handles much more naturally than Niko Bellic, with a rather fun free running aspect giving the world a rather more tangible feeling than is the norm for the genre. It never approaches Assassin’s Creed levels of freedom, and it is mostly useful in linear chase scenes, but  at least it’s something.

There’s a lot to do in this game, with the main missions split between cop missions and Triad missions. Triad missions tend to be a bit more action packed and entertaining, and sadly the cop missions are something of a letdown. They often take a slower pace and require investigation, but these largely involve following a series of objective markers, requiring absolutely no critical thought of your own. Perhaps a little bit of LA Noire and a little less GTA should have gone into this game; the game does a great job of making you feel like a Triad with a secret, but Wei never feels convincing as a cop, perhaps due to the incredibly hand holding nature of these missions. There are your standard open world crime game side missions around, such as stealing particular cars and debt collection, as well as an incredibly repetitive series of missions which involve beating up a load of thugs, hacking a camera, going back to your house, and spying on a drug deal. It’s mostly fun enough, but there’s nothing that leaps out as particularly amazing, especially coming fairly recently from the unabashed craziness of Saints Row: The Third.

Sleeping Dogs is a good looking game by and large, although the textures aren’t incredibly detailed. There’s a specific time in Sleeping Dogs which looks utterly beautiful, and that is at night in the rain. The reflection of the neon lights in the puddles on the ground is stunning, and created a wonderful sense of immersion like nothing else in the game. Like many games releasing lately, Sleeping Dogs really pushes what current generation consoles can do. Although I played on Xbox myself, I’ve heard that the PC version is much better looking. The faces of the characters are expressive, whilst not reaching LA Noire levels of detail. Still, there is no uncanny valley effect here and it’s easy to tell what people are feeling just by looking at their face, a seeming basic which is absent in so many otherwise great games (I’m looking at you Skyrim). The voice acting for the main characters is excellent, with most characters weaving English and Cantonese throughout their speech, although there’s an unsurprising focus upon English. I can’t help but feel that perhaps this game would have been more immersive if more of it had been in Cantonese, but I suppose I can understand why a major game company wouldn’t want to fund a game primarily in a language unspoken by their main target audience. For what it is however, the voice acting is engaging and avoids stereotypes (with the exception of the random pedestrians as mentioned earlier).

Although Sleeping Dogs is very much the apex of the genre, it exposes the need for true innovation. With each new GTA game, Rockstar change the entire landscape. After GTA3, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA3, and after GTA4, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA4. There are therefore two distinct phases in the genre, and I feel that Sleeping Dogs represents the end of the ‘GTA4’ phase. Although the game is a lot of fun, there is a strong feeling that something more needs to be done with the concept of the open world crime game. With the release of GTA5 next year, I’m fully confident that this will happen. As it stands, Sleeping Dogs is a very polished and incredibly fun game. Will I still be thinking about it in six months? Unlikely, but not every game needs to be chock full of innovation and creativity. Sometimes it’s ok to just create an incredibly polished experience that builds upon the shoulders of giants. With Sleeping Dogs as the last game of the ‘GTA4’ phase, I’m pleased to report that this period of open world crime games goes out on a high.  

 

 

The Last Story for Wii

The Last Story is a game that I really wanted to like a lot more than I did. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but my expectations were a lot higher than the game managed to live up to. Perhaps it was the fact that this game is the Wii’s swansong, and almost certainly the last game that I will ever purchase for the system. The Last Story has some impressive pedigree behind it, most notably Hironobu Sakaguchi, who played a key role in what was considered as the golden age of Final Fantasy games, resigning from Square after the release of Final Fantasy IX. Considering the undeniable downturn that Final Fantasy has taken lately, with the disappointing Final Fantasy XIII and the downright disastrous Final Fantasy XIV, Sakaguchi’s name is certainly a big draw. Interestingly, The Last Story actually has a lot in common with Final Fantasy XIII, although The Last Story at times feeling like the game that Final Fantasy XIII should have been.

The Last Story is primarily set on Lazulis Island, a previously important but now relatively forgotten backwater of a much vaster Empire. Although there are hints of a huge, broad setting, we don’t really see much of it. The land is dying. Of course, there are very few really signs of this, we’re just sort of…told that it is. The underlying principle of the world of The Last Story seems to be ‘tell not show’, which is actually a real shame because there are hints that a potentially interesting setting lies behind it all.

The Last Story tells the story of Zael, a young mercenary with dreams of gaining legitimacy as a Knight of Lazulis. Zael and his oldest friend Dagran had founded a mercenary company in the hope of gaining the combat skills necessary to become Knights, and over time a small team of interesting and lively characters joined their company. At the beginning of the game, whilst undertaking a mission from Count Arganan of Lazulis Island, Zael inadvertently comes into a mysterious power which throws him and his squad into the Machiavellian schemes of the court nobles and into war with the mysterious ‘Gurak.’ Although it’s a nice enough story, nothing of real surprise takes place, and I can’t say that the game brings anything to the table which I hadn’t already seen elsewhere. Luckily, Zael’s squad are incredibly likeable, possibly one of the most charming JRPG parties in any that I’ve played, and their personal stories, trials and tribulations are what kept me interested. It’s just a shame that the broader conflicts facing the world never manage to be as interesting.

The Last Story has one of the most interesting battle systems I’ve played in a JRPG. All of the fights are in real time, and there is a clear Western influence whilst still retaining a distinctive Japanese flavour. There’s even a cover system. A cover system! In a JRPG! Although the player only has direct control over Zael, wailing away with his sword or popping out from cover to deliver shots from his crossbow, you still have a measure of influence over your entire party. As a gauge fills up, Zael can activate ‘command mode’ and set out orders for his party. This system isn’t particularly complicated, but it really doesn’t need to be, as too much faffing around with menus would have damaged to cracking pace that the battles of The Last Story have. When a party member casts a spell it leaves a ring that has an effect upon the battle, such as steadily regenerating the health of the party or raising attack, but these can be ‘dispersed’ by Zael to create an instantaneous single larger effect. Deciding which rings to keep and which to disperse gives the battles an interesting strategic element. Zael also has the ability to ‘gather’, and attract the attention of all the enemies in the field, acting as a tank to protect the more vulnerable mages. The combination of JRPG strategy with Western action works remarkable well.

Sadly, outside of battle, things don’t fare quite so well. A key similarity that this game has to Final Fantasy XIII is it’s linearity, although it is much better handled here than in FFXIII. Although there is little room for exploration, there is a central town which is surprisingly vibrant and engaging. This isn’t your typical JRPG town in which people stand around waiting to be spoken to; there is hustle, there is bustle, you can even walk into people! Although this wouldn’t be the slightest bit impressive in a Western RPG, it is this sort of immersion which has been so absent from the JRPG genre, which is one of the main reasons that JRPG creativity has so fallen behind Western RPG creativity in recent years. Sadly, there’s really not a lot to do when not fighting. There’s a rudimentary item upgrade system, but it’s very simplistic. JRPGs need to come up with more interesting things to do outside of battles, with the only JRPGs I can think of which achieve this are Nintendo’s Mario RPGs such as Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

Like the wonderful Xenoblade Chronicles before it, The Last Story has absolutely no reason to be on the Wii. There are no motion controls, and I played the entire game with the Classic Controller. What we’re left with is a game that looks downright ugly. Don’t get me wrong; the Wii IS capable of beautiful graphics, just look at Super Mario Galaxy, Skyward Sword and Xenoblade, but these games all looked so wonderful because they adopted a stylised visual style which actually turned the lack of HD into a visual advantage. This is not the case with The Last Story, which looks perhaps slightly better than a Gamecube game, and indeed not as nice as JRPGs from that period such as Baten Kaitos. I understand why this game was a Wii exclusive; it’s aiming for a primarily Japanese audience and the Wii still reigns supreme over there in a way that it hasn’t over here in the West for a few years now. There are hints of some visual greatness in this game which just isn’t able to live up to its potential, particularly the generally excellent character designs which are let down by some incredibly stiff and awkward animations. The voice acting is something of a mixed bag. Zael is likeable yet bland, with some of the background characters sounding utterly ridiculous. However, when it’s good it’s really good. The clear highlight is the hard drinking, fight loving, possibly bisexual Yorkshire accented Syrenne, who is easily the funniest character, yet also manages to carry the most poignant and emotional scenes of the game. Honestly, Syrenne may be one my favourite JRPG characters ever, I absolutely adored her. The Scottish accented ladies man Lowell is excellent as well, with the quiet intensity of the tormented mage Yurick being another highlight. The entirely British voice cast reminded me favourably of Xenoblade Chronicles, and whoever it is at Nintendo who has been spearheading these British casts for the localisation deserves a medal. American accents will always sound ridiculous in fantasy settings, and I’m very glad that Nintendo seem to have cottoned on to this. A quick mention should be given to the music, from Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu, but the sheer genius of Mr Uematsu sadly only occasionally shines through. Boss fights and cutscenes tend to have the best music, but for the majority of the game the music is pleasant but forgettable.

The Last Story, as the final game of any note to be released on the Wii, had a lot riding on its shoulders and I’m sad to report that it doesn’t quite manage to carry this weight. It’s almost rather a shame that this game wasn’t delayed for the Wii-U, as a graphical overhaul would benefit the game hugely and the combat system would work really well with the tablet controller. There are some really great ideas in The Last Story; I suspect that this is a game that will be remembered for its creative influence rather than its own quality. If you play one more game for the Wii, or even fancy just playing a damn good JRPG, I highly recommend going for Xenoblade Chronicles over The Last Story. This isn’t a bad game but truly doesn’t live up to the hype.

P.S, quick note if you do decide to play this. Make sure to switch the combat to manual over automatic, it makes things a LOT more fun.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmon’s Hyperion is one of the most remarkable works of science fiction that I have ever read. If I hadn’t already done it on Isaac Asimov, I would have written my undergraduate dissertation on this novel. Hyperion does more than tell a great story, although it does do that, it is also one of the most philosophically complex works of science fiction ever written. If I were to pick one novel to vindicate the genre from those who consider it to be…well, a frivolous waste of time, it would be this one. The novel takes strong intertextual influences from John Keats, the title being a reference to an unfinished Milton-esque epic from the poet, with a structure gleefully pilfered from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. I’m a firm believer that escapist fun is as a respectable reason to read and write as any other, but sometimes a novel offers something more, something that sticks with you, raising difficult and not always comfortable questions. Hyperion is such a novel.

The setting of Hyperion seemingly has nothing obviously unique about it at first, but there are a few things which set it apart from other settings in the genre. Several elements from other settings are present here; an Earth long destroyed by the hubris of humanity, a morally ambiguous ruling elite and AIs existing in an uneasy pact with humans are a few examples. What makes this setting so interesting is not it’s separation from Earth and what we know, usually the draw of sci-fi and fantasy, but the way in which the people of the ‘Human Hegemony’ still cling to the art, writings and architecture of ‘Old Earth’, creating very little new of any merit for themselves. In Hyperion, Earth seems something of a universal muse for the creative energies of humanity. Fictional space faring human civilisations are usually presented as atheistic, and any religions included are bizarre fictional ones which usually serve as antagonists. The main protagonists of this novel include a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew, and the desperate attempts by these men of faith to retain a belief in God and the teachings of their respective holy book in a society to which it seems less and less relevant is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Subconsciously, the people of the Human Hegemony seem to yearn for Earth, forever lost to them in a calamity known as the ‘Big Mistake.’ So although the Hyperion universe seems on its surface to offer nothing new, Simmons use of intertextuality, containing references to everything from the Shakespeare to The Wizard of Oz (and most particularly John Keats and Chaucer), creates a vivid image of a civilisation which has struggled to create its own identity, relying on the great achievements of the past.

The story is that of a pilgrimage to the eponymous planet Hyperion. Hyperion is home to some mysterious relics known as ‘Time Tombs’, with the area surrounding them seeming to move backwards in time. Linked to the Time Tombs are the Shrike, terrifying and deadly creatures which are the subjects of the influential and hated cult known as ‘The Church of the Shrike.’ Hyperion has entered the sights of the ‘Ousters’, a group of humans who refused to join the Hegemony at its inception, and who are now waging war upon the Hegemony’s planets. The Hegemony send seven pilgrims, each with a link to Hyperion in their past, to the Time Tombs to discover the secrets of the Skrike. One of the pilgrims, a poet, suggests that each tells the story of their link to Hyperion as they travel, and it is these tales which make up the bulk of the novel. Like ‘The Canterbury Tales’, each pilgrim’s tale tells a different kind of story in a different way, which reflects the personality of the teller. There is an epistolary narrative of journal entries from a scholar priest researching a mysterious tribe, an old fashioned military story of violence and sex, the self indulgent ramblings of an incredibly talented poet forced to churn out drivel, a truly heartbreaking story of a family torn apart by a bizarre disease, a cyberpunk detective story and a Time Traveller’s Wife-esque love story.

Although the base narrative of the pilgrims journey to the Time Tombs is interesting enough, it is these stories contained within which make the novel truly great. I was particularly impressed by the ‘Scholar’s Tale’, which left me more genuinely upset by a story than I have felt in a very, very long time. If I were to find any flaw in the structure of this book, it is that absolutely nothing is resolved or revealed in this particular novel regarding the mystery of the Shrike and the Time Tombs, with these are presumably reserved for the sequel (which I shall be reading soon), The Fall of Hyperion. When structuring a multi-novel story arc, it is important to provide at least some pay off in each individual novel, and there really isn’t any here. The quality of the pilgrim’s tales easily make up for this slight flaw however, and each would make an excellent short story in their own right, and are only enhanced by their connection to a broader narrative.

Simmons is an incredibly evocative writer; he is eloquent with his prose, and yet you feel that not a single word is wasted. His descriptions are detailed without being too lengthy, and his characters speak with a humanity which allow them to transcend the stock characters which they could easily have become. One of the things which I find most impressive about the writing in this book is Simmons’ ability to slip effortlessly into a multitude of styles, seemingly as comfortable telling a Chandler-esque detective story as he is with hard-boiled military sci-fi. Not since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten have I been so impressed with a writer’s literary versatility within a single novel.

Each of the pilgrims is an incredibly vivid figure, although not necessarily hugely well developed or complex. Here Simmons does not quite live up to Chaucer, in which each tale painted a vivid picture of the one telling it. We do not really know what makes these characters tick, with perhaps the exception of the incredibly self confessional poet Martin Sileneus. If anything, this lends the novel a believability, even as they tell their most intimate and personal stories to one another, elements of their personality and who they are at their core are held back to the other pilgrims and the reader. At least based on this novel, these characters aren’t necessarily among the most memorable in science fiction, but their stories are.

I really cannot overstate how impressed I am by this novel. I almost don’t want to read the sequel, terrified as I am that it cannot live up to the original (I know I will eventually though). If you have any love for science fiction at all, this is a novel that simply has to be read. My one regret in reading Hyperion is that I did not read it sooner. 

Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks

Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks first sci-fi work not set in ‘The Culture, and was written at a relatively early point in his career. Where The Algebraist is a story which simply could not have been told within ‘The Culture’, I’m not so sure that this is the case for Against a Dark Background, with Banks creating possibly his least coherent setting I’ve encountered, although also one of the most evocative and thought provoking.

Against a Dark Background takes place in the Golterian system, in particular it’s capitol planet Golter, but with the odd visit to other planets. The relationship of the Golter system to Earth is not made clear, but it appears that these humans have no knowledge of Earth, and that Golter is in a state of stagnation. Although humanity has the technology to expand and reach beyond the cluttered mess that is the Golter system, they are held back by their own petty cultural rivalries. Golter is ostensibly ruled by a group known as the ‘World Court’, but significant influence is wielded by criminal gangs and bizarre religious cults. These varying cults are by far the best and most amusing part of the book; of particular note are the ‘Solipsists’, in which each individual member believes themselves to be God and all those around them to be their creations, yet somehow managed to bond together into a group despite this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Also entertaining is the Kingdom of Pharpech, which are not atheists but ‘anti-deists’, who bitterly and loathe all gods and are ruled by a deluded man child. Banks isn’t an author who is particularly concerned with internal history and consistency of setting in his novels, but Against a Dark Background feels chaotic even by his standards. However, it is unfair to criticise the novel for not achieving something that it did not set out to do. Golter is a compelling setting, with a strong feeling of decay and stagnation. Banks provides a vivid portrait of a civilisation ruled by pettiness and corruption, which at times can feel uncomfortably close to our own poor beleaguered planet. If you are someone who is all about world building in their sci-fi however, I’m not sure that Golter will be for you.

The protagonist of the novel is Sharrow, a member of the aristocracy and former soldier. Sharrow’s ancestor had stolen an item of great worth from a violent cult known as the Huhsz, who in vengeance swore that the entire female line of his house must die before their Messiah can be born. The item stolen was one of the eight ‘Lazy Guns’, devastating weapons the nature of which become apparent as the novel rolls on, which has since vanished. The novel opens as the Huhsz have gained a legal licence to hunt Sharrow for a year; if she can survive the year or return the Lazy Gun to them she is saved. Sharrow goes about reuniting her old combat team to find the Lazy Gun, and what follows is a caper of sorts, as the team of vivid and entertaining characters travel the Golter system following trails and leads which can lead them closer to the mysterious Lazy Gun.

The story is a fun one, but is, like The Algebraist which I have previously reviewed, a structural mess. Sporadically throughout the novel, Banks flirts with a non-linear structure, a structure to which I am no means opposed if implemented thoughtfully and consistently with clarity. To see a great example of non-linear storytelling done right one should look no further than Banks own Use of Weapons (one of my favourite novels I’ve ever read), which used it’s non-linear and ambiguous nature to great effect as we explored the fascinating character of Cheradenine Zakalwe. However, I’m not convinced that Banks has achieved this so well here, which is surprising considering that Use of Weapons came out three years before Against a Dark Background. There are frequent chapters which flit back and forth between the present and the past almost at random, leading to an extremely jarring reading experience. Perhaps this was Banks’ intention, but the fact remains that this novel can at times be a chore to read. Other moments soar however, particularly the quiet moments in which Sharrow and her squad banter and reminisce, creating a wonderful sense of a group who went through hell together and made it out the other side.

Banks remains an ambitious and eloquent writer, with this novel showing off some of the best dialogue I’ve encountered from him, particularly from some of the deliciously malevolent villains. Banks is excellent at conveying a tone, and the tone of Against a Dark Background is that of decay and darkness, somewhat lightened by a brutal and cynical sort of humour. It’s an interesting tone, completely at odds with the utopian Culture. Not every aspect of the novel is so successful however; I’ve never been particularly convinced of Banks’ ability to write action scenes, as many of them devolve into a confusing mess of explosions, gunfire and somewhat impenetrable futuristic lingo. I remember feeling the same way about Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first sci-fi novel. These problems are sadly on full display here, and it can just be very difficult to visualise what is actually happening. Again, this could be a conscious attempt to replicate the chaos and confusion of combat, but since Sharrow is so competent and in command of her surroundings, perhaps the readers should be allowed to share her clarity? Despite some flaws, Banks is doubtless one of the most ambitious writers in the genre, and is not content to simply rely on the plain prose generally favoured by many of his contemporaries.

Sharrow is an excellent protagonist, deeply flawed with a pronounced vindictive streak, yet fundamentally sympathetic despite that. It’s easy to grow attached to Sharrow’s team, such as the voluptuous and fun-loving Zefla and her stoic brother Dloan. These characters aren’t necessarily hugely well developed, but they are more than the simple caricatures which sci-fi military squads often become. The most entertaining characters are the secondary and tertiary ones, characters who only appear for a few chapters and then vanish again, or appear sporadically throughout the story. Really, the true protagonist of the novel is Golter itself, a sad, decaying system dying a slow and ignoble death.

Of all of Banks’ works, this is probably the one that I struggled with most. Oddly enough, I can’t help but feel that this story would have made a better movie than it does a novel, as it would allow the snipping of some of the fat that bogs the novel down whilst also giving the action scenes some much needed clarity. I haven’t been overly impressed with Banks’ non-Culture works that I have read so far (although I much preferred The Algebraist to Against a Dark Background), so I look forward to getting back to the Culture with the recent release of the new novel in the series, The Hydrogen Sonata,which I shall be reading soon. 

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