Friday, February 5, 2010

I wish we could have the old Dan Simmons back

Dan Simmons used to be one of my favourite authors. His quartet of Hyperion novels stand as some of the best space opera I've ever read, and the Ilium/Olympos novels are fun metatextual sci-fi epics. He's also written a handful of hardboiled crime novels, a bunch of horror novels and some efficient if plain thrillers. Just the fact that he's written successfully (or at least competently) in a whole variety of genres raises his profile in my esteem. It's just an awful tragedy that Simmons is preoccupied with absolutely tedious boring historical novels right now.

It started with 2008's The Terror. It's the fictionalized story of the lost voyage of a couple ships through the Arctic in the 19th century. A very long and powerful novel, The Terror wears down the reader with endless descriptions about the cold, about the conditions, and about the mysterious creature that's picking off crew members. I liked The Terror. I didn't hate it. I just thought it was too long, and that I wasn't really intrigued by the mystery. 

Unfortunately, Simmons followed it up with Drood, a fictionalized story of Dickens' final years as he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood and whatever bizarre mystery inspired him. It's narrated by Dickens' friend and contemporary Wilkie Collins, author of the fantastic Woman in White. It's too bad that Simmons' Drood, attempting to emulate both authors, fails completely to engage this reader. The novel is overly long, boring, and filled to the brim with stilted overwrought prose and a plot that creaks loudly as it goes through the motions. I never finished reading it. I hated it so much.

I read about a week ago that Simmons has a new novel coming out. It's called Black Hills, and I was ever so disappointed to read the synopsis:
In the author's retelling of Custer's last stand at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the dying general's ghost enters the body of Paha Sapa, a 10-year-old Sioux warrior who's able to see both the past and the future by touching people. The action leaps around in time to illustrate the arc of Sapa's life, but focuses on 1936, when, as a septuagenarian, he plots to blow up the monuments on Mount Rushmore in time for a visit to the site by FDR to atone for his role in constructing the stone likenesses. In his ability to create complex characters and pair them with suspenseful situations, Simmons stands almost unmatched among his contemporaries.
Ugh, this sounds awful. At least the page count isn't nearly as bloated as his previous snorefests. Black Hills is around 500 pages while the godawful Drood is a punishing 800 pages.

It's not like the combination of history and fiction hasn't been a staple of Simmons' oeuvre. In fact, quite the contrary. Both the Hyperion Cantos and the Ilium/Olympos works rely heavily upon a vast amount of great literature. The former uses Keats while the latter uses the Iliad and The Tempest. In both cases the use of the canon is inspired and comes from the plot, rather than being a gimmick to hang a creature-feature on. 

You combine these terrible books with Simmons' bizarre and baffling Islam-ophobia and you've lost this reader. Until Simmons returns to a semblance of his former self, I'm staying away.

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