Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review of Worlds Enough & Time by Dan Simmons

If there is anything to be said of Dan Simmons as a person, it’s he’s not shy expressing his opinion.  Equipped with better than average tools for this expression, reading the story introductions to his 2002 collection Worlds Enough & Time one realizes the confidence with which he goes about his craft is well founded.  A blessing and a curse, it allows for effectively focused prose and sustained plotting, much to the technical benefit of his stories.  At the same time, it does not allow for much second guessing, leading to ideas that shoot off on questionable tangents—straight, cogent tangents, but questionable nonetheless.

World Enough and Time, Simmons’ third collection, contains five selections (two novellas and three novelettes) which, as a whole, exemplify this polarization: two are standout, while the three remaining are mediocre to less than.  An extremely varied mix from the point of view of premise, it’s nigh on impossible to identify common threads save generalities like fantasy, science fiction, etc.  Published between 1995 and 2002, there is an Earth-bound alien adventure of mountainous heights, an examination of the history and purpose of the space program, a teacher’s surreal self-realization, one mini space opera in the Hyperion setting, and another in the Ilium/Olympos setting. 

Readers looking for more from the Hyperion universe will find Orphans of the Helix a pedestrian story that depends little if at all on the novels, while those looking for more from Ilium/Olympos may be satisfied by the key “The Ninth of Av” seems to provide in explaining the Earth storyline of the novels, but will find little else beyond.  The mountain adventure, “On K2 with Kanakaredes”, is likewise a story with limited integrity.  Its elements jammed together rather than functioning organically, Simmons’ may be guilty of cramming too much into the novelette.  It’s thus up to the examination of the space program “The End of Gravity” and work of surrealism Looking for Kelly Dahl to pull the weight of the collection.  Roth’s story, designed for the screen, works perfectly on the page and examines the purpose of man in space, while Jakes’ coping with the exigencies of life is related in metaphorical and poignant fashion.

The following are brief summaries of the five stories in the collection:

Set in Simmons’ beloved north-central Colorado, Looking for Kelly Dahl is the story of Roland Jakes, a former middle-school teacher fired after his son’s death and alcoholism pushed him to the edge.  Suicidal, memories of one of his former students (the abused Kelly Dahl) haunt his days, leading his mind from hallucination to reality and back again.  Surreal, Simmons uses art concepts—chiaroscuro, pentimento, palimpsest, and palinode—to paint the portrait of a man coming to terms with life after tragedy.  Jakes and Dahl’s stories intertwined in moving fashion, the novella is powerful storytelling hard to ignore.

“On K2 with Kanakaredes” is a Zelazny-esque story of a climbing expedition with an insectile alien.  Called mantispids, they have been on Earth for almost ten years when the narrator Jake Pettigrew and his climbing buds are asked to accompany one of their number to the peak of K2.  Focusing on terrain and climbing techniques (in many ways a precursor the novel The Abominable ), some nature and spiritualism are tossed in to round out this rather bland story.

Simmons credits a Star Trek pitch as his inspiration for his novella return to the Hyperion universe. Orphans of the Helix that story, indeed the manner in which things pan out has a strong feel for the world of Gene Rodenberry.  A colony seed ship called Helix is traveling across the Void Which Binds roughly three hundred years after the events of The Rise of Endymion and encounters a strange anomaly: a binary system broadcasting a distress signal on old frequencies.  Finding a forest ring around one of the suns, the ship is almost immediately greeted by Ousters who have adapted wings powered by radiation.  A problem of dire circumstances threatening the Ouster’s forest colony revealed, it’s up to the leaders of the Helix to find a solution.  With elements of Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sunjammer” in tow, Simmons tells a retro tale that, while not living up to the big concept space opera of Hyperion, does have a robust Star Trek flair.

Initially a treatment for a film script (which it still partially bears the format of), “The End of Gravity” is an inspired novelette which probes the reasons man goes into space.  Told through the eyes of an ageing American writer, Norman Roth is sent to Russia to do a piece about the remnants of the now defunct Russian space program.  Simmons’ finely balancing character with background, the reasons humans choose to go beyond Earth’s atmosphere is unearthed.  A taut, poised piece that very well could be made into a film, Simmons’ coverage of the Soviet space program’s history, slow reveal of Roth’s past, and the coalescence of it all into a thought-provoking quandary are readily commendable. (Though differing in aim, “End of Gravity” forms a nice counterpoint to Andy Duncan’s The Chief Designer, as does Arthur C. Clarke’s The City & the Stars.)

The first foray into the Ilium/Olympos universe (at least the scenes set on Earth), “The Ninth of Av” is the story of the aging Jew Savi and her discoveries on far future Earth before the final fax.  Despite being something a Rosetta Stone for the novels, the novelette remains convoluted.  With its South Pole exploration historical exposition, coupled with far future quantum tech, latched onto WWII nightmares, hitched to a puzzle mystery, connected to a wealth of tech and gadgets and robots with little to no background, it’s a muddled story that deserves the novel length expansion it eventually received.  Otherwise, these first few ideas lack cohesion.

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