Simmons, Dan

Tagged: Author

(1948-    ) US elementary school teacher circa 1971-1987 and author, who began publishing work of genre interest with "The River Styx Runs Upstream" for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine in April 1982, and who was for some time thought of primarily as an author of tales of Horror, some of which – along with sf and Fantasy stories – were assembled in Prayers to Broken Stones (coll 1990). True to the instincts of that genre, his first novel, Song of Kali (1985), which won a World Fantasy Award, renders modern-day Calcutta as a moral and psychic cesspool, into which the married protagonists of the book sink very deep indeed as unleashed evil from the world's ancient heart first destroys their child and subsequently threatens to flood the 1980s. His second novel, the immense Carrion Comfort (September-October 1983 Omni; much exp 1989), is also horror, though with an sf underpinning, though that sf base is un-new. The "carrion-eaters" of the title are Mutant humans who have acquired the capacity to control other humans through direct psychic access to their hind-brains, while at the same time feeding on the experiences into which they force their victims. Again true to the dictates of the horror genre – to which Simmons remains astonishingly faithful for nearly 500,000 words – his Vampire mutants have found that the more extreme the pain and atrocity inflicted, the more nutritious will be the feast; indeed, to taste the death throes of a victim is to experience orgasm. The two factions into which the vampires have split are engaged in a game (see Games and Sports) with most of the huge cast involved as unknowing players whose anguish when they lose is nectar to the players. The protagonists' survival seems genuinely triumphant, though it only accomplished because the vampires at the heart of the maze are too stupefied by their own evil to become true Secret Masters of the world, even though the "winner" of the game, as the novel ends, is planning to start World War Three.

Despite the haunting and virtuoso rationality of this tale, and the sense that he is delivering a State of the Nation jeremiad, Simmons's later work is of much greater sf interest, especially the Hyperion Cantos sequence, which is divided into two extended novels each first published in two parts. Hyperion (1989), which won a Hugo and a Locus Award, is continued in The Fall of Hyperion (1990), which won a British Science Fiction Association Award and a Locus Award; both were assembled as Hyperion Cantos (1990; vt The Hyperion Omnibus 2004). Endymion (1996) continues in The Rise of Endymion (1997), which won a Locus Award; both were assembled as The Endymion Omnibus (2004). These two novels, Hyperion and Endymion, themselves combine to make up one extended 2000-page narrative, the most ambitious Space Opera epic since E E Smith's Lensman sequence, though far more comprehensive, literate, and intense than its predecessor from the Golden Age of SF.

The Hyperion Cantos are virtuoso: partly because Simmons clearly revelled in the narrative challenges posed by the sheer size of his enterprise; partly through his thorough grasp of the repertory of tropes and topoi available to writers of Genre SF. Ages after a Black Hole has destroyed Old Earth, the Galaxy is dominated by a vast human Hegemony, a Galactic Empire knit together by Ansible-like fatlines, by farcasters that dizzyingly convey passengers through Wormholes that provide virtually instantaneous Transportation, and by Faster Than Light ships. One of the latter – a "treeship" owned by a planet of "Templars" whose Ecological imperatives derive from the American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) – provides an initial stage for the Hyperion narrative, the first volume of which is explicitly structured as a nest of Club Stories on the model of The Canterbury Tales (incomplete in 1400) by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400). Seven "pilgrims" have been called to the planet Hyperion, where the time-travelling Shrike (see Time Travel) which guards the Time Tombs promises a dreadful Transcendence. En route each pilgrim tells his or her tale, one of these being first published separately, "Remembering Siri" (December 1983 Asimov's). As they unfold, the tales reveal interwoven patterns of significant life-experiences; at the same time each of them, while contributing to the growing mosaic of the overall story, is told in a different sf idiom, generating a sense that not only is a fictional universe being described but that the inherent world-building strategies of sf as a whole are also being anatomized (just as Chaucer similarly anatomized a medieval world that had begun to wane). The Hyperion Cantos works at multiple levels, therefore: as a full and exceedingly Baroque Space Opera recomplicated into Time Opera through the shuttlecock temporal intricacies generated by the Shrike; as a Modernist examination of and hindsight honouring of the SF Megatext; and as an exercise in metafiction remote from innocent storytelling.

Each of the seven tellers bears a secret burden: the Priest (see Religion), with an unwelcome parasite (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) implanted into his flesh and denying him the release of death, plus the imago of a guru who promises Transcendence; the Soldier, similarly burdened with an interior Avatar, in his case based on John Keats's Mnemosyne (the two volumes of the first novel take the titles of Keats's long but incomplete poems – "Hyperion" [written 1818-1819] and "The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream" [written after 1819] – about the displacement of the old gods, the victory of a new pantheon); the Poet, bearing a dead epic within his sour corpus; the Scholar, shepherding his daughter who is dying of a Time in Reverse disease and who is now only a week old; the Captain of the ship, with a secret mission; the Detective, whose interior daimon is a holoscan of Keats himself; and the Consul, whose coming betrayal of the Hegemony has been hardwired into his actions. They all land on Hyperion where – not unlike the protagonists of Carrion Comfort, who discover they are obeying the rules of a fractured Godgame – they find themselves playing complex intersecting roles in a long galaxy-wide conflict between the Ousters, various Genetically Engineered species who live in a wide range of Space Habitats, and who radically oppose the "pure" human stock that dominates the Hegemony, and the TechnoCore of AIs that/who run the Empire from within the quantum-level interstices of the farcaster net (see Cyberspace) – just as does the AI who tends to dominate Orson Scott Card's Xenocide (1991). The AIs are themselves divided into two factions defined by contrasting Cosmologies: those who (crudely put) feel the universe requires disorder and chaos (see Entropy) to thrive; and those who feel it requires order (see Dystopia; Utopia) to prevail. Each faction is vying to corner for itself control over the temporal conundrums generated on Hyperion by the Shrike. Meanwhile, vast Wars shake the entire Galaxy; and the Shrike from its Time Tomb grants each of the pilgrims a single wish [for Answered Prayers see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The collapse of the Hegemony, which these answered prayers combine to effect, but which has in a sense been self-engineered (see Godgame), opens the galaxy again.

The two Endymion volumes – again from Keats, from Endymion (1818) – are set almost three centuries later, is constructed on the assumption that readers will remember enough of the intricacies of the first narrative to grasp that Hyperion was, in effect, a shell game, and that the whole elaborate homage to sf – and its apparent furthering of the aspirations of Space Opera to depict, however melodramatically, an ascertainable Future History – had been transformed into farce. The destruction of the farcaster net, whose energy demands had come close to enslaving the far-flung civilization of the Hegemony, turns out to have been a gimmick. The claws of order are now clamping down again, this time through the grotesque agency of a renewed Papacy (Simmons's antipathy to organized Christianity is as unrelenting and argued as Philip Pullman's in the exactly contemporary His Dark Materials sequence); but a vastly intricate new plot, whose origins can now be traced in hindsight throughout the previous volumes, ultimately demonstrates that the godgamers of Hyperion were themselves victims of a larger Godgame. Their whole lives (and the stories that told them) now stand revealed as a ludic fiction (see Johan Huizinga) whose fomenter is Aenea, daughter of the Reincarnated semblance of John Keats, and who we now learn is a final Messiah whose manipulation of time and plot is destined to utterly change the universe. We discover that the blood she spills (and that others ingest) during Endymion's long dance towards the martyrdom she has arranged for herself – a virtuoso progress which includes a nearly book-long homage to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), complete with Android servant and raft – is itself the fomenting agent for Transcendence. The game is over.

Phases of Gravity (1989), published the same year as Carrion Comfort and Hyperion, is not literally sf, being instead – if one is able to ignore a moment or two of muffled Transcendence – perhaps the first historical novel by an sf author about the space programme, recounting the psychic rejuvenation of a grounded astronaut. The Hollow Man (September 1982 Omni as "Eyes I Dare Not Meet in Dreams"; much exp 1992), though pure sf in its rationale, is structured (somewhat stiffly) to reflect the metaphysical journey of Dante Alighieri's protagonist in La Divina Commedia (written circa 1304-1321), containing ample references as well to the poetry of T S Eliot (1888-1965). It deals with a tortured man whose ESP powers are explained in terms of quantum physics and Chaos-theory mathematics; a longish horror story is implanted in its midst. The Elmhaven sequence, beginning with Summer of Night (1991), is a Stephen-King-like array of tales of quasi-rationalized supernatural horror. At its heart lies a long homage to and rewriting of the Vampire novel, approaching sf in its explanation of the AIDS-related story of Romanian vampires, led by the still-living Vlad Dracula, whose condition turns out to be a hereditary immune deficiency curable by the intake of human blood. The novel arguably trivializes the agonies of post-Ceausescu Romania and of AIDS by linking them to vampirism, and does not fully justify Simmons's return to themes he had already explored so forcefully in Carrion Comfort. Loosely connected to the Romanian tales, Fires of Eden (1994) is a horror novel with supernatural elements set in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hawaii, where a contemporary women intimately replicates a journey to the Sandwich Islands made (it is claimed) by Mark Twain with her aunt; none of this work quite as fully overmasters its material as did his earlier long tales.

After several novels and the Joe Kurtz sequence, all nonfantastic, Simmons returned to sf with the Ilium sequence comprising Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005) which – almost as intricate as the Hyperion Cantos, but with a conspicuously lighter touch – combines Space Opera, Time Travel, Mythology within an overall ludic fiction (see Johan Huizinga) frame, for once again most of the players of the tale are wittingly or unwittingly engaged in play, both literal and by implication. As usual the Simmons's complex narrative structure plays on earlier work, in this case embodying enactments of both Homer's Iliad (circa 800-700 BCE) and William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623). One part of the tale is recounted by the Reincarnation or Avatar of a contemporary Homer scholar, seemingly resurrected by the gods of the Greek pantheon, who in the moderately distant future inhabit Olympus Mons on a Terraformed Mars, but who are in fact Posthumans playing a vast game; his task is to travel to the siege of Troy and to report back on the true nature of what happened (it is clearly possible, however, that the Troy to which he returns is a stage set). The second part, interwoven with the first, comprises a remarkably detailed and erudite description of Homeric Greece in the throes of their great War. A third part is set in a manicured Ruined Earth venue where eloi-like humans are gazed upon sternly by a Mysterious Stranger version of Odysseus, and seemingly catered to under the supervision of an Avatar of Prospero, who himself figures largely in a fourth narrative section set on Mars, where The Tempest is re-enacted, the play serving as a model for Godgame gestures on the part of the "gods", who vie with each other in a Changewar who may therefore be in the throes of creating an Alternate History of Earth. A fifth line of story involves two members of an Alien race of Cyborgs (possibly constructed by godlings) who travel to Mars from their home on Jupiter on an oversight mission, whose seeming goal is to prevent the posthumans from fouling the nest of the solar system. There may be a problem of spinning plot wheels in Ilium, which distinguishes it from the transcendental seriousness that justifies the plot games played in the Hyperion Cantos; but the inherent sophistication and utterly serious "frivolity" of gaming itself is mostly honoured.

A slight sentimentality about children and a love of generic competence for its own sake only slightly modify the sense of excitement generated by Simmons's arrival on the sf scene. The Hyperion Cantos remains definitive for 1990s Space Opera, thoroughly demonstrating how this sf arena – whose topoi were overripe for the harvest well before the end of the last century – is capable of creating original visions of Homo sapiens in the years to come. Simmons's clarity about the nature and strengths of the genres he makes use of renders it difficult to argue that "really" his nonfantastic books are secretly examples of Fantastika. His highly deliberate honouring of a range of genres in succession may have been undertaken for a wide variety of reasons; but a recurrent impatience may be central, for if there is an abiding flaw in his work it seems to be an almost dizzying hastiness to finish off each of his various creative enterprises in turn.

His interest in sf has remained intermittent, though Flashback (2011), set in a dark Near Future world, sharply anatomizes the consequences of the eponymous Drug, which recreates users' pasts for their delectation; but also immerses them in retro prisons. Sherlock Holmes, tormented by a vision of his own fictionality, dominates The Fifth Heart (2015), which features his 1893 voyage to America in the company of Henry James (1843-1916), where Holmes believes that the suicide of Clover Adams (1843-1885), wife of Henry Adams (1838-1918), may have been murder. [JC]

see also: Clichés; Communications; Cybernetics; Fantastic Voyages; Gods and Demons; Gothic SF; Seiun Award; Space Flight; Thought Experiment; Torture; Villains.

Dan Simmons

born Peoria, Illinois: 4 April 1948

died

works

series

Hyperion Cantos

Elmhaven

  • Summer of Night (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1991) [Elmhaven: hb/Hector Garrido]
  • Children of the Night (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1992) [Elmhaven: hb/Hector Garrido]
  • Fires of Eden (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1994) [Elmhaven: hb/Hector Garrido]
  • A Winter Haunting (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2002) [Elmhaven: hb/Thomas Tafuri]

Joe Kurtz

  • Hardcase (New York: St Martin's Minotaur, 2001) [Joe Kurtz: hb/Scott Levine]
  • Hard Freeze (New York: St Martin's Minotaur, 2002) [Joe Kurtz: hb/MMiro Fnovcic]
  • Hard As Nails (New York: St Martin's Minotaur, 2003) [Joe Kurtz: hb/]

Ilium

individual titles

  • Song of Kalisfgateway.com (New York: Bluejay Books, 1985) [hb/Jill Bauman]
  • Carrion Comfort (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Dark Harvest, 1989) [short version appeared September-October 1983 Omni: hb/Kathleen McNeil Sherman]
  • Phases of Gravity (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1989) [pb/Tony Randazzo]
    • Phases of Gravity (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1991) [rev of the above: pb/Tony Randazzo]
  • The Hollow Man (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1992) [hb/John Jude Palencar]
  • The Crook Factory (New York: Avon Books, 1999) [hb/Nadine Badalaty]
  • Darwin's Blade (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2000) [hb/Tony Stone Images]
  • The Terror (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 2007) [hb/Erich Lessing]
  • Drood (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 2009) [hb/Ken Rosenthal]
  • Black Hills (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company/Reagan Arthur Books, 2010) [hb/Hulton-Deutsch Collection, Juperimages, Ken Rosenthal]
  • Flashback (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company/Reagan Arthur Books, 2011) [hb/Joseph Barrack, Lynn Johnson and Henri Silberman]
  • The Abominable (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company/Reagan Arthur Books, 2013) [hb/]
  • The Fifth Heart (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 2015) [hb/Allison J Warner]

collections and stories

nonfiction

about the author

links

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