Book Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion by Dan Simmons is an interesting book in a number of ways. It’s a sendup of the Canterbury Tales, replete with references to Keats. The majority of the story focuses on the seven pilgrims making a trip to the world of Hyperion to visit the Shrike, which is apparently set to extinguish life in the universe. They’re there to try to either sacrifice themselves in the hopes of stopping the Shrike, or overpowering it themselves directly. The pilgrims all realize that they each have deep, dark secrets, and if they’re going to bare their souls before the Shrike, they should know everything there is about each other before facing an all-powerful being. And so we launch into the Priest’s Tale, the Soldier’s Tale, and so on.

The premise is pretty thin, if not slightly ridiculous, but the storytelling more than makes up for it (despite the fact that Simmons occasionally gets a little carried away with his prose. A sky is always lapis, for example).

Each of those tales is marked by a mysterious, unexplained event that borders on mysticism. Not exactly hard sci-fi.

By far the most compelling is the Scholar’s Tale, which focuses on Sol Weintraub and his daughter, Rachel, who was studying something known as the Time Tombs, when she was affected by an unexplained occurrence. As a result, Rachel is aging backward in time. Benjamin Button this ain’t, for as Rachel grows younger, she loses her memories, and Sol is forced to watch his daughter’s identity slowly unravel every morning when she wakes up, and over time, loses the traits and knowledge that makes Rachel, Rachel.

This book could be read as a standalone, but it’s clearly meant to be read with The Fall of Hyperion, the next in the series. It’s also an example of what science fiction does best – it can flesh out an allegorical message into actual plot events. No starship troopers blowing up aliens on a pock-marked desolate battlefield here. Even the soldier isn’t exempt from the mysterious and unexplained.

Mistakes I’ve Made, Edition #1: Character and Passion

Note: The Mistakes column is going to look at the mistakes I’ve made, how they can be fixed. My advice won’t be for everyone, but maybe there will be something you can take to heart.

Think of all the great characters in storytelling. Doesn’t have to be literature – you can even think of titans of TV like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, or movie heroes like Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone.* What if I threw names at you like Romeo, Gatsby, Frodo, Dorothy, Ahab, Buffy? Do you get clear, vivid senses of who they are and what they embody?

That’s character.

* Yes, I’m aware that Scarlett and Michael are also book characters. Just go with me here.

Now think of all the other forgettable characters you’ve come across. Take a peek at your bookshelf, or the books on your desk, and scan the titles. How many books have standout characters? Not many, right?

Why is that?

They don’t jingle your bells. They don’t leap out from the page or the screen and grab you by the throat and demand, Look at me! Pay attention!

So what are some of the elements out there that you can use to make your characters stand out? Here are a few traits that a lot of standout characters share.

Standout characters aren’t always likable. In my case, my first efforts at character sucked. They were limp and unmemorable. They were perfect in every way – the best fighters, the best lovers, the funniest, the smartest, the most beautiful. Hell, if they had any flaws, it was just that they cared too much.


As a result, they didn’t stand out. And that was largely because they were essentially Mary Sues/Gary Stus. My characters were usually decent, likable, morally sure of themselves, loyal and always made smart decisions. In short, the people you want to get to know in real life.

Now look at the names I’ve mentioned above. How many of these people do you really want to meet in real life? Sure, Gatsby sounds like a lot of fun – all those parties! Until you realize he’s a needy narcissist who holds a torch for a married woman and hasn’t gotten over her, and is willing to use you or dispose of you based on your relationship with said woman. Buffy is a great human, except she’s constantly getting her friends and family in serious danger. An apocalypse will do that to you. Stand too close to Dorothy, and you risk getting squished by a house or kidnapped by flying monkeys. And so on.

And do you really want to get close to someone like Tony Soprano or Walter White? I didn’t think so.

They face a ton of obstacles. Back to my Mary Sue/Gary Stu. The other thing I didn’t do right was throw enough obstacles in their way. They had problems and difficulties, sure, but they handled them just fine. Problem? Problem solved! They were too clever and smart for such piddling little quibbles. All bad guys were conquered! Sure, they got a few bruises and got knocked down a couple of times, but come on, the outcome was inevitable. Bring on the next bad guy!

Standout characters don’t act like that. Ahab didn’t find Moby Dick easily. Ellen Ripley was cornered at almost every scene by a problem. Frodo didn’t exactly hop, skip, and sing into Mordor. No, the creators of such characters were cruel, vicious gods, throwing every single possible torment they could to their character.

And not only that, they exploited their character’s specific weaknesses. Walter White is a proud individual, and there were numerous instances throughout Breaking Bad where he would have gotten away, scot-free, but for his pride. It was like a scab, and the creators of Breaking Bad picked at it every chance they got. For example, all Walt had to do, in the beginning of the show, was accept the offer of charity from his rich friends to get his cancer treatment, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to do that.

They’re obsessed. Finally, my characters weren’t obsessed. Not nearly enough. How could they be, if they were decent folk who got along just fine? They had nothing to lose, really. The characters I mentioned up top all do.

Can anyone doubt that Captain Ahab wanted to kill Moby Dick? That Romeo loved Juliet? That Humbert Humbert lusted after Lolita? That is what separates the mundane characters from the transcendent. They have passion, and they wear it on their sleeves. That doesn’t mean the characters themselves have to be outwardly passionate – Michael Corleone is a stone-cold villain. But his desires are never in doubt.

What it means for your character. If your character feels uninspiring, then consider these questions:

– What does s/he have to lose? If nothing, then give him/her something to lose. And make sure they lose it, or come very close to it.

– If the character walked away from the problem in your story, what would the effect be? If the answer is, not much, then you’re doing it wrong. Make it so that the character absolutely, positively, cannot walk away.

– What is your character’s greatest flaw? Is it pride? Lust? Wrath? Does s/he love a certain someone so much that s/he can’t see the big picture? Whatever it is, exploit it. Make every obstacle touch on your character’s most vulnerable points.

There’s lots more to character than this, obviously, but if your character lacks passion, if your character isn’t obsessed, then that character won’t stand out.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie is an excellent book, though not an easy read. The plot: A ship known as the Justice of Toren is an AI unit, and to carry out its wishes, makes use of “ancillaries” – basically, corpses converted into extensions of the AI. But the Justice of Toren was annihilated, with the exception of a single surviving ancillary known as Breq, and Breq is on a quest for revenge to destroy those who nearly destroyed her.

What makes it stand out from the usual sci-fi fare is that it has incredible depth, thematically (Ancillary Justice has won a boatload of awards, by the way). Breq, for example, can represent the way we express ourselves. In other words, I act differently around my mother than I would around a friend, my husband, or my boss. I have different “ancillaries,” so to speak, but it’s still all coming from the same brain.

Justice of Toren is thousands of years old, and can simultaneously communicate with all its ancillaries; yet Breq has developed subtle little personality traits that distinguish her from the other ancillaries from Justice of Toren (she likes singing, for example).

The book also takes a feminist approach, most notably in the way every character is referred to as “she.” Much has been made of its similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (another excellent book that explores gender themes). The end result, though, is that it highlights how meaningless gender constructs are, and puts a real emphasis on character and action. Besides, if gendering a character is important to you, it’ll all sort itself out in your head anyway.

The writing itself is brilliant, though like I said, it’s not an easy read. But this is the kind of book that exemplifies how science fiction can be a potent commentary and critique of humanity. Sounds lofty? Sure is. But so is this book.

From Writer to Author – or, How Little Writing Authors Actually Do

Welcome to my page. You might be wondering why I called this post “From Writer to Author” – it’s meant to convey the two different definitions of the terms.

Like many others, I’m an aspiring author. Who isn’t? While I can say that I’ve been published in a few places – the Philadelphia Inquirer, Weird New Jersey, the Asbury Park Press, and a few others – I haven’t published a book. A real, live book that I can hold in my hands. That I can smell. That I can put on my shelf.

But I am a writer. I’m currently writing two books that I hope to publish. I’m obviously writing in this blog. But because I haven’t published a book yet, I don’t consider myself an author.

That difference is key in my mind. Writers are those who write (obviously), but authors are those who have published books – and from what I’ve learned, there’s a surprisingly small emphasis on the actual writing itself for those published authors. I had always assumed that writing was the main thing for authors, and it’s not. Rewriting is. But we’ll get to that another time.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I’ve been learning from them. Trying to, at least. A friend of mine and I wrote a book together – we conceived it, co-wrote it, had beta readers, researched agents, and sent it out.

And promptly got rejected.

And that process was a turning point. Before then, I read a number of how-to-write books, but the lessons went over my head. I’ve re-read them, and a few others besides, and now I finally feel like I’m making progress as a writer. As I said, I’m working on two books, and the difference from before getting rejected and after is significant.

So I’ve decided that while this project is going on, I’m going to call myself a writer, and not an author. I’ll only allow myself to be called an author when, and only when, I get published.

I realize that in the world of eBooks and self-publishing, the barriers to becoming an author is easier than ever. But for the purpose of this project, publishing eBooks or self-publishing will not qualify me as an author.

That’s not to say that those who take that route are bad writers, or that it’s not a legitimate approach to take. There are many wonderful, highly successful authors who have self-published (Andy Weir, author of “The Martian,” comes to mind, as does Alan Sepinwall and his “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“). If you’re a member of their camp, then I give you all the credit in the world. Wear your author badge, and wear it proudly.

Personally, however, that’s not for me. That’s not my goal. I want to see if I have what it takes to overcome the obstacles in getting published, and will only consider myself successful if I accomplish that.

I don’t claim to be an expert, or even a particularly good writer. But I have learned a few things along the way, things I think can help other aspiring writers. And it’s my hope that I’ll be able to use this space to share those things, as well as post reviews of other books I’m reading and other news and tidbits here.

That’s my ultimate goal. To no longer describe myself as an aspiring writer, but to be an author. And hopefully, help some of you achieve that same goal.