Off the Bookshelf: Hyperion, The Golden Compass, American Gods

The end of the summer saw me pick up a bunch of new books, including Hyperion and its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion and autumn actually gave me enough time to read one of them!

As we moved into December, the movie release of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass – and the religious controversy that surrounded it – led me to pick up the book, and the subject of gods and religion inspired me to return to this summer’s audio book listening project, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

If I learned anything this fall, it’s that a science fiction novel can instantly gain respectability by emulating Chaucer and resurrecting Keats. Hyperion does both as Dan Simmons recreates the Canterbury Tales on the far-future frontier world of Hyperion. The planet was settled by a poet king obsessed with the poet Keats, and is haunted by a terrible alien killing machine known as the Shrike. For reasons that become apparent as the book unfolds, a number of pilgrims are traveling to Hyperion seeking to find the Shrike.

A shadow of Keats himself is resurrected for the novel, which should feel like a gimmick, but doesn’t, especially given the background of how he was resurrected (and you’ll have to read the book to learn that for yourself).

Hyperion is true to the unfinished nature of the Canterbury Tales, and ends about halfway through it’s story. For the rest, you need to pick up The Fall of Hyperion which picks up where the first novel ended. The stakes are even more dire, and the characters we started to care about in the previous novel are preparing to meet their individual (and mostly unpleasant) ends. I just about finished this book when National Novel Writing Month began, but then I lost track of it – mentally and physically. Two months later, I finally found the book – it had fallen behind my bed – and I’m looking forward to finishing it.

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

I’ll admit it: the religious controversy surrounding the movie is what got me to read The Golden Compass. Phrases like “the anti-Narnia” and “individualist fiction” perked up my ears, and I let the book skip to the head of the line. It’s a good read; Phillip Pullman sets up an alternative London that’s just different enough to be familiar and new at the same time. In it, the main character an 11-year-old girl named Lyra, is living at Oxford College as a ward of the school. She’s accompanied by her daemon, a sort of shape-changing familiar that can take the form of various kinds of animal.

She sneaks into a meeting of the college deans and observes her uncle giving a presentation about his experiments in the North with a mysterious substance known as Dust. Just when she learns of this expedition, she also discovers that kidnapping goons known as “Gobblers” are loose in London, luring kids away from their families and guardians for unknown (but presumably evil) purposes. Ultimately these two conspiracies draw her into a battle involving witches, sentient polar pairs and the schemes of the Roman Catholic Church.

While I can see how this book would rub some staunch Catholics the wrong way – the Church, or at least some of its deniable agents, are certainly up to no good – the anti-religion vibe of the novel remains fairly low (or at least a lot lower than I was expecting). My understanding is that this theme is kicked up a notch or three in the second and third book in the series, and I’m curious to read more. I’m also eager to see the movie now that I’ve read the book; I had the visuals from the trailer in mind while I was reading it, and from what little I saw, the movie’s visual style does a good job of matching up with what you’ll find in the book.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

It used to be I’d listen to one to two audio books a month, sometimes as many as three if my commute was really bad. Now, with a short commute, it’s taken me more than a year to get halfway through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The problem is time – I only get the story in 15 minute increments, or about 30 minutes today. Mix in a few podcasts, and the pace becomes positively glacial.

Still, it’s a good book, and I do want to finish it so I’m making a concerted effort to listen every day and with seven hours left, I should be able to finish this month.

So far American Gods is a slow-moving story, but compelling nonetheless. It’s about all the Old World gods – from Europe, Russia, India, the Far East and Asia – trying to survive in the slightest trickle of faith their American worshippers provide them (or in some cases, just the memory of such worship). They’re up against the vibrant, strong and obnoxious new American gods of technology, highways and credit cards.

The best part of the book so far have been Gaiman’s modern interpretations of these down and out gods, which have been alternating sad, desperate and magically mundane.

Upcoming Books

My reading queue has grown ridiculously large, so as much as I’m tempted to get Books 2 and 3 in the His Dark Majesty trilogy (the follow-ups to the Golden Compass) I really need to concentrate on what I’ve got, as well as getting caught up on Analog. Here’s the short list:

  • Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind
  • The Golden Globe by John Varley
  • The Sky People by S.M. Stirling
  • The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard
  • The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 2: Moon of Skulls
%d bloggers like this: