Friday, 13 January 2012

Review of three SF books: Hyperion, Deepsix and Timelike Infiniity

I've recently finished reading three SF 'classics': Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Timelike Infinity (Xeelee series) by Stephen Baxter, and Deepsix by Jack McDevitt. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on them, according to the following criteria:
  1. Entertainmanet value (fun to read? good story?)
  2. Prose & Style (well-written? easy to read? literary? page-turner?)
  3. Science Fiction content (credible science? new ideas? hard or soft scifi?)
  4. Plot (clever? predictable? suspension of disbelief?)
  5. Characters (believable? memorable?)
  6. World-Building (convincing? visually clear?)
For fun to read, I guess Hyperion came out top. I felt I was reading a SF equivalent of Lord of the Rings, though I got a bit annoyed when three quarters of the way through the book I realized there was no way the story was going to finish, and I'd have to buy the next one to find out what happened. Deepsix was next in terms of entertainment (a good story) and being fun to read, especially with the character MacAllister and his quips at the start of each chapter. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Timelike Inifinity, too, and would look forward to getting back to it each evening, and as the shorter of the three books, I wished it had been longer.

All three are well-written, and I don't just mean devoid of typos. Hyperion is the most 'literary', having a rich and varied vocabulary fitting for its Chaucer-esque (Canterbury Tales) format of six stories by pilgrims from different walks of life (and planets). Deepsix is the easiest to read, but Baxter's comes close behind, despite a deeper 'scientific' thread throughout Timelike Infinity. For me Timelike Infinity was a page-turner, partly because it was compact. Deepsix had more bite-sized chapters of the three, though I found I could put it down at the end of most chapters and wait till tomorrow. It took me some time to get into Hyperion and its very long chapters (e.g. 70 pages each), though once enmeshed in it I often found it hard to put down. The final 'story' for me was the weakest and I found myself skimming about 30 pages, when it suddenly took hold again.

On scifi, Timelike Infiniity is a clear lead for me, as Baxter clearly knows his stuff, and is dealing with time travel through wormholes and, right towards the end, events of galactic significance. Hyperion was next, with its sprawling humanesque cultures across 150 worlds, using 'farcasters' to deal with the ever-present author's dilemma of how to overcome Einstein's relativity issues in a space opera setting. Deepsix was more 'locally-focused', and therefore required less scientific underpinning, but with McDevitt I felt I was in safe hands whenever a bit of scientific explanation was necessary. None of the authors did any scifi info dumps, they are all too experienced for that. In terms of hard or soft scifi, Baxter was more hard, Hyperion middle, and Deepsix more soft, meaning that a non-SF reader would have no problem reading Deepsix, and would probably enjoy it most. In terms of new ideas, all three had them, but Hyperion probably the most as it had such a variety of ideas, initially seemingly unrelated, but as the book continues, the reader detects the weave linking them; this aspect reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dune series. Timelike Infinity had a well-constructed and convincing threatening alien presence, and its dealings with time travel and temporal conundra were well conceived. Deepsix had me wondering about the lost alien species as much as the crew stranded there, so in all three books there was a satisfactory sense of 'wonder'.

The plot of Timelike Infinity was a litle too clever for me - in fact if someone can explain to me the last two lines of the novel, please do, as I have no idea what they mean. The main story for me ended three quarters into the book, and then shifted into a more hypothetical space (a bit like the film 2001). Deepsix had a good plot, though I had to suspend disbelief a couple of times, as various characters took risks that seemed extreme, and brought them into ever-more danger - but only a couple of times. Hyperion was very much like six tales within a book, each tale strong in itself, but the overall plot was aloof, ephemeral, even at the end, and I'll have to read Fall of Hyperion to know not only what happens, but what has really been going on. For me, Deepsix had the most satisfying end. None of the book were predictable (not for me at any rate).

Deepsix has some enduring characters, one or two I'll probably still  remember in a few years' time. Similarly Timelike Infinity has three characters who will stick in my memory. Hyperion I'm less sure about - mainly because there are basically six protagonists who each get one sixth of the book. But Sol Weintraub's story in Hyperion will probably endure, one of the saddest I've ever read. In terms of believability of the characters' behaviour, MeDevitt's are for me the most realistic and flawed (aka human) people, followed by Baxter's, and last by Simmons', though Hyperion has such a wide scope inevitably the characters are a little 'larger than life'.

In terms of world-building, Hyperion is the most ambitious, and largely brings it off, though Deepsix I found easier to visualize, second being Timelike Infinity. But without doubt Hyperion through its astonishing array of images wins on this criterion, the motile isles of Maui Covenant still sailing in my mind.

Overall, if I could only take one of these books away with me, I'd take Hyperion, due to its richness and variety. If I wanted to hang out with one of the authors, it would be McDevitt. And if I wanted someone to teach me how to write more scientific Scifi, especially when it comes to time travel, it would be Baxter.

P.S> Apparently my own books are like McDevitt's.
The Eden Paradox (kindle and paperback) on Amazon
Eden's Trial (kindle) on Amazon

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