Ilium

I read the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons some years ago. They were haunting, though, and some images – particularly of the Shrike – have stayed with me since.

So I was excited to start IliumIt delivers a lot of what Simmons does so well.

There’s a fantastic universe, rich beyond imagination, that he weaves so effortlessly that it serves as a rich background to the tragedy of his characters – and with Simmons it’s invariably a tragedy, or something close. In Ilium, it’s a world where humans have advanced to become god-like through their use of technology, and have recreated the Trojan war on a terraformed Mars, the ‘posts’ (post-humans) watching on high from their home on Mount Olympus.

There’s a rich literary background; from the Illiad references, to extended discussions of Shakespeare and Proust, and a few others thrown in.

There’s a sense of a civilisation collapsing or declining, and the haunting feeling that you’re walking through what was once a metropolis.

Simmons loves a cliff hanger, and he weaves them well, drawing chapters to an end just as the action pivots. It makes for what is for the most part a page-turner, although some of the extended descriptions drag. If you like good space opera, this is well worth it.

 

Courage and history

My GF and I read and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird a while ago (notes here, here and here – final instalment on its way). So as I was reading through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, it was interesting to see a powerful parallel.

When no one else would, William Seward defended a man who likely had some form of mental challenge, who was accused of killing four people. Goodwin writes:

When the trial opened, no lawyer was willing to take Freeman’s case. The citizens of Auburn had threatened violence against any member of the bar who dared to defend the cold-blooded murderer. When the court asked, “Will anyone defend this man?” a “death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,” until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, “May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!” …

In his summation, he pleaded with the jury not to be influenced by the color of the accused man’s skin. “He is still your brother, and mine … Hold him then to be a man.” … 

“In due time, gentlemen of the jury,”, Seward concluded, “when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbours. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, ‘He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterwards, visitors to Seward’s grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone. 

I’m reminded of something TNC wrote, in Between the world and me:

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point.

Posthumous recognition cannot be the sole reason for Seward’s courage, and cannot validate the suffering of Freeman if he was unjustly abused in the prison system. They were real people, with lives every bit as real as ours. But we can still remember a courageous step.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer is a beautiful and powerful piece of writing. It’s a Pulitzer-Prize winning debut from Viet Thanh Nguyen. Given the amount of critical support it’s received (The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Guardian), I won’t say too much.

Just that Nguyen does brilliantly creating a world that explores the inner dimensions of personalities and relationships, but is fundamentally linked to the broader world and its conflicts (in this case, the Vietnam war). This is particularly evident in how he paints a complex character, split between two worlds (Vietnamese and American).

That skill and writing ability has led to a number of comparisons to Grahame Greene. Nguyen himself seems very aware of those echoes – he has the protagonist complete a senior thesis on ‘Myth and Symbol in the Literature of Graham Greene.’

It’s a good book, and worth reading.

 

 

A senior thesis entitled ‘Myth and Symbol in the Literature of Grahame Greene’.

Elysium

Neill Blomkamp’s first movie, District 9, was a cracker. A taut, beautifully crafted movie that did exciting things people hadn’t even thought of, and it deserved its critical applause.

Elysium is Blomkamp’s subsequent movie. It again centres on questions of power relationships between and within different groups. In Blomkamp’s beautifully rendered imagination, a future Elysium parallels the Greek conception of a place separate from mortal existence: an off-planet habitat where the wealthy live in luxury, and can access unmatched health technology. On the home planet, people live in squalor and suffer under an unjust system. The cinematography is stunning – it captures a chaotic world of dirt and dust and poverty, and it takes good work to capture that effectively.

Some reviews argue that the political message is too strong, or the structure too crude. It is in a sense no less political than Blomkamp’s earlier work, but here the focus is less on different species and races, than on differences between groups of people who control resources, and those who do not. The final action sequences felt slightly unnecessary to me, and perhaps the conclusion a little easy. But overall, this is still an excellent movie, and I recommend it.

I’m looking forward to seeing Chappie.