Black Hills

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Black Hills

I have previously expressed my favorable opinion of Dan Simmons (here and here ) and with his 2010 novel Black Hills, he reinforces my appreciation of his amazing storytelling ability.  Black Hills tells the non-linear story of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Indian with the extraordinary ability to absorb another person’s memories and see their future simply by touching them.  As though that were not burden enough, he is also a participant in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (you know it better as the Battle of Little Big Horn) as a young boy and in touching the dying body of General George Armstrong Custer, he feels the ghost of Custer enter his body.  Paha Sapa then lives with the ghost of General Custer within him throughout his life, both of them watching as Paha Sapa’s people, culture, and way of life are destroyed by the relentless westward advance of modern civilization.  This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, sometimes heartbreaking story of a man who loses everything, always seeming to take two steps back for every step forward.  I enjoyed seeing this story from Paha Sapa’s perspective throughout several important periods in his life as the ghost of Custer offered the white man’s counter-perspective, usually in humorous fashion.

While there is a hint of the supernatural in this work of fiction, there is a lot of fact here, too.  Let no one say Dan Simmons fails to do proper research before he writes an historical novel.  The bibliography (humbly labeled “Acknowledgments”) is four pages long.  It is staggering to consider how much time Simmons must have spent just reading and researching the works of others before beginning his own project.  It demands respect.  On occasion though, it also gets in the way of the story and this is my one major concern with this book.  During a few rare moments, I felt as though I was reading a history text about Native American life or about the Battle of Little Big Horn or about the sculpting of Mount Rushmore or about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was always interesting information but in some cases, it felt like too much information presented in a dry manner and it slowed the story.

After reading Black Hills, I will view the Mount Rushmore monument, which I have not yet seen in person, in a completely different light now that I know how important the Black Hills region of South Dakota is to the Native American tribes of the area.  It is interesting to think that the monument was carved into that mountain to honor American democracy, but to the native peoples of the region, it is graffiti, a disgraceful defacing of a sacred mountain.

Masterfully interlacing fact with fiction to tell a story of American history from a perspective we rarely see, Dan Simmons has created a wonderful novel and solidified his position on my watch-list.  I truly enjoyed Black Hills and look forward to my next opportunity to read a Dan Simmons book.

Song of Kali

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Song of Kali

I've called myself a fan of Dan Simmons for several years and have a shelf dedicated to his novels. I recently realized, however, that I had really only read two of the books on that shelf:  Hyperion and The Terror, both of which are excellent. I decided to dig into his 1985 debut novel to broaden my experience with this author I claim to favor.

I enjoyed Song of Kali. Even in my limited experience, I've felt Simmons excels at character and place. The narrator feels like a real, flawed person who, despite some of his unpleasantness, is put into such an awful situation that I rooted for him to escape and hurt for him each time something bad happened. The characterization of Calcutta, India as oppressive and overwhelming in both size and environment, filthy, confusing, aggressive, unwelcoming firmly cemented my wish to never find myself there.

The story is fast-paced, and when it isn't exciting, it is at least interesting or intriguing. I would put this novel firmly in the category of "page turner". My only gripe with it is that the last few chapters caused the conclusion to drag and took some of the punch out of the climax. Otherwise, this book convinces me that my high esteem for Dan Simmons was not premature, but rather prescient.

Dan Simmons

I've started reading Dan Simmons' The Terror, a 784-page behemoth about a doomed arctic expedition in the mid-1800s. I've only just begun but I suspect Simmons has penned another amazing novel. Years ago, I read Hyperion, a Simmons science-fiction novel which I'm pretty sure my mother bought for me, and absolutely loved it. After starting The Terror a few days ago, I decided to do a bit of research on the author.

For starters, he is a prolific author, having written novels in science fiction, horror, and pulp crime genres (I just won a signed first edition copy of Hardcase on eBay). Apparently, the man was a successful teacher of gifted sixth-graders in Colorado, having been considered for the Colorado Teacher of the Year Award. His English students were writing at a 12th grade level by the time he was through with them! The curriculum he created for his writing students has been published on his website as a series of articles called "Writing Well", of which I have read the first two installments. The man doesn't mess around. He immediately blasts the empty self-help writing guides that encourage amateurs to dig deep and find that latent creativity that's aching to burst forth. "[Writing] is hard," he cautions, "damned hard. God-damned hard." He then goes on to discuss all the qualities a writer must have before they should even begin to consider putting pen to paper. As I read the list of things I should be, some of which I am not but can still strive for, I began to feel discouraged. It almost seemed insurmountable, hopeless. As I continued reading, however, discouragement became motivation. I found myself wanting to achieve all the things he said a writer had to be:

"Being a writer requires many subsets of skills – including the ability to observe closely and objectively, having a keen ear for language, understanding the structures and protocols of fiction, being a powerfully analytical reader, having the ability to bring fictional structure out of the near-infinite chaos that is reality, being intelligent and well-read, having the courage to be honest about things most of us would prefer to avoid discussing, and, for most writers, receiving a broad formal education even before you begin educating yourself to your own style as a writer."

Being a "powerful analytical reader" is the one that hit me hardest. I am not an analytical reader. At all. When I read a book, I read it for the pure entertainment of it. I never, not since college, deconstruct every sentence, dissect every scene or profile every character. Usually, my thoughts upon the conclusion of a book fall in the range of "I liked it" or "I didn't' like it". Clearly, that has to change if I'm going to pay any attention to what Simmons says in his first lesson. The problem is, I have no idea how to read analytically. In fact, I nearly actively rejected the idea in high school because I felt that, by asking us to analyze the use of every single word, my teachers were sterilizing everything I was reading, taking all the fun out of it. That opinion has changed 180 degrees since then and I now understand what they were trying to show me. I only wish I had been wise enough at that young age to understand it then. Goodness, I came extremely close to saying "if I only knew then...".

I think I've got a decent leg up on the broad education. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very good school system with talented and patient teachers. My parents, however, gave me an even more valuable education than that. From an early age, I was exposed to a wide array of cultural educational opportunities: live theater, symphonies, opera, ballet, films, a variety of classes including art, music, zoology and oceanography. They encouraged me to read constantly. Every night, thirty minutes before lights out, one of my parents would say, in the same cadence every time, "Time... to go to beeeeeeeeed... and READ!" We took family vacations, during which I pouted much of the time because I thought my whole summer vacation was being lost (in reality, we were never gone for more than a couple weeks, poor baby). We took tours of the American Southwest and American Pacific Coast, during which I got to see Native American cave dwellings, Montezuma's fortress, the majestic redwood forests, miles of lava caves, whitewater river rafting, too many American landmarks to count. I look back on these travels fondly and they instilled in me an interest in seeing new places; I've recently visited Italy, Ireland and England.

I'll have to work on the other stuff. Like any good teacher, Simmons' lessons have excited me and made me want more.