Rapid Fire Book Reviews: Flowers for Algernon, Fall of Hyperion, Startide Rising

I have book reviews piling up on me. I could skip them altogether but every time I do something like that I end up regretting it. You see, I like to be able to link to my old reviews and if I skip things I cannot do that. So in an effort to catch up with my reading list, I decided to review 3 books in a single post today. These books are: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys, Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons and Startide Rising by David Brinn.

Flowers for Algernon

WTF is Algernon? Well, Algernon is a lab rat. Not an ordinary lab rat mind you. He is a genius among his kind – the smartest rat that has ever lived. All thanks to experimental procedure that caused a very rapid, incremental growth of his intellectual potential. But this is not his story. The book is about Charlie – a nice, young fellow who was born with a very low IQ whose only wish is to one day become as smart as his friends. Charlie’s dream comes true when he gets picked as the first human subject to undergo the same procedure that was made Algernon into a rat-brainac.

The procedure is an overwhelming success. Over the next few weeks, Charlie’s intellect steadily increases. He starts learning new things. He devours books, and seeps knowledge like a sponge. He starts noticing things that he was previously oblivious too. He sees that his friends never really laughed with him, but at him. He sees that the doctors who came up with the procedure are really small minded, flawed people. Soon he intellectually overtakes all of them, and takes it upon himself to finish their research.

There is one problem: Algernon’s awesome mental powers start fading and deteriorate. Will charlie succumb to the same fate? Or does he have enough time to find a solution?

The novel is a great read. It is both moving, poignant and cleverly written. Keys frames his story as a compilation of Charlie’s progress reports he was instructed to write for the experiment, which at some point evolve into a very eloquent, introspective and thoughtful diary.

Fall of Hyperion

This novel is the continuation of Simmon’s Hyperion, which I reviewed previously. It picks up, right where the first novel left off. This means that you don’t really want to be reading it as a stand alone novel. You can, but you will be really confused as Simmons assumes the readers are already familiar with his complex universe and the main characters so he doesn’t even attempt to explain things for the new readers. He jumps right into the action and continues the story of the last Shrike pilgrims on Hyperion.

The book is good, but not as great as the first one. If you liked the main narrative that connected the different tales, you will like this novel as well because it is basically just more of that. If you found the main source of enjoyment from reading the tales themselves, and didn’t care about the pilgrims’ current predicament you might be a bit disappointed.

The book continues to build up the story and gives us glimpses to the parts of his universe he previously glossed over. For example, we get a first hand look at the elusive and mysterious Ousters. We find out more about the Techno Core and the real purpose of the second Earth and the Keats construct. We get to meet Kassad’s mysterious lover and learn about her relationship to the shrike. We found out what happened to Het Masteen and learn his reasons for the pilgrimage. And of course we finally find out what is Shrike and what is the true purpose of the Time Tombs.

So while the first book left you hanging, the second book ties up all the loose ends, and answers all the questions. Which is both good and bad. It’s good because it shows that Simmons didn’t just write bunch of open ended plot hooks to create an illusion of depth where there is none (this strategy is used extensively by the writers on LOST). He actually thought this whole thing out and created a logical, cohesive story. It is bad, because some readers may feel disappointed with Simmon’s answers. Some people say these answers are to shallow and to simple and that they do not live up to their expectations created by the first book. Others say they are too convoluted and muddled to follow. I found them adequate and satisfying. They do however take out some of the magic and mystery out of the first book. You will look at it in a different light.

I consider the book worth reading, and I’m looking forward to reading Endymion: the next novel in the Hyperion cycle. I enjoy Simmon’s style, I find his storytelling captivating and his Hyperion universe very fascinating. I’m hooked. Simmons has likely found a life long fan in me.

Startide Rising

What can I say about Startide Rising… Ok, let’s try this: have you ever watched the show called Sea Quest DSV? I remember that show mostly for the Wesley Crusher type kid genius and a talking dolphin. Reading this novel was a bit like watching that show back in the day. Talking dolphins, talking chimps, aliens, mind readers and one bad-ass special forces hero that can’t be killed.

Brinn’s Uplift idea is actually quite intriguing. This is why I picked up his book. In his universe, sentient races don’t just evolve. Instead they are uplifted (genetically modified towards sentience) by other sentient races that came before them. An uplifted race becomes a client and must serve the patron race for 10 thousand years. After that period they are free to pursue their own fate, and uplift their own clients. This pattern repeats itself all across the galaxy, and each race can trace their lineage back to a mysterious race of progenitors that has long since faded from existence. But who uplifted progenitors? Brinn never tackles that question directly, which is strike one against him.

Humans are an exception to the rule. Apparently we have no known patron and our sentience may have evolved naturally. Or the race that uplifted us just abandoned us and left. In either case, this makes humans the only known race in the whole galaxy that reached space flight capability without an aid from an older patron. This is of course a textbook case of Humans are Special trope. Not only that, but out of millions of sentient races we are the only one which does not suffer from Creative Sterility. All the alien technology is stale and static, based largely on the knowledge gathered in the Galactic Library which encompassed all of the collected knowledge of every race that ever existed. Humans seem to be the only race with their own unique take on space flight and uplift. The fact that I’m linking to TV tropes during this review is strike two against Brin.

The story is about the first space ship manned solely by dolphins – the newest sentient race uplifted by humans. It’s crew which includes a rudimentary supervisory human presence and a single sentient chimp, discovers a derelict fleet of alien ships so ancient that they may have been built by alien progenitors. When they transmit this information back to earth the whole galaxy literally explodes into chaos. Every race wants to get their hands on the fleet, and the poor dolphins have to take refuge on an uninhabited sea world as few dozen alien armies battle in its orbit for the exclusive right to interrogate the earthlings about their findings.

Brinn spends the most of his book trying to describe the dolphin culture, worldview and their relationship with humans, chimps and other galactic races. While his prose is competent, I didn’t find it very captivating. He does a decent job fleshing out his characters, but it is all sort of ruined by the cliche situations he puts them in. We have a Mutiny instigated by a pompous, bossy scientist, a Dolphin who gains a Disability Superpower, a dude who is a one man army. The dolphins fly in a Cool Starship that is a relic compared to the alien technology, but somehow performs better under certain conditions, and can also be tweaked to mimic patterns produced by enemy engines to avoid detection. There is also a classic Trojan horse maneuver, and etc..

The book is not bad. I’ve red worse (Cough, Twilight, Cough) but to me it seemed to rely too much on these standard tropes. That, and I just couldn’t get used to the way Brinn described his dolphins. They were a rather cheerful, uncomplicated race loving to sing, jest and struggling to suppress their animal instincts.

Here is the deal: when Dan Simmons made the dolphins talk in Hyperion, they seemed mysterious, aloof, alien and yet so familiar at the same time. It was awesome. Brinn’s dolphins just pale next to that portrayal.

That, and I just couldn’t stand the way Brinn portrayed humans as far superior to any of the older, more advanced alien races. I hate when writers do this and Brinn can’t seem to resist the urge to marvel at how special and unique we are every few pages.

It is an ok read, but I was less than impressed. Needless to say, I’m not going to read any other Uplift books. I’m not a fan.

Now excuse me, while I go browse TV Tropes for the next 4 hours. While I was searching for the tropes above, I managed to open about 80 background tabs, and I have this urge to read all of them now. Curse you TV Tropes. Why must you trap me this way, every time I visit?

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6 Responses to Rapid Fire Book Reviews: Flowers for Algernon, Fall of Hyperion, Startide Rising

  1. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Thanks for the Flowers for Algernon mini-review. I’ll give the book a read.

    I agree with you regarding Dan Simmons. And he doesn’t only write science fiction. There are also his horror novels like “Carrion Comfort” and “Song of Kali” and his historical novels like “The Terror” and “Drood”. I’m a huge fan.

    Startide Rising. I tried it twice because the Uplift books are a popular series. I couldn’t. It felt like I was reading a poorly written children’s adventure.

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  2. Mackattack UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    I can’t decide which is the better book between Hyperion and it’s sequel, though I found Fall of hyperion to have a lot more memorable content. Some of it completely passed me by (The templars and treeships rah rah rah, totally lacking in depth and almost a carbon copy of “The Saga of Seven Suns” treeship things) but other lines totally blew me away – The AI technocore protagonist especially:

    Once Ummon asked a lesser light \\
    Are you a gardener? \\
    // Yes \\ It replied //
    // Why have turnips no roots> \\
    Ummon asked the gardener \
    Who could not reply \\
    // Because \\ said Ummon //
    Rainwater is plentiful]

    The metaphor of turning the AI’s thoughts like “spinning hindu prayer wheels” was astounding in scale – However this relevation was totally out of the blue, the setting of everyone wearing mentally implanted com-chips was barely, if at all mentioned in the first book, and glossed over and mentioned as sidenotes in the second.

    Other things like the Ousters being a mish-mash of animal traits and what have you shattered my sense of disbelief. I went from having my head spun by the idea of zero-g architecture and ecospheres to balking and shouting “oh COME ON.” at the Ousters who had butterly wings/covered in fur/ etc etc. It struck me as being hugely trite, drawing inspiration from 3D avatar programs where these kinds of things were available. For all his condemnations of the “tawdry” oldschool human culture sustained by the Worldweb, his Ousters don’t actaully offer much alternative. The body modifications the ousters exhibit are childish and trivial, and don’t have a patch on current in-testing things in the REAL world of body modification, like magnetic implants and digital tattoos, or Neal Stephensons Diamond Age modifications like nanotech entire body tattoos, or even the world of Bioshock. He condemns dogma for and tradition for its hollowness and then fails to provide anything other than adolescent immaturity in return in the Ousters homeships.

    Monica being some kind of “Guardian”, were a let down, and quite contrived.

    Despite these flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Good Bits, which were thick enough to sustain the inconsistencies and trite ideas where Simmons was clearly reaching and grasping for original “Filler” content that evaded him outside of the headspinningly bold AI protogonist.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @ copperfish: I suffered through the whole Startide Rising, hoping that at some point it will introduce some worthwhile thoughts and ideas but it didn’t. It was a waste.

    @ Mackattack: I agree on the guardian thing – it rubbed me the wrong way too.

    I was also bit dissapointed with the Ousters but then again, I quickly got back into it. I guess the problem is that Simmons didn’t really spend that much time exploring their society, customs and technology.

    The body mods were superficial – yes, but I took that as a hint of diversity rather than decadence. I sort of imagine that each of these breeds lived in habitats designed to support the specific kind of body type – that the mods were functional rather than purely aesthetic. We just saw them out of their home environments when they came out to check out the visitors from Hegemony, and during the meetings.

    But yeah – it’s hard to say how exactly was their way of life “better” than ours. I guess they had the rapid development thing, and supreme adaptability down to perfection while the rest of humanity was getting stagnant with their technology and over reliant on the techno-core. Ousters chose to break away from the world controlled by artificial intelligences and fend on their ow, for better or for worse.

    But yeah… I had similar reaction to the fantasy, faerie people thing at first.

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  4. jorge HONDURAS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I enjoyed the first Hyperion book enormously, both as independent narrative and as a comment on the different SF subgenres tackled, but the second book failed for me in the same way the Brin book did. I groaned at the last-minute hand-waving use of the old join-forces-with-enemy-against-third/common-foe trope, which was trite already by the time Zelazny used it as afterthought in his Lord of Light and Amber novels. It has been a long time since I read the book, but my lingering impression is one of disappointed expectations, of hinted subtlety and complexity reduced to simplistic pulp cliches.

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