Sunday, May 15, 2011

Black Hills

So this post started simply enough. I was going to write about how much I'd enjoyed Dan Simmon's Black Hills: A Novel. Simple. Thing is that during the process of blathering about it, I poked around the web looking for other stuff about Mr. Simmons', and I was reminded why I'd really rather I didn't do that.

For example, there's this piece published on his website, and here at Free Republic website Message from a Time Traveler. Hmmm.

And then there was the October 2005 message from Dan. Hmmm. I'm sure there's more stuff that might make my cheek twitch, but I stopped there.

I became troubled. It's not just that I find the content of the time traveler piece silly, it's also that I find it maliciously so, and that I find the structure of it to be manipulative. (ie- The fake conversation with a supernaturally intelligent stranger that knows more than me and slowly convinces me to be afraid, to be very afraid of those scary Muslims...) And it's not just that I don't think there's plenty to be criticized about all things Katrina-related, but that I would hope that a wealthy person looking out at the world from a perch on the Rockies might show some humility when discussing a social tragedy with complex origins. Also, the rambling, discursive structure of it lacks the clarity and empathy I so appreciate about his fiction.

If I had started with those pieces I wouldn't have been very interested in reading his fiction. This much is clear; Mr Simmons and I do not see the world with the same eyes politically. But... the guy can write (fiction). So do our differences matter in terms of my encouraging people to read his work? I'm not sure.

Certainly, I don't want my readers to only be people that are aligned with me politically. I've had some wonderful correspondences with readers that I know have a very different world view than me in terms of politics, social issues, religion, etc. I love those interactions, and I love it that it's the fiction that has created a connection that might not be there if we instead began by comparing and contrasting our political stripes.

It may be wrong of me to begin this by doing just that, but I couldn't help it. And I should point out that the things he wrote about in those pieces have nothing directly to do with the book in question. It's other stuff. So... with that jumbled opening I offer the words of praise I initially composed for Mr. Simmons. Here goes:

There are some writers that I read a bit of and politely fold the cover on. I'm not one to denigrate other authors, but plenty of what's published and praised leaves me a tepid. Then there are authors that I admire greatly, feeling (perhaps mistakenly) that they're my compatriots and peers in this writing craft. And there are others to whom I nod in reverence. Dan Simmons is one of these. I don't know who or what he is as a person, but as a writer he's a pro that has taken his talent and exercised it with admirable discipline. He is, in a lot of ways, the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up. Why?

Because he consistently produces ambitious, genre-hopping (and merging) novels, filled with an intelligent engagement with history, rich with ideas, fueled by a verve for storytelling and infused with heavy doses of the fantastic. He's prolific, but the finished products he manages to publish every year are dazzlingly in their reach and erudition. I've praised his work before. The occasion for this endorsement is his recent novel, Black Hills.

Now, I'll admit the description was not one that immediately grabbed me. The historical setting held interest, but I couldn't get the shape of the book from the dust jacket material:

When Paha Sapa, a young Sioux warrior, "counts coup" on General George Armstrong Custer as Custer lies dying on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, the legendary general's ghost enters him - and his voice will speak to him for the rest of his event-filled life. Seamlessly weaving together the stories of Paha Sapa, Custer, and the American West, Dan Simmons depicts a tumultuous time in the history of both Native and white Americans. Haunted by Custer's ghost, and also by his ability to see into the memories and futures of legendary men like Sioux war-chief Crazy Horse, Paha Sapa's long life is driven by a dramatic vision he experienced as a boy in his people's sacred Black Hills. In August of 1936, a dynamite worker on the massive Mount Rushmore project, Paha Sapa plans to silence his ghost forever and reclaim his people's legacy-on the very day FDR comes to Mount Rushmore to dedicate the face.

It still doesn't exactly hook me. It's the kind of book that you just need to enter with an open mind, let it define itself, get to know the characters, and get swept along. That's what I did, and I enjoyed it very much.

I found Paha Sapa to be a compelling character, rendered with understated empathy. He has an interior life that he cannot and will not share with the white people that shape his life in so many ways. Simmons does a wonderful job of understanding that. He portrays a man that shares very little of himself with others, and he makes it clear how limited seeing him from the outside is. And yet the novel provides us an intimate exploration of his childhood, his desires, disappointments, loves and, ultimately, his singular destructive ambition.

Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say in a starred review:

Hugo-winner Simmons, the author of such acclaimed space operas as Hyperion and Olympos as well as Drood, an intriguing riff on Dickens's unfinished last novel, displays the impressive breath of his imagination in this historical novel with a supernatural slant. In the author's retelling of Custer's last stand at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the dying general's ghost enters the body of Paha Sapa, a 10-year-old Sioux warrior who's able to see both the past and the future by touching people. The action leaps around in time to illustrate the arc of Sapa's life, but focuses on 1936, when, as a septuagenarian, he plots to blow up the monuments on Mount Rushmore in time for a visit to the site by FDR to atone for his role in constructing the stone likenesses. In his ability to create complex characters and pair them with suspenseful situations, Simmons stands almost unmatched among his contemporaries.

That's probably all the review one needs to enter the book. I'm actually glad that I didn't read any reviews before starting it. So, if you're inclined to pick up it you might want to stop reading here.

Or, stay with me... I looked up some reviews as I prepared this post. I found lots a positive ones, sure, but others like this Washington Post review written by Barbara Ehrenreich are a bit jumbled, though still positive. I like The Post and review for them myself. I certainly like it that Simmons manages - some times, at least - to get the critical attention that his work deserves. While I offer the link, the review seems a bit scattered to me. For some reason, she chooses to mention Jonathan Franzen.

Now is that necessary?

But, anyway, she is a fan when all the back and forth has run its course.

The guy that reviewed it for The Science Christian Monitor, Justin Moyer, is another story entirely. Personally, I think the reviewer gets pretty much everything that he snidely complains about wrong. But you can read it here if you’re so inclined.

Paha Sapa a "Sioux Forrest Gump"? That's a clever jibe. It’s definitely the type of line that would put me off a book, and that’s what it’s intended to do. Problem is, I read the book already, and I don't think that’s an accurate characterization. Perhaps the reviewer mistook Paha Sapa’s reticence when speaking to white people for a lack of intelligence. I didn’t. It’s a defense mechanism in a world in which he’s discriminated against at every turn.

Nor do I get why it offends the reviewer that the main character of the novel knows several famous people and is on the ground at a number of historic moments/settings. That's the reason he's the main character. That's why the story is about him.

He then appears to slight Paha Sapa's strange bond with Custer by saying it would make a good Sherman Alexie story. So... not a good Dan Simmons story, but a good story if a hip Native American writer wrote it instead? Maybe, but references like that seem less about the substance and more about the reviewer making sure we know he's read Sherman Alexie. We'll, I've read Sherman Alexie too.

So there. (Makes a silly face.)

Another thing that bugs me about when reviewers trash a book is that they have the advantage of being able to contextualize things that the reader of the review has not (assuming he/she hasn't read the book yet) had an opportunity to contextualize themselves. Take this, for example:

Close to death, Paha Sapa envisions the “rewilding” of the Great Plains at an unspecified date by the federal government – that is, the same government that blazed the Trail of Tears, murdered Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and commissioned Rushmore in the first place... Given America’s questionable management of its natural resources and the sham global warming debate, this Eden isn’t just an unlikely outcome – it’s bad fiction that neither reflects reality nor entertains.

Well, sure, that sounds a bit stupid when you put it that way. What the reviewer ignores is that the government gets around to the "rewilding" Paha Sapa envisions after a catastrophic collapse of the ecology of the middle of America. The land is turned into desert, abandoned and uninhabitable in a conventional sense. It's quite clearly explained that governmental/business/personal mismanagement of the land by the majority American culture is what caused it. So the “rewilding” is not a sudden liberal/environmentalist take over in 2020 or something. We're talking a response to disaster, suffering, mass-extinction, likely within a larger world of global calamities that are outside of Paha Sapa’s vision. Given that context - which is the true context of the book - I find his dismissal of the idea glib, and lacking in the imagination that makes science fictional meditations on the future so interesting.

So there. (Sticks out tongue.)

Oh, final bit on this one. He writes: Simmons thinks he can heal Colonial wounds with a good yarn...

I don't feel that way. Simmons isn’t trying to “heal Colonial wounds” at all. I’d say he’s showing the ways in which we move forward scarred by those wounds, creating fresh ones as we go, acknowledging some mistakes and making new ones at the same time, while hopefully aging into enough wisdom to be able to run our fingers over those wounds, recognizing and remembering them - and acknowledging that the truth of them lives on in our very blood. In our DNA, so to speak.

So that's what I wrote. I can't take any of it back. That's still the book I remember reading, and that was my reaction to it. Was I mistaken? Should I read it differently? Or is the book the book and my reaction to it should be what it is, regardless of other stuff?

You tell me.

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Blogger Bryan Russell said...

Wonderful post. And I supposed that's the risk of this wonderfully compressed digital world we sometimes find ourselves living in these days. So much is close at hand... and, quite often, too much.

There's something to be said for simply experiencing a writer through his books.

But, then again, here I am...

6:22 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Bryan,

Yep. Hey, someone might well find their way here and then decide they don't like my ruminations on something or other. I'm sure that's happened!

You however, have been kind enough to stick around. Thanks for that!

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Shawn Crawford said...

Hey David,
I've got to be honest--I really don't have any desire to read any of Simmon's work. Why? Because there are too many good books out there NOT written by people I consider irrational bigots.

I don't read Orson Scott Card (or John Ringo for that matter) either. I just find it hard to believe that anyone with views so myopic could write anything I might want to read. And while I'm sure there are exceptions to that rule, there are simply too many good books, too little time.

That said, I also don't read China Miéville--whose politics are probably closer to mine than most popular fiction authors go--because I just don't dig his prose style, so there you are.

At a guess, I'd think most authors I read (and enjoy) are most likely middle of the road in their politics, at least compared to me. Of course, these days, believing in habeas corpus and being against undeclared wars and political assassinations makes one a marginalized irrational radical.

BTW, I'm definitely looking forward to your presentation at this summer's residency, an awesome topic indeed. I'd like to see more like it, dealing with aspects of historical fiction, prose style, etc.

Anyway, I hope you and your family are well.


3:25 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


I respect your pov on Simmons. For me, though, I'll always have interest in his fiction. It's just too good not to. Hyperion was like five novels worth of storytelling packaged into one. The Terror was a terrific historical novel... Oh, or, it was a gripping horror yarn... Or, maybe it was a historical fantasy with dark psychological undertones...

I'm not sure what it was, but I'm glad to have read it. I'm also glad to have read the Orson Scott Card that I have. I know his views on many things don't meet with mine, but he's also a hell of a writer.

I'll probably have to take this book by book...

10:15 AM  
Blogger Bryan Russell said...


No problem. I like writers who are both talented and considerate. :)

And I understand Shawn's point above, but that's one of the weird things about literature, the occasional disparity between writer and work, and the problematic nature of liking the writing of someone you may not want to like. I'm not sure I want to like Lovecraft, but he's still sort of interesting.

It helps to remember that the book is its own thing, living out in the world. Sort of like a child--it certainly has the imprint of the parent, but it has its own views, its own life to live.

Still have The Terror on my TBR list, and have an unread copy of Drood at home...

2:56 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Hi David,

A thought-provoking post. It reminded me that several of my favorite authors are quite a bit farther left than me. (I was raised in a very conservative family and, while I've been able to completely break away from that mold on social issues over the years, I would still classify myself as more libertarian than liberal.)

Authors are obviously entitled to their opinions, and if they choose to use whatever degree of fame and following they have to make those opinions known, or actively try to convince others of their viewpoint--well, that's their perogative. I think if I respect an author's work enough to seek out his or her blog and read their opinions about the world, that author would have to say some pretty vile things for it to make me not want to read his or her work anymore.

The thing is, I have friends and family with whom I couldn't disagree more on some issues, and I don't let that get in the way of my relationships with them any more than I might let Dan Simmons' views stop me from appreciating "The Terror," which is the only one of his books I've read. (Loved it.)

I followed the links to his two essays you posted and read them with some interest. I don't agree with most of what he's written -- and even when I do agree with a particular nugget here or there, I don't really care for the tone of the two pieces overall -- but I don't begrudge him his opinions, nor do I think they are 100% indefensible. He seems like the kind of person who would be quite interesting to debate, actually, if his essays weren't so know-it-all smarmy about it.

Of course, sometimes it's not a good thing to know too much about an author simply because it can distract you from their work, much like watching a celebrity actor can make it difficult to see the character on screen rather than the actor himself. But if the acting's good enough, or if the writing's good enough, often it doesn't even matter.

Anyway, thanks for the post. I enjoy your blog.


9:39 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Josh,

Thanks for your thoughtful response as well! I agree with you on all points - in particular about not letting political disagreements get in the way of quality/important relationships. And you put your finger on my issues with Simmons' articles - that they're "so know-it-all smarmy". It just seems strange to me that in his fiction he writes with complexity and erudition that he obviously respects his reader's intelligence. He's also showing off his own intelligence, but it works.

With the nonfiction, I feel like he's speaking down to his readers, lecturing them and using some sketchy techniques to manipulate us toward his chosen conclusion.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Mr. Durham,

I do not usually comment on blog posts, especially those dealing with politics or particularly explosive issues simply because of their nature. It is always heartening to read thoughtful ideas from authors who share some of my worldview, especially when you feel beset by the current political clime. That having been said, I, like you, am not so naive as to believe that every author whom I love will be such. You have to be practical in these matters. Unless a writer's politics interfere with their ability to tell a good story, their prejudices can be easy to overlook. While I found Black Hills to be not much more than colonial apologetics, it was still a good story told well. I had no idea about some of Simmons' politics until your post, as I haven't followed him as closely as some of my other favorite authors but now that I know, I don't believe I'll ever think less of the Hyperion/Endymion series.
I did find the extreme in Terry Goodkind, however. I personally find Ayn Rand distasteful (and that is putting it nicely, in all honesty), but I set it aside and rolled my eyes when he got preachy because I was invested in Richard and Kahlan and Zedd and the others. That is, until his retelling of "The Fountainhead" otherwise known as "Faith of the Fallen," which, I want it noted, I did manage to choke down. After that, however, I could no longer stomach him or his writing. What seemed, at first, to be some great fantasy turned out to be naught but poorly regurgitated philosophy, especially in retrospect.
With that exception, however, it can be trifling to look past somebody's perspectives. If it becomes a problem, you can just stop reading their blog or their books, if you find them especially distasteful. But I believe that everybody needs to be somewhat pragmatic. For the sake of a great story or great characters, almost any potential defect can be overlooked (how many of us got tired of the minutiae in "The Lord of the Rings" from time to time, for example).
Just my $.02.
For the record, I am ridiculously excited about "The Sacred Band." Maybe not urine-droppingly excited, but if it becomes an issue, I can always wear adult diapers, yes?


Ellery Johnson

12:18 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

There is definitely that line when fiction stops being fiction and becomes an artifice for the author's politics. I think that's easy to spot, though - usually because the fiction suffers for it.

Thankfully, I haven't felt that yet with Mr. Simmons.

10:51 AM  

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