Forever Peace - Joe Haldeman by Usamah Khan


So right after reading “The Forever War” I think I just needed more Haldeman to read. Good for me, it was 2018, and I didn’t have to wait 20 years for him to write another. Two days of feeling like I needed more was pain enough, twenty years must have been rough for fans..

Luckily I had a copy of “Forever Peace” that I picked up in a book fair a year or so before. I always figured it was a true sequel so didn’t give it a read. I was wrong, and while I still don’t quite understand how it falls into the realm of a ‘spiritual’ or thematic sequel it has all the captivating features that hooked me through “The Forever War”.

I found it interesting how the story took a long time to get going and then just turned it to 11 at the end. I really like how the concept of “jacking” (submitting yourself to a VR simulation of sorts) was introduced quickly and then put through all sorts of contexts so you truly understood it. Like for war, pleasure, stimulation and even knowledge transfer. Made me think of that Elon Musk interview when he talked about how we’re limited in our input/output. Two hands, ten fingers and our words are not enough to convey everything an idea or memory has to offer. ‘Jacking’ in offers this but with the bonus of full memory and voluntary sharing at will.

So because of this, the build up at the end was really quite enjoyable because I was fully aware of how important the concept of ‘jacking’ was and how it was such an effective way of communicating. Learning that it could actually help reform society and remove any violent tendencies was wonderfully acceptable at that point.

The more I think about it the more I can see how Haldeman’s time in the military and the war affected his writing. It’s been said, in book I’ve read such as “Dispatches” and “Page After Page”, that soldiers in a platoon in war start to know each other intimately due to proximity and always being with each other. Due to the nature of combat, senses are heightened in these times as well and as such you perform at your best or worst as a team.

However, if you took away all the feelings or possibility of danger that cause you to be at your worst and created an environment where you fostered and built all the connections between the soldiers, you would have a literal machine of war. Soldiers perfectly in sync with one another and with no fear. These would make for the best platoons. Experienced and connected soldiers.

But I wonder, are those soldiers in those platoons - the ones who spend the most time with each other and see the worst horrors of war - also the ones who come home and want the least to do with war and most wanting for peace? And so would not a stronger connection with your team then lead to a stronger desire for peace? I think this is what Haldeman was trying to get least what I took from it when I flipped the last page.

I think I’m done for Haldeman’s forever series but this has just got me thinking about how sci-fi is the perfect platform to explore the human condition. Exaggerate and extrapolate every aspect of the world as we know it, but we’re not going to change as a species. At least our most basic desires and fears will stay the same. And war brings these feelings out the most in us.

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman by Usamah Khan


When I first got into reading Science Fiction, I didn’t know where to begin. So, naturally, I did what any one with a laptop and wifi would do. I googled “best sci-fi novels”. This led me to learn about the two most prestigious awards given to writers of the genre: the Hugo award and the Nebula award.

Every year since the 1950s/60s, each of these groups give the award to the best sci-fi novel of the year. I also learned that in all this time there have only been a handful of novels to win both awards in a year. This list seemed as good a place as any to start.

So with that I made a point to read every book on that list. I was enamoured by the quality of the writing and the fantastic stories that were being told. I read a few on the list, gradually finding authors I enjoyed and spent time exploring more of their catalogues. However whenever I came back to something on this list I remembered just how good a book had to be to grab both awards.

So after a little sejour from the list, I finally picked up “The Forever War”, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1975, and it is probably one of the best pieces of Science Fiction I’ve ever read.

Not only was this one of the best pieces of Sci-Fi, but also one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. It’s a book that transcends the tropes of ‘just’ a sci-fi novel and tells a compelling story with an engaging commentary on war while masterfully rooting itself in some very hard sci-fi themes.

I found the war story to be the most captivating and human aspect of the novel. Briefly, Mandella, the protagonist, starts off in 1996 as one of the first soldiers to take part in this interstellar war that would span many years and many tours. His first tour takes him far from Earth, traveling at relativistic speeds.

This is so crucial to the novel, and very early on we’re made aware of how with every tour, because of the time dilation, they are coming back from a year or so away subjectively but 20 years or so later in actual time, with each tour stretching that even more. Every time Mandella comes back to a new world that looks vaguely like the one he remembers, but more different than the time before.

I guess this is what veterans feel like when they come back from war. It’s hard for them, they go away and for a while live a very static life with nothing changing around them. The war happens, they age beyond their years but they still live in the same conditions, with the same mandate and mission. But when they come home, everyone has moved on. There are new words, new norms, art, movies etc. A year away might as well be 10 years.

Granted I don’t have a great understanding of what veterans go through but I always thought about this in the same way as Herr described the young recruits in Vietnam. They were high school football stars or athletes but in those formative years of your life the world moves quick. When they came home, everyone seemed to have left them behind.

As is with all “hard“ sci-fi and speculative fiction, they key is to take an understanding of the world that you possess and extrapolate it or posit a “what if?. I learned after reading that Joe Haldeman was actually a Vietnam War veteran. This was his reality and I guess no matter what setting you put it in, the reality of war never changes.

So maybe this was his way of explaining to the world what he went through and what other soldiers went through. I don’t know what impact this had on people when it came out but I sure know that it’s made me -someone with very few positive things to say about the military and war - to understand veterans and their struggles a little bit more. I think everyone should read this novel not only to experience a great sci-fi story, but to gain an insight into war and the human condition.

Those are my thoughts, but before I end, just wanted to share some great artwork by Marvano who based a comic series on the story. Love seeing all these takes on Mandella and the world of the Forever War.

EDIT: This podcast and interview with Joe Haldeman from the guys over at “What a Hell of a Way to Die” came out a day after I posted this. Haldeman touches on a lot of points I tried to make and I think (obviously) more succinctly and insightfully. Really happy to have some of my thoughts validated but maybe that’s just because I’m skimming the surface here.

The Quiet American - Graham Greene by Usamah Khan

The Quiet American.jpg

I spent the last few months obsessing over historical and journalistic accounts of the Vietnam War. I decided, this time to pick up something a little different. What I ended up reading was, while a novel about Vietnam, was not a true take on the war. Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" takes place in 1955, years before the war. Graham Greene wrote it as fiction but it seems inspired by his experiences living in Vietnam. The craziest thing about the book was how prophetic it was. Greene makes it seem like a war was inevitable. The way the Americans controlled everything and believed wholeheartedly that what they were doing was for the best. He makes it clear that they were going to fail in their attempts to control these people. Simply because American ideas of 'freedom' are just not compatible around the world. Ironically, it was a British author who understood that 'Western' ideas are rarely a best fit.

The way he tackles building Alden Pyle as a character is interesting. It seems this was Greene's idea of Americans. He portray's Alden as a confident, arrogant man with a blind self-assurance that what he believed to be true was right. He also seemed to feel entitled to what he believed to be his and what he 'knew in his heart' he would be able to take care of best.

I liked how at the heart of the story, the three-way love triangle of Fowler-Pyle-Phuong was a micro representation of British American relations in Vietnam. Like the rest of the novel where all description of Vietnam and it's people is almost non-existent, Phuong is never fully explored or never let to open up. But she's at the heart of the story, the driving force for every decision made by either Fowler or Pyle.

Fowler aids in having Pyle assassinated and I think Greene did that in a kind of hope that that's what the novel would do to American interests in Vietnam. I think he wanted to make whoever was reading see that going to war in the effort of lifting the backwards locals up to western standards wouldn't actually make the situation any better. In fact, he argues against this with Fowler very clearly calling Pyle out and telling him American culture isn't for everyone. But of course, idealistic, headstrong Pyle doesn't see that at all.

The book ended up being labelled "anti-America" when it came out. So much so I heard that in the 2003 American film adaptation it was made as more of an anti-communist piece while putting Pyle in the limelight. I haven't seen it, but should give it a chance.

I left the book thinking back to Page and Herr's books. They all looked at it in hindsight as prophetic, like it was bound to happen. Everyone knew it, even the soldiers. But hindsight is always 20/20. I guess my biggest takeaway was that why didn't anyone see it coming..or did they but not care about the consequences of their actions?

Dispatches - Michael Herr by Usamah Khan


After diving into Tim Page's rock 'n roll account of his time in Vietnam during the war, and telling everyone who would listen to read his book, my Dad suggested I pick up "Dispatches" from Michael Herr. I remember I'd heard the name in "Page after Page". Page and Herr were actually friends during the war, both journalists covering the Vietnam through their respective lenses. Herr who was more of a writer captured the feeling of war through his words while Page, the photographer, was able to share his take of the war through the lens of his Leica. While Page's account of Vietnam was thoroughly centred around him, Herr puts the focus in "Dispatches" entirely on the soldiers in what I believe was the first example of 'fly on the wall' war journalism.

Every chapter presents a harrowing description of the soldiers life in Vietnam. To read what they went through was difficult at times. Most of them were younger than I am now and saw things I hope I never have to in my life. A passage that got to me was one where Herr encounters a soldier who put that at 18 years old he was more an adult than Herr would ever be. They were just kids. Some of them straight out of high school, football stars, local heroes and some on the opposite end, kids with troubled backgrounds from poor neighbourhoods in big cities. It seemed like a time where, unless you were ultra rich, everyone was just being drafted and shipped there together.

There wasn't any real chronological order to the events. I got the feeling he was just re-writing his notes from the field as they came to him or as he found them. Moments just kind of happened and you had to understand the whole context to make sense of why. One story in particular stands out for this. Soldiers were apparently extremely superstitious, taking special precautions going out in to the field bringing trinkets or even pairing up with special people who they believed were going to bring them safety and wouldn't get hurt. When one soldier, a happy go lucky 20 something from small town midwest America heard news that his girlfriend back home was 7 months pregnant when he had been gone for 8 months, his happiness and demeanour was sapped from him, replaced with a quiet, cool anger was scary to read about. Even scarier was that to the other soldiers, in their eyes this made him "invincible". Because they believed that if they were going through hell and God was putting this man through even more, then God wasn't going to allow him be hurt, and he was going to home alive to deal with his girlfriend and her new lover.

The level of superstition was crazy. The way everyone had their own mantras, good luck charms and beliefs. Some people, like the kid above, were considered to be so invincible and lucky that soldiers would go out of their way to go on tour with them in the hopes that some of their luck would rub off on them. You can see an exaggerated depiction of this, Robert Duvall as lt. Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now!". Herr had a hand in the screenplay and many of the scenes and stories were taken from "Dispatches". After reading the book, it was easy to pick out scenes that were directly lifted from chapters in the book.

The Vietnam War was the first and last time that the press was allowed to report so freely on a war. Too freely sometimes. At some points they acted as "Quasi Soldiers" with a rank and a weapon. If the fighting got rough, well there was nothing to do but to just pull out your rifle or pistol and just start shooting. All this for the story. That's why they were so well respected in that war. As Herr tells it, he left a hot zone and a grunt latched on to him as he was leaving and said to him "tell it as it is man, godammit you tell it".

Page After Page - Tim Page by Usamah Khan

Getting into photography has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling endeavours I've undertaken in the last few years. When I first had the idea, this website was actually just supposed to be a platform share my photos. Tying in other interests of my life was an afterthought - albeit, a good decision that I'm happy with. Exploring photography has been a central part of my free time and conversation for the last while and by doing so, I've exposed myself to so much and learnt about a wide range of subjects outside my normal vision and comfort zone. Finding shots I like and subsequently discovering new and old photographers often leads me to research their lives to better understand their vision and creative raison d'être.

One day looking at some powerful shots from the Vietnam War era, I discovered Tim Page and his photography. I was pretty taken aback by the rawness and power of the images he captured during that time. I began exploring more, researching his life and very quickly found he had done a decent amount of writing as well. I started reading an article he wrote and..well he definitely has a way with words and some of the most outrageous stories to share. I was hooked on his every word. He mentioned his autobiography - Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer and so after a few months of searching and trying to find a copy, I finally found one. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. 

Tim Page (far right) in the field

Tim Page (far right) in the field

Page begins by describing his life from birth, his childhood and really begins his story when at the age of fifteen he decided to leave his home in England and travel overland to Australia. The stories of the places he goes and the people he encounters on the way are almost unbelievable. He describes everything in such detail, down to creases on the face of the people he met for an hour on a warm night in the Iranian desert years ago. From France, Italy, Turkey to when he eventually ran out of money and settled in Laos you get the story of the man and how he rose to be such a prominent and well respected war photographer and journalist. How did he do all this? Well from the way he puts it, he just tried and did everything that came his way.

The meat of the book focuses on his life in Vietnam, the people he met there and his stories from the field. All throughout you get a a real sense of what the vibe was in the 60s, what rock 'n roll really meant and what that lifestyle entailed.

Something I didn't expect, and what ended up being the most striking aspect of the book, was the first hand look into what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is actually like and how it affects people. During that period, the last time the press was truly "free" to report in conflict zones, the journalists and photographers, while not drafted themselves, were in fact quasi-soldiers with ranks and a basic training. If push came to shove, they'd have to pick up a rifle and fire back with the rest of the soldiers. This happened for Page. Coupling this with the positions he put himself in to get a good shot and story certainly seemed intense enough to leave a lasting impact. Also he almost died..twice. After both times he went back out to the field. This disregard/weird appreciation for life is something thats so unnerving..but enviable.

Reading this book at any other time in my life probably wouldn't have had the same effect. Getting older, and learning how putting yourself in situations wildly outside of your comfort zone and just doing is the best way to grow, I appreciated his story. How every job he took, every person he met and every place we went added up to who he became. It's easy to have an experience, but to learn from it and have it add to your life is something you have to be conscious about, something you have to let happen. I think thats why I think about his story a lot, and think of it fondly as one of the books things I read last year.

Page makes note of a lot of friends he made. Colleagues in the war, friends and mentors who all have contributed notable works in the this field. Some that I've explored in the months since I finished Page after Page. It's a great starting point for anyone wanting to know a bit more about the this period in time. Not the history and timeline of events, but what was happening to the people and culture while history was unfolding.

My favourite passage in the book is his ending

...with no ifs and buts.

We are what we think having become what we thought
Like the wheel that follows the cart puling the ox
Sorrow follows an evil thought
And joy follows a pure thought
Like a shadow faithfully tailing a man
We are what we think having become what we thought

1Q84 - Haruki Murakami by Usamah Khan

I knew after reading "Norwegian Wood" that it wouldn't be long until I picked up something else from Haruki Murakami. I kept thinking about the simplicity in his style. It made that whole first reading experience so easy and it's what makes him so accessible as a writer. It's why, I believe, people who read him keep coming back. Definitely why I was so eager to read "1Q84". Once there, it didn't hurt that I was treated to an amazing display of imagination and storytelling on top of that.

I had no knowledge of what to expect this time round. "Norwegian Wood" had stunned me and I wanted to go in with a blank slate and see what other surprises lay in store. I had no assumptions except that there must be a reason his book was titled "1Q84" and I was to expect an Orwellian connection/evocation of some dystopian feel. Well..I wasn't wrong, but I guess I wasn't right either.

To build on this, I've found that recently I've enjoyed going into new books with no idea of plot or setting. Over the last few years, I've even stopped reading blurbs. Yes, it has it's drawbacks, but I've found it effective to work my way through genres, authors and eras by recommendations. I have a great group of well read friends, family and communities I follow so why not take advantage of that? I find I have less expectations, and reading through, I'm less likely to be influenced by my own bias. It's funny because this is just not how I operate in any other aspect of my life. When picking up anything new I scrutinize and research like my life depends on the decision I need to make. "The agony of choice" as it was put to me once. So I find it liberating that, if only just for books, I go in with no assumptions or expectations and just roll with it.

Starting out, Aomame's story set the tone much like the beginning of other crime storys/dramas that I like. A young woman finds herself in odd circumstances as she tries to perform a not so kosher job. The opening chapter was normal, but bizarre enough that I immediately had questions. This I learned, was to set the tone for the rest of the novel. Tengo's story started out very differently; A tale of a young man trying to get by as a writer in Tokyo while his eccentric colleague lures him in and begins plotting something that will end up being (a little) extraordinary. Just off balance enough to build excitement.

What I enjoyed the most in "1Q84" was the interplay of different styles and genres across chapters and volumes. The alternating chapters from just the two viewpoints of Tengo and Aomame in the first two volumes kept the pace flowing and, unlike in lets say "Game of Thrones" and other similarly styled fantasy novels, I was never tired of a character because I cared about another character more and it was taking to long to hear from them. Even when Ushikawa became a point of view character I was always hooked enough on each character's chapter that my excitement for the next never dwindled.

After I realized that the book was going to be cycling through points of view, I made my first informed assumption; Tengo and Aomame were going to meet somewhere down the line. I think the anticipation of this event was the driving point for my experience with the novel. In anticipation of this event the book took twists and turns like nothing I'd ever read. Crime, drama, romance, fantasy and science fiction all blended together and even now I'm hard pressed to find a good description and categorization of what kind of book this was.

Talking with different friends I've come to realize that the idea of picking this up is overwhelming for some people. At ~ 1200 pages, just the task of lifting the book to read is daunting and it reinforces the fact that its going to be quite a long read. However, it's one of those cases where if you read a lot you'll be happy for your experience. Having read numerous authors of different styles and genres avidly since a young age helped me appreciate and enjoy the book even more. I like that about Murakami. Even in "Norwegian Wood" it feels like he rewards readers who have some knowledge of literature. He makes you think back to novels critically when you didn't necessarily ever need to and if you did, you often find an opinion you had validated or now a point of discussion. Maybe that's just me, but I also know that's why I connect with his work so much.

Murakami's writing is wonderfully smooth. He'll often take a whole chapter to go through a single event or instance in all of its detail. Funnily enough, it's his slow pacing that allows you to read him so quickly. You're engrossed in every detail, right down to the smell of the Tokyo rain while Tengo cooks salmon and rice for dinner. You feel like you're a part of it. Not just as a spectator looking, but a guest invited to observe and take part.

I was talking with my roommate one day (incidentally the person who got me hooked on Murakami in the first place) and he mentioned that sometimes he finds he forgets a decent proportion of what happens. But we concluded that it wasn't a bad thing in our opinion. I do too, but so much in life is forgettable. What was the last thing you smelled before you read this? What hand did you use the last time you scratched your nose or took a sip of water? In a reality where you only remember 5% of any events you partake in in a day, reading about that other 95%, having that in the back of your mind reinforces what you do remember.

Interestingly enough, it's kind of how I feel about "Blade Runner". I've seen it maybe 10 times but for the life of me I always forget what happens and every time I watch it I pick up on something new. But what I never forget was how I felt the last time I was invited to take part in that world. After reading 1Q84, I'm starting to view my world just a little different too.

Bloodbrothers - Richard Price by Usamah Khan

"..But don't fuckin' jerk off yourself, sweetheart, 'cause twenty years from now you're gonna wind up just like yer old man with your fuckin' putz in your hand hanging out in some bar in Yonkers, married to some bitch with a heart like a piece of coal, and a kid for a punching bag, OK?"

Probably one of the most raw pieces of writing I've ever read. It's no wonder Richard Price, screenwriter of "The Wire" and most recently "The Night Of", is praised for his ability to develop such real characters in his writing. His ability to portray gritty, urban 20th century America with such realism set's him apart from his contemporaries. Maybe because he's so unafraid to draw from his experiences that you feel honesty in his writing. You trust that, what he's telling you is the way it is. I certainly felt that way with his portrayal of a lower middle class 1970s Italian American family from Brooklyn in "Bloodbrothers".

Dialogue is the driving force of the novel. It's easy to see how screenwriting came naturally to him. Sometimes, I find it hokey when accents are literally spelled out in writing. It can be distracting and oftentimes overly stereotypical. But it felt real in "Bloodbrothers". No doubt, due to his upbringing and his exact sense of what dialogue and culture was like in his community.

The whole book felt like a screenplay, and it's no wonder they were able to make a film adaptation of it a mere two years after it was published. Price has a way with understanding dialects, slang and specific terms used by certain factions of society. Looking back through the lens of already having watched "The Wire", I realized immediately how I was able to believe in his characters so easily. Even the ones who were over the top like Omar Little and Proposition Joe. The characters sounded real, so it was easy to forget the fiction.

While I admire writers who can write timeless pieces that can fit in to any time period, like I mentioned in my reflection of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I also enjoy when something is so specific, you can only observe and immerse yourself in what the author is trying to tell you. Zadie Smith put it nicely when she said "I’m never interested in writing a kind of neutral, universal novel that could be set anywhere. To me, the novel is a local thing." "Bloodbrothers" was definitely a local thing.

I picked up the book expecting something different. A noir/crime novel perhaps? At the heart of it though, it was simply a coming of age family drama...of dramatic proportions. 

What stuck with me for a long while after reading was the fact that my sense of what was normal changed over the course of the novel. After a few pages I thought "man this is a fucked up family". But after reading more about Stony and his family, then Chubby and his kid and then the doctors understanding of Stony's situation I realized this was real for them. Despite everything, all the shit, the beatings, they were loved and loved each other. This was what family meant to them, and it was normal. So it became normal for me.

There's a band called Defeater that I like because their whole raison d'être and catalogue of music is to fulfill a concept. The concept is a story that goes from early to late 20th century dealing with a working class Bostonian family across generations that was very much like Stony's. They're a melodic hardcore band for the most part, but they put out an album, "Empty Days & Sleepless Nights" with an acoustic B-Side that had some of their most powerful songs. After finishing and putting down this book, all I could think about was this one song I had going through my head, and the last few lines. From "But Breathing":

"Well broken, and beaten
from the abuse, and cheatin'
the addiction, and the lying
And the promise of leaving
While my old man was a bastard
I admired
And loved him
And us two kids we were born in
To a family
Not a fortune."

Stony gave up his chance at a new life. But that was because of his pride, and his love for his family. Tommy and Chubby both had their chances too, but for the same reasons, they didn't take them. That's just the way it goes, and the way it was gonna end for Stony. I guess my idea of life is different, and that makes me appreciate it more.

Endymion - Dan Simmons by Usamah Khan

Book three of Dan Simmon's "Hyperion" cantos. These books are so much fun. This was probably the least..."exciting" book so far, I guess I'd say. Not much happened in comparison to the insane plot fest that was "Hyperion" and "The Fall Of Hyperion" - but it was surprisingly the most action packed. "Endymion" picks up 274 years after "The Fall of Hyperion" and we get to see the aftermath of a galaxy disconnected, the Hegemony disbanded and the farcasters destroyed. The pacing is slower and we get this new insight into the church which has become a new superpower that's emerged and how they, now know as the Pax, use the Shrike cruciforms to control and give the population a kind of immortality.

There are two main stories that intertwine through the book, those of Endymion and De Soya's. It reminded me of the first book where most of the stories were told in the first person. I think they made me connect with the world easier and because of that I cared more. Maybe Simmons though the same and decided to write this way again.

The world had a new dystopian feel to it. The galaxy is in disrepair and all the worlds are reverting back to primitive early "Old-Earth" states. I guess even with all of that tech, AI and dataspheres gone the world it was a matter of a lack of connectivity that had them falling apart. Makes me think of what if the internet went down.

My favourite aspect of the novel was probably De Soya's journey from the fanatical priest general to the man who was enlightened enough to see the chinks and cracks within the Pax. He was super intelligent and probably the most badass. When he resigns himself to dying over and over again as he goes from planet to planet searching for Aenea in the Raphael, an "Archangel" class ship..well I literally had shivers. Also what a cool name for a ship.

Ultimately, the book was like the first in the sense that it's setting up for a climax in the next book. I'm especially looking forward to the inevitable encounter with the UI. The fact that it's all told in retrospective from Endymion's point to view from his "Schrödingers cat box" gives it that edge of "what's going to happen to him?" That was so cleverly written in. Always in the back on my mind but never something I remembered.

I'm guessing he's gonna travel at super light speeds and gain a time debt. At which point Aenea and him will meet again, fall in love etc. as she seems to be aware of. The power of love is such a key concept in novels, and most people cast it off as pseudo science but if you pay attention to almost all literature, but in this case specifically to most forms of Sci-Fi, you find that it's always a powerful theme and energy in place. It's the only theme that's universal yet so...badly understood.

I read this book the slowest out of the three so far. But coming to the end of it I was the most excited. Hearing about the river Tethys and the Concourse - the worlds long river and street connected via the faracasters - in the other books made my imagination go off the rails. So now, fully exploring them after the catastrophe of "The Fall of Hyperion" is really fun to read. Raul Endymion has a big role to play for the future of the galaxy. I'm looking forward to the conclusion. What a series.

The Fall of Hyperion - Dan Simmons by Usamah Khan

Wow. "The Fall of Hyperion" did not disappoint. After finishing "Hyperion" and being completely enamoured by Simmons' unique twist on a framed story ( à la "Canterbury Tales") that allowed for multiple genres within Sci-Fi to come through, I was anxious to see how he followed up what he started. It was interesting to see this time how he moved back and forth between different story lines, light-years apart, and yet he still managed to retain all the unique settings of the first book - the AI, the Tron-esque Technocore, fantasy settings and warfare.

Reading this it became more and more apparent to me that this was "Modern" Science Fiction. I didn't realize it at the time but coming from reading novels from the 50's -70's there was a certain style I was used to that most authors stuck to. There was always an emphasis on environment and conversations. In fact most old Hard Sci-Fi, particularly older Asimov, is just a long series of conversations. The worlds they were describing were designed to be similar to what the writers were experiencing at the time. Arthur C. Clarke put it well in his forward to "The Songs of Distant Earth". He wrote that, while he loved works such as Star Wars and Star Trek and appreciated them as works of fiction, he didn't think of them as Science Fiction. To him they were fantasy. Because all the environments and technology were not rooted in science and for all intents and purposes, could only best be described as "magic".  He went on the say, Science Fiction has to be based in something current, something you can cling to. From there, it can be extrapolated by one or two instances of "magic". Just so you as a writer can ask the question at the heart of Sci-Fi, "What if?". Then the writing becomes like writing any other novel. As was Milan Kundera's philosophy, the point of a novel is an exploration of "the enigma of the self".

Modern Sci-Fi tackles this differently. While technology evolves, for us the line between "magic" and reality becomes finer. We, readers of the genre, have become more comfortable with common tropes of Sci-Fi. The fact that time dilation and FTL travel are so lightly explained but such a major part of driving the plot shows this. We became more comfortable with these notions and as such writers can take more liberties in how they choose to suspend our disbelief. I thought about how Orson Scott Card wrote like this in "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead" and to a certain extent how Isaac Asimov began to write this way in his later "Foundation" novels.

From the start of "Hyperion" Simmons adopted this style of writing.  What's most interesting to me is that, almost counter intuitively, it allows for greater emphasis on character development and interaction. I guess it's because the characters aren't confined to a setting that needs to be explained to understand how they live. They are products of/produce their own environments/settings. It made it hard to put down because, like in a dream, I was creating an image and exploring/interacting with it at the same time. My mind was always working. When done right, this is an aspect I appreciate about modern Sci-Fi.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was that Simmons' love for classic literature and poetry was also super apparent throughout the novel. While it was hinted at in the first book, it actually drives the plot this time round. From what stemmed as just allegory in "Hyperion" became full on references and key plot points. The Keats persona's story (now Joseph Severn's) was modelled after the most interesting point in John Keats' life. Right down to his death from tuberculosis and the fact that the mighty AI presented his/its story in poetry.

It made me think of Keats a lot. When I was younger I went to the Spanish Steps in Rome and my mother took me to his home where I saw his deathbed. The images depicted in the book were so vivid to me. I could picture exactly what Simmon's was describing. Which is rare in Sci-Fi. I think it was one time in Sci-Fi where, because I didn't have to think about the setting, I was able to focus 100% on the character..and become pretty invested in him. Just after finishing I happened to be at home and my mother had a book of his collected works in chronological order. Going through it reading about his life you could easily see how much Simmons cared. Which in turn made me care. 

Keats' life was unfortunate, but incredibly fascinating. When I think about romantic poets of that era the I think of posh, trouble free, weak, drug addled writers..which Keats was to a certain extent. But there was a lot more to him. He died at the age of 25. Died with a legacy of work that was arguably better than the work that his contemporaries managed to write in their entire lives. To think what he could have achieved.

I read that Simmons was a teacher, and the idea for "Hyperion" was from stories he used to tell his kids as a past time. What a way to pass the time.

Edit. updated age at which Keats died

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami by Usamah Khan

When I think back on "Norwegian Wood" the first thing that comes to my mind is how beautifully it's written. Murakami flows together descriptions and images of Toru's emotions so eloquently and simply, it was hard to put down. I think that's why I stayed up until 5:00 am reading. I really enjoyed it. More than anything I really enjoyed it as a character study. The story seemed present just to fuel changes in the different personalities. That probably why he picked a time and setting that was closest to his own experiences. 1960s Tokyo was described so precisely I felt really connected to it. It seems to be quite autobiographical. So I guess having that as the backdrop made it easier to deal with a study of characters in the novel.

The most interesting characters to me were Nagasawa, Reiko and Midori. Nagasaki is an over intelligent friend of Toru's who's good at everything he tries and an overachiever who suffers from a lack of interest in what he's capable of to such an extent that he dons a feeling of high and mightiness. Ironically, even though he sounds like an ass (which he is to a certain degree) he's in many ways a guy who everyone wants to be. No one likes him in person and they don't want to admit it, but they envy him and that's why they surround him.

Reiko, on the other hand, is incredible at her art and passion. But she couldn't handle it and the success that came with it. She's the opposite of Nagasawa with the same talents. Even right down to her sex life. Nagasawa uses his sexual abilities to manipulate women, notably Hatsumi, while Reiko on the other hand is manipulated by someone else's sexual advances. She ultimately loses her life (metaphorically speaking) not unlike Hatsumi who takes her own life. Nagasawa wanted to go out and see how much he could conquer and Reiko was happy to be a cog in the machine at the communal asylum. The two characters who have the most effect on Toru are two sides of the same coin.

Midori was interesting to me. She behaved in no way like anyone else and neither did Toru. But he couldn't see that. Not until much later that is. She was so free, sexually and mentally. She would challenge him unlike the others in his life he had to take care of. I'm never sure what more to say about her. She's just beautifully enigmatic.

After the writing and the characters, another aspect that drew me in was the setting of 1960s Japan. Everyone was rebelling against the established order, yet as Toru put it, it seemed that they were hypocritical in doing so. Reminded me a lot of activism now. I thought it was just an issue of our generation but maybe most academic rebellions end the same. It's always the same majority type of people going to school; kids with the funds, good education and a life compass directing them to stable incomes (in Japan the sought after path of a "salary-man"). It's hard to truly fight back against the system when the system has provided you with everything to be who you are.

You could really take this novel out of it's context and it would fit nicely in any era. The setting merely provides a backdrop and a feeling of tension while amplifying the feeling of not being able to do anything but kick a few shins. I guess that was Murakami's point about the futility of really trying to do anything when you're young.