Once you have found her, never let her go.
June 11, 2013 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Your parent dies. You hurt. You weep. You mourn. You do and say the necessary things even as your daemon’s disciplined askesis has you (against your will) coldly taking notes on what the emotion feels like, how others around you react to the death, what the corpse of your parent looks like, how you feel while looking down at it, what voids there are in that feeling, what pretenses, what posturings. It's all part of finding your daemon that dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire. Other entries in Dan Simmons' series On Writing Well.
posted by shivohum (29 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
It's a little hard to take writing advice from someone who wrote Ilium and Olympos.

I guess Hyperion was ok.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2013

Simmons' Drood is how I got my lit-snob to start reading genre fiction. Dude can write, and the first Hyperion novel is a delight.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2013

I'm a big fan of Simmons, but I concede that he should have finished the Hyperion Cantos approximately three books earlier. Oy, so preachy.

I loved Ilium and Olympos, if only for the adorable literary-quoting moravec robots. The Terror is also well worth a read if you doubt his writing abilities. Dude sure knows how to sustain a mood.
posted by fight or flight at 6:43 AM on June 11, 2013

Haven't been able to touch his stuff since he wrote that short story about wiping out all Arabs post 9/11. It's been scrubbed from the Internet pretty well but genre fans like me remember and many are not going back. Bring his name up on forums like ASOIAF and the vitriol will come with a righteous fury.
posted by Ber at 7:16 AM on June 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I might be a bit of a Simmons' fanboy (my forearm), so take my praise here with a grain of salt.

Illium and Olympos were great. Disappointing if you compare them to Hyperion (and the similarities/copying are obvious), but still great. Hockenberry-turned-greek-hero still makes me cheer. And the morovecs are hilarious. Could pass on the human storyline, doesn't feel like it pays off til the climax.

His Joe Kurtz novels are hilariously enjoyable noir. A huge gap of difference between those and his typical stories so don't go in expecting tomes with ties to classic literature and 3-dimensional characters. Enjoy them for what they are: pulp.

Hyperion was amazing, and the followups nearly as good - there are scenes in Rise of Endymion that still (on rereading for the I've-lost-count time) give me chills [notably - visiting the Ousters, Aenea's 'sermon on the mount' and the last two chapters/scenes]. Might've been that I read them first at a very open-to-influence time in my life, but they did not rub me wrong as preachy. I see it, but took away a very different feeling and message (but again, see the image above).

I completely understand people's frustration with the 2nd book though. You go in expecting a sequel and a "oh great, I get to find out what happens to so-and-so" and it pales in comparison to Hyperion, and leaves you frustrated. It feels very much like a necessary evil to bridge to the 3rd & 4th books - but could easily just been a chapter or two of exposition in the 3rd (or hell, buried in the middle somewhere as a flashback-in-a-flashback-in-a-flashback). He executed the tie-to-English-lit much better in Illium & Olympos. When you hear people fuss over books 2-4 and start to agree with them part way through book 2, just finish it or go read the plot summary somewhere and please please please try the 3rd.

Thanks for pointing me to this series on writing. Bit plodding on my initial look, but should make for some interesting reading later.
posted by ish__ at 7:18 AM on June 11, 2013

IMHO - Smart guy, tons of raw writing talent and an amazing imagination, but a little too caught up in his own personal mythology, which the link above illustrates all too well. If he were a little less self-indugent and full of himself and show-offy, he'd have written much better books. As it is, he's just a very good novelist instead of the great one he could have been.

This sort of thing is a tough call, because it's often strong ego that drives a person to keep writing until they are recognized for their talent, but that same ego gone too far can really spoil the work as well.

since he wrote that short story about wiping out all Arabs post 9/11.

Wait, what? On preview, maybe not as smart as I thought he was. Or maybe it just fits in with what I was saying.
posted by aught at 7:21 AM on June 11, 2013

since he wrote that short story about wiping out all Arabs post 9/11.

Wait, what? On preview, maybe not as smart as I thought he was. Or maybe it just fits in with what I was saying.

Must've missed that too. Unless you're talking about his novel Flashback which has the Jews being exterminated by a global Caliphate and any survivors being sequestered away in a Six Flags theme park. Among other... "interesting" plotlines. Yeah. It sucked. I'll stick to the strictly sci-fi and horror offerings.
posted by ish__ at 7:25 AM on June 11, 2013

Great timing! I'm in the thick of Hyperion right now and loving it. The little people and cross shaped parasites are creepy awesome.

I kept seeing it recommended on here, but finally shuffled it to the top of my reading pile because of this list of Ian M. Bank's favorite sci fi books.


This Writing Well series looks great too, thanks.
posted by meta87 at 7:46 AM on June 11, 2013

I did a little google-sleuthing, and I think maybe this is the short story folks are referring to?

“Under sharia – which will be the universal law of Eurabia,” persisted the Time Traveler, “the value of a dhimmi’s life, the value of your grandchildren, is one half the value of a Muslim’s life. Jews and Christians are worth one-third of a Muslim. Indian Parsees are worth one-fifteenth. In a court of the Eurabian Caliphate or the Global Khalifate, if a Muslim murders a dhimmi, any infidel, he must pay a blood money fine not to exceed one thousand euros. No Muslim will ever be jailed or sentenced to death for the murder of any dhimmi or any number of dhimmis. If the murders were done under the auspices of Universal Compulsive Jihad, which will be sanctioned by sharia as of 2019 Common Era, all blood money fines are waived.”

“Go away,” I said. “Go back to wherever you came from.”

“I come from here,” said the Time Traveler. “From not so far from here.”

posted by threeants at 7:52 AM on June 11, 2013

Plodding exposition and thinly veiled political didacticism-- two great tastes that taste great together!
posted by threeants at 7:56 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

The time traveler essay was unfortunate, because it consumes every discussion on Simmons' work. It certainly consumed the forum on his site, to the point it became unreadable. The reason it's a shame isn't that we shouldn't focus on a writer's politics--any words they write down are fair game--but rather that it turns into a dismissive heuristic or something. "Anti-Islam, eh? That must be why his books suck!" And then the discussion stops there. (or, sometimes, doesn't stop at all, and you end up hearing a lot of complaints about him from people who haven't actually read his work.)

There's plenty of reason, outside of that essay, to criticize Simmons, both his fiction, and his Writing Well series. There's that whole bourgeois-magpie thing, stuffing his work with not just other people's literary work, themes, characters, but also with other people's literary criticism; when you're young, and you don't know the sources well, it seems like he's just a genius, but as you grow better-read, the seams start to show. There's something about his approach that acquiesces to authority, that does not question, so that his use of them doesn't push your understanding of the sources forward very far at all; there is no depth to the use, no matter how dramatically and engrossingly the ideas are portrayed.

I think this idea came to me most strongly on his Writing Well essay 3, involving Henry James. He spends some time quoting Sven Birkets (ew), talking about the complexity and distance in James--doing the things that set James on a pedestal, or rather, if you're a normal reader, up on the high shelf with the difficult authors, which is, I understand, a common place to put James. You can set him on the shelf, worship him, read him rarely if at all, and only then with reverence. But it strikes me that this is completely the wrong way to read James, and it called into question everything Simmons says about writing and literature. Every trouble with James, I think, can be solved by reading his books in the breathless voice of the gossip. As thoughtful as he is, he's so funny, and so clumsy with relationships, and thinks so much about them (or his characters do), that he can be absolutely engaging without any of this meddlesome worship.

To me, those misunderstandings--and really by 'misunderstanding' I might only mean "differences in taste," but I think I mean more than that--inform Simmons' work far more than saying something that half the country was saying back when we were still talking about war.

(Still, I'm glad to know he's still writing the writing well essays, because as troublesome as I find them, I still enjoy reading them!)
posted by mittens at 8:14 AM on June 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

he should have finished the Hyperion Cantos approximately three books earlier

My rule of thumb for fantasy and sf is, the more books in the series, the worse the series becomes.

There are counterexamples, yes. But I believe writers should have a long talk with themselves when they start thinking that what they had planned as a trilogy could really br 5 or 7 books.
posted by thelonius at 8:53 AM on June 11, 2013

Many probably do have this talk with themselves, followed by another, more gratifying one with their accountant.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:12 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Simmons actually explicitly advises writers to "grease their slides" by doing things like series books, a path he hasn't actually followed.
posted by mittens at 9:20 AM on June 11, 2013

I think it goes astray a bit in the whole celebration of Hemmingway's particular dysfunction as a great example of wrestling with the inner daemon, when I suspect that he was a particularly tormented individual to start with.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:24 AM on June 11, 2013

I don't read Dan Simmons anymore.

I enjoyed Hyperion and The Terror and some of his other books. But after I read Drood, I gave up. I thought that story was repellent and horrible, and I'm sorry I read it.

Add that to his problematic political views, and I'm out. Too bad. He wrote some good stuff once.
posted by Archer25 at 9:37 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was hoping the anti-Muslim, neo-Caliphate rubbish was just some temporary phase of madness, but after reading his latest novel, Flashback, it's pretty obvious that he's surrendered himself to the darkness completely. Every single tea party talking point shows up in that novel: Obama and the Dems are responsible for the bankruptcy of the U.S., mandatory entitlement culture, a Global Caliphate, dhimmitude and all the rest. It's just sad and pathetic.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2013

After reading that short story and what you all are saying, I think I'll avoid his newer stuff. Too bad.
posted by meta87 at 10:39 AM on June 11, 2013

Oh god, his undergraduate-English-prof daimon has not yet come under control: "If it stymies your Close Reading skills, you should probably reassess your immediate ambition of becoming a writer."
posted by mittens at 10:55 AM on June 11, 2013

I read the Hyperion series and thought it was.... obvious. The plot was obvious, the writing was obvious, and the subtext was obvious. It was enjoyable to read, however, and had some fun expansions of various SF ideas.
posted by smidgen at 12:00 PM on June 11, 2013

My own reading encounters with Simmons, The Terror and Drood, left me deeply puzzled both times. Because in both instances, Simmons kept trying to shoehorn overblown horror elements into plots that were otherwise already full of tension and/or dread--being trapped on the ice in The Terror; Collins competing with Dickens in Drood. And the horror was often just...well...silly (we're inserting a scarab beetle where?!) or in need of editing (the "party" scene in The Terror sticks out in my mind). You could chisel some perfectly decent realist historical novels out of the results.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:26 PM on June 11, 2013

There are things written that make it clear that the writer is no longer worth reading, and the EURABIA! BROWN PEOPLE ARE GOING TO CONSUME YOUR CHILDREN! BOOGA BOOGA! short story was that point for Simmons.
posted by tavella at 12:32 PM on June 11, 2013

Man, the less I know about some writers, the better.

I loved "Summer of Night". I liked (most of) "The Terror". Could have lived without the final chapters of useless woo-woo exposition, but up to that point it was a great story to read before bed.

Regarding the linked-to article: some of this rings true for my own storytelling self. There's definitely an impartial part of me that sits back and takes notes whenever something heavily emotional or life-changing is going on. Giving birth, breaking up with a boyfriend (nowadays: a fight with the husband), getting into a car accident, getting the call that a grandparent had died...they're all grist for the writing mill, no matter how awful or elating they may seem at the time. And I've been doing it since I was at least a tweenager. Part of writing has always seemed to me to be living an interesting life; a life worth taking notes on.

That said, writers sure do like to write articles on "how to write good". Simmons clearly has some opinions. I think the best advice is still to just write. Then write some more. And find your own way. Whether that includes a muse (or a daemon) or not is up to what works for you.
posted by offalark at 1:25 PM on June 11, 2013

Oh, man, Summer of Night was incredible. There have been very few books in my life that I would describe as "could not put down". Summer of Night is the only book I have ever read while walking down the street. I can't even fathom how it hasn't been made into a movie yet. It just makes the rest of it so sad. Maybe he could have carved out a niche for himself as a nice little horror writer.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:37 PM on June 11, 2013

I suspect the need to find that many good child actors to carry the movie might be the reason it hasn't been made.

If only we could de-age Wil Wheaton. Or maybe just shave his beard off.
posted by offalark at 1:45 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Terror is also well worth a read if you doubt his writing abilities

Also if you doubt his homophobia. Dude needs an editor - The Terror had potential but it was squandered I thought.
posted by smoke at 3:45 PM on June 11, 2013

Well, Hyperion was great. I actually had a hard time with how crappy Ilium and Olympos were. I obviously kept reading, hoping something good would happen. Sad reader is sad. And then the notorious short story. It is appalling.
posted by Malla at 7:41 AM on June 12, 2013

One of the reasons I put Olympos down so close to the end (I actually liked Ilium) was because Odysseus just went on and on in Randian ubermensch mode and it became increasingly clear he was just a Gary Stu mouthpiece for Simmons himself.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:22 AM on June 12, 2013

The more I think about it, the more the particular framing of Hemingway's suicide as artistic statement aimed as his wife bothers me. My general takeaway from the tour of his Key West home was that things like installing a urinal in his wife's garden and the last penny was probably more Hemingway being an asshole than Hemingway the artist.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:00 AM on June 13, 2013

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