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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Broken Angels
Richard K. Morgan
Progress: 56/468 pages
Introduction to Topology
Bert Mendelson
Progress: 10/224 pages
Basics of Plasma Astrophysics
Claudio Chiuderi, Marco Velli
Progress: 58/250 pages
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (The Library of America)
Brian Attebery, Ursula K. Le Guin
Progress: 454/700 pages
A Student's Guide to Lagrangians and Hamiltonians
Patrick Hamill
Progress: 7/180 pages
Complete Poems, 1904-1962
E.E. Cummings
Progress: 166/1102 pages
The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe
She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies (Oxford World's Classics)
Henry Fielding, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith
Progress: 164/448 pages
Gravitation (Physics Series)
Kip Thorne;Kip S. Thorne;Charles W. Misner;John Archibald Wheeler;John Wheeler
Progress: 48/1215 pages
I Am a Cat
Graeme Wilson, Aiko Ito, Sōseki Natsume
Progress: 410/638 pages
Black Hills - Dan Simmons Having demonstrated that he can write successfully in any genre he chooses, Simmons plainly wanted a greater challenge, so he decided to create his own: the historical horror/supernatural genre. The Terror and Drood showed just how ambitious an idea this is and neither is perfect. For this, his third entry in his own genre, Simmons makes his own life easier by not using the first person voice of a Brit and thus avoiding all the problems of writing British English when you are an American English speaker - then makes it harder again by making the narrator a Lakota Indian and having to deal with a language that is not remotely like English...

So Paha Sapa (Black Hills) tells his life story and a remarkable life it is, what with being at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass in Lakota), inhabited by the ghost of Custer and the memories of Crazy Horse (who is pretty crazy), a participant in Buffalo Bill Hicock's Wild West Show, a powder-man at the Mt. Rushmore sculpting and a man prone to visions when at spiritually important locations.

Through the voices of various people, the visions and direct experiences of Paha Sapa, Simmons is able to tell the tale of the final destruction of the plains Indians' way of life, starting with the Pyrhhic victory of the Greasy Bighorn (or Little Grass, or something) and the subsequent environmental degradation caused mainly by cattle ranching but this is no simple monument to a dead culture. Simons points out that the Lakota were violent, stealing women and horses from neighbouring tribes, having gained their territory by ousting the people who were there when they arrived...which might remind one of what the European settlers did. Other tribes were much the same. They were not, despite their religion, "in harmony with nature" either, having apparently hunted to extinction various paleo-megafauna (which is a just fabulous word) of the North American plains. The Lakota called themselves Human Beings and every other racial grouping were not proper people...most other tribes' languages made the same distinction for their tribe...

Where is Simmons going with all this? Only so far as to say, oh look - the Plains Indians were human too, and prone to the same foibles, crimes and passions as everyone else. They were certainly sinned against but they were sinners too. Which raises the question, what's the difference between a bunch of tribes with essentially the same technology, philosophy and religion warring with each other for territory and a completely alien culture coming along and doing the same thing but to all the tribes at once? It feels like there is one. The book forces you to think over questions of cultural relativism, colonialism and evangelism. Here is a classic "Outside Context Problem" as discussed in Iain Banks' Excession. However, Simmons hasn't discussed the same topic over and again ad nauseum so it isn't annoying...

It's an impressive feat, as were drood and the Terror but they were both flawed; is Black Hills? Unfortunately, yes it is. The problems are all in the "Paha goes to New York City" chapter where Simmons goes completely crackers and starts writing like Dan Brown! By which I mean that he insists on pouring every tedious statistic about the dimensions, weight, shoe and hat-size of the Brooklyn Bridge. I had serious flash-backs to the Louvre scene at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. Also the shakes, sweats and a fever. The horror!

Listen guys! Readers do not care what the length, breadth, height and weight of any famous building or engineering work is, expressed to three significant figures and dumped on them all at once like, well like a 597 metre long, 1.27 metric tonne, 3.14cm diameter coil of steel cable. (See? And I just made those figures up 'cos they just don't matter.) All of this ruins an impressive, evocative story about how the caissons for the bridge were made fast on bedrock below the mud of the Hudson. So, authors, having done the work to discover a fact is not sufficient reason for putting said fact in the book. If it doesn't advance the story, help set the scene or aid the subtext, leave it out.

Paha Sapa has three visions in the book. One is very bleak indeed and comes true. Another has his ancestors exhorting Paha Sapa to take action to save his people. He has a completely false notion of what this action should be. Can he save his people? The third vision is a prophecy: the plains will be restored to something like their former glory and neo-Indians will live there, within a newly rebuilt eco-system, resuscitated after clinical death by climate change and mono-culture farming.

I don't share Simmons' optimism but it's worth reading about it.