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Quantum Excellence May 6, 2006

Posted by thebeam in The Byways.

Quantum Excellence – literally, “a fundamental measure of excellence.” Where do we find those writers who have shown this measure?

Outside of the list of popular best selling authors, there lies another world of literary excellence. Those are the authors whose whose works populate only small regions of the bookshelves of the stores, but populate large regions of imagination, regions which are the fertile soil that good authors draw upon for inspiration. A good place to find them is by looking at those writers who have won awards from their peers in their respective literary niches.

Dan Simmons is one of those authors. Winner of the 1990 Hugo Award for Best Novel with his stunning novel Hyperion (which also won that year’s Locus Award) he recently earned another Locus Award for one of his latest novels, Illium – making him one of the top recipients of the Locus Awards, 12 to-date. Just behind Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin in the number of Locus Awards that he could brag about; but I doubt that he does, he probably wouldn’t waste the time.

I first found his works with a particularly disquieting novel, Song of Kali, which won the 1986 World Fantasy Award. Out of the gate, he was writing at world class levels. Currently out of print, it has been years since I read the novel, which I only remember dimly, but I do remember the particular sensation of having my skin crawl and my stomach heave. For a horror novel, those are surely hallmarks of success.

Simmons is a master at creating a visual image, proving it right from the start with the opening pages of Song of Kali (via Google Books)

Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil – certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.
After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, pulled down the great buildings, broke up the stones, burned the rubble and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again. That is not enough for Calcutta. Calcutta should be expunged.
Before Calcutta I took part in marches against nuclear weapons. Now I dream of nuclear clouds rising above a city. I see buildings melting into lakes of glass. I see paved streets flowing like rivers of lava and real rivers boiling away in great gouts of steam. I see human figures dancing like burning insects, like obscene praying mantises sputtering and bursting against a fiery red background of total destruction.
The city is Calcutta. The dreams are not unpleasant.
Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.

Whew! Strong stuff indeed.

Twenty years later, he hasn’t lost a beat. From Illium (via Google Books)

“Why did the gods bring you across time and space, as you say, to serve them? What do you know that they need?”
I close my eyes for a moment. How can I possibly explain to her? It will be madness if I answer honestly. But – as I admitted earlier – I’m terribly tired of lying. “I know something about the war going on,” I say. “I know some of the events that will happen … might happen.”
“You serve an oracle?”
“You are a prophet, then? A priest to whom one of the gods has given such vision?”
“Then I don’t understand,” says Helen. I shift on my side and sit up, moving cushions to be more comfortable. It is still dark but a bird begins to sing in the courtyard. “In the place whence I came,” I whisper, “there is a song, a poem, about this war. It’s called the Illiad. So far, the events of the actual war resemble those sung about this song.”
“You speak as if this siege and this war were already an old tale in the land you came from,” says Helen. “As if all this has already occurred.”
Don’t admit this to her. It would be folly.
“Yes,” I say. “That is the truth.”
“You are one of the fates,” she says.
“No, I’m just a man.”
Helen smiles with wicked amusement. She touches the valley between her breasts where I had climaxed just a few hours earlier. “I know that, Hock-en-bear-eeee.”
I blush, rub my cheeks, and feel the stubble there. No shaving in the scholic barracks for me this morning. Why bother? You only have hours to live.

Nothing more illustrative of the human condition than to be mixing talk of the gods, time and space; with the intimate exchange of body fluids.

Take a walk on the wild side, explore the world of Dan Simmons. Many of his books are still in print and easily found, others you’ll have to work to find. And some of them, you’ll have to work to read, Song of Kali certainly comes to mind – for all that it is a fairly short novel. Carrion Comfort talks of ghouls of all descriptions, from your everyday Vampire to those exotic creatures who ran the ovens and chambers of those real-life horror shows at Dachau and Auschwitz.

Don’t read them late at night when all alone, unless of course you enjoy waking in a cold sweat. Tonight I’m planning to lull myself to sleep with Olympos, the sequel to Illium.

Those writers who can haunt our dreams, ignite our imaginations, or inflame our souls; have achieved a measure of excellence, a measure for which we may all strive.

Life and Hearts is in session. Are you ready to “Hunt the bitch?”



1. Prashant Singh - May 10, 2006

I generally do not read books filled with horror. But the excerpt that you have given from the book ‘Song of Kali’ seems to be very strong – for what reason, I do not know for I have not read the book. But let me assure you, Calcutta is really city of Joy. Culturally rich, vibrant with youthness and containing ageold maturity. the city is beautiful. even thinking of eradication of such city is a sin.

But nontheless, i do agree that the writer has conviction and used strong emotions and can move people. but for what? picturizing city of joy in such terms..come one give me a break.

But now I hope I will read him someday.

2. thebeam - May 10, 2006

I don't know how accurately, or inaccurately it portrayed Calcutta. I do know that the novel was very scary on a visceral level. Simmons continues to surprise, in addition to his horror novels, he has also written a series of mysteries that have won awards from the folks that judge mystery novels. So his excellence as a writer seems not to be a fluke.

I think I have two points. The first is that the writers who are best known are not necessarily the best writers out there. There are a handful of writers within each genre that are not well known outside of a limited circle, yet they are the ones who write the novels and short stories which not only set the bar for those who wish to try to become great writers, but who also till the literary soil, leaving it all the richer.

The other point was simply to point out one of them, a writer whose career I've followed for years, and who surprised me anew with the latest novel that I read. He is also writing about something that several other writers have been looking at, the idea of a technological singularity. A point at which our technology will completely change our lives in a way in which no one now alive can truly predict. Probably the more seminal writer in that field would be Vernor Vinge, with his novels "A Fire Upon the Deep" and "A Deepness Upon the Sky". They both ask the reader to do some serious thinking about the nature of intelligence, the directions in which our technology is taking us, and if we are really ready to go there yet.

3. Prashant Singh - May 10, 2006

I do agree with you that the authors well known might not be the ones with teh best of the capabilities of moving the readers. Seems I will have to read the books by simmons.

My earlier e=remark about calcutta was out of my affinity with the city.

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