from the pen of Paul di Fillipo over at Almost Invisible Worlds:
At year’s end the inevitable list making begins, focused on selecting the standout books, music, films, performances, and other superior artworks of the past twelve months. The attention of the critical compilers invariably gravitates to the high-profile candidates, those that have already garnered the most media and consumer attention. But in the rush to reach a consensus on the “best,” so many modest, low-profile, yet worthy offerings are often overlooked.
Here, then, are a mere five books from the vast flood of fine fantastika from 2012: five books not inevitably fated to end up on any best-of list and that might have passed below your radar this year — but all demanding a careful second look. In my column from last year on this same theme of under-praised books, I selected John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion, released late in the publishing year. The subsequent twelve months saw the book retain its wallflower status, and now Tor debuts the sequel in the same understated manner. So, here we are again!
The Hermetic Millennia continues the exotic saga of Menelaus “Meany” Montrose, a rugged and cantankerous individualist of the twenty-third century, born to a high cosmic destiny while also unrepentantly seeking glory. This is a fellow who willingly takes on the title and duties of the “Judge of Ages” after all. But if the reader thought that Montrose’s previous adventures were spectacular, emulating as they did the primal and robust space opera outings of E. E. Smith and A. E. van Vogt, then his newest exploits will amaze the heck out of anyone. What Wright has put forth this time is a mix of British big thinker Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men), Jack Vance (The Dying Earth), Philip José Farmer (Dark Is the Sun) and Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). It’s a heady brew that achieves an ever-oscillating balance between pulp action and philosophical gravitas.
Montrose has gone into suspended animation until the day when he can awaken to deal with an invasion fleet, 8,000 years into his future. But all his careful plans are upset when his secure techno-Tomb is raided in the year 10515 by the Blue Men and their Dog Men helpers, and he discovers a world lapsed into an unforeseen crazy quilt of posthuman barbarism. Now all his intuition, initiative, and intellect must be employed to put affairs back on track.
Wright layers on a thick impasto of eons, rich with vivid details of vanished races and ideologies that have come and gone in Darwinian waves. The novel has a Chaucerian feel, as various revenants take the stage to tell their strange tales. The leisurely plot moves forwards satisfactorily, although, this being only an installment in a series, we are left with a melancholy cliffhanger ending.
Montrose and his peers — the Hermetics who lend their name to the era — stand as demigods with feet of clay to the average citizen, much in the manner of the immortals in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. “I took the liberty to manipulate history to increase the longevity of certain stories I liked, and I established statistical incentives, introduced self-replicating sociometric viruses, and everything.” But Wright shows that even posthuman brilliance cannot fully contend with the confounding intractability of sentient beings — the human stain, he suggests, doesn’t fade with time.
“Pulp action and philosophical gravitas” should be the motto on my coat of arms. I just so happen at the moment to a book of sober theology by CS Lewis in one pocket of my coat and a pulp action ‘weird fiction’ thriller by Jim Butcher in the other. What else can one expect from someone like me? I hope readers find my works who like my particular mix of chocolate-covered lasagna.
I am embarrassed to admit that while my book gets first billing in Mr di Fillipo’s review, all the other books he reviews sound more interesting, including a collaboration between Greg Bear and Larry Niven (a combination that should work better together than my aforementioned chocolate lasagna) and a long-lost time-travel farce from the Nineteenth Century. It has been a while since I read a really good, really gripping SF book, so his recommendations here pique my interest.