Skeletons in the Closet
An SF Writer Obscures His Genre Past
Somewhere in the century or so since it was popularized--my best guess is during the 1950s--the genre of speculative fiction became the haven of pimply teenaged boys who were more comfortable with slide rules than pimply teenaged girls. The authors who leap to mind from that decade produced works of fiction preoccupied with the discovery of new worlds, with geniuses (always white men) who could solve the most difficult of problems with a few quick calculations and a nod of the head.
The public perception of science-fiction and fantasy readers hasn't shifted much since then. In addition to the stereotypical teenaged boy, we now have his grown-up counterpart (still wearing a pocket protector), with maybe an awkward woman or two to round out the picture. It's no wonder some of the best science-fiction writers don't want to be associated with the genre, despite the fact that what they are writing is a perfect fit. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, most of T. Coraghessan Boyle--their publishers slap the word "fiction" prominently on the dust jackets, but what is contained within is a genre work, pure and simple.
Who wouldn't want to breathe the rarefied air of lit-ra-ture rather than dwell in the bowels of the SF dungeon? Sure, genre readers are loyal, well-educated, and usually employed, but to be in their midst is, well, icky--at least in the publishing world's perception. But it's one thing for an accepted mainstream writer to resist the mantle of SF; it's even more disturbing when a genre writer and his agent decide to market a genre book as mainstream fiction, perhaps as a misguided attempt to gain some industry cred. It's doubly frustrating when the writer is as well-respected as Dan Simmons.
Simmons, for those who little versed in speculative fiction, is the author of several brilliant novels of science fiction and horror, including 1989's Hugo Award-winning Hyperion, one of those works that proves that gorgeous writing can be found even in the most ghetto-ized genre. In the last few years, Simmons has made the move from science fiction into just plain "fiction." How do I know? That's how his latest paperback release, The Crook Factory (issued in hardcover last year), is categorized on the spine. None of the back-cover blurbs note Simmons' previous incarnation as a genre writer, and the cover identifies him as an "award-winning" author without specifying the Hugo, the most prominent prize in SF writing.
The irony of all this is that Factory is a work of speculative fiction of the purest sort--the alternative history. The novel takes us to Cuba in 1942, where we meet a secret agent named Lucas and a nutty writer named Ernest Hemingway. Lucas has been sent to the island by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to help Papa run an amateur espionage ring, and to keep the writer out of trouble. Nothing goes smoothly, of course, and Lucas finds himself increasingly in danger of being killed--both by counterterrorism groups and by Hemingway's knack for trouble.
Simmons has created a minor masterpiece here, seamlessly piecing together bits of historical fact with his own speculations. His ability to create mood and memorable characters hasn't diminished from his Hyperion days. And even those who dislike Hemingway or Cuba or deep-sea fishing or espionage will be drawn in by Simmons' gift for language and plot. Factory is a tight, suspense-filled work, a prime example of what science fiction is today--to wit, a lot more than just men of science traveling to the moon.
Darwin's Blade, Simmons new hardcover, is a more difficult book to grapple with. It really isn't speculative fiction--its cover labeling as "A Novel of Suspense" is more or less accurate. The idea driving the story is firmly rooted in this reality; the tropes of SF aren't in evidence.
Nothing wrong with that; I may object to a genre work being pushed as a nongenre work, but I can't find fault with a solid writer telling the story he wants to tell, regardless of which section it's going to be shelved in. The problem is that Blade isn't a very good book. The topic offers the potential for greatness--an investigator, Darwin, finds himself in the middle of a ring of insurance "cappers," those charming folk who stage accidents in order to bilk insurance companies out of thousands of dollars. Their staged accidents have turned deadly, and Darwin becomes a target when he begins to pry into these cases too deeply.
It's an interesting, suspense-fraught idea, to be sure. But Simmons writes as if he has been saving up bizarre stories of fraud cases and wants to tell them all at once, just in case he never again has the opportunity. The first half of Blade reads like a series of case reports. They are mostly amusing, but they don't do much to advance the plot or the characters--which is too bad, because Darwin is a fascinating guy. The supporting cast is well-drawn as well, once you get the chance to see them through all of the descriptions of attempted insurance frauds, and the last 20 pages are well worth the price of the book. But Blade just isn't as polished as Simmons' genre efforts--which may prompt readers to do some speculating of their own.