by Dan Simmons

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Drood by Dan Simmons.

I’ve been reading Dan Simmons for years, and each time I grab a book with his name on the cover, I have to remind myself that the same guy who wrote about the AIDS crisis and how it ties to Romanian orphanages and Dracula(1) is the same guy who put the Greek pantheon of the gods and in fact all of The Odyssey on Mars(2), and the same one yet who invented the Shrike(3). He happily defies categorization, moving easily between inhabiting the characters of a small town Southern sheriff(4) (a very good guy for a change) and the Proust loving robots orbiting Jupiter — who also make for very good company(5). His work has taken readers from the squalor of Calcutta(6) to the Arctic(7) to most recently London of the 1870s. One of the pleasures of Dan Simmons work is that he’s like a literary wunderkammer, simply turning his attention to whatever he thinks might be interesting and follows it where it leads.

Lately, he’s been interested in Dickens — more specifically, the last few mysterious years of the great writer (and average man’s) life. Dickens is a writer I carefully avoided in school, yawning through Great Expectations and rooting for Nancy in Oliver Twist. His work was neither crazy enough to intrigue me or character driven enough to draw me in. (I wasn’t old enough or clever enough to appreciate the social satire, and I didn’t get the anti-Semitism of jolly old Fagin.) So really I learned more about Dickens from Drood than I did in high school. Drood is hilariously narrated by Dickens’ frenemy Wilkie Collins, and it is the relationship between the genius and the (let’s be honest) hack that forms the bones of this story. Through Collins’ rather bleary eyes we learn that despite Dickens’ failings as a husband and father, he invented the idea of the happy, perfect English home. He was also one of the very first working writers (rather than gentlemen dabblers) and thanks to Dickens’ Christmas Carol, we now eat turkey rather than goose. So, a hypocrite, a genius, a tireless worker and self-promoter. But there was a lot more than biography in here — I also learned about the sewers under London, how a book tour was conducted by the Victorians, how to procure opium (if I wanted to do such a thing) a whole host of tiny details, sewn together to make a grand Gothic pile of a novel. The key question remains, though — who, or what is Drood? You’ll have to make your way through the stinking, foetid, nighttime streets of London, your candle only illuminating a shivering sliver of the charnel darkness, the shadows alive with the cries of the poor and suffering and lunatic, until you too have completed all 800 plus pages and you too have followed Dickens in his descent into degeneracy… madness…and death!

1) Children of Night
2) Ilium, Olympos
3) Hyperion Cantos
4) Carrion Comfort
5) Ilium, again (I really liked it)
6) Song of Kali
7) The Terror

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