THE SKINNER (SPATTERJAY #1)

Neal Asher

Pan Macmillan / 474 pages / March 2002

ISBN: 0333903641

News of a new Dan Simmons project always provoke the same simultaneous response: “Oh, goody!” and “Where does he find the time?” Personally, I have read between the lines (and some of the lines, too) and am convinced Simmons has uncovered the secret to controlling time flow. Hardly surprising, really; given his imagination, we all knew he’d uncover it sooner or later. Now he’s using it for the greater good by bringing us more of his fantastic work.

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Many readers who experienced the brilliant A Winter Haunting find themselves experiencing it stil. The sight of a tractor takes me right back to that chilling, dark time. That’s the power of Simmon’s prose; even if you might want to forget, it stays with you.

The stories in Worlds Enough And Time are no exception, even if the comparative brevity of the five novellas doesn’t allow readers to become quite as attached to the characters. See if that’s any protection from the empathy you feel for Norman Roth as he finds the watermarks of his past returning to occupy his dreams in a present set against the backdrop of the history of the Soviet space program. Roth’s weariness and the tired remains of a hit-or-miss reach for the stars — who else would have paired these seemingly disparate elements, or done it to such heartbreaking effect?

Certainly, if anyone else approached an editor with an idea for a story about an alien “bug” that wants to join a human party’s attack on K2, it would sound slightly silly. Under Simmons’ care though, it becomes a thing of grace and profound emotional connection. If there is so much that separates us, there will always be some things which are truly universal.

In his own universe, Simmons returns to Hyperion in a tale that will delight those who hunger for more books in this world. For those who haven’t read any of the Hyperion novels there are some subtle elements that will go unseen, or, at least, misunderstood. “Orphans of the Helix” comes as close to space opera as Simmons is every likely to venture, but he could never produce a piece that lacks the intensity of “human” struggle and the pain of consequences. He’s simply not that kind of writer.

“The Ninth of Av” is likely to be the most controversial piece in the collection — give it a few years and it will appear in the bibliography of theses around the world. Like that ellusive, intangible that may connect us with life forms from other worlds, there is a seed of fear and distrust that will always form a barrier that prevents us from truly joining. On the eve of a monumental departure for humanity, some ponder that characteristic we have not overcome and how we will inevitably pass this dark side along.

That leaves only the first novella in the collection to address, but it seems fitting to save “Looking For Kelly Dahl” for a spot of honour, for this is Simmons at his harrowing best. Chances missed and mistakes made that shade the rest of our lives — Simmons knows this territory, knows the treacherous terrain. A struggle for survival and a chance at redemption are the landmarks on this deadly journey. Shifting realities and the chain of events that follow every action or inaction come painfully into focus in Jakes’ mission through time and realities and forgiveness.

Ordinary novellas? Nothing poured out from the depths of Dan Simmons will ever be ordinary. Here’s five chances to realise how truly extraordinary his words can be; don’t let it slip by. Regret is a very human thing, remember.