#15 Ghosts and the Machine—a Review of Dan Simmons’ Black Hills

I had the chance to get an advanced copy for Dan Simmons’ latest book Black Hills, which pubs this month, a book that easily falls into several bins: historical fiction, supernatural suspense, and Weird West. In fact, Dan Simmons is one of those writers who has spanned multiple genres in his career, leaping easily from sci-fi to horror to historical to crime thrillers and even blending them all at once. Much of his success lies in his clever inspirational play between classical forms and fantastical content. After all, he’s best known for the Hyperion Cantos, a four-book space opera that’s structured after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, and his sci-fi epic Illium/Olympos draws from Homer’s Iliad. Recently, the settings for his latest novels have roamed throughout the nineteenth century. The Terror, which landed Simmons on the New York Times list and gave his publishers an excuse to market him as “speculative fiction”, is about the ill-fated lost voyage of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find passageway through the Arctic in 1847. His next book, Drood, is a Victorian gothic mystery thriller narrated by Wilkie Collins as he tries to puzzle out the mental stability of his friend Charles Dickens, who had taken a turn for the worst after surviving a horrific train accident. Now in his latest book, Black Hills, Simmons continues his fascination with the nineteenth century, but this time, he writes about the heartwrenching life and times of Paha Sapa, a Sioux Native American who lived through the bloody days of the American West.

The drama of Paha Sapa’s life begins when he’s a child on the battlefield of Little Big Horn (in a place he knows as Greasy Grass), “counting coup” to prove his bravery. Paha Sapa, however, is no ordinary child; he had experienced moments of “small-vision-backward-touching”times when he’d accidentally absorb people’s memories or suffer from visions of the future. After witnessing the death of one of the officers, he goes to “count coup” and instead of a mere touch, he feels the ghost of the dead man flow into him. And it turns out not to be just any dead officer now living inside him, but the soul of General George Custer himself. Thus, Paha Sapa is literally and figuratively haunted by the legacy of the white man throughout his entire life as he tries to figure out a way to fight for the Sioux (who call themselves the Lakota). His lifelong efforts culminate at the construction site of Mount Rushmore, where he plots to save the sacred hills he was named after by blowing them up in front of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Despite being an interesting twist to the narrative, Custer’s ghost only serves as a foil to Paha Sapa’s perspective and never becomes fully a character of his own. But that is Simmon’s intent from the start: Paha Sapa is the focus and his struggles provide the emotional drive of the novel as the story jumps constantly between different time periods of Paha Sapa’s life. Obviously, it’s rough going at times; Paha Sapa finds happiness and joy, but a lot of the time, he just never gets a break.  He fails his vision quest, gets separated form his people, witnesses the destruction of his homeland, suffers from discrimination from other Natives and white men alike, and slowly loses everything he ever knew in the name of progress and some mystical fate.

In fact, if there were characters who earned a place beside Paha Sapa, they are Progress and Technology. Paha Sapa is fascinated by machines and engineering; as part of the plot, he becomes a powderman who works with dynamite in order to build Mount Rushmore. Simmons spends great portions of the book talking about a various technical details about mechanical things but they, surprisingly, don’t drag the story down. The only times that I felt he was tangenting a bit too much was when Paha Sapa visits New York and then relates the story of how his former boss built the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, Paha Sapa (and, in turn, Simmons) manages to engage and I was impressed about the meticulous amount of research that went into the book, both in describing the development of nineteenth century technology in America and the nuances of Lakota culture (there’s a substantially long Acknowledgments section at the end of the book for the academically curious). Simmons also uses the technique of incorporating Lakota words into the book, but they don’t feel like window dressing and actually has significance in the novel, especially when Paha Sapa talks to his half-white, half-Lakota wife Rain.

In this book, Simmons also proves that there are no small roles, only small actors. The other characters are portrayed vividly, from the wistful and occasionally sardonic Custer to the proud and violent Crazy Horse to the cheeky and intelligent Rain and their brilliant son Robert. The best character moment for me was Rain’s: on her first date with Paha Sapa at the Columbian World’s Exposition, they both ride the Ferris Wheel and she stands on top of a chair when their car stops at the top of the wheel so she could beat least for a few momentsthe highest person in Illinois. With dozens of moments like that scattered throughout the book, it made me wish that these characters played a larger role. Also, Simmons takes care not to fall into the “noble savage” trap, especially with a sympathetic character such as Paha Sapa. For as much discrimination and hardship Paha Sapa faces in the white man’s world, Lakota culture is notpainted as the bright and sunny antithesis but deeply flawed with its own complex problems as well.

As the book comes to a close, Simmons takes an especially sci-fi twist to the narration that feels like a heavy-handed silver lining painted around the dark cloud that pervaded Paha Sapa’s life. But then Simmons blurs the lines between historical characters doing fictional things and present people doing real things in a way that was still satisfying at the end.


Dan Simmons discusses BLACK HILLS on YouTube
Dan Simmons’ official website
Dan Simmons on Wikipedia


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