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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Oh no!  Another SciFi novel!  This one 20 years old!  I hope you don't think I'm going all soft on you, and remaking my fantasy blog.  Far from it my friends, but with the awesome body armor of the Shrike, pictured by Garry Ruddell, I've been salivating for this book for over a decade.  Thinking about it now, this might be where the dark figure in my child's mind came from, if this were true, it would be appropriate.  That beast on the cover, is called The Shrike.  And he is the half mythological figure of a death cult, whose effigy exists on dozens of planets, exists in dreams, nightmares and half forgotten memories, who is alternatively mankind's ultimate destruction or savior.

But all of that to come!  Dan Simmons is a brilliant writer.  And this book can only be regarded as classic SF.  Why it hasn't been brought to film is anyone's guess.  Well--actually its an easy answer.  The book is too literary.  Ok, so first off.  I try to come to a book completely tabla rasa.  I know nothing about Dan Simmons, the mythos about Hyperion in the fanverse, nor have I read any reviews on the book or series itself.  I may post an update, after I do, because there is much which needs explaining.  But the book is WAY literary.  To start, it begins with a shout out to Chaucer.  The book is structured similarly to the Canterbury Tales, in that it is laid out in a series of tales; tales of pilgrims, with a prologue and an epilogue.  The whole univerise is structured around the poetry of Keats, and Keats himself becomes a character of sorts in the story.  Add to that that one of the main characters is a famous scholar, and yet another is a famous poet, and you get a very scholarly science fiction book.  Likewise the quality of the writing was just top notch.  Spare where it needed to be, flowery and descriptive at those points requiring the most visual depictions.

I will use the rubric I established in my BattleStar Galactica review as a blueprint:

SF is about The Big Idea. The Big Idea is big here. REALLY Big. It's Time. Each of the main characters' stories relate to odd particularities inherent in time, including living backward (like Merlin!) prophetic recordings, and dreams, and recreating the past. However, there are lesser big ideas, the sorts that are popular in more mainstream science fiction epics. For example, Simmon's "Ousters" are a group of space pirates/barbarians at the gate. The Ousters are a group of humans who eschewed the world of the Hegemony to live extraplanetary lives aboard massive raiding spaceships. Their bodies are elongated and possess more joints due to the lack of gravity. The book sets them up as an enemy of humanity, but a plot twist in the final pages may change things. Regardless, that big idea was good enough to get used in Josh Whedon's Firefly, as the Reavers (a cannabilistic space pirate). Another big idea is the Techno Core. Simmon's sci fi is far more advanced than mere robots here. AI's exist on a far more advanced level, much as they do in Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, where they become entities called Powers and migrate to the High Beyond. AI's have something to do with the endgame of Hyperion, but it's unclear at this point what. But to get back to time--I can't be more specific without giving too much away. One thing I can say is this: The Shrike manipulates time, and this is completely unresolved by story's end.

SF is reactionary. This is a toughie. Simmons seems to be a fairly open minded guy. Central to the story's plot is a federal government, one for the whole of the populated universe, called the Hegemony. The Hegemony doesn't seem to be particularly oppressive, at least not at first. But it does have a very "my way or the highway" style of governance. Still, the Hegemony acts a lot like most modern nations. New worlds are mined for commodities and involved in intergalactic trade. If their economies become important enough to the Hegemony, they're inducted. That induction often involves territorial war, independence movements, racism, and environmental damage.  Here again, Whedon's Firefly seems to take a lot from these ideas; the premise of Firefly is based on a federated interplanetary government, and those frontiersmen who resisted annexation.  Even so, while the Hegemony's motives are opaque, we are given to know that it is a representative form of democracy, which functions fairly smoothly.  Further, a common reactionary theme in SF is fear of technology, embodied in wars between artificial intelligence and humanity.  As mentioned above, this is simply not the case in Hyperion.  Though the AIs seem to be divided by party, one of whom approves of the overall extinction of humanity, the other two are either more progressive or completely ambivalent.  The Big Bad is never entirely clear here, it seems on the face of things, to be The Shrike.  It is a cold hearted killer.  But since we are never allowed to really understand what the Shrike is, it's hard to say whether or not the Shrike is in fact the Big Bad, or if it's the Ousters, the Hegemony, or the Techno Core.  This is all to the good, though it was frustrating to finish the book with little concluded.  Black and whites in genres like SF and fantasy are easy prey to bad writing, dissection, and subsequent dismissal of the work and the form overall.  Therefore, I'm inclined to say Hyperion fails this test of traditional SF, it is NOT reactionary.

SF is voyeuristic.  All of which begs the question, if it fails a test, is it still SF?  Oh yes.  Hyperion is voyeuristic to the core.  Recall that my definition of voyeuristic does not include peeping toms, or reality TV.  It simply means, getting a peep at what life is like in the future, and Simmons future is a whopper.  All SF falls prey to the simple distance involved in interplanetary travel.  Traveling to an alternate star system can take decades.  Hyperion's world has conquered that distance with something called a Farcaster.  Now Farcaster's are not some magic panacea.  The Techno Core gifted humanity with the technology for its own murky reasons, and you can't just 'cast anywhere.  You have to get there first, get Hegemony approval, and build a gate.  Something which costs billions of whatever the local currency is (Simmon's has two, black market dollars which are untraceable, and standard credits.)  And yet, as much as these things cost, the fabulously wealthy, as only a free-wheeling corporatist "democracy" can have, have farcaster homes, where every doorway goes to a secluded room on a completely different planet!  One of the main characters, farcasts to a beautiful, watery world to relive himself.  One thing that the story's premise allows for is that each character has a completely different background and history, this scattershot of history allows the author incredible lattitude to explore this diverse galaxy.  The drug currently in vogue is called Flashback.  It's like it sounds.  You take it, you fall unconcious and relive a prior experience.  So of course, there are good flash backs and "bad trips."  This falls within the realm of the Big Idea, Time.  My one question with flashback is, you have to have some control over it, since most days of our lives are fairly boring and placid.  To say nothing of the downright awful days!  But then again, seeing the past through the eyes of the present, might well make anything short of torture more bearable.  Apparently, Simmons himself had questions about fashback because his most recent book, to be released in July is based on it.  If ever an SF book were to be made a movie, this is it.

SF is about plot.  Though Hyperion seems in someway to be a prequel to a much larger story, this prequel is indeed heavily plot driven.  Even more so than most plot driven stories, because of the six stories that make up the whole.  Characters are introduced and killed off within pages of each other.  Simmons writing is tight, so its well done, but only the main characters are described in any way, and you still feel that they are complete strangers by the end of the story.  In no way do we empathize with them, even though several of the stories are quite touching and sad.  Given that this novel ends at the start of the action, at page 473, a lot of things happened.  If any of the characters had been developed further in this volume, it would have been an epic.

SF:  What survives?  As stated so often, my SF rubric is evolving.  So a new category today.  What survives, what gets left behind?  Part of the joy in all SF is seeing what remnants of our own common history survived whatever calamity befelled the Earth.  Or if the planet survived, what is remembered and what is lost?  There is a voyeuristic element to this, but I've classified this as a separate realm of inquiry for the following reason:  Watching the unfamiliar is titillating because of its strangeness, finding artifacts relevant to our own lives is titiliating because of their familiarity.  In Hyperion?  Well, Keats is an obvious answer.  Numerous other writers and works of poetry and prose are mentioned, many of which were beyond my own knowledge base.  (One nice thing about the new world of e-books and wireless networks is that its easy to look these things up on the fly!  But I ain't no e-book guy.  Not yet.)  One of the highlights of the book (SPOILER) is that the Techno Core has created a replicated terraformed recreation of Old Earth (before the fall) which is full of artifacts.  Judaism survives, and moves from Old Earth (which is destroyed by a black hole) to New Hebron.  Interestingly, man's relationship to God changes drastically once Earth is gone.  For the Jews in particular, with Jerusalem nothing more than cosmic dust, a major part of their religious texts became obsolete.  Catholicism (one of the main characters is a Catholic priest) likewise survives, also has a new homeworld and Archdiocese, but now it is just one more obscure Earth religion among many.  There is a lot in Hyperion to achieve familiarity with the reader. 

Anyway, this was a great read.  The test: will I pick up the sequel?  I saw it recently at my local library, and given that my almost-wife has passed an edict on no new fantasy in the house, I may well.  Why the caution?  Well, it's not my genre.  I don't mean to sound closeminded, but SF just doesn't have the same appeal to me.  And as the conclusion to this book was so unsatisfying, unlike A Fire Upon the Deep, with which I was enthralled from beginning to end--well, I just don't know.  At anyrate, Simmons is definitely on my list now.

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