Thursday, October 24, 2019 04:13 PM
Book Report: Hyperion
 by Fëanor

I could have sworn I'd read Dan Simmons' Hyperion before and been disappointed by it, but maybe I was thinking of some other book. The overall story was vaguely familiar, especially "The Priest's Tale," but most of it was entirely new to me. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I did read the whole thing, and now I want to read the sequel, so I certainly didn't hate it. It's a really interesting book, with some fascinating ideas and moving stories. Plus it ends on a damn cliffhanger, and I have to know what happens next!! But for a famous entry in a genre that is meant to be so forward-looking, it's an oddly backward-looking book.

I should note, I was going to try to leave spoilers out of my write-up, but I ended up... not doing that. So beware!

Hyperion is a sci-fi version of The Canterbury Tales, set in a future when humanity has left its dead home behind and formed an interstellar web of societies known as The Hegemony of Man ("Man"? Really?). Like The Canterbury Tales, it's about a small group of pilgrims on a religious journey who spend their travel time each telling a tale of how they came to be on the pilgrimage. The tales are used to critique modern society and religion. There's a twist, though: we're informed at the beginning that one of the pilgrims is a spy and a traitor to the Hegemony. Which is it?

Taken together, the tales also tell an over-arching story about a mysterious, monstrous, and possibly wish-fulfilling Lord of Pain (also known as the Shrike) that lives among time-travelling tombs on a haunted, alien world. That world, Hyperion, is the destination of the pilgrimage, and it's also become the center of an interstellar conflict that may very well flare up into a war that will end humanity. The combatants in the conflict include Hegemony military forces, a nomadic space-bound group known as the Ousters (sort of outerspace Vikings), and a group of artificial intelligences known as the TechnoCore. Each of the pilgrims has their own secrets - most of them quite horrific - and their own perspectives on the Shrike.

"The Priest's Tale: The Man Who Cried God" is first, and is unabashedly a horror story, even making use of the epistolary format that Stoker leverages so effectively in Dracula. The horror of "The Priest's Tale" is religious, existential, and physical. Unfortunately, it also relies a bit on ableism. The story is told at a remove, as our narrator is presenting the journal of another character who he knew only slightly years ago, although he does eventually become caught up in the tale himself. The journal slowly reveals the horrific details of an awful parody of Catholicism that exists in secret on Hyperion, and which seems to have some distant connection to the Shrike (although the nature of that connection remains unclear). This tale is the least connected and the most unnecessary to the overarching story of the novel, but it is disturbing and effective. What it's trying to say about religion I'm not totally sure. In the face of this twisted mimicry of his religion, one character actually finds his faith is restored. But he also ends up crucified on an electrified tree, dying over and over again in horrible agony, so maybe that changes his mind.

Next is "The Soldier's Tale: The War Lovers." That title can be taken in two ways, and both are accurate to the story: it is about those who love war, but also about those who love each other in the midst of war. An infamous colonel tells the secret history of his love affair with a dream woman, and her connection to the Shrike, and to his own transformation from a military man to a man who fights for peace. The sex scenes are graphic and pretty gross. This book is very much a straight white man's book; even the one story told from the perspective of a woman (which we'll get to in a bit) feels weighted with a male outlook. For a book about cultures on alien worlds in the far future, it's also stubbornly heteronormative and really rather conservative in its descriptions of culture, gender, and sex. I don't think the existence of gay people is even mentioned in its entire length. The woman in this story is a kind of succubus; a feminine embodiment of war. Violence and sex are blended together until one final act of love looks likely to bring about a galactic apocalypse. How exactly, it's unclear. Although this is science fiction, a lot of what happens in it feels more in the fantasy vein, with monsters and magic and maidens struck down by terrible curses. But more of the overarching story is revealed in this tale: the Shrike appears to be seeking the end of the universe through some ultimate conflict, and is trying to use the Colonel as its instrument.

The third story is "The Poet's Tale: Hyperion Cantos." This story would seem to be particularly important, as the series of which this novel is the first entry shares its name (Hyperion Cantos). It's meta in more than just that way, too; the main character here is a famous poet who has come to believe he wrote the Shrike into existence and is in some sense responsible for the death and destruction it's caused. He even seems to believe that as he continues to write his Hyperion Cantos, he is writing the future - creating reality. It's possible we're meant to think of him as the author of this book - as if he has somehow written the story he's a character in. But again, for a character in a book about the future, he is very traditional, to the point of being almost antiquated. He's a bawdy, grossly male and heterosexual hedonist. He's constantly compared to a satyr, and most of his references and quotations (in fact most of the references and quotations in the book) are to very old works of art. Admittedly, references to made-up future works that the reader doesn't know about wouldn't have as much of an impact, but this book was published in 1989. Why have your poet quote Shakespeare, the Bible, and John Keats? Why is the only movie referenced The Wizard of Oz? Other art was made in between The Wizard of Oz and 1989! Our poet does admit he is very backward-looking, and his most famous work, The Dying Earth (which shares its title with a famous series by Jack Vance, a fact which Simmons slyly mentions in the book) is an elegy to "Old Earth," humanity's now dead (murdered, in fact, by an event known as "The Big Mistake") home planet. And later in the book, a character decries this civilization's increasingly desperate and violent attempts to hold onto old ways. But is that just lampshading, or is the backward nature of these characters and their society a legitimate theme of the novel? I'm not sure. I know I really disliked the Poet's Tale until its narrator's mind is destroyed by cheap suspended animation, and he has to rebuild his vocabulary from nine words (most scatological profanity). This section is poignant and funny. I was also fascinated by the idea of the poet writing the Shrike into existence, and the drama and romance of him haunting the ruins of the Poet's City on Hyperion, and his fiery confrontation with Sad King Billy and his Muse.

The most effective and moving story is definitely "The Scholar's Tale: The River Lethe's Taste Is Bitter." As you might have guessed from the ancient reference in the title, it also features some of the most traditional, conservative characters and societies that we've yet seen in the book. It's hard to believe a family unit and small town this traditional could exist in the future; it wouldn't be out of place in '50s America. The husband calls his wife "Mother," and the wife calls her husband "Father," and they bought their little girl a bike for her birthday, and the couple met at a college party where the man spilled something on the woman. The man is a scholar and researcher, but his research topics are things like a story in the Bible, and a writer who would be even more ancient in his time than he is already in ours. The scholar's name is also an extremely traditional Jewish name: Sol Weintraub. He is even dubbed The Wandering Jew in the tale. Why is this future so old?

Still, maybe it's partly because this setting and cast are so familiar that this story is so effective. Weintraub's daughter (who also has an incredibly traditional name: Rachel Sarah Weintraub) ends up traveling to Hyperion to perform research there for her graduate dissertation. While she's alone one night in one of the mysterious structures called the Time Tombs (structures that are somehow moving backward through time, and that appear to be connected somehow to the Shrike), she experiences a paranormal-like event that infects her with a unique disease: Merlin syndrome. She begins living backwards, becoming younger and younger each day, and each time she sleeps, her memories reset to what they were when she was originally that age, and she forgets everything she experienced since then. What follows is a brutal, heart-rending tale, as her parents try desperately to help their daughter while she fades slowly and inexorably away from them. Weintraub begins to have a dream where he is ordered by a God-like figure (possibly the Shrike) to bring his daughter to Hyperion and sacrifice her, and he becomes obsessed with the story in the Bible where Abraham is ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Weintraub ultimately decides that any God who demands obedience before all else, any God who would expect a worshiper to be willing to execute his own family member, is an evil God that does not deserve worship. This is a deep and powerful story and probably the best in the book.

The next story is "The Detective's Tale: The Long Good-bye." Yes, it's really called that! And indeed it's very much in the format of an old-school film noir murder mystery/detective story, complete with a rough-and-tumble private dick armed with her father's automatic (his death by "suicide" inspired her to become a detective, natch), a mysterious femme fatale client who becomes a romantic interest for the detective, and a labyrinthine case that ultimately uncovers a gigantic conspiracy and brings to light the evils of society. The interesting bit (as you might have guessed from the pronouns used above) is that the two main characters are gender-swapped: the detective and narrator is a woman, and the femme fatale is a man. Well, "man" is a bit misleading; he's actually a male avatar for an artificial intelligence modeled on the poet John Keats. Oh, and the detective's name is Lamia. Yeah.

This one is rough. I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at all the detective story tropes, even though I actually like a good film noir. We also get some cyberpunk tropes thrown in for good measure, as this story explores the seedy underside of the equivalent of the internet that's envisioned by the novel. There are definitely some fascinating ideas here, though: the warring factions of AIs, their Ultimate Intelligence project, their attempts to fully predict the future by taking into account all possible variables (that reminded me a little bit of Asimov's Foundation novels), and the way the inexplicable, incalculable variable of Hyperion and the Shrike keeps frustrating their efforts. There's another weird religious thing going on in this story, as our detective ends up being revered by the Church of the Shrike as the future mother of some kind of messianic figure. (Yes, somehow she is having the John Keats cyborg's baby, like you do.) I haven't mentioned the Church of the Shrike before, but they're an interesting bunch who show up again and again throughout the novel. Adherents of the religion are often broken, suicidal people, but not all of them are. There's definitely something creepy and mystical going on with them. What it is exactly is - like so many other things - not explained in the novel.

The final story is "The Consul's Tale: Remembering Siri," and it's definitely one of my least favorite. Like "The Priest's Tale," it's also told at a remove, with a grandson presenting the journal of his grandfather, and then adding his own story onto the end. The journal jumps back and forth through time in a confusing fashion. This is probably an attempt to mirror the time-fractured nature of the relationship that is at the center of the story. The author of the journal is a "shipman" named Merin Aspic (Aspic? Really?) who, as part of his work to build the farcaster portal that will bring the Maui Covenant colony into the Hegemony, is constantly traveling between the stars at relativistic speeds, and so incurring enormous amounts of "time debt." Against orders, and in search of "nookie" (ugh), he mingles with the natives while on shore leave and ends up in a relationship with a (criminally young!!) girl who is unfortunately named Siri. (Constantly being reminded of Apple's voice-activated AI assistant made it hard to take her seriously as a character, although that's hardly Simmons' fault.) She's only 16! I mean, he's only 19 at the time, but still. It is very hard to like Merin, and very hard to understand what Siri sees in him, especially after he ends up murdering her cousin (!) at the end of their first meeting. But their time-fractured romance becomes legendary among her people. Each time he returns to meet her again, he's aged maybe a year or two, while she's aged decades. She has kids by him and raises them into men while he's off working on his spaceship. It's pretty gross. The tale very much follows in the tired vein of the "civilized white man is converted to the side of the primitive natives by their charming culture as personified by a sexy young girl" story (although in this case she doesn't remain young for long). The most recent example of this genre is probably John Cameron's Avatar, but there's also Dances With Wolves (which came out only a year after Hyperion), and I'm sure plenty more, much older examples. What we come to realize, as we jump back and forth through Siri and Merin's very strange relationship, is that the culture of Maui Covenant, and many of the people and animals that live there, will be utterly destroyed by the Hegemony when it takes over. It's old school Imperialism in its purest form. Which, okay. But the way the native culture is exoticized and romanticized, while we are given almost no details about it, is clumsy. And, again, it's hard to understand how a culture so traditional, archaic, and without technology would exist in this future universe. I appreciate that you're telling a story about how Hegemonic Imperialism is bad and destroying aboriginal societies is bad. But why does it have to be from the perspective of one of the White Imperialists, a dumb young jerk who's having lots of sex with the young native woman?

At the end of this story, the Consul - grandson to Merin and Siri, and high ranking official in the Hegemony government - reveals that the way the Hegemony treated Maui Covenant is the way it treats pretty much all colony worlds. It shows up, wipes out the natives, and takes control. The Hegemony, in other words, is pretty awful. We have learned almost nothing about the Hegemony's enemy, the Ousters, in the rest of the book; they're just kind of a barbarian boogey man banging at the gates. The Consul now gives us a rough sketch of the beauty of their culture, and reveals that he is the spy and the traitor. However, he is also a traitor to the Ousters. A kind of triple agent. His goal seems to be to eliminate everyone, to end the conflict by letting the combatants destroy each other. To let the Shrike loose on the universe to wreak whatever retribution it sees necessary on all of humanity.

Interestingly, his fellow pilgrims react by hugging him and absolving him. Then they all walk together down to the Shrike and the Time Tombs, hand in hand, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." And that's how the book ends.

I'm not even kidding!

I've almost talked myself into hating the book by writing about it here. It's got a lot of ridiculous tropey bits. And I find it hard to take a book seriously anymore that is so stubbornly traditional and stereotypical and heteronormative. It definitely made me think a lot about my own novel and its own flaws, and how I should probably revise it again to include more minorities and more queerness. White hetero male stories are pretty dull and old anymore.

All that being said, the book is well written, with some great ideas, and I really would like to know what the Shrike does when the pilgrims show up, and who lives and who dies, and what the deal is with the Time Tombs. So I'll probably read the next one eventually.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)



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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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