Recent Reads: Hyperion

Reading Hyperion recalled my years in an undergraduate English department: the words mesmerized me, some of the ideas enthralled me…and the suffocating pretension tempted me to switch majors (or novels, in this case). I could tell the author was an English major even before confirming my suspicions on Wikipedia. We can always sense one another’s presence! I could also tell it would be an exceptionally literary science fiction novel right from the beginning, when the setup presented characters staring stories on a pilgrimage across the mysterious planet Hyperion. A sci-fi twist on The Canterbury Tales, I thought. That’s clever. Unfortunately it also makes the story rather disjointed.

Each of the pilgrim’s tales is a complete novella in its own right. Several would’ve made great full-length novels. But this approach precludes the reader from gaining any sort of momentum in the book, or observing subtle developments in the characters. Instead each player effectively removes their mask as they explain what brought them to Hyperion to seek the violent semi-supernatural entity called the Shrike. (I thought the Shrike, by the way, was one of Simmons’ more captivating creations; he should’ve spent more time with that, although perhaps that’s addressed in the series’ next book). The tales aren’t a bad literary device, but they make the scant pages of pilgrimage linking them feel like an afterthought.

The Priest’s tale, told in epistolary form, reads like the sort of eerie sci-fi short one might find in a Locus anthology. The Scholar’s tale tries to mix F. Scott Fitzgerald with questions of Old Testament faith. Both character’s stories are heavily laden with biblical themes. Indeed, religious motifs permeate the entire book. This would’ve been more interesting if it didn’t compete with the book’s other main theme of stuffing the maximum amount of literary references into one novel (seriously, everything from Beowulf to The Wizard of Oz. Even my trained English major brain could hardly keep up.)

All I got out of the Soldier’s tale was that human beings get off on violence. Literally. The story makes sexuality and war inextricable. Perhaps there’s some subtextual irony in this parallel of procreative and destructive acts. Does a fighter’s keen awareness of physical vulnerability prompt celebration of mortal flesh? Are we drawn to domination, whether in the battlefield or the bedroom? Does the “death” euphemism of orgasm found in many cultures mirror the thrill and horror of bloodlust—“dying” at the moment we feel most alive? Wow, man, that’s deep.

The Poet’s tale kept me laughing out loud, because the narrator lambasted—in delightfully articulate phrases—just the sort of literary pretension that lurks elsewhere in the novel. Some of his quips about writing, creativity, and the publishing world should hang over every writer’s desk. One of my particular favorites: “Belief in one’s identity as a poet or writer prior to the acid test of publication is as naive and harmless as the youthful belief in one’s immortality… and the inevitable disillusionment is just as painful.”

“Sheath thy hell-whip, good sir space knight! Let us farcast outside the Hegemony before the Core senses our presence in yon Web!” Excessive sci-fi jargon can be more obtuse than Old English.

The Detective’s tale pays clear homage to Raymond Chandler, with a cyberpunk spin worthy of William Gibson. Both are authors I admire, so this was an awesome combination. The story also involves the 19th century poet John Keats and sneaks in references to Sherlock Holmes. For the most part I really liked this story, except for a few details I can’t discuss without spoilers.

The Consul’s tale plods along until the end, when it tries to cram all the political complexity of Frank Herbert’s Dune into a few summarizing pages. Those final paragraphs would’ve made a great story; it disappointed me that Simmons devoted most of this novella to repetitive flashbacks rather than exploring the colonial rebellion he skimmed over with a few casual reminiscences.

Each standalone tale was generally enjoyable, and all were extremely well-written. The pilgrimage strung these disparate revelations together and linked them to the larger scheme about to unfold. Hyperion is essentially the prologue to its companion novels, relying on extended analepsis for backstory. One thing that plagued me throughout the book, however, was Simmons’ addiction to jargon. He obviously enjoyed creating worlds, technologies, histories, and cultures. The problem is that 1) he rarely bothers to explain any of them, just rattles them off in dense paragraphs of invented terminology, and 2) most of them aren’t really germane to the story. They are atmospherics.

Nothing weighs down a book like endless references to made-up things that seem to have no direct relevance to the plot. It brought to mind a quip from Futurama, when the character Mom states that  antennae “make [robots] look more science fiction-y.” I felt like Simmons indulged the same impulse. The glut of jargon gives his universe a futuristic gloss, but doesn’t contribute much substance. I found it distracted me from the story and became almost annoying at times. Admittedly, part of this may be my own preferences as an author: I like tight plotlines that move quickly. I don’t like dawdling on the cutting-room floor of my imagination, trying to include all the cool stuff I thought up that doesn’t really fit into the story.

This overwhelming indulgence of imagination, combined with the countless literary references, makes Hyperion feel a bit bloated. Even the series name—The Hyperion Cantos—harkens to pretentious poetry. The book is like a 500-page discourse with that smug literature professor who lectured about Meta-Textual Significance and Underlying Mythos,  the one who smirked when you raised your hand in class and made you feel like you missed some obvious meaning in the work. Does my academic background in English leave me better prepared to read a novel like this? Or is it a disadvantage, making me hypersensitive to the story’s many layers and sending me on an obsessive-compulsive scavenger hunt for symbology? Perhaps an English degree is like the Priest’s alien cruciform: a symbiotic consciousness that, although occasionally unwelcome, can never be excised.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I was never able to lose myself in it, either. Although Hyperion concluded with many questions unresolved and the true story just beginning, I don’t know whether I’ll read the rest of the quartet. Simmons didn’t create enough attachment to the characters or the universe to make me snatch up the sequel immediately. But as the pilgrims are lured to the planet Hyperion, my curiosity about the tantalizing concepts yet unexplored—the Time Tombs, the Shrike, the Ousters—may pull me again into the story’s gravity.

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