Friday, April 10, 2015

Not a Review of HYPERION by Dan Simmons

If you trawl the internet for opinions of Dan Simmons’ novel HYPERION, whether you take to Amazon or Goodreads or a half-assed blog like this one, you’re going to find countless reviews and messages that state something to the effect of, “It’s THE CANTERBURY TALES in outer space!” Well, that’s accurate enough if you’re only making a structural comparison between the two. If you want to ignore the fact that Chaucer owed more than a small debt to Boccaccio’s DECAMERON, that the TALES are mostly verse, that Chaucer never finished them, and that, since everyone who wasn’t clergy or nobility at the time was illiterate, we’re not sure who Chaucer was writing for, therefore we’re not really sure what he was trying to say, then yes, HYPERION is THE CANTERBURY TALES in outer space. But a simplistic comparison, no matter its validity, tends to minimize Dan Simmons’ accomplishment. HYPERION rides the currents of its many inspirations into depths they never approached and breaks the surface as something gloriously its own.
Simmons’ choice to use a pilgrimage as his work’s framing device was fraught with more narrative peril than Chaucer faced when composing the TALES. To the modern reader who hasn’t taken at least an undergraduate course on Chaucer the pilgrimage to Canterbury may appear so simple as to be inconsequential. But his contemporaneous readers, immersed in a fictional simulation of their modern world, would have recognized details and nuance that escape us undetected. Simmons’ pilgrimage however is one tile in a speculative mosaic that he has to conjure from word to word. That he does it so gracefully and vividly is a testament to his imaginative fecundity and storytelling economy. Every shred of exposition greets us via intimate conversation with his principal characters. Simmons not only shows us the crumbling Hegemony, the Ousters and their hostilities, the TechnoCore and its intrigues, the titular planet of legend. He makes us feel them it all. His world enters our bloodstream like a transfusion via semantic sleight of hand, and he’s never more successful than making us feel the omnipresent existential horror of The Shrike. 
But Dan Simmons does Chaucer one better. His framework has a story of its own to tell us, the imminent collapse of a once-mighty civilization, and the story weaves in and out of the pilgrims’ individual tales as we learn one by one why these individuals, out of a galaxy of hundreds of billions, were chosen to make this prestigious and fatal pilgrimage. And remember, this is a science fiction novel. Real science fiction is not about spaceships, lasers, and the traditional cosmetic iconography. Simmons takes aim at large targets of substance, and his message — if you want to call it that — becomes more pointed and more powerful with each revelation in the book and the individual stories.
The first of the stories is The Priest’s Tale. I tip my hat to Simmons. It was uncommonly daring to lead off with an epistolary story within a story. “Brace yourself,” he tells us. “This isn’t going to be some simplistic escapist adventure-time space opera for the indulgence of your inner child. I love literature, and I love mixing styles and genres. Get off the train now, or strap in.” The climax of the story also formally introduces us to our menacing MacGuffin. Up to this point we’ve only heard about The Shrike and felt the characters’ petrified repulsion. But when Simmons brings it center stage he makes it a thing to behold with marvel, a perfect note to strike before it becomes more enigmatic and deadly with each subsequent appearance.
Second is The Soldier’s Tale, as much a character study as it is a tragic war-torn love story. Before the tale begins we see the Soldier as our latest cold-blooded militant who doesn’t believe in anything except might makes right. But his story reveals the sickly marrow within, a man who feels deeply, painfully. A romantic in the truest sense. He longs for something that’s been lost. Simmons even begins the story with the Soldier firing arrows through gritted teeth in a virtual re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt. Over the course of The Soldier’s Tale we see how this man went from longing for some silver to line the oppressive cloud of violence that’s defined his existence, to finding that line in an agonizing irrational love, to watching that love turn against him, extinguishing any chance in his mind of escape. We understand how he became the man we first met, and we pity him.
I love that The Poet’s Tale is a shamefully honest depiction of the artistic temperament: selfish, arrogant, insecure. Of course the Poet narrates his own story. No one else could do it justice. The converse of the Soldier, the Poet starts as the puckish rogue with the biting wit, the kind of character that immediately attracts the reader. By the end of his tale, however, he reveals himself to be the book’s most despicable persona. His biggest complaint is, “Nobody appreciates my genius and I have to churn out garbage to stay rich.” In the end he proves to be a sociopath happy to let everyone around him die so he can finish his magnum opus. I give Simmons a lot of credit for exposing what may be the part of himself he is least proud of. Good for him. It’s brave, and it’s what every writer should do, use the best in themselves to exorcise the worst.
The fifth tale, The Scholar’s Tale, is far and away the most moving and frightening part of the whole book. The Scholar’s beloved daughter grows up to be an accomplished archaeologist but returns from a study of the Time Tombs on Hyperion with a disease that causes her to age backwards until the day arrives on which she will cease to exist. What greater nightmare could someone live than to helplessly witness the slow death of their child? Simmons brings his full array of talents to bear, and smashes your heart to weeping splinters. He mines every moment for its full gut-wrenching effect with the simplest turns of phrase. Nothing fancy, no great semantic pyrotechnics, just the simple telling of a story with efficiency, suspense, and empathy. When I go back to read the individual tales, this is the one I read first.
The Detective Story arrives in the mode of hardboiled fiction, its opening shot hitting us between the eyes: “I knew the case was going to be special the minute that he walked into my office. He was beautiful. By that I don’t mean effeminate or “pretty” in the male-model, HTV-star mode, merely… beautiful.” Simmons even subtitles the story The Long Goodbye. It is the perfect choice at the perfect time. We’re dangling from tenterhooks by a pinkie, and the Detective Story unravels the mysterious helix of the book’s overarching story. Simmons embraces not just the conventions of hardboiled fiction, but the existential angst and fatalistic underpinnings, exemplified when Simmons has a certain character recite an excerpt from the John Keats’ epic, the not-at-all coincidentally named The Fall of Hyperion:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect, the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Traced upon vellum or wild Indian Leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
“Thou art no poet — mayst not tell thy dreams”?
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved,
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be Poet’s or Fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

Which brings us to the last tale, The Consul’s Tale, which unfortunately is the book’s one problematic chapter. Since first reading HYPERION I have gone back and read The Consul’s Tale as a self-contained short story, and on that basis it’s as strong as any of the other tales. But in the context of the novel it’s a bit of a disappointment. It’s a story about two people who we’ve never previously met, and we have to wait until after the story is finished for the Consul to explain what it has to do with anything, although you’ll probably be able to guess before the story is over. This is the climactic tale. It’s supposed to bring everything to a head and unleash all our tensions in a unifying catharsis of narrative and thematic closure, and in the context of the novel I don’t think it satisfies. HYPERION is the story of a group of people making a pilgrimage. By diverting the novel at the height of its urgency to a cast of characters with whom we have no investment Simmons sabotages his carefully crafted tension.
But the misplacement of an otherwise wonderful little bildungsroman doesn’t ruin a book that juggles so many balls of different size, color, and texture and keeps them all soaring with balletic precision and punk rock energy. HYPERION proves you can do the hero’s journey, you can do space opera, you can embrace all the trappings of lowest-common-denominator sci-fi and still create a work of uncommon power and singular character.