Saturday, May 28, 2011

SF Masterworks #89: Dan Simmons, Hyperion

When pressed to give a basic description of Hyperion, most readers likely would say that in structure it approximates that of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  There is something to that, although perhaps a more apt comparison might be to Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, with its sense of lurking doom looming over the storytellers.  What is certain, however, is that each of the pilgrims to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike have different motives and each of their stories is told in distinct fashions that engage the reader almost immediately.

The first story told by the pilgrims is that of a Roman Catholic priest.  His story involves his predecessor's journey deep within Hyperion's tesla tree field to a stunted, retarded people called the Bukura.  The priest intertwines his own experiences years later with the field journals found on the person of the first priest.  This epistolary approach allows for a necessary distance to be created between the storyteller and the horrific tale he tells of his predecessor's suffering and inability to die completely.  The story of the parasitic cruciform at first seems out of place with the other pilgrims' tales, but it does play a vital role in future volumes, if I recall.

The soldier Kassad's tale of his life as a Palestinian refugee on Mars, his joining the Hegemony's military force, and his mysterious meetings with a woman named Moneda (money? coin?) and the fleeting appearance of the Shrike provides the love interest story of this novel.  Although it is unclear so far as to what Kassad's true aspirations are, elements introduced in this tale influence the later narrative in the series.

The poet Martin Silenus's story is in turns poetic and bawdy, and is always full of literary allusions, some of which are to living writers, such as the horror writer Steve (Rasnic) Tem, which delighted me when I re-read this portion of the novel.  If the first two stories provide the horror and the love elements, the poet's tale supplies the love of literature and of tragedy that runs its threads through the remaining narratives.

The fourth story, that of the scholar Sol Weintraub, is the most heart-wrenching of the six.  It is not as much a story about himself, but about his daughter Rachel's accident at the Time Tombs nearly 30 years before and her reverse aging, day by day, back to being an infant only weeks away from her birth/death.  Although this too contains elements of a horror tale, it also is a story of two devout parents and the traumas they have suffered (and which ultimately led to the suicide of the mother Sarai).  Out of all the tales this is the one that connects deepest and which seems to make this ultimate pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike to be worth all of the travails that await the pilgrims.

The fifth tale, told by the private eye Brawne Lamia, echoes the Soldier's and Poet's tales, as she explores a mystery into the heart of the TechnoCore and discovers that the AIs there have split into three factions, some of which are not friendly to human interests.  In addition, her encounter with the reconstructed Romantic poet William Keats (who, after all, wrote "Hyperion," after which the planet is named) sets the stage for future events in the series.

The final tale, that of the Consul, is in parts a retelling of a love story and of a revenge tale cloaked with layers of subterfuge.  It is not as immediately gripping as most of the other tales, but it serves to reinforce reader suspicions about elements introduced in the other tales.  It is a suitable concluding tale and with its ending, the pilgrims are at the final approach to the Time Tombs and whatever destiny may await them there.  Simmons has at this point created six intriguing characters and six compelling tales, each that differ in tone and feel from the others.  There are hints of deeper themes embedded in these tales, creating an enchanting narrative that leaves the reader eager to read the second volume, The Fall of Hyperion.

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