The one huge problem with Dan Simmons’ sci-fi mystery Hyperion

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Hyperion is not what you would expect if the only Dan Simmons you’ve read is The Terror, a slab of historical fiction with an uneven supernatural glaze. It’s overlong, tedious, confused, and ultimately flat. You’d never guess it was written by the same person who wrote Hyperion, a sparkling collection of multi-faceted science fiction, with carefully built characters, a lovingly detailed world, and a glaring problem that threatens to undermine it all.

But we’ll get to that later. The first thing that’s clear in Hyperion, which I don’t remember being a takeaway from The Terror, is that Simmons is an adroit writer. Maybe it helps if you’ve been reading someone who isn’t.

Simmons does that usual trick of establishing science fiction by tickling your brain with made-up spacewords, often juxtaposed with real words. This trick doesn’t always work, because not all writers are good at coming up with spacewords. That’s mostly not an issue for Simmons, even though some of his fundamentals sound a bit clumsy at first.

Take, for instance, the internet as he imagined it in the late 80s, when he wrote Hyperion. “The real-time network which governed Hegemony politics, fed information to tens of billions of data-hungry citizens, and had evolved a form of autonomy and consciousness all its own.” Not on servers, but on “omega-class AIs”. It takes 60,000 of them to run a military training simulation. It integrates “holistic insight”, which incorporates the thoughts and dreams of its participants. Cool idea, and it looms in the background throughout the story. What name does Simmons have for this? The All Thing.

I mean, sure, it works. I get it. But it sounds like a Bowie lyric instead of the developed idea it actually is. It’s one of a handful of Simmons’ made-up words that snags my eye on the way to my brain. “Worldweb” is another one. It’s a casualty of timing, because Hyperion was published the same year the world wide web was given its name. In the book, the Worldweb is the physical space of the civilized universe, connected by interdimensional portals called “farcasters”. Farcasters is another one. Again, sure, it works, but it sounds like a placeholder. Interstellar communications are sent in “squirts” across a “fatline”. Prescient or clumsy? Why not both?

But these are exceptions to the rule, and they’re used frequently and with enough conviction that they stop sounding weird after a hundred pages or so. They’re interspersed with much better spacewords casually tossed around but no less intriguing for it. In the first few pages, an invading horde is described as “ships ranging in size from single-person ramscouts to can cities and comet forts holding tens of thousands of the interstellar barbarians.” I never would have guessed that the words “fort” and “comet” would feel so right next to each other. The native flora on Hyperion have names like periscope beans, womangrove root, gissen, golden halfoak, weirwood, scrub everblues. Would that No Man’s Sky had even one tenth that lyricism.

A magic box is called a Mobius cube, complete with an umlaut over the “o”. “A carbon-carbon-shell set around a zero impedance containment field folded back on itself.” Of course something called a Mobius cube is “folded back on itself”! But is the double use of carbon a typo? Does it matter? What’s inside? It’s part of Hyperion’s central mystery. “A cube that size could hold a kiloton nuclear explosion in check as long as it was boxed during the nanosecond of ignition.” What a great mystery box. The final sequence in Kiss Me Deadly would be proud!

Simmons isn’t above a bit of lampshading, even when it comes to what is arguably the most important word in the book: the title. “Where the hell is Hyperion?” someone asks about the titular planet. “It sounds like a brand name for some new household product.”

This is all part of the world building, which unfolds gradually, easing you into this universe rather than throwing you into the deep end of an exposition pool. We learn from a Jesuit priest’s journal that it’s the 28th century. Page 26 includes a casual reference to Earth being dead. But not gone. Much later in the book, a character recalls a lavish party thrown by his wealthy mother. “I remember one three-day affair she threw in the Manhattan Archipelago, guests ferried in by dropships from Orbit City and from the European arcologies.”

The last days of Earth are hinted at with references to the Second Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Third Sino-Japanese War, the Indo-Soviet Muslim Republic Limited Exchange. I don’t even know how to parse that last one. I can understand “Soviet” because Hyperion was published in 1989. But Muslim Republic? Does the Soviet Union become a Muslim republic? Interesting. And, of course, Limited Exchange implies something very specific to a 1989 audience keenly aware of nuclear proliferation. India was among rarified company in the potential horrors of the Cold War, and Simmons’ imagination didn’t seem to have much confidence in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. A Palestinian character recalls that the Nuclear Jihad of 2038 sent the Palestinians on their Second Diaspora. Judaism gets special attention as well with a space Israel called Hebron.

Hyperion is full of these little touches, and they’re mostly discreet and effective. Simmons’ main concern is character. The universe of Hyperion, and how it relates to the titular planet, is obviously one of the characters. But then there are the six characters who are actual individuals. They’re the real focus of the novel. Six people, each with his or her own story and how it relates to one mysterious planet. All given the opportunity, in turn, to reveal who they are, each taking a deep dive into different elements of Simmon’s universe, each serving as your tour guide with distinct style and tone.

This variety is the polar opposite of The Terror, with its hemmed in sensibility, frozen in one place and claustrophobic for its sense of being trapped for months on end. But Hyperion soars across time and space and even genre. It has a thrilling sense of freedom as it progresses. What is the next story going to bring? What will it add to the mystery? What will it resolve? How will it relate to the earlier stories? Because the stories do relate to each other. This is no anthology. Everything feeds into the central mystery. With the exception of one crushing flaw, this is a great structure for telling a story in an imaginative new universe.

For the first (or is it last?) of the six characters, Simmons opens with a classical flourish to introduce his universe, and then his approach to the telling us about the characters. The first line of Hyperion:

The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.

The juxtaposition of technology, opulence, and fecund wilderness. Far enough in the future for someone to have his own spaceship. It’s not black, it’s ebony. It doesn’t have a deck, it has a balcony. But not far enough in the future for Rachmaninoff to have been forgotten (although someone will later wear “a long garment called a trenchcoat for reasons long forgotten”). We have some sort of a vast government or organization, but this nameless character literally tuned into the arts. Why is he nameless? Why will we know the other character’s names, but not his? Just as Hyperion introduces this in the beginning, it will answer it at the end. (The Consul reminds me of a pivotal character in The Three-Body Problem.)

The characters aren’t just narrative devices to deliver the book’s world. They are statements on sweeping elements of the human condition. Religion, war, love, children, art, as set forth by a priest, soldier, poet, father, and detective. Like a lot of good science fiction, Hyperion is variations on familiar themes and stories.

The writing varies nicely by whichever character is narrating. The poet, for example, says things like this:

Dislinear plotting and non-contiguous prose have their adherents, not the least of which am I, but in the end, my friends, it is character which wins or loses immortality upon the vellum.

Good point. And none of the other characters talks like that. Thank god. Some of them hardly talk at all. But they say plenty. The Consul puts on a tricorn. That’s a detail I won’t soon forget. Like Princess Leia’s hairdo or Spock’s ears. Simmons loves to evoke memorable details about his characters. “A thin line of beard along [the soldier’s] jawline served to accent the sharpness of his countenance as surely as blood on a knife blade.” The silver-haired “pleasantly demonic” satyr poet has “fingers long enough to serve a concert pianist. Or strangler.”

I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite from the characters and their stories. Hyperion opens with a riff on the missionary in the heart of deepest, darkest, unChristian Africa. “Had I stumbled into that old adventure holo cliche?” its narrator asks. This will eventually become a powerful statement about religion, and specifically Christianity. But first, it neatly flips the noble savage idea on its head. It takes place among native people who walk all the way to a river when they’re thirsty. It doesn’t occur to them to carry the water back to the village for later. “They have spent generations in a village with no handy water source,” the narrator boggles. They’re vegetarians not because they “disdain meat; they simply are too stupid to hunt and kill it”. They don’t understand the concept of passing time. They have no word for “when”.

Simmons objectively recreates the white European version of history as the discovery and exploration of a world populated by dumb savages. They’re stupid, violent, incurious, and superstitious. Hyperion demonstrates all these things to be true and not value judgments. Reading the account of the two priests is very much like reading the account of a Jesuit missionary in the 16th century who wants to bring Christ to indigenous people who don’t know Christ.

In the movie Bone Tomahawk, a woman is kidnapped by native Americans. It’s a variation on The Searchers, in the context of a grim horror movie instead of an introspective Western. But the kidnappers in Bone Tomahawk aren’t referred to as Indians. In fact, a Native American character disavows them entirely. They’re cannibals. So the movie proceeds and we ride along with the white rescuers, free to share the point of view, without guilt, of white rescuers who actually fought and killed native Americans. By swapping out actual historical people and swapping in horribly violent, unremittingly evil, bona fide savages, Bone Tomahawk doesn’t make excuses for the mindset of Europeans colonists; it instead helps us experience that mindset. The fact that our mindset was partly a matter of racial animus can be addressed later. Until then, here is what happened. Here is how we felt. Here is how we thought before contemporary anthropology and ethnology taught us that the facts weren’t so simple. Here is a regressive first-person narrative of the civilized world interacting with the uncivilized world.

I understand the enormity of colonialism, and I have the utmost respect for First Nations, but I find this approach fascinating. It teaches me a lot to hear stories that explain unfamiliar perspectives in subversive ways. There’s a tendency to romanticize primitive cultures, and it’s often at the expense of understanding those cultures. There’s also a tendency to demonize Europeans, and it’s often at the expense of understanding why native populations were wiped out. A movie like Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is steeped in facile guilt and it doesn’t teach anyone anything other than a sense of glib culpability. “Man, we sucked,” Hostiles reminds us. It’s not wrong. Neither is it informative in any way. But a movie like Bone Tomahawk, and a story like the priests’ chapter in Hyperion, show us without judgment what it was like to be civilized, quote unquote, in an uncivilized, quote unquote, world.

Maybe I just picked a favorite storyline. It helps that this is the first one. Hyperion opens with a bang. I was worried how any of the other characters’ stories were going to live up to this one, and not just for my overcomplicated historical interpretation. The dilemma of two priests, and their relationship, burns with a religious fervor. A science fiction twist will work its way under the skin of the narrative, wrapping it in the mystery of the titular planet. How can the other stories compare?

Hyperion works because the other stories don’t have to compare. They all have their own approach to their own terms. The poet’s story has an intentionally annoying quality because its narrator is privileged and pompous. He’s the closest thing Hyperion has to humor, but only in flashes and he’s not really funny so much as deeply sardonic. Which can be funny. His publisher, Tyrena, pushes him to write commercially successful trash.

“Look,” said Tyrena. “In twentieth-century Old Earth, a fast food chain took dead cow meat, fried it in grease, added carcinogens, wrapped it in petroleum based foam, and sold nine hundred billion units. Human beings. Go figure.”

When he finally sells out and writes commercially successful trash, one of his main characters is “Arturo Redgrave, the dashing blockade runner (what blockade?).” This was 1989. In about 30 years, Solo: A Star Wars Story will be along to explain what “Kessel run” means.

The soldier’s story is a dispassionate look not just at the history of war, but at passion (brace yourself for a weird and weirdly detailed coitus non-interruptus). It’s an extension of the history of warfare, which has evolved from limited to total, from something conducted by rules of honor to something that must be won at any cost. Simmons cleverly manages to begin it all at Agincourt. It’s like taking John Keegan’s The Face of Battle and moving it forward another thousand years.

Simmons has no compunction about getting grim. One of my favorite examples of his writing occurs during a quiet moment when the soldier, Kassad, wakes up on a military hospital ship. He’s talking to a medic. She’s explaining what’s happened and where they are. The usual “waking up in the hospital” scene. But then there’s a sudden cacophony. Screams and violent wind and objects whirling through the air. There’s been an explosive decompression.

A meter from him, a football-sized spider with wildly waving legs was trying to force itself into a crack which had suddenly appeared in the bulkhead. The thing’s jointless legs seemed to be swatting at the paper and other detritus whirling around it. The spider rotated and Kassad realized it was the head of the medic; she had been decapitated in the initial explosion. Her long hair writhed at Kassad’s face. Then the crack widened to the width of a fist and the head disappeared through it.

A decapitated head as a spider! I won’t get that image out of my head anytime soon. Later, after getting himself into a space suit and floating amid the wreckage in space…

…he could see a score or more of bodies, naked and torn, each moving with the deceptive underwater-ballet grace of the zero gravity dead. Most of the corpses floated within their own small solar systems of blood and tissue. Several of them watched Kassad with the cartoon-character stares of their pressure-expanded eyes and seemed to beckon him closer with random, languid movements of arms and hands.

Simmons has a talent for gore. He would be a very R-rated movie. “Blood and brain tissue clung to the wet rock like the refuse of a sad picnic,” he writes about the victim of a fall from a cliff. In the 28th century, interrogations are nothing if not enhanced. Captured soldiers are…

…flayed open and pinned down on steel trays like frogs in a biology lab, their organs bathed with nutrient fluids, arms and legs efficiently amputated, eyes removed, and their minds readied for interrogators’ questions with crude cortical comtaps and shunt-plugs jacked directly through three-centimeter holes in their skulls.

Yikes.

So it’s no surprise that, except for the huge glaring problem, this book is going to appeal to me, an erstwhile theology student, sometime wargamer grognard, and horror aficionado. But then comes the cyberpunk noir.

I would not be hard-pressed to pick a least favorite from the characters and their stories. The detective section is the weakest writing because you can tell Simmons is enamored of William Gibson. But to write like William Gibson, you shouldn’t write like William Gibson. You should write like Raymond Chandler. The genius of Gibson was only partly his imaginative ideas about cyberspace. It was mostly how well he understood and channeled Chandler’s vivid flinty prose. Simmon’s detective cyberpunk chapter is like a faded photocopy of that prose, and not for lack of trying. He has the temerity to title it The Long Good-Bye.

One of the things I like about Altered Carbon — the TV show, since I haven’t read the book — is that it gets the texture of Gibson’s cyberpunk. It’s sensual in a couple of senses of the word. Almost tactile. But Simmons’ take on Gibson is light and sound without texture. Hollow. Like a VR game where the world has no weight or heft. Diluted, like barely flavored water. His fusioned noir is even worse. And by the time he gets to a supposedly climactic action sequence? Hoo boy. Yep, this is the Simmons who had a dude and a polar bear fumbling around in the rigging of a sailing ship for too many pages.

But even though the cybernoire is an obvious weak link, I don’t mind so much given the strength of the rest of the writing. The last section is a variation on the sailor arriving in a Polynesian paradise, where he falls in love with a local princess. Instead of the tragedy of their different cultures keeping them apart, the science fiction introduces a new reason for the tragic love affair. And the payoff is probably the cleverest piece of the Hyperion puzzle. This whole section is an effective chaser for the weak cybernoire. Unfortunately, what follows is one of the most important facts about Hyperion and why I was ultimately frustrated after reading it. “The whole planet reeks of mysticism without revelation,” someone says. The problem is t

 
 
 
 
 
 
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  • Hyperion

  • Rating:

  • Really cool sci-fi except for one pretty important thing.
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