Saturday, 29 January 2011

Hyperion, an ode on an epic scale

Dan Simmons is an author I had not read before, although I've been aware of his thick SF novels. I had expected space opera – possibly due, in part, to the shiny black covers similar to Alastair Reynolds, on whom it turns out Simmons is obviously a big influence. There is much of the space opera about the writing in Hyperion; the universe in which it is set is one of the human Hegemony which, having fled Earth when our home planet is fatally damaged in what is referred to with sublime understatement as The Big Mistake, and spread out over the following seven centuries by use of faster-than-light space flight and thence a network of 'farcasters', instantaneous transmission wormholes, that are based on all core planets and form the WorldWeb.

Most of the action in this book, however, is told in the form of six tales by a diverse group of travellers on pilgrimage to a mysterious alien artefact known as the Time Tombs. This deliberate mirror of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is not the only literary reference; the planet Hyperion on which the Time Tombs stand is named for the poem by Keats, and the Romantic poet's work and presence form threads that bind all the stories together.

The travellers' tales achieve several things simultaneously. The different perspectives of Simmons' universe allow us to build a thorough view of the background, the history and societies that form it. It also becomes apparent that these are no random selection of individuals, but each of them has an intimate connection to the planet Hyperion, the mysterious and deadly being known as the Shrike, and is intertwined with the others in a ways that are central to the plot without ever being heavy handed.

The tales also, of course, allow for a nice variety in tone and for Simmons to be playful in his writing. The Soldier's Tale allows for some full-scale space opera warfare. In the Detective's Tale the author uses a properly noir-ish tone to tell a cyberpunk tale with a tough female lead. The Poet's Tale is quite Heinleinian – the foul-mouthed, drunken Martin Silenius, son of a wealthy family from Old Earth who had always striven for poetry but never achieved it until a brain injury left him only capable of uttering half a dozen obscenities. The Priest's Tale, about cultural superiority and arrogance as much as about religion (with shades of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles as well as Sheri S. Tepper and Orson Scott Card because of the themes). The Scholar's Tale is perhaps the most intense and personal, about the ties of family and god and memory. While it is the penultimate Detective's Tale which provides the 'big reveals' for the plot, it is left to the Consul's Tale at the end to do the same for the themes. The final fifth of the book pulls together threads that had only been noticed peripherally, the threads of plot and theme converging as the pilgrims finally approach their goal.

At which point I realised the pages of the thick volume were dwindling fast. Surely this build up, this complex, inventive, fascinating, profound epic wouldn't be tied up in less than forty pages? Of course not. As the travellers approach their destination a final reference is thrown in, along with the Keats and the Chaucer, the Bradbury and the Heinlein, the Gibson and the Chandler. Another book awaited, beckoned, and I can't wait to see where it leads.

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