Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book Reviews -- HYPERION CANTOS novels by Dan Simmons, Part One

In 1989, a 482-page novel was released on shelves in the science-fiction section of bookstores. On the surface, the book was the story of seven people who are chosen to make a pilgrimage across the surface of the eponymous planet, Hyperion, to confront a mysteriously murderous creature known as the Shrike, a being made up entirely of razor-sharp blades and edges. Only one of them is to live their encounter, the rest are doomed to die, but they do not know which one will be allowed to survive and have their wishes and dreams fulfilled.

So opens Dan Simmons' Hyperion, a science-fiction novel that is an imaginative fusion of Simmons' own deep influences of English poetry and literature and hard-science-fiction. Seven pilgrims journey to almost certain death against a backdrop of an unwinnable interstellar battle for Hyperion itself.

The first novel of the series, Dan Simmons' work is deeply poetic and highly creative. The narrative structure is deliberately modeled on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, using the journey to meet the Shrike as the frame story around which all of the other characters take turns recounting their tales.

The characters themselves are unique, vigorously fleshed-out. Simmons' world-building is superb. The planet Hyperion is vibrant and alive, full of incredible, imaginative fauna and flora (one of my favorites being the Tesla trees), and mystery. Simmons' book embraces hard-science and turns it into a vehicle to enhance setting. His handling of interstellar travel (the limitations of light-speed travel, space-folding with Farcasters), the artificial-intelligences of the TechnoCore, and the advanced weaponry and fighting techniques of FORCE all enhance the feel of the setting and reflect a mind steeped in bleeding-edge scientific theory. Simmons' work is no science-fantasy--he integrates these technological marvels into the setting, making them a part of the characters' everyday life, and describes their impact powerfully, sometimes heartbreakingly (see "The Consul's Tale," for example).

Each tale has an extremely different mood and atmosphere, giving the entire book a beautiful patchwork-quilt sort of feel. The stories vary from tests of faith, to star-crossed love (quite literally), to hardboiled techno-noir cyberpunk. Simmons fuses his ability to create a scientifically-advanced and believable universe and world-building skills with a deep appreciation for literature and poetry. The works of John Keats in particular play a very central role in the emotional development of the characters and the advancement of the plot. The title itself is taken from Keats' unfinished epic poem, Hyperion, and may also refer to the sadly romantic Longfellow novel of the same name. References and hommages to the works of Jack Vance, T.S. Eliot, Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, and William Shakespeare abound throughout the book. Simmons invests the novel and the characters with a great deal of emotional significance. The reader cannot help but be moved by their plights. There is a great deal of sadness in each character's story.

The novel ends as a cliffhanger, leaving the reader in anticipation of a resolution. The ending is superb. There are a million possibilities open to the author, and the reader cannot help but be inspired by the exquisitely fertile imagination that is, by the end of Hyperion, full of surprises.

Fall of Hyperion
Titled after Keats' second attempt at an epic poem about the hapless Titan, Simmons' sequel was released in 1990 and completely abandoned the Chauceresque story pattern in favor of a more traditional, linear plot development. Simmons sets about resolving the fates of the pilgrims and their disparate storylines as they confront the Shrike and witness the opening of the Time Tombs. Meanwhile, the galaxy is ripping itself apart as the true agendas of the inscrutable artificial intelligences of the TechnoCore are revealed and the Hegemony begins to collapse through interstellar warfare.

Simmons continues to develop many of the themes that he had visited in Hyperion, such as artificial intelligence and its relation to humans, the power of poetry and myth, interplanetary warfare, and religion, faith, love, and loss. Simmons uses this novel to further introduce and develop ideas in interstellar economics and integration, and their positive and negative side-effects (such as over-specialization). Although the narrative structure is much more simple, following first-person narration instead of jumping from frame-story to flashback/reminiscence, Simmons still manages to give this novel a feel that is very much like the first book. The fates of the protagonists are held back until the final third of the novel, after the narrator is removed. This makes the book a bit clunky to read, because it is quite a shock to the system. In a sense, The Fall of Hyperion feels as if it is actually two separate stories--the first part in which the author develops events outside of the pilgrims on Hyperion, and the second part in which Simmons wraps everything up in a final, slamming conclusion.

The result is an incredibly neat package. Together, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are two of the best science-fiction novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Simmons' plot structure, characters, and world-building/setting development are excellent. By invoking poets, philosophers, literary works, and tying in emotional themes such as love, loss, faith, and attachment, Simmons doesn't write a coldly business-like science-fiction, but a deeply moving work of art. His depth of setting is layered and complex, and Simmons believably integrates scientific advancement with story to make the backdrop feel real and alive. These two novels have done a great deal to pull science-fiction forward into the arena of mainstream literature.

For all of the questions that Simmons has answered, there are a number of threads that he left dangling at the end of The Fall of Hyperion. But considering that he was preparing two more sequels to continue the story, that does not handicap the ending. Any holes that have been left open have the promise of being filled in future installments.

If only one could say that those later volumes would be as sublimely satisfying as these first two.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Style A-
Substance A
Overall A

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Style B+
Substance A
Overall A-

No comments: