Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Book Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

(This is part one of a new Book Review Club started by Barrie Summy. We write about books on the first Wednesday of each month. For a list of all participating authors, go to Barrie's blog or click the graphic over on the right.)

“Out of Africa” meets “Pretty Woman.” “Ghost” meets “Manchurian Candidate,” the psychic cynical political thriller with a heart. Remember those fake pitches from the opening segment of the movie “The Player”? They probably made you chuckle until you realized that all books or movies start with a pitch. An attention grabber, something that would make the potential buyer go “Yeah, I wanna read that.”

Try this: “Canterbury Tales in space.” Don’t laugh. It’s been done. And it’s phenomenal.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons, published in 1989, is one of those books that has always been on everyone’s list of best SF. I’ve heard people compare it to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and, from the fantasy world, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s that good. And I have three more books to go.

Set 700 years in the future, Hyperion tells the story of seven travelers on a pilgrimage to the mysterious planet Hyperion. War is imminent between the descendants of the humans from Earth (the Hegemony) and the humans who have rejected the Hegemony’s advanced technology (the Ousters). It is with this backdrop that seven travelers set out on the last pilgrimage to Hyperion.

Upon arriving at the planet, they have to make their way from the spaceport to the Time Tombs, a portion of the planet surrounded by anti-entropic forces that allow the Tombs to travel backward in time. Trippy, I know. The Tombs are guarded by The Shrike. Now, in the pantheon of SF literature and movies, the T-1000 Terminator (the one played by Robert Patrick in T2) is one of the ultimate bad-ass villains, a machine so insistent that its very tenacity (“Can’t you just kill it?”) is what makes it so terrifying. The Shrike makes the T-1000 looks like a child’s plaything. The Shrike is all metallic, covered in razor-edged spikes, and can manipulate time. Friggin’ scary.

The seven travelers are an amalgamated lot. You have Father Lenar Hoyt, Catholic priest; Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a soldier; Martin Salinas, a poet; Sol Wientraub, a scholar; Het Masteen, a starship captain; Brawne Lamia, a detective; and the Consul, a mysterious man whom we see first and in whose POV the present-day action take place. As they journey, they question why they were chosen for this last pilgrimage before war. They devise an intriguing strategy: they each draw lots and tell their story. This is where the Canterbury Tales aspect comes into play. With each passing tale, new aspects of Hyperion and The Shrike emerge.

As an author, Simmons must have had fun writing these tales-within-the-larger-book because each story is written in a different style. The Priest’s Tale is largely epistolary and tells of one man’s research on Hyperion. The Soldier’s Tale is a war tale that explains how The Shrike can stop time--or, rather, that it can stop time--in a story of love and battle. The Poet’s Tale is biography-as-fiction and describes how Hyperion was colonized by a group of artists and the strange relationship between the poet and the Shrike. The Scholar’s Tale is an agonizing story of a father trying to cure his daughter of a seemingly incurable “time disease.” The Detective’s Tale gives a good history of the Hegemony (all done in a Chandleresque, first person POV style) and how the WorldWeb and artificial intelligence computers help run this arm of the galaxy. And The Consul’s Tale is a time-lost love story, presented in a mixed up chronology (like “Pulp Fiction”) and reveals that even though humans have spanned the stars, they are still human and still make the same mistakes.

In re-reading this review up to now, I realize that I’m not capturing the sheer magnitude of this imaginative accomplishment. I haven’t read SF in a long time (SF that wasn’t Star Wars or Star Trek), preferring instead the relatively mundane crime fiction. I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of detail Simmons throws into this story. I can’t help but wonder if he has all the details mapped out in a timeline or if he just throws in random statements. Hard to tell.

As I wrote in last week’s Two Sentence Tuesday, Simmons’ prose is simply gorgeous. At times, it’s put-down-your-pen-and-stop-trying-to-write good. There is subtle grace and magnificence, mind-expanding ideas and realities. And it’s so fully realized to come across as our own existence. It’s familiar yet foreign.

The one thing that got me off the fence was the audio version from Audible. I’m an audiobook enthusiast (I listen to more books than I read) and I’ve rarely experienced an audio presentation as good as this one. Six actors, including one woman (for Brawn Lamia), read. The narrator reads all the prose and Father Hoyt’s lines. Every line of dialogue by a particular character is read by the corresponding actor. And when it comes time for a character to tell their tale, that voice actor takes over the entire recording. It’s brilliant and really sucks you into the head of that particular character.

The ending is abrupt. I’ll admit it. But Hyperion and the next book, The Fall of Hyperion, are more like two books of a larger volume than two individual books. In fact, Hyperion ends and all but compels you to seek out the next book Right Then.

I could go on and on about the little things that make this book so good but I won't. That's for another day. Try this: Hyperion is a book I’ll be re-reading someday. I want to make sure I got everything and I know I didn't. But what I did get was an wonderful story that is without parallel.

I can already tell that there is a new demarcation line in my development as a writer. In the crime fiction world, for me, there is BMR (Before Mystic River) and AMR (After Mystic River). If I am destined to write SF (my first love anyway), there is a new line: Before Hyperion and After Hyperion. It has changed me. Isn’t that the mark of a great book?


David Cranmer said...

This sounds very good and your enthusiasm shines through in this review, Victor Gischler has convinced me to try my hand at OLD MAN’S WAR and THE LAST COLONY by John Scalzi. I will add HYPERION to that sci-fi list. I’m going to pick up ANALOG or ASIMOV’s SCIENCE FICTION magazine the next time I’m in the bookstore buying EQMM and AHMM. I feel like I’m missing out on a whole genre that could be very beneficial to my crime writing.

Scott Parker said...

David - I have heard many a good thing about Old Man's War. I have Scalzi's blog on my Google Reader. I've been wanting to read it as well.

For a few years, I purchased the two best-of SF anthologies, the Hartwell and the Dozois. Since I've turn my attention more toward crime fiction in the past few years, my literary SF interest has waned. No longer. Hyperion awakened my inner SF geek and now I'm running on two rails. Glad you liked the review although it felt too short for the amount of emotion that I got out of the reading.

D.A. Riser said...

Scott - Hyperion sounds good. I've seen and seen Simmons' books at the store and have yet to pick one up. The one that has always tempted me is Ilium, which retells the story of Troy. You might try it when you finish the Hyperion series. Alas though, I will need to read both Ilium and Hyperion! You definitely sold me on it. I like your blog.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

I just read the firs two books and absolutely loved them. By far my best read of the year, and I have read a lot of books.

I agree, it does end abruptly - which just makes the need to pick up the second book all the more pressing. Absolutely loved it and plan on finishing the series.

Scott Parker said...

D.A. - Thank you muchly for stopping by and your kind words. Another Simmons book on my list is The Crook Factory, the fictionalized story of Ernest Hemingway's search for a Nazi submarine off Cuba in 1942.

Only the Best SciFi/Fantasy - Since I read such a variety, I haven't read Book #2 yet. Probably later this year.

Axel Rodgers said...

Sierra Leone may have had some success, however other countries still suffer from a sore lack of attention. He was buried at Arlington Cemetery and I missed the whole thing. I had a birthday coming up, and dad took me aside.