"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion is set thousands of years in the future. Humans have control of a large collection of planets under a single governmental entity, all connected by some sort of instantaneous travel system. But this Hegemony is under threat by some outside faction who are poised to gain access to this interstellar portal system with the invasion of a strange, backwoods planet called.... you guessed it, Hyperion.

It is also a book with a very dumb cover.

The book is structured around seven travelers--pilgrims--who must travel over Hyperion's surface to locations called The Time Tombs where they may meet a creature called The Shrike. On their journey, each traveler tells the group his or her story, explaining their connection to the Tombs or the Shrike. It's a "frame story" structure, a direct homage to Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales.

The individual stories borrow from the conventions of stranded-island ethnographic adventures, hard-boiled detective novels, and romantic tragedies. And the world is thick with other touchstones, sometimes explicit and sometimes less so: Mystic Judiasm, John Muir, H.P. Lovecraft, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jack Vance. One character participates in a literal recreation of The Battle of Agincourt, and the poet John Keats plays a surprisingly large role in the plot.

All of this makes it sound like a silly  Narnia-like hodgepodge, but it's actually quite cohesive. The universe is dark and strange, and its texture is reliable and rich (even if it doesn't always feel exactly like a plausible future).

It reminds me a lot of Gene Wolfe: dark and dense and dreamlike. And deeply concerned with religion.

The struggle for science fiction (or fantasy) books that deal with religion is that they often--out of some understandable necessity--use fictional belief systems as rough stand-ins for real world religious organizations. You know: Oh, the Whatever Cult of the BlahBlah System is isolated and zealous. As a result, the connections to actual life are often overly abstract. It's hard for truths or observations to really hit.

I mean, this is true of science fiction generally, on political or social grounds (The Emperor won't allow Female Zarglings into his Galactic Cabinet!). But religions are such unique organizations and so tied to the cultural particulars of their history that, even when the abstract observations are full and sound and reasonable, they can feel too remote to connect with real world belief systems in a visceral way.

There are exceptions: Canticle for Lebowitz, Out of the Silent Planet. It's maybe telling that both of these authors are themselves quite religious. And in Canticle, Miller projects the future of Catholicism, so the abstraction is blunted some.

Simmons has it both ways. The primary narrative engine is the ritual of a made-up group on a made-up planet who worship a made-up monster. But the story is closely orbited by relics that a contemporary reader will recognize: Jesuit Priests, Jewish diaspora, organizations called "High Islam" and "Zen Gnosticism."These details give the thing an air of something like authenticity.

The writing is... fine. Well, OK. More than "fine." It's good, at least on its own terms. It also reminded me of Gene Wolfe, with a dark and heavy and ultimately silly melodrama. And like a lot of genre books, it's bloated with the awkward sentence structures that result from trying to jam exposition into narrative motion, and it draws its characters with simple, sitcom strokes.

Nevertheless, this is a very, very good book.

It's been so long since I've read something like this. It reminds me how big the tent really is when it comes to good literature. Strange as it sounds, I found myself comparing Simmons to Alice Munro, because I've also fallen in love with her work recently, and she might be the most prefect executor of the type of hyper-realistic short stories I've mostly read in the last few years. Despite having ostensibly the same job, they have little in common. I don't know that they would even know what to talk about if you sat them down together. Where Munro's work is more like poetry, with its tiny electric observations and individual empathy, Simmons' is more like history or even mythology, with its broad abstract strokes and sense of time.

Sometimes I'm tempted think that the things that prose is best at is limited to the beauty of language and the personal revelations of getting inside a character's head. Simmons' book excels at neither. But I forget that literature can also handle complexity and scale in a way that other mediums struggle with. In these ways, Hyperion is a book that necessitates its form.. Read it!

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