Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 24, 2004


Fifteen years ago I read Dan Simmons’ novels Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and loved them both immensely. Nearly a decade later came Endymion and its sequel The Rise of Endymion, extending the Hyperion pair into a quartet, with rave reviews which rivaled those directed at the first pair. I did not read the latter two though until I had time to read the entire quartet from the start, partly because that would increase my appreciation of the entire series, but also partly because I wanted to relive the joys of the first two again.

I’m pleased to report that Hyperion is just as wonderful the second time around as it was the first time. Simmons’ writing is rich and fulfilling, his worlds colorful and wondrous, his characters quirky but satisfying. The novel combines high science fiction adventure with true sense of wonder and fascinating, well-developed characters, the quintessential combination of New Wave-Old Wave with echoes of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance on one hand and Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. Le Guin on the other.

For those of you who have never read this novel, it is basically a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims have been selected by the Church of the Shrike to travel to the world Hyperion and undertake a pilgrimage to the infamous Time Tombs to meet the Shrike. The Shrike is an almost-mythological being which appears unannounced at seemingly random times and locations, usually to kill people for no apparent reason with its blade-encrusted body. Somehow it is connected to the Time Tombs, although nobody knows for sure. And yet its appearances have been more frequent of late, as have its murderous attacks, while strange entropic activity occurring around the site of the Time Tombs has convinced many people that they are about to open.

All seven pilgrims have been to Hyperion before, which leads them to believe they share some connection which is why they were particularly chosen for the pilgrimage. And since the Shrike’s murderous rampage makes it unlikely any of them will survive the encounter, they decide that sharing their previous experiences on Hyperion might provide clues as to the reason for their selections as well as provide them with some clue that might help them survive the meeting with the Shrike.

Each of the seven stories thus serves a double purpose: they forward the overall saga while also being complete in themselves as examinations of one aspect of either Hyperion or the vaster Hegemeny of Worlds, or both. And, taking a cue from Chaucer, the tales are quite varied in both style and intent. Father Hoyt begins with a sociological tale straight out of Michael Bishop’s Transfigurations. He tells of a fellow Jesuit priest who, disgraced in his religious order for various reasons, gives himself the penance of seeking out and studying an aboriginal-type race which are actually descended from ancient travelers to Hyperion who have evolved into true aliens. But the Jesuit soon learns how dealing with aliens is much more difficult in fact than it ever seems to be in fiction, and he finds his life at risk from them until he becomes almost one of them in a shocking, gruesome way that ultimately makes him yearn for the true death which is his only escape from them. This tale combines mystery with anthropology, philosophy with strong emotion, climaxing in a scene so powerful as to be one of the highlights of the entire book.

I was not as excited by the next tale, a powerful war story told by Colonel Kassad. This story is also emotionally-charged, but where the former drew its emotions from a philosophical point of view, this second tale is fueled by raw sexual desire. This story also had a mythological element involving the Shrike, which seemed to link it to scenes to be revealed later. Readers who enjoy gripping, realistic war novels would likely find this tale to their liking. I was anxious to get on to the next tale.

The next pair of stories are a symmetric set. The first is the tale of Martin Silenus, a mad poet who seems to represent all of Simmons’ anger and frustration at the life of a professional writer. Silenus was born in wealth, but soon forced into poverty and struggling to survive on a poverty-stricken world in a job of grunt-like brute labor. But it is there that Silenus’s muse comes to him and he writes an epic poem which miraculously finds its way to a willing editor who publishes it to universal acclaim and the type of fame that strikes one author in a million once a decade or so. But from there Silenus’s life is all downhill, as lightning refuses to strike again, no matter how beautiful are his succeeding poems. He is reduced to writing potboiler bestsellers while wasting away the fortune garnered by his first poem, as his muse gradually abandons him. Finally disgusted, unable to prostitute himself anymore, he joins the remnants of old England’s royal family in their exile on Hyperion and finds his muse returns almost simultaneously as the appearance of the Shrike, which until that moment had been only a half-believed legend, but which now begins a series of random, brutal serial murders, one by one eliminating the entire population of the Hyperion city where Silenus lives, until only he remains, struggling to complete his Hyperion Cantos before the Shrike comes to take him as well, convinced that he is somehow responsible for bringing the Shrike to life as his muse. Simmons excels at climactic scenes, and this tale has a powerful one as well

The mad poet’s tale is followed by the tale of the scholar, calm, restrained Sol Weintraub whose daughter Rachel is an anthropologist who spends several years on Hyperion studying both the Time Tombs and the adjacent Sphinx–whose resemblance to the Egyptian version is in name only. But abruptly one night, as she is alone inside the Sphinx, the entropic activity centered on the Time Tombs swells in a vast tsunami, enveloping Rachel in such a crush of energy that she slips into an immediate coma. Soon the coma eases into deep sleep, then wakefulness, but the doctors examining her find an unexplainable phenomenon has taken place: Rachel is inexplicable aging backwards. And with each passing day her mind loses one more day of memory as she becomes younger and younger. And abruptly in the midst of this tale it becomes apparent to the reader why Sol Weintraub is traveling on the pilgrimage carrying a baby whose age could only have been a few months at most.

Where the poet’s tale was a rush of pyrotechnics, told in the headlong mania suitable for such a pilgrim, the scholar’s tale is calm and carefully measured as befits the teller. This is also a very emotional tale, but this time the emotion is one of sadness and desperation. The tale demonstrates the full extent of Simmons’ talent indeed, since he is fully able to fit the tale to the teller while devising tales so different yet so interconnected as to make them both individually complete and jointly more than the sum of the parts.

Next came the detective’s tale, which was a noir thriller out of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon with two major differences: the detective is the female, and her client is an artificial human having the personality of John Keats implanted into him, who was created by the Artificial Intelligences which basically rule the entire Hegemony from deep in the cybercore. This tale provides much of the overall background of the vast Hegemony in which the series is set, as well as most of the actual plot development that carries through both the framing material of Hyperion and the plot of its sequel The Fall of Hyperion. And it is a fascinating universe that is one step beyond the creations of the 1980s Cyberpunks. Apparently the vast galaxy-wide computer nets which were maintained by AI’s for many centuries eventually outgrew human ability to understand and control, thus they withdrew from human space completely and now share their time between maintaining the order of the universe and engaged in their own philosophical pursuits, including the search for God. Simmons’ ability to fuse a thrilling mystery with such philosophical background is fascinating indeed.

Finally came the Consul’s tale, which was primarily the tender story of a relationship doomed from the very start. He was a crewmember on an interstellar spacecraft operated by the Hegemony government, who only touched down onto a planet’s surface during his periodic R&R. She lived on a sparsely-populated world which was under consideration to join the Hegemony. The world’s populace was mostly in favor of joining even though that would impact the world’s culture as drastically as would the contemporary U.S. absorbing a tiny Indonesian island as its 51st state. But the world also contained a small number of separatists who would do anything to prevent such a fate to their idyllic world. And, not surprisingly, both the consul and his lover got caught smack in the middle of the dispute between the two sides.

An added complication is that since the crewmember spends most of his life aboard a ship traveling at near-lightspeed, he ages considerably slower than his lover does. So when they first meet at the start of the tale he is 19 and she is 16, but by the end of the tale he is 24 physically while she has already died from old age. And one of the main characters at that point in the tale is the crewmember’s second son by his lover, a man who is already twice as old as his father.

Like the detective’s tale, this tale is both a self-contained novella in its own right while also forwarding the overall plot of the Hyperion series. It comes last because it sets the stage for the climactic moment when the pilgrims reach the Time Tombs and finally encounter the Shrike. Which, alas, does not occur in this novel. Hyperion ends as the pilgrims actually reach the tombs–in a lighthearted moment so wonderful it made me laugh out loud (and which I am restraining myself from revealing even though I want to tell it to you soooo badly!)–and await the shrike.

To be continued...


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