The OF Blog: Hyperion Cantos Re-reads: Dan Simmons, Hyperion

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hyperion Cantos Re-reads: Dan Simmons, Hyperion

I first began reading Dan Simmons' four-part Hyperion Cantos in early 2003, when I still lived in South Florida.  I had seen passing references to how good it was, the first volume, Hyperion, being a Hugo Award winner in 1990.  So when I finally got around to looking for it in a bookstore, I had this vague notion that this book would be some sort of epic story involving some mysterious creature named after a bird.  How right and wrong I was at the same time.

When I read this series from 2003-2004, the first volume seemed to be leaps and bounds above the rest in terms of quality, a complaint that I have frequently made about Simmons' other multi-volume stories (and within the bounds of a single volume as well).  The beginnings appear to be much better than his conclusions.  Although I am uncertain how I will react to the next three volumes after a six-year span, I can at least say that my already high opinion of Hyperion as a story has increased even more upon this second reading.

When pressed to give a basic description of the novel, most readers likely would say that in structure it approximates that of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  There is something to that, although perhaps a more apt comparison might be to Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, with its sense of lurking doom looming over the storytellers.  What is certain, however, is that each of the pilgrims to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike have different motives and each of their stories is told in distinct fashions that engage the reader almost immediately.

The first story told by the pilgrims is that of a Roman Catholic priest.  His story involves his predecessor's journey deep within Hyperion's tesla tree field to a stunted, retarded people called the Bukura.  The priest intertwines his own experiences years later with the field journals found on the person of the first priest.  This epistolary approach allows for a necessary distance to be created between the storyteller and the horrific tale he tells of his predecessor's suffering and inability to die completely.  The story of the parasitic cruciform at first seems out of place with the other pilgrims' tales, but it does play a vital role in future volumes, if I recall.

The soldier Kassad's tale of his life as a Palestinian refugee on Mars, his joining the Hegemony's military force, and his mysterious meetings with a woman named Moneda (money? coin?) and the fleeting appearance of the Shrike provides the love interest story of this novel.  Although it is unclear so far as to what Kassad's true aspirations are, elements introduced in this tale influence the later narrative in the series.

The poet Martin Silenus's story is in turns poetic and bawdy, and is always full of literary allusions, some of which are to living writers, such as the horror writer Steve (Rasnic) Tem, which delighted me when I re-read this portion of the novel.  If the first two stories provide the horror and the love elements, the poet's tale supplies the love of literature and of tragedy that runs its threads through the remaining narratives.

The fourth story, that of the scholar Sol Weintraub, is the most heart-wrenching of the six.  It is not as much a story about himself, but about his daughter Rachel's accident at the Time Tombs nearly 30 years before and her reverse aging, day by day, back to being an infant only weeks away from her birth/death.  Although this too contains elements of a horror tale, it also is a story of two devout parents and the traumas they have suffered (and which ultimately led to the suicide of the mother Sarai).  Out of all the tales this is the one that connects deepest and which seems to make this ultimate pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and to the Shrike to be worth all of the travails that await the pilgrims.

The fifth tale, told by the private eye Brawne Lamia, echoes the Soldier's and Poet's tales, as she explores a mystery into the heart of the TechnoCore and discovers that the AIs there have split into three factions, some of which are not friendly to human interests.  In addition, her encounter with the reconstructed Romantic poet William Keats (who, after all, wrote "Hyperion," after which the planet is named) sets the stage for future events in the series.

The final tale, that of the Consul, is in parts a retelling of a love story and of a revenge tale cloaked with layers of subterfuge.  It is not as immediately gripping as most of the other tales, but it serves to reinforce reader suspicions about elements introduced in the other tales.  It is a suitable concluding tale and with its ending, the pilgrims are at the final approach to the Time Tombs and whatever destiny may await them there.  Simmons has at this point created six intriguing characters and six compelling tales, each that differ in tone and feel from the others.  There are hints of deeper themes embedded in these tales, creating an enchanting narrative that leaves me eager to read the second volume, The Fall of Hyperion.


E. L. Fay said...

I've read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion but not the final two books. I honestly don't see what else Simmons could possibly do with this series since the first two books were already enough of a story.

I've had Ilium on my shelf for a while but haven't started it yet. Have you read that one?

Larry said...

Well, Simmons, if I recall, explores the Void That Binds and She Who Teaches in the final two books, so there is a bit of a connection there, although I remember those two books being weaker than the first two.

Yes, I've read Ilium, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Olympos, on the other hand, I disliked intensely, in part because of the political message embedded in the narrative about jihadism.

Liviu said...

Fall of Hyperion is a good ending to the duology but it lacks the magic of the first part. Though to be fair many times explanations are like that and few authors manage to build series based on mysterious characters and events which have an ending on par with the built-up.

I liked Endymion a lot because of the main character and of his relationship with Aenea but that duology has the drawback of reinterpreting what has gone before in Hyperion in a way that destroys much of its original magic. So together Hyperion and Endyomion just are not compatible and I tend to regard Endymion as a series set in another universe so high is the dissonance between the two...

J said...

I had a different reaction to Ilium, which was the first Simmons book I read and enough to put me off reading Hyperion for years. It was entertaining enough at the outset, but the farther I got into it, the more it came across to me as just a Mary Sue-ism from a guy who wanted to fantasize about sleeping with Helen of Troy but with no real depth.

Alec said...

I stopped after the first two books. The first was amazing and the second just felt like chasing the dragon. Also, why continue from what feels like a natural ending point when you know the rest of the series isn't going to be as good? Then again, I have have finished so many other series out of sheer force of will I have no idea why I didn't just man up and finish this one... hmmmm

Larry said...

Although the latter novels were relatively weak compared to the first two, I don't know if I buy that justification for not reading them. Who knows, I might end up enjoying the Endymion novels more this time around. I guess I'll just have to read and find out first, though.

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