Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Canterbury Tales… in space!

M’learned chums keep on at me r.e. books I have not read. This is not entirely unfair, as I’m on at them back about The Sparrow and Riddley Walker, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s wintry new threesome.

But I have finally read Hyperion, and it was not all I’d been led to believe.

A gang of unlikely priests, mystics and warrior women out of a sci-fi B picture are on their way to the strange planet Hyperion, home of the mysterious and savage Shrike. Each pilgrim has an agenda for being on this pilgrimage / suicide mission, and they take it in turns to tell why.

For example, a priest had been to Hyperion and made contact with a primitive tribe – but it was he who was inducted into their strange religion. Or a non-nonsense soldier kills thousands of baddies, but his dream girl is more of a nightmare, and she’s part of the sinister planet…

Some of it is very good indeed. I especially liked the scholar’s tale, which felt a lot like The Time Traveller’s Wife (I was going to say “which is reminiscent of”, but Hyperion was written a decade earlier). In it, a young girl visits Hyperion with her boyfriend then starts to age backwards, losing another day’s memory every time she wakes up.

She forgets her boyfriend, who sets out to find a cure only to return to an unrecognisable and pre-pubescent child. She stops recording herself messages after playing back too much loss. And the worst part is that the story’s told by her put-upon father, while he cradles a baby.

Another favourite is the consul’s tale, which is so bitter about the cost of expansionism.
"I laughed and locked the wheel in. ‘Nobody gets beyond a petroleum economy. Not while there’s petroleum there. We don’t burn it, if that’s what you mean. But it’s still essential for the production of plastics, synthetics, food base, and keroids. Two hundred billion people use a lot of plastic.’"

Dan Simmons, Hyperion, p. 444.

It’s nicely in contrast to the usual sci-fi stuff in which humanity eats space up like a cancer. Yet the stuff about oil also makes it feel oddly close to home, and not sufficiently distant to convince of the 29th century.

The recommenders have usually mentioned Simmons’s brilliance at world-building. It’s certainly a complex and layered envisioning, but I found it all a bit contrived (the problem with any story about heroes who share the same convoluted destinies).

Simmons builds his world by chucking pretty much everything into the mix – private eyes, AIs and a robot clone of Keats, with rich pickings from Starship Troopers and The Mission. But rather than being convinced by the richness of the culture, I thought it too often too much of a mess.

Throughout, Simmons keeps off-handly mentioning all kinds of futuristic technical kit, the usual way of sneaking in the props that build a complex new world. We don’t need to know exactly what these things are – the very fact that we don’t understand them shows how primitively twenty-first century we are.

But such constant attention to these sci-fi doodads is also oddly fetishistic. Which is hardly helped by how, whenever we meet anyone (though especially when we meet women), we’re treated to a long, descriptive paragraph itemising their physical attributes.

We’re also dutifully informed on every instance of the hardening of women’s nipples, with all the matter-of-factness of pornography.

Chaucer was making a polemic point with his variously cipherous pilgrims, but these here in space are meant to be real, 3D people, and not just convenient avatars.

The ongoing mysteries are intriguing – enough to keep me reading to the end – but the reading experience is not aided by it being slow and clunky and often deadly serious, and told in very long chapters.

The pissed, sweary poet is an unlikely pilgrim and I assume is meant as comic relief. He is neither of those things.

When Simmons gets the characters right – people whose motives and emotional responses we really understand – the book is very effective. In the case of the scholar and the private detective, we really care about what’s going to happen to them.

And then Simmons cheats again with the ending...


(SPOILERS anyone)

(SPOILERS still)

(SPOILERS reading)


The whole thing is a great big set up for something that’s then never delivered. Having explained why they’re all on this ludicrous mission to face down mad and miserable certain deaths, they then walk down a hill… and that’s it.

I’m sure that’s sort of the point, but it still feels rather like cheating.

Cor, that’s all a bit whinging, isn’t it? I’ll speak of one I did enjoy next!


Philip said...

The whole thing is a great big set up for something that’s then never delivered.

Well, that's because Hyperion's basically the first half of a two-volume novel. You need to read The Fall of Hyperion, which delivers everything Hyperion promises and more. (There's also a two-volume follow-up, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, but it's not nearly so good.)

The two-part Hyperion is excellent, very complex and playful, with a lot to say about religion[s] and atheism[s]. I talked about it a lot in my thesis -- there's a rather elderly interview with Simmons up at my website, but it's a bit spoilerful so you'd better not read it before you read the second volume. Which you must.

Liadnan said...

Do not under any circs read the Endymion books...

His new duology, Ilium and Olympos, is fun but has some of the same problems as the Hyperion books. Still, I do like most of his stuff.

It's a shame that a la OSC he has turned into a bit of a ranting neocon of late.

PS it isn't as good as The Sparrow (few recent things in that broad line are, I reckon), but I enjoyed the Hyperion 2 more than KSR. What is this Riddley Walker of which you speak?

Also, Happy New Year.

Liadnan said...

PS you are so wrong when you say

Simmons keeps off-handly mentioning all kinds of futuristic technical kit, the usual way of sneaking in the props that build a complex new world. We don’t need to know exactly what these things are...

as FoH will reveal if you give it a try. You are right about the messiness though.

0tralala said...

A not entirely unexpected response from the both of yous, ta. I shall add the second episode to the not-quite-immediate heap.

Broadly I suspect it is my ability to cope with portentous old cobblers so long as it manages some jokes too. See Old School Star Wars being better than the New Ones, despite being much less sophisticated.

And Liadnan do you really not know of Riddley Walker? Or do you jape at how many times I have told you?