Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Hyperion


Hyperion (1989), Dan Simmons. Paperback, 482 pages.

Awards: Hugo Award winner (1990), Locus Award winner (1990), British Science Fiction Award nominee (1990), Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee (1992)

Summary: A group of pilgrims journeys to confront a mysterious, remote, but terribly dangerous killing machine that has shaped each of their lives in profound and horrible ways. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine  kilometers high in a violent sky.

Excerpt:
Each morning Sol sat by his daughter's bed until she awoke. The first minutes of her confusion were always painful to him, but he made sure that he was the first thing Rachel saw each day. He held her while she asked her questions. 
"Where are we, daddy? 
"In a wonderful place, little one. I'll tell you all about it over breakfast." 
"How did we get here?" 
"By 'casting and flying and walking a bit," he would say. "it's not so far away . . . but far enough to make it an adventure." 
"But my bed's here . . . my stuffed animals . . . why don't I remember coming?" 
And Sol would hold her gently by the shoulders and look into her brown eyes and say, "You had an accident, Rachel. Remember in The Homesick Toad where Terrence hits his head and forgets where he lives for a few days? It was sort of like that." 
"Am I better?" 
"Yes," Sol would say, "you're all better now." And the house would fill with the smell of breakfast and they would go out to the terrace where Sarai waited.

STATS

Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 8/10

Rounded Characters: 7/10

Well-Developed World: 8/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10
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Overall Recommendation: 8/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 7/10. Simmons is an extremely capable, talented writer. I'd almost score the writing quality an 8/10, not because I can point to any specific passage wowed me with its "beautiful phrasing," but because Simmons capably explored a wide variety of different genre styles within this single novel. He's written fantasy, science fiction, horror, and even hard-boiled crime novels, and when you read Hyperion, every one of those features prominently at some pertinent point. And in terms of incorporating a love for the written word, both pulp and high-brow, through insightful literary allusion, Simmons is matched by sff writers (in my experience) only by Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars), with perhaps China Mieville (Perdido Street Station) following a little further behind. If Simmons isn't quite a prose genius, he at least shows great love and understanding of those greats of the ages who are.

Depth of Concept: 8/10. This category was close to being a 9/10 for me. It certainly deserves high scores for ambition. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, Simmons infuses his fantastical set pieces with sophisticated philosophical musings and characters who reference and even emulate some of the great artists of the western literary world, from Milton to Byron to Keats to Yeats. Add in the fact that the entire story deliberately takes on the structure and many themes of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and you can expect to make your way through a lot of compelling but conflicting perspectives from each protagonist as they tell their tales. Yet, while Simmons is undoubtedly a deep thinker, and applies an impressive, celebratory, and imaginative touch to his understanding of literary greats, his expertise still has its limits. In one of my favorite stories, a character wrestles with a mysterious malady that inexorably ravages his daughter. It's poignant and understated and it tugged at this dad's heart strings -- it was refreshing to find an emotionally substantial story-line in a sff novel. Yet much of the protagonist's struggle hinges on an inner dialogue with God that mirrors the biblical story in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his devotion. It's a worthy metaphor, and one that Simmons gives a sincere effort to explore, but the inner journey of the protagonist ends up less profound than the quiet domestic scenes that Simmons artfully describes. Partly this is because the Abraham/Isaac dilemma has been treated so deeply in such prominent philosophical writing as Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which you'd expect Simmons, with his scholarly bent, to engage with. Where sometimes Simmons demonstrates a wealth of experience with a topic or literary trope, this, among others, was an instance that felt lacking.

Rounded Characters: 7/10. Simmons did a good job constructing well-developed characters with complex agendas and motivations. Each character's internal monologue and external dialogue felt unique and was influenced by the genre style that Simmons employed in a given pilgrim's story. Having said that, no single character felt developed enough outside of their respective story, during the interactions while the pilgrims were journeying together. In fact, during their interactions with each other outside their recounted stories, I found myself frequently irritated by silly dialogue. And though a score of 7/10 puts Simmons' character development in the upper echelon of writers, I still felt at times that a character waffled momentarily into cliches, and that the demands of furthering the plot sometimes overshadowed a character's realistic journey. There are also times that characters appear to stand as mere archetypes in order to make general narrative points.

Well-Developed World: 8/10. Simmons' novel is richly described, and explores so many worlds, cultures, and personalities that you truly get a sense of an expansive, heterogeneous universe filled with interesting and compelling things to discover. In that sense, it easily rivals Frank Herbert's Dune, Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, or George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. It's near the top of the list here, though it doesn't quite display the incredible research into political, social, and scientific trends that you find in Red Mars, nor does it situate itself so completely and seamlessly into a single landscape as does Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Suzanna Clark in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or China Mieville in Perdido Street Station. For all its eclectic detail, some settings and some characters sometimes feel thinly treated.

Page Turner: 8/10. Another author trying to do everything that Simmons does might have made this a real slog. Robinson's Red Mars, for instance, just barely mustered a 7/10 in this category, and at times felt unnecessarily bloated. Simmons, like Robinson, tells his story using multiple protagonists, but has a real sense of pace, at least within each individual pilgrim's tale. The down-side to Simmons' intriguing decision to knit together a series of stories in the tradition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio's Decameron is that the pacing of each story screeches to a halt during each intermission between tales. And though each individual story feels significant on its own, as a whole it can be difficult to see how each interacts with another. Individual stories in the novel gripped me as much as Ender's Game or The Road, but they just didn't all come together smoothly. Nevertheless, I found myself speeding through the last fifty pages or so, desperate to find out the mysteries of "The Shrike." And damn, but I discovered the novel ends in a heart-pumping cliff-hanger. You may want to have the sequels immediately on-hand.

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10. I wavered between an 8/10 and 9/10 in this category. Ultimately, even though the "Depth of Concept" category (which rates whether a book has multiple meaningful interpretations) wasn't scored as high as for some books I've reviewed, I can't deny that the mysteries set up early on in the novel haunted my thoughts all the way through the novel, and after its conclusion as well. Simmons raises the stakes for each character so high, and has them struggle with those stakes so desperately, and so meaningfully, that it's hard not to hope for and speculate about the resolution.
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Overall Recommendation: 8/10. Hyperion is an amazing novel. It's immensely creative, (mostly) well-paced, and explores a variety of valuable emotional and philosophical themes. It's not, however, an "easy" book to read. For example, the primary antagonist (the Shrike) is a creature made of a thousand razor-sharp blades, and the scenes in which the monster kills his victims are not for the squeamish. Nevertheless, the novel, with its many literary allusions, appealed to the English major in me. There were exciting run-and-gun portions, and subtler but equally compelling domestic stories; really, this is a novel that has something to meet many literary preferences, and that forces a reader to stretch a bit to internalize it all. It's ambitious and it's flawed, and it's also rather awe-inspiring.

Books To Compare: It's been a long time since I've read The Canterbury Tales (and I didn't particularly enjoy them that much), but I honestly wanted to get a copy and read it alongside Hyperion. I think both could benefit from the comparison. The empire-spanning ambition of the universe fares well compared to such classic sci-fi as Herbert's Dune or Asimov's Foundation. In the way that Simmons plays with time and the aging of characters, there are similarities to Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle. There's something dark and also seductive about the deadly antagonist and his mysteries, something that made me think of Gothic Horror in the vein of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and I think Anne Radcliffe's Byronic Hero could easily find a place in Simmons' world. For both visceral and psychological horror, you'd get mileage from comparing Edgar Allan Poe's horror stories. And in the sense that the story follows a band of (mostly) warriors on a mission to defeat a supernatural foe against all odds and with everything at stake, you could even consider Beowulf. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Hyperion on Amazon.

3 comments:

  1. It's been a long time since I read Hyperion, but I think I mostly agree with what you've said here. At least, right off hand, I can't think of anything I'd disagree with. I might have rated it a 9 on overall, though. I should probably re-read it and its sequel at some point.

    However, I can not recommend Endymion. That was mostly a train wreck that I slogged through, never finding any enjoyment in the reading of it.

    It's good to see a post from you :)

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    Replies
    1. Andrew, thanks for the shout-out! That's too bad about Endymion. I love a series that finishes strong. I'm gonna at least finish the sequel, and hopefully that doesn't also end on a frustrating cliff-hangar that requires me to read the third in order to find peace of mind.

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  2. Oh, no, read Fall; it's great. Just don't go beyond that.

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