Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dan Simmons: Hyperion, an SF Novel

Dan Simmons: Hyperion, an SF novel
Dan Simmons has created a rather unique work in Hyperion, the first novel in a four novel set. It is composed of three major themes—Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Greek mythology focused primarily on the Creation myths, and the poetry and to some extent the life of John Keats, the 19th century English Romantic poet. The novel also includes a dash of Norse mythology, a sprinkle of contemporary allusions, and a pinch of SF in-jokes. I must admit that at times I lost track of the story as I wandered sometimes far astray following one allusion or another. Eventually I decided to simply make notes and do the research after finishing the novel. I did so and ended up with 4+ pages of notes. I will list them in a second post, for those who are interested in such arcane activities.

The Three Major Themes:
Most obvious is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Seven strangers meet and discover they have been invited by the Church of the Shrike to make a pilgrimage to its most sacred spot, the Time Tombs. Such pilgrimages had been banned for some time, but now unexpectedly the Church has granted permission for these seven to form a party. Some have been trying for years to be accepted but have always been denied permission, up to now. Others found themselves successful on their first application while at least one individual had never even applied for permission and is going only because he was ordered to go. He was a government official, and a high ranking member of the Hegemony (the government that controlled the numerous planets settled by humans) orders him to accept the invitation and investigate the strange behavior of the Church.
Upon meeting for the first time in the ship carrying them to their destination, the planet Hyperion, the pilgrims decide, more or less willingly (some more than others), to tell their stories in hopes of finding some common thread that would clear up this puzzle—why a pilgrimage now and why them?
Hyperion, therefore, consists for the most part of six tales told by the pilgrims of their sometimes direct and sometimes tenuous relationship to the Church of the Shrike. The tales are linked by the typical hardships encountered by travelers on their journey and the usual by-play among the travelers as they go through the process of getting to know each other, for they will be spending considerable time in each others’ company.
The second major theme consists of Greek mythology, especially the Greek Creation myth. Briefly, in the beginning was Chaos, an unformed mass. Out of this mass emerged Uranus, the Sky God, and Gaea, the Earth Goddess. Their offspring were the Hundred-Handed, the Cyclops, and the Titans. Uranus found it necessary to punish the Hundred-Handed and the Cyclops. Gaea feels this is unfair and appeals to the Titans to interfere.
The Titans rise up and overthrow Uranus. Saturn (or Chronos--the God of Time) now replaces Uranus as the chief god and Rhea becomes the ruling goddess. The other titans take various positions: Hyperion becomes the Sun God while Oceanus becomes the god of the Ocean. Other titans are given other realms to rule.
However, peace is hard to achieve, even among the gods, for Chronos learns of a prophecy that he will be displaced by one of his offspring. He feels this is unfair (forgetting how he got his present position) so each time Rhea, his consort, gives birth, he immediately swallows the newborn. You may see a pattern here as Rhea eventually becomes upset with such behavior. Finally she takes action and when her next child is born, she takes a child-sized rock, wraps it in swaddling clothes, and hands it off to Saturn/Chronos who immediately swallows it. Satisfied, Chronos wanders off and Rhea takes the child and raises it on a deserted island, somewhere in the Mediterranean.
When the child is old enough or rather big and strong enough, Rhea tells him some facts about their family history and encourages him to rescue his brothers and sisters. The son, actually it’s Zeus, goes to his father and forces him to disgorge his siblings. Together they attack, defeat, and assume the Titans' roles in the universal hierarchy, with Zeus now becoming the chief god, thus fulfilling the prophecy.
One of the significant issues in the Creation myth is the conflict among generations with the older generation being replaced by their descendents, and they, in turn, being replaced by their own. Gods, like humans, I guess, don’t learn from history. This clearly is foreshadowing of the coming events in the novel.
The third significant element consist of the poetry and some aspects of the life of John Keats, the English 19th century poet. One of the pilgrims is Martin Silenus, a poet, who frequently recites, at appropriate and sometimes inappropriate moments, fragments of his poetry, supposedly from his as yet uncompleted masterpiece, The Hyperion Cantos. However, the fragments are really from two of John Keats’ long but unfinished poems, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and two excerpts from two of Keats’ shorter but finished poems. The one excerpt that is not from Keats’ poetry is quoted by the pilgrim who is the first person to tell his tale, and he appropriately enough begins with a quotation from the first tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Background and Setting:
The novel is set far in the future when the human race has spread throughout the galaxy. Earth no longer exists. Humans destroyed it when some scientists made what everybody euphemistically calls The Big Mistake. It had something to do with a black hole escaping and sinking down into the center of the planet. It then proceeded to devour the planet over a long period of time, which allowed all, but a few who decided to remain, to escape.
All is not peaceful though. Three groups are engaged in a power struggle for control. One such group is the Hegemony, the government which now rules the existing human civilization. The second group consists of the AIs at TechnoCore. These are artificial intelligences which have evolved from the evolution of computers and have become self-aware. Centuries earlier they had removed themselves from human domination and gathered at a secret place known only as the TechnoCore.
The AIs themselves are split into several groups. One group wishes to eliminate the human race immediately before the humans develop sufficient technology to destroy them or perhaps regain control of them. A second group counsels patience for they believe that humans will do the job for them and eventually destroy themselves. A third group, however, argues that they should pay more attention to events taking place on the planet Hyperion, for their projections had not mentioned either the Shrike or the time tombs, which seemed to be traveling backwards in time, and therefore were visitors from the future. Before the AIs took any action, they argued, the mystery of Hyperion needed to be solved.
How can there be a civilization that doesn’t have barbarians hammering away at the city gates? Well, Simmons has provided them also—the Ousters, people who fled the Hegemony and developed their own culture and technology, and the belief that the Hegemony is holding back the human race from further development. They are the third group in this three-way struggle for dominance. The Ousters have now decided that something significant for the development of the human race is taking place on Hyperion, so they also are headed for Hyperion. Once the Hegemony discovers that the Ousters fleet is pointed at Hyperion, the government decides it’s time to solve the Ouster problem once and for all. It sends a huge fleet to Hyperion and its mission is to completely wipe out the Ousters.
As you can see, everybody who’s anybody is going to Hyperion.
Simmons apparently had some problems with the novel. He spent so much time developing this complex universe with its various contending forces and novella length stories by the pilgrims that he was unable to finish the tale in one novel. Consequently the novel ends at the point when the pilgrims have reached a point a few kilometers from the site of the time tombs, their ultimate destination. To say that nothing has been resolved is an understatement for there is at least one more tale to be told. In addition, it’s not clear yet just what the overall purpose of the pilgrimage is supposed to serve, nor why these people were chosen. I also have the feeling that I don’t know enough at this point to pose other significant questions. This is why I recommend that anyone who chooses to read Hyperion should also get The Fall of Hyperion at the same time, where presumably there will be a resolution, of some sort.
I’m not going to reveal the ending, inconclusive as it may be, because Simmons concocts an outrageous last chapter. All I will say is that it is one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, and for some weird reason, it really works. I had to go back several times and reread it, just to make sure I was reading what Simmons had done and not filling in my own delusions.
The planet Hyperion is significant and a puzzle for two reasons. One is the existence of the time tombs, strange empty structures that look as though they might be tombs. At regular periods distortions in time occur in the vicinity of the tombs, and the scientists have decided that the tombs are actually traveling backwards in time.
The second reason is the presence of the Shrike. The Shrike is a tall, some 3-4 meters in height, metallic-appearing creature, humanoid in shape but covered with sharp spikes and blades. The Shrike appeared only some time after humans settled the planet and initially only in the area around the time tombs. Consequently it is believed there is some connection to them. Recently the Shrike has appeared in various parts of the planet where its presence is made known by the discovery of bodies that have been dismembered. Sometimes the person just disappears and is never seen again.
The Church of the Shrike consists of those who believe the Shrike is a god and therefore worships it.
Overall Rating: I found it very interesting. Each of the seven pilgrims is a unique individual, some likeable and some less so, but all have very intriguing tales to tell. At this point, it's difficult to talk about it because I really don't know much about the plot and other significant issues. This novel appears to be one long, extended introduction, and I presume the second novel, The Fall of Hyperion, will provide more information about just what is going on.
I will post another entry shortly regarding this work: it is a glossary of allusions from the novel that I’ve been able to identify. The allusions Simmons includes provide an unusually rich depth to the novel, considering the prevalence of references to Greek and Norse mythology, the use of Chaucer's pilgrimage as a structure, English poets, and contemporary individuals, as well as connections to some significant SF authors.


  1. Fred,

    This book sounds interesting, but intimidating. If you don't know alot of the allusions, would it still be an interesting read?

  2. Cheryl,

    First, I don't think that understanding or recognizing a lot of the allusions is necessary for following the story.

    For example, not seeing the connections between the name of the female detective and her client changes nothing in the story. He is still her client. However, recognizing the relationship between her name and her client does add some enjoyment to the tale. (This will make more sense when I finish PT 2, as I point out the significance of her name and her client).

    Whether you enjoy the story actually depends mostly on whether you will like this type of story, regardless of allusions to other works or to the real world ("inter-textuality" as it would be called by the litcrit type).

  3. Fred,

    Have you read any other books by Dan Simmons? I've read Drood, The Terror, Phases of Gravity, and Song of Kali. He's quite a diverse writer, in that his books aren't confined to one genre. Now that you've posted a glossary, I think I'll give his Hyperion Cantos books a try. Thank you for all the hard work you put into it!

  4. Cheryl,

    You're quite welcome. I hadn't planned on the glossary. I was reading the book for a f-t-f SF book group and stated taking notes. It just sorta grew and grew and grew.

    So far, I've read the two Hyperion books, the two Endymion books, _The Song of Kali_, _Prayers to Broken Stones_ (collection of short stories), and _The Hollow Man_.

    The book group decided to read _The Fall of Hyperion_, since _Hyperion_ left us hanging, next year, so I may be doing a post on that one as well sometime down the road.