Hyperion

By D. Simmons

After reading the first of four books, I wrote a one-line comment on Goodreads saying, “Liked it despite numerous annoyances.” After reading the second, I change my statement to “Didn’t like it despite numerous qualities”. These are mainly related to the authors indisputable ability to create and maintain suspense, and to surprise. Book one ends with a cliffhanger so epic that I had to pick up book two immediately. But I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

Setting and world-building

The story is set in a moderately distant future where humanity has stepped off its home world thanks to the development of technologies that allow interstellar travel by means of faster-than-light ships and instant teleportation. The Hegemony of Man spans hundreds of habitable planets that have been terraformed to varying degrees, all connected by teleportation portals, or farcasters, into an immense World Web enveloped into a still greater web of data spheres, a strangely limited vision of a future internet. The Hegemony always seeks to spread and incorporate independent colonies into the Web, often disregarding disastrous socio-economic and ecological consequences.

Hyperion is one such colony: an outback world without farcaster access, which means that to reach it one must travel there by ship, which in turn means building a time debt of months or years. But unlike any other colony or Web world, Hyperion is home to the mysterious time tombs: artifacts of an alien, or perhaps future human civilization that move backwards through time; and to their legendary keeper, a part organic, part mechanic monster, the Shrike. Time tombs make Hyperion central in the mounting conflict between the Hegemony and the Ousters, a branch of humanity that refused to live in the Web and make themselves dependent on the use of farcasters. Threat of interstellar war looms from a distance in book one, then comes into focus in book two, as a band of unlikely pilgrims makes their way to time tombs with the ill-defined task to “do something about it”.

All of which is fine so far. The foundation is not very original (basically Star Trek minus the aliens), but the stuff of hard-core science fiction is flawless, from ideas to newly invented words to contain them. Time tombs, for example, are surrounded with antientropic fields, an elegant and non-obvious reference to stopping or turning back the clock that I doubt every reader will pick up. Simmons ran wild with the idea of teleportation, with some awesome images such as the river Thetis that runs through all the Web worlds through a carefully constructed system of farcasters; several more moments of brilliance can be found in pilgrims’ back stories.

Yet despite of these qualities, Simmons’ world-building came across as lackluster. Nearly every paragraph contained some form of remainder that the narrator comes from this world and not that. The details required to fill in the 500 years gap between now and then are too few and not too imaginative, and cannot stand up to the numerous and constant references to our own contemporary history and art. Centuries into the future, there’s still a Pope and a Catholic church, there are still Jews with a planet of their own. The FTL ships use the Hawking’s drive, the city of poets on Hyperion is called Keats, and British English can still be recognized in people’s accents. Philosophers still dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust and one of the main (and arguably the most reasonable of all) characters wields a mechanical pistol in the era of laser warfare. Some of this is “explained” by the supposed intellectual and creative decay of a society immersed in the advanced equivalent of today’s internet, with everything, be it information or experience, available in the blink of an eye and a step away through a portal. But I didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it at all. What I saw was a plot invented to cover up a failure of world-building, and once that impression set in I found confirmation of it in every other sentence and it was annoying as hell.

Characters and storytelling

The cast of characters is quite diverse but except for Hegemony CEO Gladstone and (the second coming of) the Keats AI, both of which are introduced, for better or for worse, in book two, they all have one thing in common: they are poorly chosen and generally unable to carry the story at the pace the author wants it to move, which results in info-dumping and deus ex machina solutions at several key points.

Book One consists of the pilgrims’ back stories glued together by the events unfolding as they traverse Hyperion to reach the time tombs amid the chaos of the impending war. The back stories are a mixed bag. Some of them are awesome, especially the one that introduces the cruciform. Others are completely pointless, like that of the poet Silenus and ultimately, that of the child Rachel. The story of the soldier, Kassad, tries too hard to be shocking, and even harder to be significant, but fails on both accounts. The one back story I was really looking forward to and had great expectations of – that of the Templar – was conveniently skipped in one of the deus ex machina moments. This not only irritated my sense of completion, but also came across as backing down from a hard task, which further decreased my respect for the author and my ability to suspend disbelief.

And then there’s the Consul’s story. This is where I’ll make a digression into a completely technical issue which bothered me to no end and poked at my eyes from every single paragraph. Like a rookie would-be fan-fiction writer, Simmons is afraid to use the names of his characters. He’s also afraid to use pronouns, because, you know, people might misread the occasional ‘he’ or ‘she’ as referring to a totally wrong character. Happens all the time! Between these two overly risky practices that are avoided like the plague, not much remains but the incredibly annoying comparative references. If there are two men in the scene, instead of saying “Hoyt ate while Sol slept”, or god forbid “He ate while Sol slept”, Simmons will write “The priest ate while the older man slept.” Even when there’s only one woman in the company of six men, he will refer to her as to “the young woman”, presumably out of habit. When he does use names, he can’t really decide if he’s on the first-name basis with his characters or not, so sometimes it’s Lenar, other times Hoyt, and yet others, Lenar Hoyt. These are such basic beginner mistakes that I can’t for the life of me figure out how the text passed editing.

But the worst travesty of all is – the Consul. That’s it. The Consul. No name. Arguably the main character of the story, certainly the first we meet and seemingly the one Simmons put the most work into, what with all his futile internal struggles – yet we don’t get to know his name. It seemed like a mystery in the making at first, so I went with it. Sometimes the name is an important piece of information you don’t want to give away too soon – though even then I believe there are better ways to hide it than to call your protagonist by his (outdated!) title. However, when the Consul’s back story is finally revealed in the end of book one and all its secrets spilled out in a rather ineffective way because his back story itself is – for some random reason – not at all about him, but about the weird love affair of his grandparents – it turns out his name is not one of those secrets. No. He doesn’t get named for no reason whatsoever. Annoying!

Another annoyance involving both the world-building failure and the character-building failure was all the aimless jumping through many farcasters in succession. Characters are often caught not having anything to do except think, which is a poor way to relate the story; and to make it worse, on more than one occasion they teleport to a bunch of different worlds while at it, with no apparent reason other than to expose the readers to elaborate but empty scenography. There’s a half-decent chase scene that does the same, and perhaps it would have worked out in a movie, but Simmons just doesn’t have what it takes to make the descriptions of various Web worlds interesting to read. The portal-jumping struck me mostly as literary wanking. A strained and transparent attempt to fill the world with details of the completely wrong kind. A bit more history, named events from the past with some bearing on the present, a few more leaders, artists, scientists and their creations to casually mention in conversation instead of helplessly relying on things from our past – would have done so much more for the story than the pointless world-walks.

Book Two crossed the line of how much annoyance I can take. It is there that the Keats persona becomes a proper character – which is a generous label for what’s essentially the worst, most obvious self-insert I’ve ever seen in a book that sells for actual money. The Keats persona is, unlike all the others, delivered from first person point of view. It is also, unlike all the others, delivered in present tense. Its main purpose is info-dumping. Namely, at two critical stages of the story, a godlike AI kidnaps the Keats persona and tells it the plot. Tells. It. The plot. I am not kidding. It literally explains what the story is about in the most incredible fail of “show, don’t tell” I’m aware of outside fan-fiction. The author obviously couldn’t figure out another way to deliver this information, since he failed to invent characters who might gain access to it in a logical and meaningful way through the events of the story.

See, by the end of Book One the pilgrims have reached the time tombs, and in Book Two, they basically run from one tomb to the other and back and experience random encounters with the Shrike, resulting in varying degrees of fatality. They’re cut off from the rest of the Web, and even from the rest of Hyperion, and are completely powerless and irrelevant for the actual story of Book Two, which is about the war. So, the Keats persona is invented to 1) cheat the setting and allow the flow of information between the pilgrims and CEO Gladstone and 2) (if you’re like me, you’re going to love this one) to basically explain to the readers how the author knows what his characters are thinking.

Yes. You’ve read it right. The Keats persona, delivered from its first person POV and in its present tense, dreams the events on Hyperion, including the pilgrims’ subjective experiences, and later dreams CEO Gladstone and her experiences too. So where in Book One we had the back stories glued with the journey, in Book Two we have random Shrike encounters dreamed by the Keats persona, glued by his actual observations of the ongoing war, which are effectively no different than dreams since he’s a completely passive author self-insert. Add to this the occasional info dump and later the totally unnecessary placement of the Keats persona on a simulacrum of nineteenth century Earth because the readers didn’t have enough of that crap watering down the otherwise feasible futuristic setting, and you get something that’s not even annoying anymore. It’s plain awful.

Now, obviously Hyperion had enough good things going for it to keep me turning the pages. The story, despite all the flaws in storytelling, is genuinely interesting and manages a decent level of unpredictability. One thing Simmons is great at is suspense. Every appearance of the Shrike was laden with it, as were several other scenes (Browne Lamia fleeing from the Chronos Keep, or Paul Dure sneaking into the cruciform temple). Hyperion itself is strewn with jewels of sci-fi imagination, from the Tesla trees to the Sea of Grass, to the Labyrinth and the wider concept of Labyrinthian worlds. The Ousters are tantalizingly mysterious, with only a word here or there to arouse curiosity until quite late in Book Two developments. I said it already, but it’s worth repeating, that the science fiction of Hyperion is flawless and a pleasure to ponder on.

To conclude with the comment I began with, there were many things good enough to keep me reading – but not sufficiently many to make me go for the next book of the series. As is the case with most sequels, Book Two is weaker than Book One in almost every aspect, and ends in a state of balance, with most pressing conflicts resolved and only matters of marginal interest remaining a mystery. I very much doubt the many annoyances of the first two books are absent from the other two; to the contrary, I’m pretty sure there would be new and worse ones, as my capacity to overlook and forgive drops dramatically with the amounts of accumulated vitriol and you can probably sense just how high it’s accumulated already. So long, Hyperion.

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