Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pondering Hyperion

Laying among the dead. More dead to come. The thousands. The millions. Laughter out of dead bellies. The long lines of troops emerging from JumpShips to enter the waiting flames.

. . . Farcaster portals opening to admit the cold lengths of attack carriers. The warmth of plasma explosions. Hundreds of ships, thousands, dancing and dying like dust motes in a whirlwind. Great columns of solid ruby light lancing across great distances, bathing targets in the ultimate surge of warmth, bodies boiling in red light.

. . . Heat on a hundred worlds. Continents burning in bright spasms, the roll of boiling seas. The air itself aflame. Oceans of superheated air swelling like warm skin to a lover's touch.

. . . fireballs expanding, stars dying, suns exploding in great pulses of flame, star systems perishing in an ecstasy of destruction. . .

. . . the death of worlds!

In my last post I gave you a passage from Dan Simmons's Hugo Award-winning novel Hyperion, which I was still in the process of reading.

Now this wasn't my first Simmons book. I had read Summer of Night in high school, and although I eventually forgot what it was about exactly, its grotesque imagery stayed with me for years until I reread it again a month ago. One Amazon reviewer wondered "[h]ow could the man who wrote the Hyperion books pen this terrible, mindnumbing, unfinishable novel?" LOL. After I finished Hyperion, my reaction was the opposite: how could the same man who wrote Summer of Night be the author of this masterpiece? I mean, it was decent enough horror novel but I've read much better from Dean Koontz. But no wonder that reviewer was so disappointed: Hyperion is light-years above Summer of Night.

The setting is some 700 years in the future, in which Earth has since been destroyed by misguided science. Most humans are citizens of the interplanetary Hegemony, a decadent and decaying civilization on the brink of total war with the Ousters, a marauding tribe of quasi-transhumanists reviled as galactic barbarians. Think of it as the Old Republic of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones: a stagnant, overblown juggernaut suffering the mounting effects of social entropy. (It's even got a leader who reminds one strongly of Palpatine.) But don't let the Star Wars comparisons fool you – this is not Saturday-morning sci-fi.

At the core of the book, which is actually first in a series of four, is the distant world of Hyperion, an enigmatic place where ancient brooding structures travel backwards through time and a nightmarish entity known as the Shrike feasts on death but is worshiped by many as the righteous instrument of retribution. As the apocalypse rises in the stars, seven strangers have gathered to make one last suicidal pilgrimage to the Shrike and the Time Tombs, each telling his story along the way. Hyperion is essentially a compendium of six interlocking tales (yes, six – no spoilers here!), all of them a celebration of joy, tenderness, and pathos that illustrates the distance between the heights of which humanity is capable and the fallen state of the societies in which they live. Lurking in the background, but coming menacingly forward in the second-to-last tale, is the TechnoCore, a "race" of sentient AIs possessed of seemingly godlike technological powers (it is at this point that an element of cyberpunk noir is introduced) that act as "advisers" to the Hegemony government. If you're familiar with Ghost in the Shell, think of a super-evolved Puppet Master.

Honestly, I don't even think it's really possible to adequately summarize Hyperion and do it full justice. It's too expansive for that. As my last post should indicate, there is so much that Simmons touches upon - Hyperion is large, containing multitudes. It is a stunning work of art that is both dazzlingly futuristic and achingly nostalgic: it simultaneously rejoices in life and laments what humanity, at its worst, ultimately destroys.
I blame you for the moonlit sky
And the dream that died with the eagle's flight
I blame you for the moonlit nights
When I wonder why
Are the seas still dry?
Don't blame this sleeping satellite

Have we lost what it takes to advance?
Have we peaked too soon?
If the world is so green then why does it scream
Under a blue moon?
We wonder why
If the earth's sacrificed for the price of its greatest treasure

- Tasmin Archer, "Sleeping Satellite"

2 comments:

Mrs. C said...

Hey, elf--thnaks for the link--God, I love smart folk. And reading is both my virtue and my vice, so I love my expanding blogosphere!

Nancy said...

Hi there - thanks for the link, and I'm loving your blog. Finally figured out how to add a blog list to mine - and you're the first on it. Loved Hyperion - it haunted me while reading it and it haunts me to this day. The "words" discussion you posted literally gives me chills (a Chris Matthews moment..). Good stuff!

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