Saturday, August 6, 2016

#19: Hyperion, #203: Life, the Universe, and Everything


"I understand now the need for faith --pure, blind, fly-in-the-face-of-reason faith --as a small life preserver in the wild and endless sea of a universe ruled by unfeeling laws and totally indifferent to the small, reasoning beings that inhabit it."
"Belief in one's identity as a poet or writer prior to the acid test of publication is as naive and harmless as the youthful belief in one's immortality...and the inevitable disillusionment is just as painful."
" 'I'm going to ask you a question I've asked about a million times since I was two. Do you believe in God?' Sol had not smiled. He had no choice but to give her the answer he had given her a million times. 'I'm waiting to.' " 
"She had always felt that the essence of human experience lay not primarily in the peak experiences, the wedding days and triumphs which stood out in the memory likes dates circled in red on old calendars, but, rather, in the unself-conscious flow of little things --the weekend afternoon with each member of the family engaged in his or her own pursuit, their crossings and connections casual, dialogues imminently forgettable, but the sum of such hours creating a synergy which was important and eternal."
It's impossible to say that Dan Simmons doesn't shoot for the moon. The first novel I read by him, Ilium, was a science fiction retelling of one of western literature's most beloved works, The Iliad. He knocked it out of the park --I was engrossed with the complex and rich plot, and flew through its dense 800 pages as quickly as I have any other book of such length. With Hyperion, the second Simmons novel I have read, he takes on another monumental work in western literature: The Canterbury Tales. The analogy here is a bit more loose; characters from the Tales don't show up in Hyperion by name, but still, the basic plot structure remains --a group of pilgrims in traveling together, and they share their stories with one another. This time, however, we're in the 28th century, mankind has colonized several hundred worlds, and an ominous and powerful creature known as the Shrike haunts every story that is told. Each pilgrim is traveling to Hyperion as the galaxy is on the brink of war to confront the deadly Shrike in some way.
From the beginning, Simmons' world-building is rich and highly detailed. As in Ilium, I was impressed over and over again with his prodigious, Stapledonian imagination. The guy is quite simply a volcano of beautiful, original, creative SF ideas and it's often a joy to behold. I might go so far as to say that at times it can be too much at times; Simmons creates worlds that are so detailed that we get distracted from the main plot at times... his tangents and off-hand details are too interesting sometimes and we're left wanting, begging, to know more.
Simmons' powerful imagination (and impressive technical skill) is on display in each of the six tales that the pilgrims tell. The fact that each has its own impressive cast of characters serves to make Hyperion astoundingly full of great and interesting personalities; even for a 500 page novel. We start with the Priest's Tale, a deep, mysterious, and highly disturbing story that reminded me a bit of the British television show, The Prisoner, with the sense of dread and paranoia that it produces. I'll admit, after finishing this first tale, I was so impressed that I asked myself, How the hell will Simmons top this one? We're supposed to choose our favorite tale, I think, but how will he manage to beat this one? (More to come on this in a moment...)
Next up was the Soldier's Tale, an ultra-violent, tense story told with hallucinatory intensity. It took a while to get going, given how we're thrown into a strange plot-line and forced to figure out what's going on, but this one was quite well-done as well.
After this is the Poet's Tale, which is told in an often-humorous, highly engaging, first-person voice. It's peppered with literary references, and it's arguably the most "literary" of the tales. Martin Silenus, the poet, is one of my favorite characters in the novel, a true artist's artist, an unapologetic truth-teller, and a man with an intriguing relationship with the deadly Shrike. We never learn more about this particular facet in Hyperion, but there are several sequels, so I hope to read more about this relationship in the future. It was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me, given the murderous, chaotic ways of the Shrike.
The Scholar's Tale is a more moving, personal story. It focuses on a scholar and his wife after a strange accident befalls their daughter. As she is studying the Time Tombs on the world of Hyperion (supposedly the lair of the Shrike), Rachel Weintraub falls unconscious and begins aging backwards. Each day, she loses another day of memory; another day of aging. Taking care of her becomes increasing tough for her parents, who grow older as their daughter grows younger. This one isn't as flashy as the ones before it, but it delivers a real emotional depth, and it showcases Simmons's versatility wonderfully.
Next is the Detective's Tale, which somehow manages to up the ante again, revealing bigger stakes in play for the entire pilgrimage. This one reminded me quite a bit of Ilium in the way it incorporates figures from the Western Canon of literature in an incredibly creative and weird way. Although I wasn't particularly fond of its narrator at the beginning, she grew on me as this complex story progressed.
Finally, we have the Consul's Tale, which jumps around in time, but manages to stay quite coherent throughout. For most of the Tale, we don't actually know who the protagonist is, but when the story concludes, we have a big answer to a question that has been lingering throughout the novel. Like the Detective's Tale, there is romance and intrigue here, and once again, Simmons manages it all with a deft hand.
The novel concludes on a frustrating cliffhanger, which I supposed is my one, half-assed complaint about it. What I can say is that it made me excited to read The Fall of Hyperion in the near future, so I suppose it isn't really a "complaint", per se... I just think novels should have a bit more closure than this, even if they are a part of a series.
The overall verdict on Hyperion is that it is an incredible book, with a seeming universe packed into 500 pages. Certain tales (the Priest's and the Poet's) outshine others (the Consul's and the Soldier's) for me, but all of them have their merits. There is a reason why a major publishing imprint is now named after this novel --Dan Simmon's imagination and impressive technical skill are both on display here and together they confirm his status as one of the best SF authors alive.

Life, the Universe, and Everything:

"...there's nothing that depresses me more than seeing a planet being destroyed. Except possibly still being on it when it happens."
"Numbers written on restaurant checks within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe."
" 'But unless we determine to take action,' said the old man querulously, as if struggling against something deeply insouciant in his nature, 'then we shall all be destroyed; we shall all die. Surely we care about that?' 'Not enough to get killed over it,' said Ford."
It's weird to think that a book with a somewhat concrete plot could be viewed as an anomaly within a series. But nevertheless, this was the resounding, lasting impression that I got from Life, The Universe, and Everything. Sure, we get a lot of the usual Adams off-the-wall insanity and digression in this one, but we also get a more traditional central plot-line that lends more structure to the novel than either of its predecessors.
Life, the Universe, and Everything opens up about five years after The Restaurant at the End of the Universe ended, with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect still strained in a prehistoric wilderness, bored and miserable. As is common in the Hitchhiker's Trilogy, things do not remain grounded in the same place for too long after the novel opens. Time travel comes back into play, mysterious, long-forgotten objects pop into existence with regularity, and eventually Ford and Arthur find themselves guests on the ship Bistromath, an interstellar cruiser that operates not on traditional math, but on the sort of garbled, nonsensical math that one finds on a restaurant bills. Due to this, it can shoot across the greatest distances of time and space with ease, or even travel into other dimensions.
Ford and Arthur soon learn from the pilot of Bistromath, Slartibartfast, that an old galactic menace has resurfaced. Long ago, the pleasant, but utterly xenophobic people of Krikkit terrorized the Universe, destroying everything that did not come from their planet. After a long battle, the Krikkiters were locked away from the rest of the Universe in an impenetrable Slo-Time envelope. The key to the envelope was destroyed and its fragments were dispersed across the space time continuum. However, a team of Krikkit's robot fighters has resurfaced recently, and they are quickly finding pieces of the key and rebuilding it. No one seems to be able to stop them.
While the quest to stop the robots from rebuilding the key is the main preoccupation of Arthur, Ford, and Slartibartfast throughout the novel, there are also plenty of hilarious digressions. Whereas these digressions took up the bulk of the previous two novels, Adams seems a bit more focused more here. While this made for more enjoyable reading on a very basic level (you actually have something unified to follow for more than 20 pages!), this one was not quite as uproariously funny as the first two books in the series for the same reason.
In the end it comes down to personal preference: if you want funnier books that you might not always understand (and rightly so, by my estimation!), you'll enjoy the first two novels in the series more. But if you want a novel with more of a fleshed out, sustained plot, you'll enjoy this one the most. I read the Hitchhiker's Trilogy for the laughs, rather than the nifty plotlines, so my own preference was for the first two.
However, I must stress, this book is still extremely funny. Just because it might not measure up to the standards of the first two is in no way an indictment of the novel as a whole. The Bistromath concept was great, but my favorite concept in the entire novel may have been the four-generation-long party in the sky. The idea that sets up the scene, as well as the execution of the scene itself had me laughing out loud quite a bit. Arthur Dent's confrontation with Agrajag is also clever, funny, and puzzling all at once. I think you could use those three adjectives to describe everything I've read by Adams, in fact.
While the conclusion of the novel was a bit abrupt, I've come to expect this from the series. Adams isn't one for consistent, satisfying endings, but if you've made it this far, you've learned to accept it. For anyone who enjoyed the first two books in the series, I would certainly recommend taking a look at this one as well, because despite some of my observations, it really isn't radically different from the first two books in the series. Here, there are more laughs to be had, more mayhem to witness, and more paradoxical, puzzling little tidbits to annoy, amuse, and confuse you. Like the others, it's nothing short of a hoot.

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