Hyperion by Dan Simmons Pt.1
by İnci German
I’ve first read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion over a decade ago and rereading it for the Classics series, I was taken aback to realize that I hadn’t forgotten a thing. Awkward… but in a good way.
It’s not like I could recite it by heart, but every name, every scene, everything about this universe was there, somewhere in my head, sleeping, waiting and it came back to me as I've reread: the Hawking drive, the mysterious captain Het Masteen, the Hegira, the seasonally burning tesla trees, the starship with a Steinway, the Shrike, Brawne Lamia’s pearl-handled pistol…
It’s not the first time I’m rereading a book, but with Hyperion it was like all of these words had been chiseled somewhere in my unconsciousness and I immediately felt the comfort of something deeply familiar. Why? What is it about them that they can have such an effect? What makes a book feel so pristine, so fundamental? Or was it just me?
I’ve decided to take a closer look at what Simmons does.
First things first though, here’s a general synopsis for those who haven’t read it yet:
The end of all times is soon and seven pilgrims are chosen by the mysterious Church of Shrike to go on a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs: a sickly young priest of the Catholic Church; a broken ex-soldier; a raucous poet; an old scholar whose infant child grows younger by the day; a detective with an unfinished business; a tormented consul and a secretive starship captain who knows far more than he admits to. In order to make sense of this dubious situation they decide to tell each other their stories.
This is the frame story of the first book of the Hyperion Cantos and before going into further detail I want to warn everybody who hasn’t read Hyperion, not to continue reading this review, for it might spoil one of the best reading experiences you’ll ever have. Seriously: Read it first and come back.
Off you go!
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is in fact one big tribute to (mainly) western literature: he borrows the frame structure from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the title is a tribute to the romantic poet John Keats, who in turn has also lent it from ancient Greek mythology, - in fact John Keats is one of the minor characters in the first book and a major persona in the second book, The Fall of Hyperion -, he makes multiple references to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, W.B. Yeats and so on and so forth… I know I forgot to mention a trillion other obvious allusions but let’s leave it at that for now.
Simmons also constantly knots many well known, fixed motives into his stories and he does this over and over and over again throughout all four novels of the series (Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion), making use of archetypes on more than one level. And he does it cleverly, brilliantly: Not only does the frame story of Hyperion rely on the fundamental technique of storytelling, the sub-stories and in some cases the story in story in story, also each represent a different literary genre, just like in Chaucer’s Tales. And he does it masterly! This intertextual character of the book is, in my opinion, what makes it so impressive and that is what I want to talk about. In fact, I want to talk about it so much that I've divided the review in at least two parts, maybe three or more.
Now before you go “No shit Sherlock!” let me elaborate my point: It is a cool experience to read something truly strange, but it's even cooler when it's embedded in the familiar! We really do want to hear the same stories over and over again (children listening to bed stories and shouting “again!” comes to mind) and if you can wrap it in a different environment and you can do it as skillfully as Simmons does, that’s just awesome!
In this article, which is a subjective account of my Hyperion-experience, I will try and explain my personal impressions while rereading Hyperion and the associations that went through my head. So don’t count on this one for your next dissertation.
Storytelling is something all of us have always been doing everywhere. It is actually, one of the few universal features humankind possesses – we all share our stories and love to do so and it has always had a place in universal literature.
As mentioned above, the frame of the Cantos, pilgrims telling each other their stories, is predicated on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While Chaucer pours scorching criticism on the English society into his stories about people from different backgrounds, Simmons uses his to build and describe a pre-apocalyptic universe under the rule of the Hegemony of Man, its history, its conflicts and to establish his characters.
Before taking a look at the pilgrims’ stories I want to point out that despite this obvious analogy, it was someone else I kept on thinking of while reading, especially in the beginnings: a young lady called Scheherazade. It would be a crime generally talking about storytelling without mentioning her, but there are also some specific parallels between the frame stories of Hyperion and of One Thousand and One Nights, that I think should not go unnoticed.
After a severe case of manpain, ur-misogynist King Shahryar decides to marry a virgin every day and kill them the next morning until there are no unmarried girls left. Except for one: his vizier’s bright daughter Scheherazade. While her father has a hard time controlling his panic attacks, she marries the king willingly. After sleeping with him on the first night, she suggests she tells a story, since the night is long and the king is bored and he agrees. So she starts telling her tale and stops just at the most crucial point, because tradition says that stories can’t be told at daytime. The curious king thinks that he can kill her anytime after she finishes the story and postpones the act; thus the spell is broken. Scheherazade repeats her trick night after night and after thousand and one of them spent together, he loves and cherishes her so much that killing her is no longer an issue. That’s how she saves her own life and that of every girl in the country.
Although the danger is not as imminent in Hyperion, the pilgrims sense that it could save their lives if they knew their respective stories and seven heads may be better than one. So here too the ulterior motive is survival.
On the first night they assemble, Het Masteen, the captain of the Treeship Yggdrasill that brings the pilgrims to Hyperion, suggests that the stories be told every evening after dinner, which much resembles the eastern tradition of telling stories after dark. Yet, even though they had all agreed on the first evening, they break this habit pretty soon. That and it is always dark in space.
Finally there is that story in story thing. While reading One Thousand and One Nights, I sometimes lose track of what story I’m in, it gets that confusing. It’s usually the same pattern: A guy once met this other guy and said to him “Let me tell you the story of a guy who experienced such and such thing which in turn reminded this other guy of the story where yet another guy met a talking animal who told him he too was human once but this sorcerer put a spell on him and the sorcerer told him a story about…” This is great fun! Although not this complex (and of course I exaggerated), in Hyperion two of the seven pilgrims also have to rely on somebody else’s story in order to tell their own.
So far, so good. Now let’s jump back to the pilgrims’ tales and their various associations.
It’s safe to say that in Hyperion you can find something of everything you have ever read. Not only are the pilgrims of very different backgrounds, Simmons also couples each pilgrim to a different literary genre. That’s his knack! Again – I might be utterly wrong but my associations below are my opinions nevertheless and I stick to them.
Colonial Fiction (The Priest’s Tale)
One of the great aspects of Hyperion is the arrangement of the pilgrims’ tales. It is a smart move on Simmons’ part to start with such an astonishing tale that just knocks you off your socks! I have to admit that the following stories are somewhat less intense but still very engaging and to start with the most striking story is a great tactic to get the reader hooked.
The journals of the theologian, archeologist and ethnologist Father Duré, read by pilgrim Father Lenar Hoyt, are at best terrifyingly tragic.
Throughout Duré’s voyage to the Bikura village I couldn’t help but think of Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) will also do, it is basically the same story in an updated setting.
Although both stories progress differently there are certainly parallels that are hard to miss.
... TO BE CONTINUED...