Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dan Simmons - Fall of Hyperion

Every age fraught with discord and danger seems to spawn a leader meant only for that age, a political giant whose absence, in retrospect, seems inconceivable when the history of that age is written. Meina Gladstone was just such a leader for our final age, although none then could have dreamed that there would be no one but me to write the true history of her and her time.

Like Hyperion before it, Fall of Hyperion is a marriage of styles and goals that sets nothing less than the fundamental questions of our existence and our spread into the universe as its subject manner. These lofty ideals cause most of the problems in the novel, but, when all is said and done, they are what make Fall of Hyperion worth reading.

Hyperion encompassed everything from high octane space opera to noir mysteries to somber reflections on the meanings of God. Fall of Hyperion has almost all of the same elements, but the key difference is that they’re no longer separated into their own separate stories. Now, every aspect of the narrator is thrown into the same stew. Unfortunately, this results in them bumping up against each other far more often than it does in them aiding each other.

A key example of this is Fedmahn Kassad’s battle with the Shrike. The fight doesn’t occur in one go; instead, the two travel backwards and forwards through time as they battle, and their bout is woven into the narrative in various places as the two pop in and out of the timeline. The effect succeeds completely in making the battle seem like an epic, world changing affair, but it also reduces the scenes themselves. The timeless feel of the two warrior’s war squashes the brutality of their battle, reducing the (otherwise well written) scenes of their fight to more of a reminder of their existence than a source of tension.

In a work so full of elements that reach for the stars, I don’t think that anyone will be surprised to hear that several elements fall a bit flat, at least in comparison to what they were built up to be. Each of the seven pilgrims, we’ve been told, has been selected for a reason, and each of them has a VITAL part to play, without which humanity is doomed. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that with the massive anticlimax that is Martin Silenus’s conclusion. His story in Hyperion was some of the hardest reading in the novel, but was ultimately one of my favorite sections, as Silenus/Simmons pondered the relation between writer and muse and as we saw the Hyperion Cantos prophetic power. His part in Fall, however, basically consists of writing a few words (though not finishing the poem) and then…falling off the face of the earth. Alright, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I see absolutely no reason for the fate of humanity to have been imperiled by his absence.

In the same manner, Gladstone’s plan is a truly bewildering thing. In Hyperion, we receive hints that the benevolent AIs are not what they seem. In Fall, Gladstone is determined to plunge the Hegemony into chaos, if need be, to try and eradicate the threat. But, when her plan finally goes into action, we discover that it was driven entirely by circumstances she could never have known about while formulating it. Are we to believe that the (otherwise brilliant) ruler of mankind’s best idea was to go: fuck it, I’m sure something’ll look promising when the time comes?

On a final negative note, the appearance of a second Keats cybrid is a wee bit ridiculous. For a poet who’s supposed to be all but forgotten, to be brought back twice is a bit much. The new cybrid narrates the entire story. His sections aren’t bad, but the method in which he sees what is happening elsewhere in the world comes across as contrived and overly convenient.

Sticking with the theme of poetry, I enjoyed the way that Simmons’s integrated his knowledge of the romantic poets into his story, while generally avoiding coming off as too pretentious, but it brings up a question. Does the history of poetry in Simmons’s world have a gap with absolutely no works of note between Keats and Silenus, because every single piece of quoted poetry is either brand spankin’ new or written by Keats and his contemporaries.

None of these problems, however, are anything even approaching crippling. Fall of Hyperion can almost be compared to the fusion of a lamp, an ipod speaker, and a bicycle. The light is dimmer, the sound quality is worse, and the bicycle doesn’t go as fast, but the combination is far more interesting together than the three objects are apart…or, at least, it would be if that wasn’t such a god awful example. The success of Fall comes not from the individual triumphs of its elements, but from the stunning depth of theme and characterization, and the epic scale that it displays.

The story’s scope is so vast that all the human characters feel insignificant when held up against it:

I am merely a poet dying far from home.

The story arcs of the new Keats cybrid and Meina Gladstone are almost complete opposites. Gladstone’s story is about a woman – a leader of worlds, yes, but still just a single person – rising up to face insurmountable odds and do what she can to safeguard humanity. Keats’s story, on the other hand, is the tale of a man literally lost amidst the turmoil around him, a conduit to repeat the world shattering decisions that are too large for him to alter, gradually coming to the realization that he’s not a true player.

The Hyperion pilgrims don’t go through any major character revelations, but they don’t need to; they have all been perfectly set up in Hyperion. Some of them, like Fedmahn Kassad, stride forward and meet their promise brilliantly. Others, like the aforementioned Martin Silenus, don’t quite do the same. One of the most interesting aspects of the first novel was Sol’s pondering of the Abraham question. The answer presented here is satisfactory from a narrative perspective, though I wish that it could have been deeper from a broader point of view. Of course, there I’m being unfair. The questions raised by Sol in Hyperion are ones that I’ve personally debated since long before I read Simmons’s take, and I suppose that I can’t expect Simmons to neatly wrap up age old questions for me.

Fall of Hyperion is anything but a perfect ride. It tries to exist on a level that few SF authors have ever even attempted, and the fact that it occasionally fails to get there certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t a successful work. If you’ve read Hyperion, there’s no reason at all to not continue…just don’t expect to be wowed quite as much.

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