Gods, Monsters and Machines

* A note to grammatically-inclined readers: I don’t care either way about the Oxford comma. I know that makes me the equivalent of the person who goes to SeaWorld to watch the orcas instead of staging protests outside, but unlike the health and sanity of sea mammals, this is a fairly trivial issue. I never thought I would say that about grammar, but, hey, priorities. 

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons have only recently relinquished their choke hold on my personal life. On the advice of The Brother (“You what? You haven’t read that?! I thought you said you liked sci fi!“) I picked up Hyperion and found I could barely put it down.

It isn’t just Simmons’ storytelling style, although Hyperion‘s tale-within-tale structure (each character narrates his or her own story) is varied and compelling. He has an excellent grasp of horror and the ways it can insinuate itself into the realm of the mundane. It also isn’t just Simmons’ boundless imagination, which incorporates technology, war history, biology, cult behavior, the genre of terror, and relativity. It is, in fact, the plot.

The Hyperion tale is fractal, and begins simply — as simply as possible, given the initially-unexplained terms that sci-fi writers adore.  There is a pilgrimage, and several people have been chosen to go on it. But as the chapters expand and each of the pilgrims tell their tale, things become increasingly and beautifully complex. Is the creature lurking at the heart of this story a monster, a machine, or a hideously re-constructed alien/human? How were these humans chosen, and why do they embark on this pilgrimage when the creature is at its strongest? Why does time, and its direction, matter so much?

The reason I loved Hyperion is the same reason I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: threads of narratives are woven into an ingenious tapestry of a plot, and eventually things do make sense. In fact, nothing’s actually revealed in Hyperion; the story concludes in The Fall of Hyperion. Imagine my acute frustration when I realized I couldn’t find out what happened until I bought the second novel.

And then imagine my sheer joy when I found out that I could, in fact, buy an ebook version of it for the flight back home.

There are, however, a few improvements I could’ve wished for.

The “show, not tell” advice is practically a commandment, now, in mainstream English standards of literature. And Simmons — maybe in his rush to simply tell the tale, or because he felt it more expedient, or… something — loses that grip in the last chapter of Hyperion. The narrator, having crafted the background to his story in a luxurious fifty pages of material, drops the verbal/emotional/political bomb he’s carrying in the span of a paragraph. The kick was so abrupt that I had to re-read the section to fully take in the revelation. No, it wasn’t simply abrupt: it didn’t have much follow-through. Sudden events titillate; the expansion of those events cements their importance in the novel. There was something of the latter lacking here.

My second issue is difficult to talk about without giving anything away, but it lies in the trap that waits for writers, especially sci-fi authors, who aim for a tale that encompasses everything including space-time itself. The problem with that aim is also its seduction: it’s simply too large a scope. Which means that, ultimately, wanting to explain everything within the universe of his story, Simmons ended up reducing his explanation instead. Again, this revelation appears to one specific character, but it’s fairly obvious that the character is meant to be correct. That explanation needn’t have been a reduction. And the reduction was too banal to be enjoyable. In fact, Simmons actually calls it banal — and then uses it anyway.

Ultimately, here’s the thing. If you’re a fan of science fiction, read these novels. Gulp down every last page, because Dan Simmons’ vision is audacious and compelling and complex, and it’ll be worth it.

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