Although it’s set hundreds of years in the future, Hyperion spends very
little time trying to catch you up about how society has changed in the time
between today and the 29th century. That’s a specific kind of challenging: as a
reader, you’re forced to sit with ambiguity and slowly build context based on
inference. The effect is compounded in Hyperion because it’s a frame story
with a rotating cast of narrators: the perspective (along with the assumptions
about what the reader knows) is constantly shifting.
Done inexpertly, this style can be downright frustrating. More often than not,
an author’s decision to withhold information feels arbitrary and distracting.
To me, anyway. Your sensitivity to this is probably related to your level of
perfectionism. If you don’t use measuring utensils for your peanut butter and
jelly sandwich, you might not feel as threatened by this literary device. But
it’s why I got all nervous when I recognized that Hyperion was going to be
“one of those books.”
Well, I’m pleased to report to the neat freaks out there that author Dan
Simmons knows what he’s doing. If you give him a chance, you’ll find yourself
discovering details at just the right pace, never feeling too far behind, and
occasionally feeling clever for the insights you make. The learning is a
challenge, but it’s a fair challenge.
And rewarding at that. Each story is a compelling sci-fi vignette in its own
right, containing a compelling narrative and a distinctive voice. The voicing
is actually a little confusing, though. On the one hand, it’s a subtle way to
layer on more characterization. I felt empathy for Sol Weintraub’s tragic
experience as a father, and I grew to trust Brawne Lamia’s chaotic sense of
duty. On the other hand, the changes in tone don’t fully embrace the larger
narrative. Each speaker seems to be addressing you, the reader, rather than the
pilgrims who are ostensibly their audience. The difference is their level of
honesty: the characters are more transparent than one might be with a group of
strangers. At times, it almost feels like the “confessionals” in The Real
World, where people
are speaking via isolated interviews rather than in a group setting.
Interesting as the individual “tales” may be, I can’t say they stand alone.
They’re all building toward something–it’s the central conflict the pilgrims
are literally driving at. The novel itself doesn’t deliver on this. In the
final pages, it very quickly ties together a whole bunch of loose ends (almost
to the point of being disorienting), but it ends with a tremendous cliffhanger.
If I were reading in the months after the book’s publication, I’d have some
choice words for Simmons about this. He didn’t keep his readers waiting long,
though: The Fall of Hyperion was published the very next year.
I’ll certainly be reading that, but I can’t recommend Hyperion until I do.
Much as I enjoyed the novel, its value as a work of science fiction is riding
on its conclusion. Wrapping this up won’t be easy, but I have a lot of
confidence that Simmons knows what he’s doing. He’s earned that.