Friday, October 09, 2009


I don't read a whole lot of science fiction these days.  That wasn't always the case.  I used to devour sci-fi.  I caught the fantasy bug, and it gradually took over.  To be sure, some of my favorite books are science fiction, but they're solidly in the soft sci-fi category... think Kurt Vonnegut, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and so on.  Books that focus on human society in the future, not technology and science.

That said, I did greatly enjoy Vernor Vinge, the first hard sci-fi author I'd read in ages.  When I was last hitting up Amazon for recommendations, I was a little surprised but curious when it offered up Hyperion.  I'd never heard of the book or the author, but the ratings were very favorable, and it seemed like a good change of pace.  I stuck it in the queue, checked it out of the library, renewed it three times while reading other stuff, and finally finished it this past week.

It's... good.  I say that with a little hesitation because I remember how much trouble I had getting into it.  That's part of the reason why I kept putting it off through three renewals while reading more directly rewarding stuff. 

It finally got going somewhere between page 100 and page 150, and once I bought into it, I enjoyed it immensely.  Hm... to be safe, let's call these


The best thing about Hyperion is its structure and style.  Rather, structures and styles.  The book as a whole is kind of a reinterpretation of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."  There are seven main characters who are on a pilgrimage together.  The pilgrimage is really more of a framing and connecting device, though.  The bulk of the text is made up of the individual stories that each character tells.  From a plot perspective, each story tells us what the character is doing and how they came to join the pilgrimage.  Stylistically, though - ah!  Each is told in the first person, occasionally with the help of journals and media recordings, also in the first person.  Because the seven characters are VERY different, each tale has a completely unique style of its own.  For example, Colonel Kassad is a hardened military man.  His story is told matter-of-factly, with short sentences, clear but unimaginative descriptions, and a very focused narrative.  Martin Silenus, on the other hand, is an insane poet.  His tale is filled with flowery words, TONS of literary and historical allusions, numerous digressions, and highly colorful metaphors.  If you just read those two stories independently, you might not realize that they were from the same book, or even from the same author.

First, let's hit the bad.  The fact that the stories are so different means that some are going to be better than others.  In particular, I hated the first one, the Priest's Tale.  It is hands-down the dullest tale of the lot, with much of the text devoted to describing how nothing is happening or how something doesn't make sense.  It kind of redeems itself with a great bit of horror at the end, but you need to suffer through a lot of drudgery to get there.  I also wasn't too impressed with the last story in the book; as with the priest's tale, the punchline is pretty great, but I found it hard to care about the bulk of the narrative.  In contrast, the Colonel's and Brawne's tales were really exciting (I especially enjoyed the noir-ish aspects of Brawne's hard-boiled detective story), the scholar's tale was sweet and touching, and Martin's was just awesome.  Not just for the allusions, of course, but the really clever way that they support his story.  It was clear that the author knows his stuff.

I'm not sure if this is a complaint with Hyperion or with modern sci-fi in general, but the biggest turn-off for me was the sheer volume of technobabble and invented place-names.  Which is weird, since this is the very thing that I praise most other books for: creating a fully-realized universe, making it internally consistent, and then just running with it, throwing the content out to the reader and trusting that they'll be able to catch up with you.  For some reason, though, it just really rubbed me the wrong way in this book.  This is a shame, because once I got into it, it really is a cool universe. 

Like most hard sci-fi and unlike the Hollywood version of it, this book actually takes the theory of general relativity into account and what kind of impact it would have on space travel.  The future of Hyperion is one where humanity has left Earth and spread out across much of our spiral arm in the Milky Way.  The central planets are known as the Web, and are where commerce and exchange flow freely.  Outer planets form the Colonies, and are more hardscrabble places that are still developing.  You might be thinking of Firefly and the rise of the Alliance, in which case, good for you!  Like Firefly, Hyperion imagines a future where class structures and factions are very much alive, and there is tension (though not war) (usually) between the haves and the have-nots.  From a technical standpoint, though, the differentiator between the Web and the Colonies is the presence of a device called a Farcaster.  As they (eventually) explain, a Farcaster is essentially a man-made wormhole, which connects the portal with every other Farcaster.  Which is cool, but you need to actually be somewhere to build a Farcaster there, and it takes a lot of special machinery and such to create it.  So the process of mankind's expansion is as follows: A ship full of people will travel from Planet A to Planet B at a very high speed (but still slower than the speed of light, of course).  Because of relativity, the people on the ship may experience (for example) that 4 years have passed during their journey, while from the perspective of Planet A and Planet B, ten years have passed from the time they left until when they arrived.  Because of this, there's an entire, rich vocabulary of time used within the book.  People talk about "ship years," "standard years," "time debt," and so on.  I found the idea of "time debt" to be most fascinating.  We encounter it several times within the stories: two people know each other, then one of them travels for a time, and when they next meet, their age difference has increased.  It greatly complicates friendships, marriage, and family relations.

So, with that as the background, you can see why farcasters are such a big deal.  They allow you to instantly travel anywhere within the Web, without requiring the accumulation of any time debt.  But, again, only the relatively wealthy have access to farcaster portals, and before a portal can be built, multiple generations of settlers must spend their lives making the hard journey to another planet, preparing it for human habitation, setting up a society, and building the portal.

OK, one final (minor) annoyance: EVERY TIME that Simmons is giving examples of something - say, artists, or philosophers, or scientists - he will first list a couple from our history, and then list a couple from our future.  And always in order.  So, for example, he might say "Napoleon, MacArthur, Ebberson, or Xevelax."  I'd be happier if he occasionally picked all examples from our own era and occasionally all examples from the future, or if he mixed them up a little.  Especially since the characters in general do not seem to have a great grasp at all of history; Martin is very educated but doesn't know who Hitler was, for example."  Anyways... more than anything, I guess this bugs me because it's one of the only tics from the author that spans multiple narrators' stories.


That's a small complaint, though.  On the whole I loved this book.  It combines interesting and believable science with some of most clever literary references that I've run across in popular fiction.  If you read just one sci-fi Chaucerian romp this year, make it Hyperion!

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