30 March 2017

Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Trade paperback, 482 pages
Published 1989

Acquired June 2006
Previously read July 2007
Reread November 2014
Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Is Hyperion a novel? These are the kind of questions I irritated my Modern Novel class with. There are two potential objections you can make, I think. The first is that it's actually a series of short stories. The second is that the story doesn't actually end: Hyperion is really only the first half of a novel that ends in The Fall of Hyperion. (These are, I guess, mutually exclusive objections.)

Yet, I would argue, Hyperion stands on its own. Fall is a vastly different book with a different focus; it picks up what was begun here, but the focus on character and genre that motivates Hyperion is gone. And Hyperion comes to a perfectly satisfying conclusion in its own way. But I'm getting ahead of myself there.

Like so many of the stories I like, Hyperion is a story about stories. Its format is self-consciously literary from the moment someone in the book actually points out that you're reading The Canterbury Tales in space (p. 25). This is brought to the forefront in chapter 3, the Poet's Tale: "Hyperion Cantos." Martin Silenus asks, "Haven’t you ever harbored the secret thought that somewhere Huck and Jim are—at this instant—poling their raft down some river just beyond our reach, so much more real are they than the shoe clerk who fitted us just a forgotten day ago?" (180-81). I suspect this is an Adam Bede reference; in that novel, the narrator complains that people identify too much with fictional characters: "It is more needful that I should have a fibre of sympathy connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar in a vilely assorted cravat and waistcoat, than with the handsomest rascal in red scarf and green feathers—more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me, or in the clergyman of my own parish [...], than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay." You'll note that for George Eliot, having more sympathy for fictional characters than for real salesmen is a negative, whereas Silenus seems to revel in it. But then, Silenus is an ass.

I doubt he would have been into Hyperion, but I think there's a sense in which Henry James agreed more with Dan Simmons than George Eliot when he wrote "The Art of the Novel." According to James, "It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a 'make believe' [...] shall be in some degree apologetic—shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to compete with life. This, of course, any sensible wide-awake story declines to do, for it quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it, disguised in the form of generosity. [...] The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life." Now, Hyperion does make that confession that James says fiction should not, but I think it does so in order to compete with life. James wanted literature to compete with history by pretending to be history: "if it [fiction] will not give itself away, [...] it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian." But for Simmons, literature wins by unabashedly being literature.

This Hyperion does. It has a profound sense of history, yet at the same time, it is conscious of its fiction. Hyperion is okay with competing with reality-- and possibly even beating reality-- because Simmons, like James, knows that we need stories to make sense of the universe: "history viewed from the inside is always a dark, digestive mess, far different from the easily recognizable cow viewed from afar by historians" (Hyperion 190). Without stories, we won't know we're in a cow, we'll only perceive a dark, digestive mess. But, on the other hand, perhaps the cow is lie, for Silenus says that words "are also pitfalls of deceit and misperception. Words bend our thinking to infinite paths of self-delusion, and the fact that we spend most of our mental lives in brain mansions built of words means that we lack the objectivity necessary to see the terrible distortion of reality which language brings" (191). This is what's happened to all the characters in Hyperion: they are all locked in the prisons of the stories they have told about themselves.

But that's the reason Hyperion spans seven different genres: because each genre supplies a different truth about the world, building up our composite picture. When the Hyperion pilgrims tell each other their tales, they are set free because they are able to see all the other possible stories. They have gone from having a cow to having seven possible explanations for the dark, digestive mass that is life.

And this is why Hyperion actually is a novel. It may be made up of seven different stories, and it may continue into a second book, but it does have a conclusion and a resolution: having told their own stories, and having heard those of the others, the Hyperion pilgrims achieve a measure of self-acceptance, and walk off into the unknown, singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." Reading it, I got the shivers. A group of broken people has achieved peace at last.

Hyperion lets us step outside of our stories and histories, remove ourselves from our prisons, by showing them to us in a new context: it lets us reevaluate faith by imagining we live in a world where faith can literally be proved, or lets us imagine what it means to be a parent sacrificing a child by imagining a world where God literally contacts someone to get him to do this, or lets us contemplate how we build God by showing us computers literally trying to build God, or lets us explore the relationship between sex and violence by giving us a being that is literally sex and violence.

At the same time, these people hear the disparate stories, and step outside their own prisons. No matter what happens in Fall, they've escaped their prisons and so have we, through the art of the novel.

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