Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Chicago Nerds: Hyperion

After many nominations and near-selections, Dan Simmons' Hugo-winning "Hyperion" (1989) finally made it to the top of the Chicago Nerds' book-club list.

Structurally, "Hyperion" draws on "The Canterbury Tales" (1390ish), being composed of a frame story of a group of pilgrims travelling together, with the bulk of the novel made up of the individual stories that six of the pilgrims relate; each individual's story is told in a different style, and has a different thematic focus.

I found Hyperion a delight to re-read, as did many others at group; I think we were about evenly split between first-time readers and re-readers. It's one of those books that is a real pleasure to share and talk about. Possible spoilers below!

Paul led discussion, and moved us through the pilgrims' tales:

  • The Priest's Tale: "The Man Who Cried God"
    • The first tale is also secondhand, as pilgrim Father Hoyt actually just reads the journals of Paul Dure. We liked the format--as it feels almost non-fictional, very believable, and then slowly descends into suprisingly-effective horror. It also sets up the questions of faith and ultimate meaning that recur throughout the novel.
  • The Soldier's Tale: "The War Lovers"
    • I think we all agreed that Kassad is pretty bad-ass. This story checks the box of "military SF" pretty hard. Also I forgot how much sex there was here! At group we talked about Kassad as kind of a mirror of the Shrike, and about the conflation of sex and violence--Kassad as kind of embodying a "lust" for war that he realizes towards the end must be rejected. Those who have read the sequels struggled hard not to spoil the character of Moneta.
  • The Poet's Tale: "The Hyperion Cantos"
    • Group was split between loving and hating Silenus, for pretty much the same reasons. We all loved Silenus's house with rooms on many worlds, and the idea of this era-defining poet reduced to hackwork sequels. We also talked about Simmons' love of classics here, as the Poet's Tale touches on literature a lot. We particularly pointed out the technique of implying a larger future history by listing a few poets we know, and then a few we don't.
  • The Scholar's Tale: "The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter"
    • We didn't take a count or anything, but I think this might have been the most-loved story of the book, mostly because it was much more family and relationship-oriented. Also talked for a bit about the Abraham/Isaac story--the problems of founding all the Abrahamic religions in a story about blind obedience. We managed to not bring up the films "Memento" (Nolan, 2000) or "50 First Dates" (Segal, 2004).
  • The Detective's Tale: "The Long Good-Bye"
  • Can't help but picture
    Lillard's "Cereal Killer" from
    "Hackers" (Softley, 1995) as BB,
    the "cyberpuke" in this story.
    • The subtitle here references Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel--and the Chicago Nerds are somewhat burned on hard-boiled/noir homages after Tregillis' "Something More Than Night" (2013), and so we were happier with this story when it got away from those tropes. The brief genderswapped noir bits were fun though. Some of us loved, some of us hated the homage to Gibson-style cyperpunk smacked in the middle here, and likewise the kind of over-the-top, Paul Verhoeven-type-violence towards the end. We really liked the chase-through-many-worlds sequence, and the Shrike church architecture/costuming.
  • The Consul's Tale: "Remembering Siri"
    • By the time we were discussing the last tale, we'd covered a lot of ground. This story (sadly) feels kind of weak compared to the others, mostly because the two-part emotional punch of it is, so to speak, off-screen: both Siri's life and the revolution she pointed towards, and the deep, almost hopeless revenge being sought by her grandson. Both of those are powerful--the revolution embodying the themes of ecology and anti-globalism that occasionally surface in the book, and the Consul's deep cover and sacrifice this really richly bitter idea. But we don't see much of those, they're just the punch-line to a story of a basically clueless guy's affair.
 Other things!

It must admitted that this is half a book; it stops abruptly, and will probably leave you wanting to go out and read "Fall of Hyperion" immediately. However, neither "Fall" or the later "Endymion" books follow the frame story of "Hyperion"; despite this, those of us at group who had read them recommend them pretty strongly. Simmons continues to engage with the same handful of themes, and jumps around to very different worlds.

We really liked the world-building here, and the way he sketches out a really big, diverse world. Many world-builders work on info-dumps, and often fall too much in love with too few ideas, or make us feel like there's nothing interesting happening in the world before, after, or to the side of the protagonists. In "Hyperion", by tracing out stories in different times, places, and with different themes and focii, Simmons is able to gesture towards a much larger universe, and it's really nice to read. We did point out that there is a bit of  a "one world, one culture, one ecology" feel to a few settings--particularly the Catholic & Jewish planets.

Richard had high praise for the audiobook version, which apparently was very well cast and produced.

Talked about the distancing effect here, particularly with regards to Hitler, who isn't thought of the same way in the future. Comparisons made to how Ghengis Khan is remembered in the West vs. various Eastern views, and the Hardcore History episode about that was recommended.

We liked the "personality reconstruction" idea, particularly that the AIs kept thinking that they were screwing something up with Ezra Pound, and that's why he was insane...until figuring out that, nope, that's just really Pound. We were reminded of the historical simulations in "Accelerando" (Stross, 2005), and the re-creation of Alan Watts in "Her" (Jonze, 2013).

Talked for a bit about "The Big Mistake" that took out Earth--sort of darkly-amused by how off-handedly it's mentioned. Reminded of some other black-hole & related destruction scenarios, like Dominic Green's "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" (2005), Paul McAuley's "How We Lost the Moon" (1999), and Greg Bear's "Forge of God" (1987).

A fun discussion! There was also a good pre-discussion on The Mountain Goats & Darnielle's "Wolf in White Van" (2014), and, during book selection, an extensive discussion of both Russell's "The Sparrow" (1996) and the entire body of work of enigmatic SF master Greg Egan. We wound up selecting Carolyn Ives Gilman's new book, "Dark Orbit" (2015) for our next meeting--August 10th, same bat-time, same bat-Filter Cafe.

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