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Friday, May 25, 2007

Dan Simmons: The Hyperion novels

Over a year ago, I set forth some goals for future posts, or at least indicated where I might be going. I think I have followed through pretty well, for a lazy retired person, with two exceptions.

One of these is that I have yet to post on the best work of fiction by C. S. Lewis, namely Till We Have Faces. The other is that I have yet to post on some of the works of Dan Simmons. I'm going to try to begin to remedy the latter lack with this post.

The Hyperion novels are four books, each rather large, set in the future, and having something to do with the planet Hyperion. There is a Wikipedia article on the novels, which are Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion. Hyperion won the Nebula Award in 1990. The article has links to each novel, and, if you are interested, you can find out about the plots from these links. I will try to give away as little as possible of the plots in this post, but concentrate on other matters. Here's an article on these books, published by scifi.com.

There are three interesting features of these works, that, as an amateur (or know-nothing) I wish to comment on.

The first is that Simmons has tied his books to the English poet, John Keats, to a considerable extent. The titles of the books, and the names of some of the characters, come from Keats. One of the characters, Martin Silenus, is a poet, and Hyperion had a city of poets on it. In a sense, which I shall not give away, Keats, himself, is a character in the novels. Simmons clearly knows a lot about Keats, and admires his life, and his work.

Keats is perhaps best-known for "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a poem of five verses, ten lines each. It closes with this:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Although it isn't poetry, much of the first book is stories, as told by some of the main characters to each other.

The second aspect of these works that particularly interests me is the use of characters which exist mainly, or solely, in cyberspace. Although not unique to Simmons, I believe Simmons has carried this as far as any prominent writer of fantastic literature. Some of the most important characters in the book are of this type. In fact, Simmons has created a whole population of them, divided ideologically into groups, depending mostly on what sort of relationship they believe they should have with humans.

As with the computer on which I am currently composing this post, the computers of the Hyperion novels are critical to human existence, tied together in a vast network, and also parasites on humans. There is some resolution of the relationship between humans and cyberbeings in the novels. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Simmons was being prophetic when he wrote this, but who knows?

The third aspect I want to mention is the use of religion by Simmons. There are a number of religions mentioned, including both Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Jews, Catholics, which exist now, and new ones made up by the author, including Zen Gnostics, the Templars, and the Shrike Cult. (See, among other places, pages 199-200 of Hyperion.) Most of these play important roles in the books, and the books would have been radically different if Simmons hadn't presented the religions as serious in the lives of the people of the 2700s.

There are particular uses of crucifixion, holy communion, and resurrection -- all non-standard, but clearly recognizable -- in these books, and, again, they wouldn't have been the same books if these ideas hadn't been major features.

Here's a quote from a minor character, who was a Catholic father, and an Archaeologist:
Was it so dark a sin to interpret such ambiguous data in a way which could have meant the resurgence of Christianity in our lifetime?
Yes, it was. But not, I think, because of the sin of tampering with the data, but the deeper sin of thinking that Christianity could be saved. The Church is dying, Edouard. And not merely our beloved branch of the Holy Tree, but all of its offshoots, vestiges and cankers. The entire body of Christ is dying as surely as this poorly used body of mine, Edouard. (p. 37 of Hyperion.)

One of the characters, Sol Weintraub, is an expert on the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Here's an interchange between Sol and his daughter:
"Dad," said Rachel, "I'm going to ask you a question I've asked about a million times since I was two. Do you believe in God?"
Sol had not smiled. He had no choice but to give her the answer he had given her a million times. "I'm waiting to," he said. (p. 252 of Hyperion.)

Here's another relevant quote:
"Jesus Christ was said to be fully human," she said. "And also fully divine. Humanity and Godhead at intersection."
I was amazed at her reference to that old religion. (p. 58 of The Fall of Hyperion.)

As you might gather from the above material, it would be a serious stretch to call these Christian novels, but they do consider the claims of Christianity in fictional form. You will probably also gather that I think the series went downhill from Hyperion. However, there was a long way to go -- Hyperion is a great book. (Not perfect, of course -- I haven't quite figured out the Shrike, in spite of more than one reading of these books.)

Thanks for reading.

4 comments:

Elliot said...

Very interesting! I shall have to read Hyperion, at least.

Martin LaBar said...

I think you'll find it worth the read.

Thanks.

Tap said...

I've also been meaning to read it (eventually), but only the later books are on the shelf at the library.

You say: "As with the computer on which I am currently composing this post, the computers of the Hyperion novels are critical to human existence, tied together in a vast network, and also parasites on humans."

... but I've always* thought that a parasite is an organism that takes without giving back. If they play a vital role in human existence, I would say they are giving back.

* (Well, since high school biology anyway.)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Tap. You are right, computers aren't only parasites, even in Simmons' books. But cyber entities are anti-human, at least some of them are.