Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hyperion (1990)

Subgenre: Science fantasy, all sorts of random ideas

I nearly stopped reading Hyperion after the first sentence:
The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.
I read that sentence, I took a look at the cover with its shiny spined badass and ship sailing over a sea of grass, and I thought - My God! I've wandered into a horrible fantasy novel!

I'm still not sure that my first blink-of-the-eye judgment was wrong - though Hyperion uses the language of science fiction, filled with spaceships, time travel and artificial intelligence, it has its giant spacefaring treeships, mystical omens, and monsters roused by poetry. What makes Hyperion work is not the analytic or speculative character of science fiction, but the sheer wonder - almost every other page, there's something new and weird.

Hyperion has the liberty to swing wildly in different directions because of its structure. The basic plot is only a frame story - seven pilgrims are on their way to Hyperion to meet with the destructive Shrike, and each tells the story that brought him or here there. Naturally, the stories end up interleaving and each one further develops the mysteries of the planet Hyperion. About 90% of the book is narrated by the seven pilgrims, each with his or her own voice and biases, and it is this voice that reinforces our understanding of the main characters, even though we rarely see them interact with each other. The unifying presence of the Shrike in all the stories, and the little allusions to Keats throughout the novel also help to orient the story and keep the characters connected.

I have two main complaints with this novel, and they're both about a surfeit of ambition. Hyperion often seems over-written, as you might guess from the Bulwer-Lytton-contending first sentence. This isn't a huge problem, but epic language is almost unnecessary, because the scope of Hyperion is truly large and the subjects honestly variegated. The second problem is that once the stories are told, there isn't much of room for anything else in the novel, letting it end somewhat abruptly. It reminds me a little of Speaker for the Dead in that, though the conclusion is satisfying on a character level, it sets up a much larger drama. I only hope that The Fall of Hyperion is a better successor than Xenocide.

Hugo-worthy: Sure - Hugo is for fantasy, too, and since Hyperion went from "Screw this" to "Well, gotta go buy the sequel now" in a pretty short period of time, I'll cut it some slack - B+.

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