[I wrote this journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I had finished writing about the current one, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]
4 October 2016
Parts 1 and 2
I wasn’t expecting The Canterbury Tales in space, with most of the novel so far being taken up by the stories told by two of seven ‘pilgrims’. Simmons wants us to notice what he’s done here – he has one of the travellers, a poet, quote from Chaucer’s Prologue – and it’s only one of many literary references. Hyperion itself, a planet a long way from anywhere, got its name from a poem about the Titan of that name, and the capital city is named after Keats, the man who left the poem unfinished. It’s becoming clear that there’s a lot of unfinished business on Hyperion.
There’s an interplanetary war about to kick off, and the only way to do anything about it seems to involve something very weird on Hyperion. The weirdness comes up big-time in the stories – which, unlike in Chaucer’s tales, are not the tellers’ verbatim accounts. After they have drawn lots – at least three of the seven can’t believe the main character is asking them to do this – mostly what we get is a conventional third-person version of their stories. What the Consul wants all of them to share is the back-stories that made them accept the Galaxy President’s urgent invitation to return to this far-flung planet. In the first, The Priest’s Tale – no comment – most of the narrative really is a verbatim first-person account, but somebody else’s. Simmons, a former teacher of literature and literacy, is interested in how stories are told, and maybe I’ll come back to that…. And it’s in this first tale that we soon realise that this isn’t science fiction as we know it. At the heart of it is a crisis of faith and the mind-boggling self-sacrifice, literally, of the man whose journal we are reading.
I should rewind, because linking together the portmanteau structure of the pilgrims’ tales there’s the framing time-line, again told in the third person, of the main character. We don’t know what makes him more special than the other six, but when we’re not inside one of the tales were focusing on the troubled consciousness of this man who used to be somebody. He, as we’re told in the first sentence of the novel, is the ‘Hegemony Consul.’ This must now only be an honorary title, because he hasn’t had any formal duties to perform for a while now. He seems to live alone, the ‘only sentient being’ on a planet whose exotic fauna hasn’t evolved very far yet, playing his centuries-old Steinway and drinking too much whiskey. If it’s exile, it seems to be self-imposed, and when the call comes to do his interplanetary duty in this time of crisis, he accepts.
And we’re off and away into a conventional enough science fiction universe of interstellar travel between terraformed, colonised worlds, a core government (the Hegemony) and take-it-or-leave-it physics. There’s little that’s futuristic about the sociology: despite eight centuries of unimaginable social changes – ‘Old Earth’ has been completely destroyed, it seems – everything about the way the main characters present themselves and interact is late 20th Century. More specifically, we’re in a distant future in which, basically, attitudes familiar to any American living today are still the norm…. But that’s often the case. I’m always disappointed when an author transforms science beyond recognition, but people are still, all too literally, just like you and me.
It means that gender equality is no more the norm in the 28th Century than it is now. Or than it was in the 14th: one in seven of Chaucer’s pilgrims is female – exactly the same as in Hyperion. And the one woman on board hasn’t got where she is by being womanly. She might be sexy enough for the Consul to feel a stirring – I can’t remember if that’s the word used to describe it – but she’s clearly smashed her way through the glass ceilings of this fantasy future through sheer brute force. When a group of loudmouths has to be ejected from a bar in the city of Keats, bursting at the seams with an influx of people who have desperately made their way to the space-port, guess who’s the one who volunteers to help the owner throw them in the river.
But I need to tell you the stories. Father Hoyt is a young man who looks as though he’s been through hell. A few years ago, he had escorted an older priest who had decided to seek out and study a possibly mythical lost community, descendants of crash survivors on Hyperion. This is Father Duré, recently discredited for falsifying evidence that made it seem that Christianity on a different planet pre-dated that on Earth. It had been a vain bid to re-boot his own faith and re-establish the Church as a force. (If that sounds far-fetched, Simmons has his reasons.) After they part and Father Hoyt returns to Planet Catholic, or whatever it’s called, we get extracts from the older priest’s journal. He discovers the tribe, but they seem weirdly affectless, and all aged around thirty, give or take ten years. They have routinely killed his guide, but not him – because, to paraphrase, he is of the cross. (His translation software calls it cruciform.) He’s certainly wearing a cross, and he wonders if they could have developed into a very weird Christian sect…. But even if that’s the case, how have they kept their population stable at exactly 70 – three score and ten, as they inevitably call it – for four centuries? Why are there no babies or children? What happens when they die? This is like no other community anywhere in the galaxy.
To cut to the chase: they are being regenerated by a magic machine. Despite the exotic flora of the planet – the trees erupt like volcanoes – and the nod towards plausible-sounding physics to explain how humanity can simply hop around a big section of the galaxy, Simmons is not really interested in the science fiction elements. He’s into the Big Questions, and if scientific, or narrative, or any other kind of plausibility has to be sacrificed, so be it. I was reminded both of Discworld and Hogwarts at the same time – but this is the Hyperion universe, and we have to take it or leave it.
Father Duré discovers that a few hundred metres below the miles-deep cliff they are settled on, reachable by ladders of connecting vines, there is an ancient underground cathedral-like space. It’s impossibly huge and, judging by the wear on the steps nearby, impossibly ancient. And the central, bejewelled icon, lit by the setting sun is – guess. Alleluia. He scrambles back up, determined to brave the volcanic trees and the electrical turmoil that attends their noisy germination in order to share his discovery with the galaxy – but he’s out of luck. One of the tribe sees him stripped to the waist and they realise he isn’t one of them after all. He’s within a hair’s breadth of receiving the ‘true death’ treatment but persuades them to let him live. However, they ritually burn almost all his equipment and all the evidence he’s gathered so far, and he wonders who in the galaxy will ever believe him now after he cried wolf the first time? (The subtitle of this chapter is The Man Who Cried God. Ah.)
There’s another price to be paid for survival: the tribe are going to have to make him properly of the true cross. And they escort him on the day-long descent into the ‘Cleft’. By coincidence – don’t even begin to count those – erosion has revealed one of the underground labyrinths that honeycomb Hyperion and a few other planets in the galaxy. These are of unknown ancient origin (three-quarters of a million years is mentioned) and consist of hundreds of thousands of miles of perfectly square, smooth-sided tunnels thirty metres wide and thirty metres high. Whoever would credit it? And guess what? – I really must stop saying that – somehow embedded in the sides are faintly glowing cruciform objects. They look mineral but seem warm, and when one is placed on to Duré’s chest – I can’t remember the details of how this happens – it sticks there. It becomes even more a part of his body than Iron Man’s magic miniature nuclear plant becomes a part of Tony Stark. It becomes a part of the organism, and cannot ever be removed.
It gets worse. When one of the tribe is killed in a foraging accident, Duré witnesses how, inside the cathedral, the body is regenerated. It takes weeks, but the man – if it is a man – emerges better than new. He seems about 20, having been older than that when he died. And later, now that he’s truly of the cross, Duré is allowed to see what’s underneath the sack-like shift they all wear: they have no sex organs. Aargh. As the cross-thing works on his own internal biology he is terrified that he will become like all the others, completely taken over in body and mind. His attempts to leave lead to another discovery: the cross that is now a part of him is a built-in pain-generator. If he goes more than a mile or two from the settlement, the pain is enough to make him black out. His desperate attempt to cut the thing out nearly kills him.
What is he going to do? And how can he convey the truth of what he has seen when all he has left is his hand-written journal? Answer: using some lightning-conductor rods the tribe hadn’t destroyed when they first discovered him and his guide, he braves the almost intolerable pain and leaves anyway. Father Hoyt, who has been reading the journal to the others, tells them that his charred remains were later discovered, and the journals saved from burning in the convenient pouch made from the local ‘bestos’ leaves. The end.
Nope, thinks the Consul, who smells a rat. Luckily – again – he is presented with the opportunity to find out the real ending. The priest hasn’t appeared with the rest of them as they prepare to land on Hyperion, and the Consul finds him in his quarters, gasping with pain: his syringe of some futuristic morphine derivative has malfunctioned, and the Consul won’t help him until he confesses the truth. It turns out that Duré didn’t die, but crucified himself, using the lightning-rods as nails. And, in the seven years he had hung there – it’s only a few weeks for Father Hoyt, but there’s a ‘time debt’ when you travel to the farthest-flung planets – the cross had kept him alive. He’s a charred, corpse-like husk, but sentient – and still capable of feeling pain. Seven years! thinks the young priest – Our Lord only suffered through the daylight hours of one day – but the old man had known that this was the only way to get the truth out. Hoyt took the cross from him, so he could die – but, somehow, managed to get it struck to himself. Hence the need for industrial-strength morphine.
Meanwhile, back on the planet…. The near-outlaws who had conducted the hunt destroyed the tribe and, accidentally, the cliff containing the cathedral-like structure. Oh, and the resulting landslide has covered the entrance to the labyrinths.
I realise I’ve forgotten to mention the other Big Thing: in the labyrinth, Duré had been enfolded in the four cruel-looking arms of the Shrike. This is a near-mythical creature with its own cult on the planet, that is a cross between Alien, Predator and one of the nail-encrusted machines from Robot Wars. Holding humans in thrall seems to be a big thing with the Shrike, because when it sees that this human has been fixed up, it unfolds its arms from around him and leaves him alone. It’s pretty clear from the look in its non-human non-eyes that if he hadn’t been, he would have been toast much sooner. (One of the creature’s powers is to be able to move from one place to another in literally no time at all: it disappears, and appears somewhere else just like that. (File that away for later.)
Before we come to The Soldier’s Tale, there are a couple of other things I’d forgotten to mention. One of the seven – the Consul doesn’t know which, unless Simmons is bluffing us and it’s the Consul himself – is an ‘Ouster’ spy. These are a race of interstellar psychopaths with a grudge, the descendants of some of the earliest settlers who have never liked what the Hegemony is up to. For centuries they seemed to be a backward lot, but it became clear not many years ago that they’ve come a very long way. If they can get hold of the Hegemony’s ‘farcast’ technology – wormhole or stargate-type portals that allow instantaneous travel anywhere within the central core – then we’ll all be in trouble. And they’re focusing their attention – don’t ask me why – on Hyperion. Maybe it’s because the planet is relatively defenceless. Or does it have something to do with the Shrike and its mind-bending powers? I’ll come back to that, because the ‘soldier’ does.
We’re on a river journey now, as the ‘pilgrims’ travel to where the Shrike’s power-base apparently really does exist. The journey feels like something from Conrad – Heart of Darkness is never mentioned, but this river somewhere thousands of light-years away sounds like the Congo to me. The boat is an exotic, levitating craft from Old Earth, but on this planet with no magnetic field it’s just a boat. The Time Tombs are mentioned, as is the fate of previous pilgrims who have tried to visit. Nobody ever survives to describe what they have seen, and when a massive force was sent for a reason that seemed urgent at the time, nobody returned.
The soldier is a mixture of prodigious heroism and disturbing street-fighter tendencies. He is Colonel Kassad, a Muslim and former gang member – because, of course, it was the only way he could survive – from a downtrodden Palestinian community on Mars. Take it or leave it, that’s what he’s telling us – and he had probably been heading for jail or death until, after a few happy strokes of fortune, he’s given a chance as an officer cadet. Early in his story, we’re with him inside what seems to be the Star Trek holodeck on steroids. He’s at the Battle of Agincourt, and Simmons’ description of how Henry’s ragged army beat the French is well done. But, in a wood that he later discovers is not actually part of the simulation, he is saved from death by a soldier who turns out to be a woman. The sex they have after finishing off the French cavalryman is… memorable.
But he never finds the woman in reality. She’s clearly not a 15th Century peasant, so he assumes she must be another participant in the simulation – so why can’t he ever find her? She makes fairly regular, deeply satisfying appearances in other battle simulations, but only ever there. (The tale is subtitled The War Lovers.) It’s like he dreamed her….
But I need to fast forward – not that his story does – through the remarkable feats of maverick generalship he manages in his career. After routine heroism and quick promotions, he finds himself having to save a whole planet from Jihadists, which he does by blending his guerrilla mentality with some magic science. He uses some satellite technology to pinpoint and boil the brains of the thousands of Jihadists, including that of the leader whose head explodes on live TV. You couldn’t make it up. Later he’s facing some properly tough opponents, the mad Ousters in their military exoskeletons that make them almost invulnerable. Almost, but not quite. He foils their fiendish plot, but is so badly injured he has to be repaired on a relatively slow-moving hospital ship making its way, for some reason, to Hyperion. And wouldn’t you believe it? Literally minutes after he’s properly woken from his long-term ‘fugue’, just about everybody on board is killed in an Ouster attack that almost tears the ship apart. But not quite. One person survives – guess who – and, after a series of ever more implausible escapes he finds himself trying to pilot an Ouster attack vehicle with its totally foreign technology. Luckily, the ship was within plummeting-distance of the planet when the attack took place, and before you know it he finds himself on Hyperion.
Guess who’s there when he wakes up. Yes, she is real and, no doubt – I forget – they have some deeply satisfying sex for old time’s sake. But then it’s down to business, because sex and fighting are never far apart in this particular tale. They are near the Time Tombs, and there are Ousters there, preparing to do some nefarious business. Luckily… luckily what? Reality goes on holiday for a while, as the woman – does he want to call her Mnemosyne, or the more user-friendly Moneta? – shows him how, naked but gilded with some magic shiny stuff, they can become gods. (It’s a re-imagining of the Greek myth of the Titans and their struggle against the Olympians, during which Mnemosyne grants Hyperion god status. I told you Simmons likes his literary references. She’s the goddess of memory, in case you’d forgotten.)
The Ousters have no chance, and although Kassad likes being able to manipulate the flow of time – the sight of the near-motionless enemy is straight out of an H G Wells story I remember – he doesn’t think he really enjoys shooting fish in a barrel like this. But he gets over it, does what he has to do… and realises, as he talks to his dream-woman afterwards, that her appearance in all those simulations was some kind of memory of the future. The Time Tombs really do mess about with your head as much as they mess with time…. The Shrike is side-by-side with him and the woman as they fight, master-minding all this cleverness, so it seems that it doesn’t like the Ousters either. And maybe this is when we remember that the pilgrims are headed that way as Kassad tells his story. Ah.
A couple of last things, to do with the Consul’s back-story, that we discover in the framing time-line. As he lifts the unconscious Father Hoyt, almost wasted away by his suffering, he remembers what it was like to carry a son. Ok. And when they first arrive on Hyperion, the present Consul greets them. He used to be our Consul’s assistant but is now in complete charge, having become a reluctant dictator during the state of emergency he’s had to call. He almost pleads with our man to give up his quest and come back to his old job, because there will never be anyone else so good at it… but no. The seven have a new job to do, saving the galaxy, and he can’t be dropping out of it now.
Parts 3 and 4
This is more sophisticated writing than I had realised, and more ambitious. It’s easy for an occasional reader of science fiction like me to make clever remarks about how limited I’m finding it, but Simmons wants to push things much further than most. Ok, the literary references are still a little grating at times, but Simmons keeps adding new things to the mix. And I’m impressed by the pacing of the gradual revelation of new information. By the end of Part 2 the Time Tombs sound like a legend from the Indiana Jones franchise. By the end of Part 4 they are becoming more real, and very dangerous. And there’s another thing. As I read Part 3, The Poet’s Tale, I began to wonder whether I should have been treating the whole thing as a satire. The properly first-person narrative of Silenus the poet takes us to a universe that Douglas Adams would have found very familiar. And no, we’re not expected to believe any of this stuff. It’s a story, and if there’s one thing this poet likes it’s a story. Part 4 is based on a different conceit, the Benjamin Button effect, and I’ll come back to that. I’ll come back to both of them…
…because it’s time to catch up with what’s going on in the framing time-line. By the beginning of Part 2 the seven had got as far as Hyperion on the tree-ship captained by one of them. (Whoever said a starship had to be made of metals and plastics?) I’ve mentioned that once on the planet, the current consul wants our Consul to come back to his old job, but not that the Shrike cathedral in Keats has been destroyed. I don’t think it’s clear who has done this – there might have been some talk about it, and my money’s on the Ousters – but years of time-debt have passed since the Consul was last there, and everything seems to be on a knife-edge. There’s something comforting about the ‘just in the nick of time’ set-up that Simmons is going for: another few weeks or even days, and who knows what would have happened…?
And other aspects of Hyperion culture are touched on, often in order to be expanded in the stories. Who is Sad King Billy? Why all the Keats references? It sounds like the vanity project of a minor German monarch of the 19th Century – a community of poets in their own private enclave – and it turns out to be a futuristic version of exactly that, when Silenus gives us the whole sorry story in his tale. (He was there, and is only still around because of long periods of time-indebting travels.) As they continue on their journey to the Time Tombs, leaving behind a city almost in social meltdown, centuries-old routes and way-stations are either under threat or have been destroyed. By the time we reach the end of Part 4, the travellers are on a land-galleon crossing an ocean of tall grasses, and they are grateful that its sails are trimmed and its steering adjusted completely automatically. They don’t even need the androids, banned here for centuries (perhaps they’ve been banned throughout the galaxy), which had helped them on the fancy river barge.
So, The Poet’s Tale. He was born on Old Earth, centuries ago – Simmons loves to play games with the time-debt conventions he has put in place – an indulged, self-indulgent rich kid who thought he could write. But Earth is dying, about to implode into self-generated black holes that Mankind has somehow managed to generate deep inside its core. (Don’t ask. I’m not even sure that Simmons tells us.) His mother’s cunning plan is to invest money for him, then send him at sub-light speeds to some planet far away, where so much time will have passed he will be rich beyond the dreams of whoever stands in for Croesus in this universe. Unfortunately… two things. All financial assets on Earth are liquidated at the same time as the planet – Silenus is as pleased with this joke as he is with all his own jokes – so the confused lad is a pauper when he arrives on a planet whose squalor he gleefully describes. Worse, too long spent in a state of cryogenic fugue, poorly managed on the mining ship he was travelling on, has left him brain-damaged. It takes him months even to learn to speak nine words, which he lists. I think the least offensive of them is ‘shit.’
So, while labouring for little or no pay in foul conditions… he uses his limited vocabulary to write poetry. (Yes, I know.) Slowly, thanks to the miracle that is his own brain – Silenus loves his own brain as much as the rest of himself – he learns to speak again. And now he really is a poet, having learnt to put his thoughts in order before he had the words. Or something like that – as I said, we aren’t obliged to believe anything he tells us. He writes a masterpiece – what else would it be? – about the death of Old Earth, and it becomes a galaxy-wide mega-bestseller. Yes, really. His editor, a fashion-conscious woman definitely out of Douglas Adams – her hair and outfits reach new heights of bizarre extravagance every time he goes to see her – tells him it’s the John Bunyan effect: everybody has to have a copy, even if they never read it. It sells in the billions and makes him a whole lot richer than his mother’s investment plans ever would.
But what Silenus hadn’t realised at first is that if the editor hadn’t heavily cut and re-ordered the memorable verses of his epic, it would never have sold. (She is proved right when he tries to publish an unedited sequel later in his story.) And she gets him on to a treadmill of writing a novel series that runs to something like ten volumes. He hates every word of it, but his mind-bogglingly extravagant lifestyle and expensive divorces use up even the millions he earns. I already said we don’t have to believe any of it, and we’re into a not terribly clever satire of the publishing industry. Silenus delivers what is going to be the last volume, sells up his farcaster-linked property – every room on a different planet, linked by the magic portals – and leaves the publishing house free of debt.
Is this when he becomes King Billy’s poet in residence? There are hundreds of other poets and artists that the king keeps near him on his mineral-rich planet – he has an almost inexhaustible income, it seems – but Silenus, inevitably, becomes the favourite. And they move to Hyperion. Ah. Keats, the new city of poets, never really works as the king would have hoped, and soon Silenus throws himself into debauchery. He even has his own lower body genetically altered to that of a satyr, another satirical tweak: he’s come to personify the composite fantasy of every womanising poet in 20th Century America. But nothing lasts forever, and his ‘muse’ leaves him. He can’t write another thing – until, mysteriously, gruesome murders begin to happen. Suddenly he can write again, and he becomes a suspect. But no: amateur video footage reveals the murdering creature to be – guess. It isn’t caught in detail, but the reader at least recognises the Shrike, impaling its victims on all those nasty spikes. Maybe it doesn’t like the form of corruption it perceives pervading its sector of the planet….
I’ve had enough of the poet’s story. Silenus has his legs and other parts re-humanised and is out of there. He never gets his muse back, not properly, but we can start to see his motive for returning. From the start, he’s been presented as a cynical, foul-mouthed old lecher, but he’s clearly hoping to find something on Hyperion that he lost a long time ago…. And the travellers disembark from the river-boat at a landing-station where almost everything has gone or been destroyed. The land-galleon isn’t there waiting, and they wonder if the journey will end here – they couldn’t possibly cross the ocean of grass without a vessel. But it arrives, late, and we can get down to listening to The Scholar’s Tale.
The ’Scholar’ is the pilgrim introduced in Part 1, in Dan Simmons’ trademark knowing style, as the ‘Wandering Jew’. He is Sol Weintraub, and his wanderings might have something to do with Rachel, the tiny infant he carries everywhere. This comes to seem ever more likely long before we get to his story – why would you take a baby to the most dangerous place in the galaxy if she wasn’t the reason for going? As a young man, Sol moves from Planet Jewish to Planet University, meets his future wife, can’t have children for ages, then they have a wonderful daughter. (This is decades ago.) As soon as it is made clear that the girl – you will have guessed her name – wants to become an archaeologist when she grows up you don’t have to be a genius to guess the truth. When, after graduating, she goes to Hyperion to study the Time Tombs (time-debt four years each way, in case you were wondering), we get it. Sure enough, while her father has terrible dreams of being told by a booming, disembodied voice to sacrifice his daughter as Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac, she has a terrible, almost indescribable experience there. (It’s a good job we’re back to third person narrative by now, as there’s no way anybody but Rachel herself could tell it and, as we soon find out, she can’t.)
The baby is her, living her life backwards. That’s why Sol is going to the Time Tombs, to try to get things moving in the right direction for her again. She won’t survive beyond being a new-born in a very few weeks’ time – so Simmons is using that ‘last minute’ trope again. The clock really is clicking for Sol and his daughter – what are the chances that an opportunity to return her to the seat of all her woes should arise in the nick of time like this? – but Simmons’s painstakingly careful imagining of the heart-rending realities of looking after a daughter from full adulthood to infancy is a novella in itself.
Simmons makes use of a science fiction variant of the real-life ‘anterograde amnesia’ syndrome, the one in which any memory of recent events is erased by sleep. Rachel never knows she is getting younger – and Simmons glosses over the science that gives her the psychological condition that has become a trope. (We might recognise it from Christopher Nolan’s Memento and S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, which came later – but I bet Simmons wasn’t the first writer to use it.) With Rachel, there’s the additional wild card that when she reaches, say, six years and 123 days of age, she wakes up expecting that day all over again, remembering the day when she was six years and 122 days as if it was yesterday. Her parents hide the truth with ever more elaborate subterfuges, so she thinks she is separated from her childhood home and friends temporarily, accepting this fiction anew very day. Things are made only harder when the media get hold of her story. Attempts to escape from the 28th Century equivalent of tabloid journalists on the doorstep – identical to those in our own century, in case you’re wondering – lead to the start of their wanderings. Later, after his wife’s death, he vainly seeks somebody, anybody, who can save his daughter. Among the first he seeks help from is the Shrike Church. Hah. They treat him and his daughter as unclean monsters. Maybe he imagines the Shrike will be more forgiving.
Enough – four tales down, two to go, I guess. Not three – I forgot to mention a not unimportant plot development concerning the disappearance of one of the pilgrims while on the land-ship. It’s the captain of the tree-ship, a member of the ‘Templar’ population in the Hyperion universe, and he’s simply gone. There’s a lot of blood in his cabin, but no sign of a body so… has he simply been tossed over the side or, as some of the party speculate, is that what he wants them to believe? If so, he’s probably the spy, just biding his time before getting rid of all of them. Presumably he – or whoever really is the spy – would have done it long ago if the others didn’t hold important keys to the enigma they are facing.
Parts 5 and 6 – to the end…
…not that it really is the end, of course – but I have my doubts about whether I’ll read the next instalment. Some time back I said I’d had enough of the poet’s story. Now I feel I’ve had enough of all their stories, and I’ve had enough of Dan Simmons. Don’t get me wrong – he’s very, very good at what he does, and I’m not a bit surprised that he has a huge fan-base, complete with galleries of artwork lovingly depicting the tree-ship and the Shrike. He creates an appealing universe in which people like us – that is, us in the affluent West – move around in a glamorous future in which almost nothing is beyond Mankind. However. I’ve already suggested that my take on this novel is that it’s a satire, utilising the tropes of current science fiction in order to almost ridicule them. Almost…
…but despite the surprise twist near the end of the Consul’s story, I’m not convinced that Simmons is successfully subverting the universe-creating norms of science fiction near the end of the 20th Century. For me, he enjoys them too much for the satire to work. A spaceship grown organically from a giant tree? A monster from the future – and no, I’m not making up the time-travel detail – that could have been created by a Hollywood design committee? Now, in these last two sections, you get a kind of gizmo inflation. Quite soon, the reader is as blasé as when reading Harry Potter or some other fantasy about the magical way that stuff just happens. You want a magic carpet? You got it. You want a face-hugging mask that lets you breathe underwater? Instant translation of dolphin-talk? A dogfight in space, just above the characters’ heads, that goes on for hour after glittering hour? You got it all, and a whole load of other stuff. Earlier, I described the Shrike as a cross between Alien, Predator and one of the nail-encrusted machines from Robot Wars…
…and suddenly, Simmons seems to want us to realise that he’s only kidding. We discover in these sections that the Shrike represents an image of everything fearful to humans and that it appears to have been designed by a future civilisation to be just that. They’ve sent back a bogey-man. But Simmons, as besotted as any other fan by the allure of the possibilities of science fiction tropes, has made this creation the guardian of a cosmic time-toy. One thing that had been very well established by the late 1980s is the fun to be had with time-travel. The first Terminator kick-started the mania, at least in mainstream science fiction, in 1984. Back to the Future arrived the following year, pre-dating both Hyperion and the first Bill and Ted adventure by four years. The Shrike definitely owes most to Terminator.
The final two stories have made this scenario, of a terrifying agent sent from the future, a near-certainty – but there’s a question as to whether it is working for a future AI hegemony wishing to rid the galaxy of troublesome mankind, or by descendants of the Ousters, far more civilised and open to new ideas than the Hegemony has ever given them credit for, wishing to put an end to mankind’s destruction of one planetary eco-system after another. In one scenario, humanity has outlived its usefulness. In the other, a Terminator is needed to end an empire that has systematically ruined a hundred planets and more, and brought about countless mass extinctions of indigenous life along the way.
This is the twist that I was talking about. It isn’t merely a plot-twist, although it does include the revelation that the Consul is anti-Hegemony for reasons ultimately to do with its colonising practices over centuries. The satirical sucker-punch is that if we’ve been sceptical about the future that Simmons has created, finding it as crass as all the other science fiction universes we know so well, it’s because it’s supposed to seem crass. All that the Hegemony has created, all that it stands for, is revealed as an unimaginative and arrogant recreation of Humanity’s colonising instincts of the past. The target of the satire, I now realise, must be the 20th Century world. Simmons’s future universe is a projection of the worst aspects of our own, in particular the imperialist agendas of the West. He has chosen a glamorously futuristic, science fiction world – but the glamour is skin-deep, hiding a rottenness at the core of the hegemony that triumphed five centuries previously. The losing side, biding its time and developing its own agendas, is now ready to put things right.
Of course, this is just one version. It comes to us largely via the Consul’s story which, like the priest’s, contains within it another man’s first-person narrative. (We don’t even realise at first that the recorded voice we’re listening to isn’t that of the Consul himself. I’ll come back to that.) Before this we get the story told by the only woman on the so-called pilgrimage – and, as in most of them, we see Simmons playing games with the storytelling form. If the poet wore his satirical purpose on his sleeve (if, in fact, that really was what he was doing), Brawne Lamia seems to take her investigative duties very seriously indeed. It’s Simmons who’s having the fun now, having his butch heroine tell her story as a pastiche of a noir thriller by Raymond Chandler. (He’s had fun with her name from the start. I’ll leave aside Brawne for the moment, but Lamia? If he’s going to choose a Keats heroine, why one who’s a doomed serpent-woman – based on a monster from Greek mythology?)
We’re in The Detective’s Tale and, aside from the knowing reversal of the usual gender stereotypes, the arrival of the ‘beautiful’ young man in her office is classic Philip Marlowe. The narrative that follows is as dense as anything that has come before, and I’m not even going to try to describe the convolutions we are taken through. There’s the McGuffin, which is to do with the young man’s own murder, the one he has come to report. And there’s the bigger story that this uncovers, going literally to the top of the Hegemony hierarchy. It’s lucky that the President has been a friend of our brave detective’s family forever, so our detective can get the lowdown from the highest possible source – on a hidden planet with a secret farcaster portal so nobody knows anything of their conversation. (The proliferation of farcasters in this tale is part of the gizmo inflation I was talking about. Lamia – or should I call her Brawne? – passes through dozens in a single chase, before climbing on to a magic carpet that Simmons has punningly named a hawking mat.)
I’ve had enough of writing about it. The beautiful young man is a ‘cybrid’, an experimental being created in order to discover if the poet Keats had some kind of transcendental (and trans-chronological) link to the creators of the Time Tombs. Lamia and he have as much high-octane sex as Colonel Hassad with his time-lover all those pages back, and she chases the bad guys through dozens of portals on dozens of tourist-themed planets before she kills several of them and manages to get the cybrid killed too. This is after he’s done the equivalent thing to Superman in the second of the Christopher Reeve movie franchise (1980), the one where he sacrifices all his superpowers in order to truly find himself. He’s as close to being Keats as it’s possible to be – I told you Simmons’s universe was as fantastical as the one in Harry Potter – and, somehow, he’s able to transfer not only the essence of Keats into Lamia before he dies, but a great vision of the AI universe he had been able to connect to pre-transformation. This is the one that makes our 21st Century cyberspace seem like an infant’s first attempts to crawl, and it’s the basis of AI power: these beings, or entities, share every last nook and cranny of their knowledge and consciousness with one another…. I forget for a moment what reason has been put forward for their decision to exist in parallel with pathetic humanity for so long. Oh, and before I forget something else: that mind-expanding universe of information and the undying essence of Keats aren’t the only things that the cybrid has transferred into Lamia. She’s going to have his baby.
As for The Consul’s Tale…. We get a not very futuristic audio-chip telling us a Romeo and Juliet tale, complete with Mercutio and Tybalt, of forbidden love. The speaker is a ‘shipman’ – I bet the working title of the story made a nod to Chaucer’s Shipman before Simmons remembered that the Consul isn’t actually the teller of that part – and he’s working on the tech that will get a reluctant planet, famously remote and beautiful, farcaster-linked to the Hegemony and all its horrors. Alongside the R&J thread, Simmons makes the most of the time game he’s kick-started at the beginning of the tale. The shipman, like Romeo, is exiled, and can only see his lover for short ‘reunions’. The joke this time is the opposite of that in The Scholar’s Tale: instead of growing younger, this time the woman ages by eight years every time he goes back to the planet. For him, only two or three years pass. Meanwhile she ages from 16 to being in her 70s – and soon the sons he’s had with her are older than he is. They are all in a political group that is deeply unhappy with the idea of having the Hegemony forced on them, and one of them is killed in an insurrection.
Can you see where this is going? For Hegemony read USA, and for Maui-Covenant, the planet involved, read any of the autonomous states destabilised through the actions of the CIA in the 20th Century. In the end, the Hegemony sends in the big boys to stifle all opposition, and the shipman’s sons are both killed. Maui-Covenant, in the decades following – the Consul is his grandson – has become as ruined as any once idyllic tourist destination on 20th Century Earth. You can see why the Consul might have a bone to pick with the Hegemony, and he has spent time with the Ousters in order to decide a plan of action. It seems, not unpredictably, that he is our double-agent. (There might be others, of course.)
And that’s as much as I want to write about this book. All six remaining pilgrims continue on their way through the picturesque landscape, spending a night at a theme-park version of Gormenghast. It had been a tourist venture, not far from the Time Tombs, that failed as soon as it started when the pilgrims started getting skewered. Now, many of its rooms are covered in blood that has only recently dried. Ok. And before their night in the castle, they had seen a figure looking suspiciously like the ‘Templar’ captain, the one they thought must be dead, striding towards the Tombs. (Inconveniently, all the clever tech that would have been able to identify him easily is unavailable on this remote part of an even more remote planet.) They each have their reasons for going, and some of them have special totems or amulets – the cruciform, the baby, the two-part essence of Keats – and special knowledge that just might save them from the Shrike’s spiky gibbet-tree. They even have a magic box, left behind by the Templar captain when he disappeared from the wind-ship. Nobody knows what power resides in there, but it’s definitely something worth having….
And that’s it. Now, do I wait a while until I can gather the energy to read the next part? Do I read a summary instead, because I really don’t have the time for this? Or do I just leave it there?
If I ever do read the next instalment, I’ll let you know.