HYPERION by Dan Simmons: Space Opera Deluxe
I`ve been reading space opera since I was practically able to read, and before I hit puberty I was already mainlining on stuff like Tom Swift, Doc Smith and Perry Rhodan. All the furniture of it, the extravagant, powertrip technology, the drama and melodrama, the scale and sheer wild proliferation of life, science and worlds was…well, a heady mix, a conceptual blast for a young lad growing up in the post-industrial heartland of Scotland.
So, I’m currently rereading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion cantos, have finished HYPERION and am halfway through FALL OF HYPERION, and most surely it is a rich experience. But the reason that I decided to reread them was to get a close look at their structure and to get a better sense of what that structure does and whether or not it works, at least from my now-crustier perspective.
The first volume, HYPERION , has whats known as a framed narrative: the story begins with the pilgrims gathering for the journey to the planet, Hyperion, within which each character tells their own tale, and each tale presents background and elements of the greater story and enigmas. Previous examples of such a structure would include The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and One Thousand And One Nights. There are 7 pilgrims but since one of them goes missing during the journey 6 tales are related. Simmons also opted to add layers of intricacy to the framed tales as well – the 1st, The Priest’s Tale, is itself a frame for the account of Father Paul Dure, a 1st-person journal narrative, passed on by Father Lenar Hoyt (who is one of the pilgrims). Hoyt is involved with Dure’s story near the end, where his own actions are part of the tale.
The 2nd, The Warrior’s Tale, is much more straightforward, being a 3rd-person narrative from the point of view of Colonel Kassad. The 3rd, The Poet’s Tale, is a 1st-person narrative, bursting with the exuberance and vigour of the narrator, Martin Silenus (which some have said is a thinly-veiled homage to Harlan Ellison), but also a straightforward linear narrative. Likewise the 4th and 5th tales, The Scholars and Detective’s tales, until we reach the 6th, The Consul’s Tale. The Consul is the first character the reader encounters in the book and the overall frame POV is actually his, and when the Consul’s Tale begins it is in 1st person; when we get to the end, though, we find that this account has actually been a recording played back on an antique comlog by the Consul to the other pilgrims. It turns out that the Consul (who remains nameless throughout) is the grandson of the man who made the recording. After this is a short section from the point of view of the Consul himself, relating the actions he took which led up to how the book begins.
Now, laid out like this, HYPERION’s structure of framed stories and points of views seems immensely complex, yet it reads tremendously well – the prose never obstructs understanding yet it provides some wonderfully lyrical moments as well as some terrific characterisation. One viewpoint on conventional linear narrative is that that’s all it is, a convention, and that writers are free to challenge it any way that they like, which is certainly true. But the potential readership is happy with that convention; linear narrative provides a certain rational sequence of cause and effect, which we naturally apply in our attempts to understand and live in the world around us.
And yet, life in the world provides plenty of evidence that synchronicity and unintended consequences abound, which tends to tug on the notion of cause and effect. Perhaps Simmons was trying to stretch the conventions of linear narrative without actually breaking them altogether. One particular writerly axiom says that form follows function, ie one chooses the structure and techniques which will create the kind of story you want to tell, and with HYPERION I think that Simmons employed the frame device (with the additional frames in the 1st and last tales) with the intention of pegging out a truly colossal canvas, the interplanetary web of the Hegemony with all its worlds, its histories, its religions, and its characters. And he managed all that in a single, if large, volume stuffed with invention and a richness of material that many other writers would have spun out into 3 or 4 books.
Interestingly, the wikipedia entry on the 2nd book, FALL OF HYPERION, says that it uses “a more conventional chronological narrative (although several jumps in time take place)”. I would disagree; to my mind, FALL OF HYPERION is actually less conventional than HYPERION, employing shifting POVs and tenses that were not seen in the 1st book. But more on that in a later post.
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