Review: The Fall of Hyperion
Hyperion is great, but it’s incomplete. It ends without resolution for its frame story. That would be fine for a “loose” framing like in The Illustrated Man, but the tales in Hyperion (not to mention their narrators) are far more interrelated. I couldn’t make up my mind about that book without knowing how the story ended. For me, The Fall of Hyperion had a lot riding on it.
It would have been hard enough to deliver a satisfying conclusion if the sequel could reuse the same basic formula. This wasn’t an option, though: the tales in Hyperion explained how the characters came together, and another frame story wouldn’t have worked to describe their (mostly) shared experiences. That meant that in addition to wrapping up a whole bunch of loose ends, author Dan Simmons had to use an entirely different narrative style.
That’s easily the most jarring aspect when starting The Fall of Hyperion. The book tracks its many concurrent threads by alternating between a third-person omniscient perspective and a first-person account from a brand new character. Pacing is far more important in this format. While Simmons occasionally falters (the climax of Sol Weintraub’s story is suspended for over 100 pages), he generally keeps things moving steadily. Maintaining awareness of the larger picture mostly feels invigorating rather than draining.
That new main character is more troubling, though. Joseph Severn has not met any of the pilgrims from the first book, and he’s only related to them through his dreams. But that’s not what makes his role such a challenge. Severn is a “cybrid”–a kind of cyborg whose humanity (and sympathy for the human race) is not fully explored. This makes it pretty tough to relate to him. It doesn’t help that just like a minor character from Hyperion, he’s a clone (of the 19th-century English poet John Keats, no less). I didn’t feel much empathy toward his struggles, and I was often confused about if/how his perspective related to his sort-of-cousin clone and to the poet.
As a fan of Hyperion, I was getting nervous by about halfway through the sequel. I started to develop this critical theory: maybe Simmons’ strength was limited to short stories, and maybe the larger epic of Hyperion was more than he could handle. When the narrative structure began to break its own rules (i.e. Severn describing events that he couldn’t have known about), I took this as validation. But suddenly, through a subtle literary twist, Simmons subverted my expectations and justified the apparent hole. Including the excerpt wouldn’t do it justice–the context is too important. Suffice it to say, I felt surprised and disoriented but also certain that this was the intended effect. It was fantastic.
Call me fickle, but that one trick got me thinking more optimistically about Simmon’s control over the story. I quickly recognized a second case where an apparent oversight was actually an intentional bit of storytelling. For people living 400 years in the future, the characters’ knowledge of history seemed way too focused on events from the 21st century or earlier. They’d occasionally reference events from our “future,” but not nearly as much as the recency bias would dictate. I expected they’d have more to say about our “future,” just like we tend to talk about the 1900’s far more than the 1500’s. Far from being an oversight, it turns out that this is a thoughtful consequence of the overall narrative.
It’s easy for that narrative to take over in high-concept fiction like The Fall of Hyperion. In my experience, such books tend to focus more on the sequence of events and less on the emotions of their characters. I found enough examples of exceptional emotional content to make me second-guess that. Silenus’s elation as he completed his poetry, or Lamia’s heart-stopping introduction to the Shrike. Those moments made me think that in this case, maybe the focus on the narrative has more to do with my tendency as a reader rather than Simmons’ performance as an author.
In the end, Simmons definitely delivered on the promise of Hyperion. He tied up loose ends, sure, but the route he took to get there was compelling in its own right. Although Hyperion is more approachable by far, The Fall of Hyperion is Simmons’ real achievement.