Monday, 6 October 2008

Literary Corner With SpaceSquid: The Hyperion Cantos

Over the last two months I've been working my way through Dan Simmon's Hyperion Cantos, made up of Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion. I just wanted to mention that I finally finished the series last week whilst sunning myself on the Isles of Scilly, and that they are beautiful. The books that is, not the Scillies, though those too are awesome and anyone stuck for a place to unwind could do far worse than check them out, assuming you don't mind there being only one club on the entire archipelago, which is universally considered to be shit (I didn't go, since even the "best" clubs put me in mind of a cattle market under strobe lighting).

I really don't want to give too much away regarding the plot of the books (though some references to the underlying philosophy are inevitable), since it's both tremendously intricate and cleverly drip-fed to the reader. What appear to be universally known facts in the early chapters turn out to be star system-spanning lies later on. Events that seem unsatisfactorily explained in the first book finally make complete sense by the end of the fourth. It's an impressive achievement, even if there are some slight continuity slip-ups that creep in from time to time (whatever else you can say about these novels, they desperately need another proof-read).

This much, I can tell you. The first two novels are set some eight hundred years in the future, and mankind has reached the stars. Two methods for interstellar travel exist. First is the Hawking drive that allows star-ships to attain FTL speeds (which incur relativistic effects upon the occupants, leading to the concept of "time-debt"), an invention humanity developed itself; second are the farcasters, portals allowing instantaneous travel from one point to another, given to mankind by the AI's of the Technocore, one-time human creations which have now formed their own independent state in an unknown location or locations. It's a good thing they did, too, since humanity was forced to flee Earth hundreds of years ago in a mass exodus known as the Hegira because of... well, that would be telling. The Technocore and the people of what is now called the Hegemony have allied themselves against a third group known as the Ousters, humans who left the solar system before the Hegira began and now exist in forms unknown and within massive space fleets spread across unknown space, which nip into Hegemony territory now and again to cause mischief and the occasional planet-wide war.

In theory, there should be no contest between the Ousters and the Hegemony, since the latter's alliance with the Technocore gives them access to the most powerful tactical and predictive minds in the known galaxy. The problem is that the Ousters seem most interested in the backwater world of Hyperion, which is the only planet across the human realm that is impervious to AI analysis. The reason for this is the Time Tombs, bizarre structures on the surface of Hyperion that appear to be travelling backwards in time. At present they are empty, but then they would do, it's the moment that their backwards travel reaches it's "end" that the Hegemony has to worry about, since that's when whatever was/will be in them gets set loose into an unprepared universe.

The $64,000 dollar question: What exactly will emerge? No-one knows, or at least if they do they're not telling. The only clue is somewhat less than encouraging, a giant metal four-armed killing machine that stalks Hyperion, murdering at random and in exceptionally brutal ways. Named the Shrike, it is a legend to some, a God to others, and an executioner to more. It is said that each person "killed" by the Shrike is in fact impaled upon a tree of thorns to writhe in agony for all eternity, and there are those with good reason to believe that this may well be more than just a story.

That's the set-up, then, but it hardly begins to cover the sheer scope and invention of the Cantos. The first book tells the tale of seven pilgrims travelling to the Time Tombs, each for different reasons. These travellers explain their reasons for embarking upon the journey as they go, making Hyperion more a collection of short stories than a novel, though each tale ties in to the wider galactic situation. The individual stories themselves are almost uniformly excellent, and cover both a bewildering array of ideas (arboreal space ships, time-shifting soldiers, carpets that fly by manipulating the EM field of a planet, and Armageddon via black hole, to name just a a few), and a wide number of genres, from the quasi-horror story of the cruciforms, the film-noir-esque investigation into the death of Johnny, the love-and-war tale of Colonel Kassad, and the almost unbearably poignant history of the Wandering Jew. A couple of the tales are skewed a bit too much towards filling in background than they are about telling a satisfactory story in themselves, but even those are never less than entertaining. For all the pilgrims reveal to each other and to us, though, we leave them with scarcely more idea about what is going on than we did when we arrived, although we have begun the mammoth task of separating fact from fiction and truth from falsehood, processes with which the series concerns itself.

It's in The Fall of Hyperion, though, that Simmons gets serious. Events on and above Hyperion are reaching a head, and the stakes are much higher than almost anyone has realised. It is in this second novel that the true nature of the series becomes clear. The basic question: can humanity progress to a level to which it would be indistinguishable from Godhood, by reaching the so-called Omega point, and if so, what form would it take and would such a thing even be desirable? More importantly, how close have we already come, who and what represents our greatest developments towards this hypothetical point, and how might we best build upon these accomplishments, if indeed such a thing is wise?

In this second book, these ideas are touched upon but not really discussed in detail. Whilst religion itself suffuses the novel (just as it ran through its predecessor), much of the focus is upon the consequences of such attempts to reach apotheosis, rather than the process. After all, the Time Tombs are proof that something of unimaginable power exists in the far future. Is it a human God, or one born of the Technocore? Are such distinctions even going to be relevant by then? Is there something else out there? All of these are important questions with the fate of mankind on the line, so you can forgive people assigning a low priority to the discussion of how all this came about.

The two things that Simmons does make clear is the two conditons required or humanity to progress as a species (and he is very careful to point out that progress is very different to evolution). Firstly, it cannot occur within a stagnant society. Human nature might desire stability, but that same nature requires fluidity to move forward. A vital component to the Human Godhead must be the conscious desire to alter oneself as philosophy and circumstances dictate (this is later explained with truly exceptional simplicity in Aenea's two word message to the universe in The Rise of Endymion).

The second component must be empathy. We begin, both as individuals and as a sentient species, as simple animals. We express our love for our parents and for our God (however we define him or her) by obeying their commands. As we develop, we begin instead to define our own love by our fear of losing that love from others. We no longer jump to attention because of the order itself, but because of a desire to prove ourselves worthy of love. It is in this context that we suffer the various kicks from the universe some call acts of God.

Simmons argument is that a third stage is reached when we no longer obey, or suffer from fear of what we lose by disobedience, but agree to enter into a partnership. We decide to do what we know we should because we recognise its legitimacy and because we love those that surround us. Keats, whose influence is obvious throughout all four books (it's no coincidence that Hyperion and Endymion are both works by the poet "whose name was writ on water") put it another way, that we rise from the level of animals once we become capable of forming permanent bonds of mutual affection with our friends, and then enter a new stage when we reach true love, the point where the "mutual" becomes less important (however desirable) than the "affection". The true Godhead, at least as far as anyone of us can reach it, is to act in a way totally contrary to evolution. Even cooperation with a group in a way that deleteriously affects ourselves is not without precedent in nature (Dawkins points out in The Blind Watchmaker that selfish individuals do better than cooperative ones within groups, but that cooperative groups do better than selfish ones). Total sacrifice, though, totally independent of gain to anyone but those you love, is far rarer. For devotion to mean anything, it has to exist independently both of primal survival motivations and of a fear of losing what you have.

Of course, the true key here is that those without empathy can't truly grasp what the concept means. On some mechanistic level they might understand its effects, and take advantage of it, but it is impossible to truly understand it any more than I can understand what it feel like to be a father just because I've met a lot of other men who have children. Something is lost in translation. Simmon's characters come to realise that whatever exists in the future, influencing "present" events on Hyperion in what is at one point referred to as a "four-dimensional chess game", it can be easily determined as to whether or not it was born of man or of machine by its level of empathy. It's an emotional Turing test, if you like, and one which is eventually put into practice, with surprising and far-reaching consequences.

The third and fourth books are set three hundred years after the confluence of events upon Hyperion. The human race has undergone great change in the intervening decades, but has once again begun to ossify. The desire for power and control and immortality has once again taken over from an inclination for change. Stasis, though, is living on borrowed time. The private revelations of The Fall of Hyperion are threatening to reach the entirety of humanity.

Endymion, more than anything else, is set-up. Which is not to suggest it is without merit, though I think it entirely unsurprising that it was the only of the four novels that failed to win the Locus Award for best science-fiction novel. In some ways it returns to the form of Hyperion, in that it feels more like a half-dozen short stories than it does a continuing narrative. Perhaps a better analogy though would be The Hobbit, or the first eight chapters of The Lord of the Rings, a tale of exploration and travel necessarily episodic in nature as the characters move from one place to the next.

Like Hyperion, though, Endymion becomes more than the sum of its parts. Aenea, the young girl around which these latter two novels are based (Endymion himself may be the narrator, but neither he nor we are under any illusions that this is his story) is convinced that each world they come to in their journey has been chosen for them to visit, by powers unknown, to reveal the true depth of the danger humanity finds itself in. Along the way, Aenea fills in some of the philosophical gaps left from The Fall of Hyperion, which along with its predecessor exist in some form within their universe as the Hyperion Cantos, written by one of the original pilgrims.

This is one of the latter books' chief conceits, that what we know from the original novels is in fact simply one man's telling of the story. He had access to a great deal of information of the comings and goings across the galactic stage, but he was still human, still fallible, and still reliant on the information he was given. At best this allows Simmons to radically alter the chess board in unexpected and fascinating ways. At worst it seems like a cheap cop-out to retcon the events into shapes that the author can do more with. But I digress.

As I say, Endymion does its job competently enough, as a reintroduction to a changed galaxy, to the characters that will alter that galaxy forever come The Fall of Endymion, and as a set-up for the coming interstellar crucible. It may not do it with the same flair or variety that Hyperion managed, but that book was so exceptional it seems almost churlish to lament the fact that Simmons couldn't quite pull the same trick twice.

Anyway, all is forgiven by the conclusion of Rise of Endymion. While it almost completely lacks the adrenaline-surge of the later chapters of Fall..., what it delivers is far more interesting. It is here, finally, after three-point-whatever novels, that we finally understand how we are to reach the Omega point. As is common in these books, the secret is revealed early, but makes absolutely no sense until later. Step 1: Learn the language of the dead. Step 2: Learn the language of the living. Step 3: Learn to hear the music of the spheres. Step 4: Take the first step.

What exactly Aenea means by that in terms of the plot is anyone's guess, at least for several hundred pages. When the big reveal arrives, it proves to be nothing less than a galaxy-wide manifesto for human (and non-human) existence for the rest of eternity. Of course, this is a world of cybrids and nanotech and Hawking drives, and Aenea's plan for sentient life unfolds in those fantastical terms. What is truly important, though, I think, is that the four steps can easily be interpreted in more mundane terms as well. Learning from history comes first; the dead, after all, will never change their story. Next, we learn from those that surround us, a harder task than the first, since no sooner have we understood one truth than it twists and bends in front of us as humanity rearranges itself into new shapes. Third, we learn from everything else that surrounds us, which doesn't really have a voice in anything but the most abstract sense, but needs to be heard all the same. Finally, take the first step: get off your arse and get into the game. Aenea gives plausible reasons as to why her own sci-fi flavoured version of this progression has to come in that order, but it works so well in our own world that I find it hard to believe Simmons wasn't thinking along more... earthbound lines.

So there you go. Endless invention, epic space battles, killer time-shifting robots, multiple genres, musings on the nature of Keats, and a coherent philosophy regarding how humanity can and should become something better. It also has the best sex scenes I've ever read, in case that sways you. If Peter F. Hamilton ever read any of them he'd swear off ever trying to write another omni-sexual bionic-enhanced orgy scene ever again, and both I and literature itself would thank him for it. Rather than the clinical and/or voyeuristic blow-by-blow (sorry) account of what gets stuck where and when, Simmon's characters' sexual encounters focus entirely on the feeling of sharing youself with someone you adore to such an extent that it makes your ribs hurt. The sex is incidental, Simmons is describing love.

In fact, that works as a more general description of the series. Books about love, in pretty much every single one of its iterations. If I sound uncharacteristically sappy, then I promise you I'm not any happier about it than you are. I'm guessing the sudden arrival in Fall... of the idea that love is an essential element of the universe came as a surprise to plenty of readers, given that Simmons, through Aenea, tries to justify its inclusion in the Cantos (it's an odd feeling reading an author use a character he is writing to justify the ending of a book he wrote but was also written in the universe he is writing in, if that makes sense; reading that back gives me a headache). And, yes, it kind of took me by surprise as well. Usually in the kind of books I read love is just a cheap way to increase the emotional impact when Captain Killian Redthrust's new wife gets eaten by a rampaging space lizard forcing him to swear an oath of undying revenge. But it works, it works very well, and it's really nice to come across a unashamedly atheist philosophy that isn't depressingly nihilistic (Nietzsche), offensively selfish (LeVey), or just an excuse to give organised religion a good kicking (Dawkins). I always wondered if the faithless could ever get themselves organised into something greater than any of that. Frankly, you could do worse than using this as a first step. Or, given Simmon's ideas, perhaps I should call it Step Zero, or even the Alpha Point.

I don't think it matters. Time to get in the game.

Right, that should do for now. I'll try to be a bit less heavy next time around. Anyone want to hear my thoughts on Noddy?


jamie said...

I think I'm going to have to have a chat with you about this series at some point, because although I got some of what you're saying, I have to say that a lot of it completely passed me by.

Still not read the Endymion books yet though, so I suppose I should rectify that. But since you were talking about the empathy question before you read them, I must have missed a fair bit...

Which characters do you mean have the realisation regarding the nature of the intelligence manipulating events from the future? I'm guessing at the very least Gladstone and the Ousters, but are there others you are referring to?

SpaceSquid said...

Sol Weintraub also has his own personal revelation, the final answer to "The Abraham Dilemma", which sheds light on the nature of the future manipulator. Whether he realises himself what he has discovered, I can't recall, but it's very clear to the reader.