We have a book club at work. A slack channel, to be specific. Until this week it was a stream of "I read this (or that)" and nothing else. But this week things changed. This week we proposed a book, and a follow up chat; an aftermath meeting. And the peoples they came, they came and they commented and they compromised themselves to read. We will talk the talk two weeks after that initial invitation.
The book we are reading is "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons.
I finished it the day before yesterday. And it was; okay.
A confident 2.5 stars, a 50% overall rating from this reader. And I was disappointed by my rating. I wanted it to be higher, and now let me tell you why it was not. Charles Bukowski. That is why. The misogynist. The horrible meany Hank. He has spoilt me. Cormac Macarthy he has spoilt me. Gillian Flynn she has spoilt me. And maybe, if I am lucky, Stanislav Lemm will spoil me. I hope so. I do. I am falling out of love with Science Fiction. And that makes me sad.
Hyperion is a Hugo Award-winning 1989 science fiction novel by American writer Dan Simmons. It is the first book of his Hyperion Cantos. The plot of the novel features multiple time-lines and characters. It follows a similar structure to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Hyperion on Wikipedia is here in case you haven't read the story, it outlines the principle characters and overarching plot.
This article is not about what it is, rather it is about what it is not, and why it did not work for me. There are other rants about sci-fi at large too. I am hoping, that by articulating the issues I experienced in a rant, something within me will be armed, primed, watching me subconsciously and intervene in my own writing.
Not until quite recently did I find literary fiction. Subsequently everything else seems dull by comparison. If there is not character emerging from the page, then the story is in jeopardy.
My main complaint is that the book spends most of it's energy explaining stuff, and the authors voice is a substitution for character. The siloed plots are missing people and dialog, and instead there is a lot of telling.
Obviously the novel has to do this, since this world is imagined and it's precariously placed in a very distant future. We expect things to exist that world which don't exist now. Those things will need to be served and palatable to the reader. The reader's job is to measure ideas and hopefully not choke as they swallow them.
No problemo. But! But, too much explanation engages my mind, and plucks me into cognitive reality. And reality is the very thing I am avoiding by reading the book in the fist place. Once I am taken out of the fantastic it is unlikely I will return. Unfortunately that happened to me often.
This worries me, because I do not know how I would prevent this in my own work, without falling for the tools of exposition and explanation. Nevertheless this was a major sticking point for me, and the moment I finished the book I jumped onto Amazon and bought a copy of "The most beautiful woman in the world", a collection of short stories by the horrible Hank Bukowski.
When all things have failed, Chuck will make it worse.
The thing that I outright hated about Hyperion was the end. This is a cheap trick, and I will probably not bother to continue in the epic saga. The book does not resolve the narrative lines it has opened, and that just feels sloppy. There are way too many, "I dunno" moments either directly proclaimed by the characters or implied by their tails.
My closing feeling about Hyperion is that it is five short stories, each one a fantastic achievement, that have been grouted together very carefully with the character of the "Consol", who is actually a proxy for a third person story, who he is related to as the grandson, and who plays the role of Judas. An attempt at a narrative reversal.
The book ends badly; in a cringy and frustrating way.
For the love of God
There was a lot of religious reference in this book. I do not like religion. At. All. And I refuse to accept that it would hypothetically continue to exist into the distant future, and be so influential as it was to two of the five main characters. In my mind religion is a superstition, it is that which separates mankind with warped moral manipulations. It is a residue from primitive man.
In this story there is a Jewish professor and a Catholic priest. And (would you believe it) there is a missionary dwelling with savages and a kibbutz planet to host refugees of exiled worshipers. Hmmmmmmmm. Nah. And as you would expect lots of lamenting to the respective deity, with no answer in reply to profound dilemma.
To me that is cliche.
Lets take a minute to remind ourselves that we are talking about life in the 26 century. Five hundred years from now. And in that future there is no Earth. Earth was sucked into a black hole. Destroyed, apart from some replica world that simulates earth. Even that is a bit too sentimental for me.
On a positive note I really like the idea of our planet being gobbled up by a galactic entity. It gave me the feeling that we are currently in the first throws of our orbital deviation.
Getting back to it, we are currently in the 21st century. It took less than two centuries to formalise religion as we know it, create twelve gods, only to reduce the total from 12 down to 1 (excluding Hinduism). Mostly all the others agree that there is only one god, and it is their secret recipe and incantation that is the correct version of the universal creator. Each group has the ONE and true God, along with a set of rules, the manual for mankind, written by men hundreds of years previously. Okay. This is hard to buy, but that is what we have today. Now lets fast-forward to the twenty-sixth century. How many gods do you think would remain? How many would weather the centuries. Perhaps only the Sphinx would know.
I would hope the answer would be zero.
If anything I would say it is more likely that there will be six thousand more gods than the survival of the five of six current earthen likenesses. We should also consider that; if there is life beyond, that those lifeforms might also spiritually in-dept themselves to a creator worth of worship, in the same way as we did. So a governing system, like the Hegemony in Hyperion, would probably need to exclude all believe systems from governance as a policy of rule, because failing to do so would make the political incorporation highly improbable to galactic acceptance as a representative unilateral government. Essentially religions divide, where rights unite. I would expect religion would become a right, no more, no less. And those religions strictly entangled with law and governance would either evolve, dissolve or be expelled.
Keats et al (sigh)
Was it just me or was the authors obsession with Keats annoying? At first it was novel, like nutmeg in meal, and then it was overall impregnating everything, like nutmeg in a meal. Perhaps if I knew more about the poet I would probably get another much more subtle lattice of access. Alas I don't. I am not here to consume poetry, I came to consume ideas. The obsession just did not mean anything to me, and the chapter about the poet was mostly pompous and annoying and offered little to the story. But I was happy to forgive the chapter, it is after all the authors prerogative. I am a guest in their house.
And then came the penultimate chapter, chapter five. Of all of them that was the one that I disliked the most. I confess, I liked the start and the fact that there was at least one female charter leading the charge in the universe. Go girl go! I cheered until I met the cybrid (great name). A human form controlled by AI. That is a wonderful concept, the mannequin participating in reality, except it is immortal, kill it and it re-boots. Nice.
That is all great stuff, on the surface of the argument. But then we are presented with mutiny and an assisted hijack, humans help the cybrid AI to hijack the core of the cumulative AI conscience, and why? Well, to incarnate the poet Keats. Huh?
So many things malfunctioned for me right there. And it was a pity because I loved some of those imaginative concepts. But they where betrayed by the authors affinity for the poet.
I have a long standing rant at sci-fi authors and here we have a whipping bench to practice on. In the book AI separated from humans, and form the "TechnoCore".
The hybrid character, Johnny is a biological vessel with an AI mind that drives the humanoid vehicle around, and attends functions and performs recitals as the former poet Keats.
AI - this trope murders me
What I do not forgive in modern sci-fi writing is a failure to attempt to think as a superior intelligence. Sci-Fi keeps bestowing inferior IQ upon AI manifestations. Again we humans create a god in our own likeness. Hyperion is no exception.
Given what we know now the only thing for sure is that AI will be superior in every aspect of intelligence. Vastly superior. Relative to humans AI will be an intellectual titan. By comparison an AI's cognitive ability relative to ours would be the equivalent of measuring our IQ with that of a dog or a rat. And over time, for example in this world a few hundred centuries have elapsed, meaning that the cognitive gap would be like measuring the difference between a slug and Einstein. Essentially an infinite difference. Relatively one is a god to the other.
So if you where a god, constituted of millions of billions of computational units spread across the universe, a collective federation of free standing computation, I believe it is safe to declare that entity would be almighty.
To us it would be unperceivable. By that I mean we would be incapable of knowing it even existed by way of being relatively incompetent, unable to detect it at all. In the same way a goldfish does not perceive the glass of it's bowl.
The fish understands certain limitations exist, the physical dimensions of its world, but can not perceive the glass, or what exists beyond the glass, which trivial to us. That goldfish is unaware that it's life is at our whim. All of it's freedoms, movements, thoughts and preying on lichens have absolutely no influence over our determinations. A bad mood could exterminate it, as could premeditated spin in the microwave.
In so much as we, with our biological limitations, would never be able to conceive a thought more sophisticated than a galactic AI would.
Why would an intelligence like that feel obliged to manifest as an incorporated agent at all? Moreover why in human form? Knowing everything about the human species why would it bother? And of all the humans that ever existed why is Keats so special? What about the five hundred other years of existential examples, surely there could have been someone more impressive that that? Perhaps the best poem Keats ever wrote is one that was rendered by AI long after his death. And then surgically written into history such that the forgery was undetectable.
One thing that annoys me about far-future Sci-Fi is the history as told by a character or a narrator located in that distant time frame, which does not draw from the totality of past eras. No they draw from the authors knowable past eras. By this I am not talking about galactic incidence, like Earth being destroyed, I am referring to the minutia to the species, the everyday accomplishments of exceptional individuals.
I know that I am certainly not capable, in the way Tolkien was, of manufacturing anthropological details for a galaxy, never mind the universe, five hundred year from now, and unfortunately Hyperion suffers from this too. The history is confined to an utmost ceiling circa 1990.
Branding the ideas was weak
This is very contentious, but the naming was weak for some of the crucial concepts. For example the "world web". Unfortunately for Dan he could not have known that the www was going to be a thing, perhaps he did, but now it is a thing and makes his intergalactic premise seem quite provincial.
world web I am fascinated by etymology and so I got stuck on the words. Hyperion for example is a great word. It is ancient and futuristic, it is a word that will sustain grandeur, perhaps because of it's classical definition.
However "world" and "web" are just not in the interplanetary league. They suggest something that is confined to Earth, to the world, interconnected (sure) but still one world, one planet. "United Nations" by comparison spans conceptually larger real estate, because a Nation is NOT confined to geography. A "nation" is a unity in and of itself, and it is also portable and that is what gives the phrase enormous strength.
Far casting: isn't that a job for the word "teleport"? Far-casting sounds like a fishing jargon for an extraordinary flick of a baited hook and lead weight.
The book is (despite me) quite fantastic. There is no doubt about that, it is delightfully imaginative and 100% old school Sci-Fi, in it's golden age. It belongs to that era, which comes with it's own romantic naivety. This is an important book to read, if your thing is far future sci-fi. Like I said at the start, I wanted to like it, but this is not my thing anymore.