(Old Chinese curse)
I’ve been circling these novels for a while, not knowing how to describe the complexity and originality of the universe Dan Simmons has created. He wrote it in fact as one novel but for technical reasons it was published as two books.
In a distant future mankind has spread to a hundred of planets and is kept together by a confederacy, the Hegemony, and a network of Farcaster terminals which allow for instant transportation. When the story starts, the s.c. Word Web is on the brink of war with genetically altered humans called the Ousters. The Hegemony plans to lay claim to the planet Hyperion in order to forestall an Ouster invasion there. A group of pilgrims is allowed to make one last journey to the Time Tombs on Hyperion, ancient structures that move backward in time. They are protected by the Shrike, a being who looks like he’s been composed by metal spikes and razors and who somehow moves independently of time. A well-sized church has grown up around the Shrike, claiming he’s the devine retribution for humanity’s hubris and decadence. The pilgrims have been allowed to make the journey in order to learn the secret of the Shrike and hopefully prevent the destruction of human civilisation. It’s said that at every pilgrimage six are killed and one has his wish granted.
The structure of Hyperion mirrors that of Canterbury Tales, each character tells his/her unique story, and every story is written in its own style suitable to the narrator.
The Fall of Hyperion follows two strands: one on the planet Hyperion itself, following the pilgrims after they have reached the Time Tombs, and one in the Hegemony capital of Tau Ceti Centre. The protagonist of this novel is “Joseph Severn”, in reality a cybrid (half man/half macine) created in an attempt to recreate the English poet John Keats.
The story is told by Severn who is uniquely placed to describe everything that happens. He sits on the private war council of the Hegemony but also has a telepathic link to the pilgrims on Hyperion. Through dreams he follows the activities of the pilgrims and their encounters with the Shrike.
Most touching of the pilgrims’ stories I find Sol Weintraub’s narrative of his quest to find a cure for his daughter, Rachel who has been affected by an illness that makes her age backwards.
“Sol had been talking to God for some months before he realised what he was doing. The idea amused him. The dialogues were in no way prayers but took the form of angry monologues which – just short of the point where they became diatribes – became vigorous arguments with himself. Only not just with himself. Sol realised one day that the topics of the heated debates were so profound, the stakes to be settled so serious, the ground covered so broad, that the only person he could possibly berate for such shortcomings was God Himself. Since the concept of a personal God, lying awake at night worrying about human beings, intervening in the lives of individuals always had been totally absurd to Sol, the thought of such dialogues made him doubt his sanity.
But the dialogues continued.
Sol wanted to know how any ethical system – much less a religion so indomitable that it had survived every evil mankind could throw at it – could flow from a command from God for a man to slaughter his son. It did not matter to Sol that the command had been rescinded at the last moment. It did not matter that the command was a test of obedience. In fact, the idea that it was the obedience of Abraham which allowed him to become the father of all the tribes of Israel was precisely what drove Sol into fits of fury.
After fifty-five years of dedicating his life and work to the story of ethical systems, Sol Weintraub had come to a single, unshakeable conclusion: any allegiance to a deity or concept or universal principal which put obedience above decent behaviour toward an innocent human being was evil.
– So define ‘innocent’? came the vaguely amused, faintly querulous voice which Sol associated with these arguments.
– A child is innocent, thought Sol. Isaac was. Rachel is.
– ‘Innocent’ by the mere fact of being a child?
– And there is no situation where the blood of the innocent must be shed for a greater cause?
– No, thought Sol. None.
– But the ‘innocent’ are not restricted to children, I presume.
– Sol hesitated, sensing a trap, trying to see where his subconscious interlocutor was heading. He could not. No, he thought, the ‘innocent’ include others as well as children.
– Such as Rachel? At age twenty-four? The innocent should not be sacrificed at any age?
– That’s right.
– Perhaps this is part of the lesson which Abraham needed to learn before he could be father to the blessed of the nations of the earth.
– What lesson, thought Sol. What lesson? But the voice in his mind had faded and now there were only the sounds of night birds outside and the soft breathing of his wife beside him.”