Sunday, 2 August 2015

Hyperion and the Start of Your Story: Why Worldbuilding Shouldn't Be an Infodump

Since moving back to the US more than a year ago, I've been doing a lot of re-reading. Last year it was my old Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux travel books, and this year it's Dan Simmon's Hyperion. Hyperion, and the rest of the books in the series (The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion) were some of my favorite books in late high school and early college, and they've been calling to me from their shelves since I got back here.

The book that started it all

(Quick note before we continue: major spoilers to come. The books have been out since 1989, so you really ought to have read them by now, but just warning you)

Another reason I wanted to revisit Hyperion was because of the thematic links with Mass Effect. Both feature organic beings in conflict with artificial intelligences, and a cataclysm where the network linking the galaxy together falls. So I was curious to see just how much more of Mass Effect I could find in Hyperion, or if those were the only similarities.

And finally, there's the start of the novel:

"The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine kilometers high in a violent sky. Lightning rippled along the horizon. Closer to the ship, occasional vague, green reptilian shapes would blunder into the interdiction field, cry out, and then crash away through indigo mists. The Consul concentrated on a difficult section of the Prelude and ignored the approach of storm and nightfall.

The fatline receiver chimed."

A few years ago I discovered Dan Simmons's occasional columns on the craft, called Writing Well. While they sometimes held hints of the political direction his fiction was taking (the right-wing variety of shrill), and while they also sometimes left me even less hopeful about my chances of succeeding than before, they also held some important nuggets of wisdom, which I've tried to follow ever since.

One is the admonition to read at least six top-flight authors per year; this is to see how the very best writers structure their stories and their prose, and (as an avid SFF reader) a chance to read more widely in other genres. While I don't do a close reading of these six, exposure to them is definitely beneficial (even if it highlights the difference in quality of prose of a lot of what I normally read).

Another thing that stuck with me was the beginning. Simmons once took the beginning of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, and contrasted it with Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (this also directly led to me reading both novels). While the two couldn't be more different in tone and subject matter and structure, they both succeed in introducing the world that the reader is stepping into - not by explaining backstory or info-dumping the name and provenance of every character, but by showing us the themes and the rules by which these novels operate.

Or, as Simmons himself put it, world-building.

So, having read that column, I subsequently went to my local bookstore to see if he'd put the same thing into practice in his own book (this was in London, and my copy of Hyperion still lived here in Palo Alto). The passage above is what I found, and sure enough, it does exactly that.

Look at the scene: a man's playing Rachmaninoff on the piano. But he's on a spaceship, on an alien planet. Inside it's quiet enough for him to hear the "chime" of an incoming call, but outside the ship is chaos, with animals crashing into the shields and a violent storm brewing.

Throughout the rest of the book, as we hear the other characters' stories, we learn more about the wider universe: how humanity is scattered throughout the World Web on a variety of different worlds, but the society's position is precarious due to the threat of the "barbarian" Ousters; how the destruction of Earth has created a society obsessed with looking back and re-creating various facets of the society that came from Earth.

One of the pilgrims is a Catholic priest, and Simmons is at pains to stress that the Church continues, but is in its death throes, at least until the discovery (later) of the cruciform parasites leads to its resurgence and an even more stunted, backward-looking society. The poetry of John Keats is also particularly prevalent in the book, existing alongside ever-more advanced weaponry.

The opening scene has all of those themes, and presents them elegantly: old vs new, order vs chaos, stasis vs change. You may quibble that the storm is a little overdone thematically (who wants to bet that Simmons, as a placeholder, initially wrote "It was a dark and stormy night" here?), but it does represent the impending invasion that the Consul learns about in the following paragraphs.

It's been so long since I first read Hyperion that I can't recall how the passage first struck me; all I do remember is the (more recent) feeling of awe that, with my knowledge of the rest of the story, everything was already there in the first paragraph. But it clearly worked to hook me and reel me in to the rest of the story (for what it's worth, the first book in the series I ever picked up was The Fall of Hyperion, not knowing it was a sequel, and found that it made no sense - but I appreciated the second book much more having read this one).

As I said above, this is what Simmons means by world-building. Instead of spending too much time lovingly describing your secondary world's magic system or FTL drives, he advocates building the world through the themes you're exploring - which is, of course, the important thing. After all, nobody can describe how magic works in Lord of the Rings, or how hyperdrive works in Star Wars... they just knows it works.

It may seem like a tall order to get the themes in with the very first paragraph, but it's also helpful to remember Stephen King's suggestion: get the first draft done, and then start worrying about the themes in the subsequent drafts.

All stuff I'm hoping to put in practice for my own book.