Dan Simmons’s Scientific Let-Down

Dan Simmons published a wonderful, galaxy-spanning, mind-blowing sf novel in 1989: Hyperion. Then he followed it up with three more novels of which I have read two. They’re OK, but not as good as the first book.

Science fiction is of course stories where fabulous things happen and are explained by science and technology rather than magic. There are two ways to do this: either you offer an explanation that is actually in line with what we know now and sort of makes sense, or you use technobabble to cover the fact that you, the writer, do not actually have any idea of how for instance space ships move instantaneously from one star to another. Both ways are in my opinion fine. And Simmons uses the technobabble technique with poetic flair: “torch ship”, “lance the ground troops from orbit”, “spin down into the system”, “hyper-entropic field”.

But in the third of the Hyperion novels, Endymion (1996), he does something that jarred me awake to the fact that Simmons apparently does not know basic science at all. He tells us that a couple of fabulous things happen and offers neither technobabble nor believable scientific explanations.

We’re on the planet Sol Draconi Septem. Having once been terraformed, thus receiving a breathable atmosphere, it has now relapsed (over a few centuries) into a chilly state where its atmosphere has frozen solid, collapsed onto the surface and formed glaciers. There is hardly any gaseous matter there any more. Those glaciers seem to consist largely of solid nitrogen. Yet Simmons tells us that there is breathable air and liquid salty water in tunnels dug through the ice by a species of large animal, the ice wraiths. And on top of the glaciers, where it is impossible to breathe, intense blizzards blow. So there is wind in a vacuum, and there is precipitation without an atmosphere. Ouch.

The ecology of Sol Draconi Septem is also magical. It consists only of two species of carnivore that hunt each other: ice wraiths and humans. No plants and no herbivores. Simmons does mention that the human population is shrinking, which suggests that he understands that a system without energy input will dwindle and eventually stop running. But as far as I can see he’s vastly overestimated the longevity of such a system. It is after all the equivalent of fencing a desert in, removing all animals and filling it with lions and tigers. And it’s not just a matter of energy efficiency, but also one of materials: if a tiger eats a lion, far from all of the lion’s building blocks become incorporated into the tiger.

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Comments

  1. #1 Jose
    November 16, 2009

    If that bothers you don’t read his Olympos trilogy, it’ll drive you crazy.

  2. #2 Paddy
    November 16, 2009

    Never thought of that, but something did always bother me about that part. Sloppy.

    And DO read Olympos, but only the first one; the second one bites arse and can be ignored.

  3. #3 Angelo Ventura
    November 16, 2009

    And what about “portals” inactive for hundreds of years that instantaneously function perfectly after the first command!

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    November 16, 2009

    It is very difficult to create *genuinely alien* worlds in fiction -most I have read are thinly disguised terran jungles. As usual, Stanislaw Lem has written some quite astounding and believable novels about truly alien ecologies. Apart from the obvious “Solaris”(beware the poor english translation) he has written “The Invincible” (with its metallic “Necrosphere”) and “Eden” which I recommend.

    Space opera fans might want to check the planetary environments of the books by Iain Banks, and the old “The Legacy of Heorot” by Barnes & Niven. The worlds of Jack Vance reflect his fertile imagination, but seldom make any biological sense. Neal Asher’s novels are often set on the bizarre world “Spatterjay” where a gene-shuffling virus (possibly the product of an exinct supercivilization) constantly modifies life to make the virus hosts more adaptable. The last example is one of the more successful recent attempts to create alien biospheres. Yours BJ, Sweden

  5. #5 andy
    November 16, 2009

    Then again, Dan Simmons doesn’t pretend to be a “hard-SF” writer. There’s a whole lot of weird semi-mystical stuff going on throughout the Hyperion books, messing around with time, farcaster portals and whatnot. Getting the basic science right is nowhere near the point.

    Having read through both the Hyperion series and Ilium/Olympos, I get the feeling that Simmons does not know how to end a story. In both cases, the concluding part was a letdown, which is a pity as in both cases the first part of the series was awesome.

  6. #6 Lobo7922
    November 16, 2009

    The characters in the Simmons stories are very wel developed, but yes, he is lacking in the science side, I stopped reading him long ago.

  7. #7 Lassi Hippeläinen
    November 17, 2009

    As an engineer I quickly learned not to pay attention to the sciency parts. Simmons works on humanistic things. And the atheist in me liked the way he treats religions. All of them flawed, in one way or other.

    Especially interesting is the idea that eventually humans will develope to two or more distinct species (the Ousters actively experimenting with gene technology). That spells trouble to all religions that model humans as images of god. If there are several species of humans, which is the real one?

  8. #8 Martin R
    November 17, 2009

    IMHO, the lethal impact on religion is afforded by evidence-based critical thinking replacing authority-based thinking.

  9. #9 Raka
    November 20, 2009

    I agree with Doc Martin. It’s an acceptable literary convention to just declare your own set of rules, and technobabble is an example of this. You can do it explicitly by explaining how your faster-than-light drive functions, or implicitly by just mentioning what the Ancient Alien Artifact does and never speculating on the method. Generally you can be as impossible as you like with these rules, as long as you abide by them. But you can’t just switch them arbitrarily, or violate familiar principles without even an implicit handwave.

    A portal working perfectly after hundreds of years is implicitly okay; “they were just built really well”. A blizzard on a planet with no atmosphere is not okay. The same applies to other genres: an action hero can dodge storms of gunfire and pick off his attacker with one perfectly-aimed bullet, but that bullet cannot go around corners, compose a haiku, or travel back in time to kill the assailant’s ancestors– at least not without some acknowledgment that something special is occurring.

  10. #10 Raka
    November 20, 2009

    My pedantic side compells to point out that a blizzard is possible on a planet where all of the nitrogen has frozen, assuming you have enough helium, hydrogen, and/or neon.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_elements_by_boiling_point
    I’m curious about whether there are conditions that would allow gases inside (non-sealed) tunnels, but that’s well above my pay grade.

    But I seriously doubt that’s what was intended. Much more likely that it’s a case of the author not realizing that “all of the gases freezing out of the atmosphere” does not leave one with any raw material for wind.

  11. #11 Brian X
    November 20, 2009

    Recently, for an SF idea of my own that I’ve been kicking around for years, I was trying to imagine the ecology of a rogue planet with intelligent life (a race of burrowing snake-like beings). I was going to have the base of the food pyramid being chemotrophs living on the planet’s residual heat, but then I realized that the planet would have to have a lot more water than I was imagining…

  12. #12 Martin R
    November 20, 2009

    How about a life-form that hangs around dormant on some rocky moon and waits for a meteorite to strike and generate heat? (-;

  13. #13 Eamon
    November 21, 2009

    That’s not the worst thing about Simmon’s Endymion books – retcons abound, twists are obvious, there’s a jarring tribute to a famous American architect which is pretty juvenile and the love-lorn hero delves the depths of cringeworthiness when he goes on and on and on about his lovely-dove, dearest darling doll on almost ever fricking page!!

    My advice – avoid the Endymion books.

  14. #14 Martin R
    November 21, 2009

    Yeah, I don’t feel very motivated to read the fourth book. And the man’s recent novella “Muse of Fire” in the (boring) anthology The New Space Opera did little for me as well. While in the Hyperion books he idolized Keats, here he’s shifted focus to revering Shakespeare.

  15. #15 yogi-one
    November 21, 2009

    12 @Martin R -

    I like it! Take it to the bank!

    11 @ Brian X -

    Don’t let a little science stop you from writing a cool book!

    Take #10 Raka’s advice and make up some explanation that doesn’t violate your other rules. I watched some show about the making of Star Trek, and they were talking about how they invented the transporter. They needed a way to get the crew members from the ship to a planet’s surface. The idea was to have a shuttle, but the production schedule closed in on them and the prototype model for the shuttle hadn’t been built yet.

    The solution: hey, we’ll just sort of make them appear suddenly out of nowhere, by pushing a button on their uniform while Scotty operates some cool disco lights back on the ship!

    Was there any science to support this? Hell no! But is the transporter a totally cool part of Star Trek? Oh yeah, baby!

    I’m sure you can dream up something…

  16. #16 Techskeptic
    December 1, 2009

    The first time I encountered this feeling was when I read davinci code. I thought, fine its a fiction, do whatever you want with religious stories and what not, but then he described GPS as a 2 way system and it really annoyed me.

    Even in a movie like Matrix. the red pill did something completely new, like debunking denialists claims about fat burning and the blue pill left you with something familiar like straightening out a skeptic when they are clearly in error

  17. #17 Mike Olson
    December 2, 2009

    Despite a lot of flaws, many pointed out in “Bad Astronomy,” books, I like “Star Trek.” But, one thing that sticks with me has been about transporters. If all you have to do is punch a button(or slide a rheostat) and you’re there. Why use ships to travel? All you’d really have to do create relay or booster stations and you could get where ever you were going without the whole bit of maintaining a ship.

  18. #18 Ted King
    December 12, 2009

    Re #17 -
    The transporter is distance limited due to focus problems and energy consumption. The numbers are staggering – centi-light-second range (pad-to-pad) * 100 * 60 * 60 * 24 * 365.25 * 4.3+ – just to get to Alpha Centauri. And how do you deliver those relays to their locations ? And what do you do when one of them fails ?

    In one book (“Spock Must Die”) they had an experimental tachyon-based transporter that had a nasty side effect if it hit an energy barrier. Also, in the latest Star Trek movie they had an extra long range transporter that was sloppy in its delivery (Scotty wound up in a water main). For best effect you should go from pad to pad.

    Portals of various sorts are a favorite device of sci-fi authors. Besides Stargate, you have Robert A. Heinlein (“Tunnel in the Sky”), David Weber (“Heirs of Empire”), Kevin J. Anderson (“Saga of Seven Suns”), etc. At least Heinlein had the good grace to be up front about the possible energy requirements of such a system.

    P.S. Keep in mind that the Enterprise was usually in a low orbit – one-to-two hundred klicks (km.) up. So my numbers above may be optimistic on the pad-to-pad range.

    NB – centi-light-second = 3000 km.

  19. #19 Harley
    December 16, 2009

    The things that bothered me most about Simmons is that he seemed to forget what he had previously written and contradicted himself. For instance Father Duray had his Crusiform removed and only had Lenar Hoit’s. This was done by the Shrike at the end of book 2. Later in book 4 we are told Paul Duray’s crusiform is still there with Hoit’s and every second resurrection Paul Duray comes back and is killed over and over again.

    I really started to feel that by the 4th book Simmon’s was pushing some religious Buddhist agenda and didn’t care much for the story itself anymore. It was a sad reality seeing the Hyperion series be slowly deconstructed into a mess of contradiction, cliche and religious bias.

    If I got some of the names wrong I apologize I listened to this series as a book in mp3 format so I don’t know the exact spelling of a lot of the nouns.

  20. #20 Martin R
    December 17, 2009

    Yeah. And another thing: in the first two books, everybody who carries a cruciform suffers extreme agony if they move a few miles from the thing’s spot of origin on the planet Hyperion. This motif is entirely gone from the third book.

  21. #21 Patrick C
    April 22, 2010

    I’m joining the conversation a bit late, but I’m just reading Endymion now.

    First I wanted to point second Harley and Martin’s points. In Fall of Hyperion the second cruciform was removed from Father Dure, but later in the same novel it mentioned him having cruciforms – plural.

    I’m reading Endymion now and I keep waiting for an explanation as to why the intense pain caused by the cruciform is no longer an issue. I’m still hoping an explanation is forthcoming.

    Finally, and sure this may be nitpicking but I can’t get around it, it appears there was an error in space travel early on in the book, and if anyone can contradict this please do, I would love to be proven wrong.

    Anyway, mild spoiler for beginning of Endymion:

    Consul’s Ship leaves Hyperion to go to Parvati. Father Captain De Soya gets their first in the super fast Raphael, and the St. Anthony is following the Consul’s Ship, due to arrive shortly after it (but many months after the Raphael). The Consul’s Ship then goes to Renaissance Vector, the Raphael leaves a beacon for the St. Anthony, and jumps to RV. It takes the Consul’s Ship 5 months to get to RV, and the Ship is much faster than the St. Anthony, yet the St. Anthony arrives not long after the Raphael did!!! It shouldn’t be there for another 5 months at least.

    Ok, typing all that out made it seem like an even bigger nit pick and I have no idea how long this comment is at this point, but thanks for reading this anyone that does!

  22. #22 Martin R
    April 22, 2010

    You guys taught me the concept of “retconning”. It’s annoying!

  23. #23 marcelo
    January 2, 2012

    I agree with those on the side that the details of the technology or the scientific credibility are not the main flaw for SF writing.
    I am a scientist and I read the Hyperion Saga long ago, but the more persistent elements that this books left in my memory are not related to the quality of the scientific background.

    The sole idea of the cruciform organism and its curse of endless life was already very attractive without knowing its details. Unfortunately I agree that Hyperion saga starts so well and then it only goes down after the first book. In fact, the plot has a 180 deg turn a la terminator when the shrike becomes a protector although it was originally a baroque-awesome-evil killing machine. Similarly the fate of the characters in the first book was a bit wasted by the irruption of Aenea as a kind of saviour.

    Also the concept of the machine and human evolution producing superior entities was very attractive and I would say that pulling some pseudo physics to explain these god-like entities and their worlds was nothing but brilliant.

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