Hyperion is the first of four science fiction novels in the series “The Hyperion Cantos”, written by Dan Simmons. I started reading Hyperion hoping for space travel, aliens, and intergalactic politics. I got all of that and have loved every minute of it, but what kept me around was its focus on the passing of time.
The book itself works as a set of short stories as much as it works as a sci-fi epic. One chapter titled “The River Lethe’s Taste is Bitter” left me reeling. I couldn’t help but make connections to my grandfather’s loss of memories to an awful disease. The depreciation of memory and function with a disease that lasts years is hard to watch. For my dad, I cannot fathom what that would mean to see his own father go through that when it was already hard to watch as a child.
In “The River Lethe’s Taste is Bitter”, we learn the story of a father and daughter named Sol and Rachel. Rachel caught a disease that caused her to age in reverse. As she aged backwards, she would lose the memory of the previous day she lived. So a month after this incident, her memory for the month previous vanished. We start the chapter with Sol holding Rachel in his arms, only a few weeks old at this point. He begins to tell the story of watching his 27-year-old daughter slowly age in reverse, back to the three week old baby in front of him.
Families struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia is all too common, but there is an understanding of deterioration at old age. In Hyperion, Dan Simmons depicts a character aging in reverse and shifts the expected caregiver from child to parent. The better half of Sol’s life is taking care of Rachel as she ages backwards.
Day by day she forgets more of the life she lived. She forgets her achievements as an archeologist, her boyfriend, and her college education and friends. Sol tries his best to explain the situation to her daily, and she does the same through pre-recorded videos that Sol has her watch every morning. She tries to keep in contact with people, but remembers them as being years and years younger than their age today. It’s confusing and troubling. Eventually she tells Sol to stop the recordings and lie to her about her condition. From then on, she wakes up every day to her parents putting on a show, pretending as if everything is normal.
Rachel’s mother eventually dies over a decade after Rachel gets the disease. Sol tells Rachel this, but the next day she forgets. He either needs to tell her over and over again about her mother’s death or lie. He decides to lie to her by saying her mother is out for the day. He says this to her every single day.
I remember my father explained to me that he did the same thing with my grandfather after my grandmother passed away. My grandfather never remembered the fact that his wife died years ago. Although my father explained it to him before, the pain, heartbreak, and confusion wasn’t something you could go through time and time again. Either my father could explain it to him when he asked about her or he could say she was out for the day.
Beautiful memories of my grandfather have stuck around, while others haven’t. For one, I always have a picture in my mind of a bowl of gumdrops he kept in his house at all times. Constantly chewing on them with the dentures he had for as long as I can remember. I remember his stubbornness to never get a new pair of shoes. This was a time before Alzheimer’s.
Then, I think about the times I saw him sweeping the dust off our driveway for the third time in a day, forgetting the last two times he did it. I remember the times he looked at me and my father, not recognizing the people he saw in front of him.
It is hard not to think about my own memory of him and how Alzheimer’s affected it. The final years of his life differ so much from my first memories of him. I can’t help thinking how hard this was for my father to watch the person that raised him disappear.. It scares me to think about going through that same thing with him in the future.
In Hyperion, every passenger on a single spaceship are going to the planet, Hyperion. It is set up as a dangerous trip and many know they will eventually die on this pilgrimage, but they do it for the people in their lives that they love. Sol goes for Rachel, who originally concocted the disease on Hyperion. She is only weeks old at this point. Is it for a chance to save her, or is it to end his own suffering?
In the real world, memory loss at an old age is almost expected. It might not be Alzheimer’s, but one thing a family will always do is hold out hope. It could be hope that they can beat whatever it is, or maybe it is hope that they can hold out one more year for their grandchild’s wedding. For me and my family, it was walking into a retirement home, hoping that he’d remember who we were.
In the last page of the chapter, Sol arrives on the spaceship on its way to Hyperion. He looks down at his daughter, now just three weeks away from no longer being alive. He sees her smile for the last time. He still holds out hope, but the girl he knows doesn’t recognize him as she did just a year before, let alone 27 years earlier.
I came to Hyperion for my love of sci-fi, but what is keeping me around isn’t space travel, galactic politics, and teleportation (although all of that is VERY good), but instead the grounded stories of people fighting back against the endless onslaught of time. It is a powerful story about resilience and care that pushed me to confront some of my own deepest fears.