After experiencing (and loving) Dan Simmons’ take on space opera as displayed in his Hyperion Cantos, I was looking forward to delving into some more of his work, and it didn’t take me long to find some. The Hollow Man (1992) recently caught my attention at a used bookstore, and reading it has only added to my growing admiration for Simmons. This novel is very different from the Hyperion stuff, and takes place much closer to home. It’s a mysterious SF suspense thriller (think Dean Koontz here for a general idea of the style), and Simmons seems just as comfortable with this type of story as he is with the grand arena of space opera.
Jeremy Bremen has an exceedingly rare gift: telepathy. Only it’s more of a curse, as the incessant noise of thoughts from other people can be maddening. However, he has been extraordinarily lucky in finding another telepath and gaining some relief. For the last several years he and his wife Gail, using their abilities together, have been able to shield each other from the “neurobabble” of the surrounding world. When his wife dies, though, that protective mindshield is gone, and Bremen is once again subjected to the torment of his accursed ability. As his life is turned upside down and he struggles with his affliction and loss, Bremen begins a downward spiral into emptiness and despair. As the darkness within him deepens, he burns his house and starts a cross-country journey that will bring him into confrontation with other sources of darkness and violence, including a serial killer, a rapist, and other criminals. During his long, dark night of the soul, Bremen himself sometimes engages in questionable or illegal behavior. Yet through it all, there are moments of kindness and glimmers of hope, and the feeling that Bremen has some greater destiny to fulfill.
Besides the theme of telepathic anguish, the book also revolves very much around a shocking discovery involving a new understanding of the nature of reality. This is based on some of the more fanciful implications of quantum mechanics, and Simmons also draws on chaos theory, fractals, strange attractors, and the like, tying all these together to come up with a suitably bizarre and mind-blowing explanation for the novel’s strange events. To be honest, I’m not sure I even completely understood the model of reality being put forth, or if it made any rigorous kind of sense; but I was relieved to see some kind of scientific explanation being attempted, rather than leaving it to the realm of the supernatural.
Simmons reuses here some of the elements and stylistic flourishes also used in his Hyperion books. For example, he likes to make reference in his fiction to real science fiction writers. In this case, two of the characters discuss Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, using the “jaunting” concept as an analogy for another process. Simmons’ interest in poetry is also evident here. As with Hyperion, the title of this book is taken from a real poem; in this case it’s Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” of course. It’s an appropriate title, for the novel shares that poem’s sense of gloominess. The chapter titles are taken from the poem as well. Also used is the very sad “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke.
While the strange discovery about reality that lies at the center of this novel may come across as a bit flaky, the book still succeeds very well on the strength of the characters and their emotional turmoil, and on the deep sense of urgent mystery that propels the story along. It’s an engaging tale of loss and redemption, of both the pain and the wonder of life, and of people just trying to make some sense out of it all. On that level The Hollow Man comes across as anything but hollow. And the more I read Dan Simmons, the more I like him.