Hyperion by Dan Simmons – Book Review

hyperionFeatured image – “The Shrike” by Edouard Noisette

Hyperion is one of my favourite science fiction novels. It’s one of the few books I’ve actually read twice (I’m not one of those re-reader types). When I wanted to start the sequel, Rise of Hyperion, I realized that I needed to refresh myself on all the jam-packed sci-fi goodness in the first novel (which incidentally ends hanging from the cliff right before the highly-anticipated action begins). Set in a galaxy approximately 800 years in the future, the story is actually composed of a series of separate-yet-linked tales told by each of the main characters (you can compare it to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales if that helps). Each of these pilgrims has been selected for the last journey to the planet Hyperion, to visit mysterious structures known as the “Time Tombs” which are surrounded by time-inhibiting fields. At the centre of the Time Tombs is a fearsome and enigmatic creature called “The Shrike” that is both killing machine and deity. Legend tells that when a group of pilgrims visits the Shrike, one will be granted a wish, while all the others are killed. In the novel, each pilgrim tells his or her own story during their journey to the Shrike so that together they can figure out why they have been allowed to come, and who will likely have their wish granted. If that’s not a cool premise for a novel, I don’t know what is!

It was a challenging read the first time through and I am really happy that I gave it a second try because I picked up so many more of the details that I had missed. You can think of Hyperion as “advanced” sci-fi. Simmons does not pull any punches when it comes to creating a world that piles on all kinds of science fiction concepts without much explanation. The assumption seems to be that you will be familiar with the ideas from other sci-fi or that you will pick up the references “on the run”. To that end, the galaxy of Hyperion contains “Hawking drives” (for faster-than-light space travel); “farcasters” (for inter-planetary teleportation), the “Hegemony” (the inter-planetary society of humanity) ruled by the “All Thing” (a universal governing body); the “TechnoCore” (a hive-mind society of machine artificial intelligence) and cybrids (organic, humanoid bodies for the use of artificial intelligence); treeships (space vessels composed of giant trees) and spinships (normal space vessels that are possibly propelled by spinning or use spinning to create artificial gravity — not sure on that one). Suffice it to say, there is a lot of geeky stuff in here, all just to provide very rich and deep context for the main story.

I love how much Simmons has put into this universe, from the characters (a priest, a military commander, a detective, a scholar, a poet, a ship captain, an ambassador: each are very different) to the cultural concepts (no one uses “Mr.” or “Ms.”, but uses only a gender-neutral “M.” to refer to one another formally) to even the planets (and their cool-sounding names like: “Mare Infinitus”, “Maui-Covenant”, “Sol Draconi Septem”, “Renaissance Vector”, and the Hegemony capital of “Tau Ceti Center”). This kind of detail makes it not only convincing that this could be our millennium-forward future, but it makes all the characters and their stories feel so much more real as well.

As for the stories themselves, the tales within a tale, I found them to be mixed. While I loved the variety of style and content, some of the stories appealed to me more than others. The first one, the story told by a priest about his mentor’s experience among the indigenes of Hyperion, was the most memorable. The Scholar’s tale, about his daughter who became an archaelogist and contracts a mysterious condition while studying the Time Tombs, was also enjoyable. Some of the other tales are a bit more surreal or fantastical, not to mention that some like the Poet’s tale got a bit free with the tone. In any case, what made them all interesting was that they inevitably came back to the topic of the Shrike (though from very different perspectives). It really brings these stories together to have a central mystery at their core. Simmons’s writing style is great, with nice pacing, but it can get a bit overly-descriptive at times — but to be fair, it’s not always clear if that’s intended to be the voice of the story-teller.

Overall, I found this novel to be amazing and even more so as I am currently enjoying its sequel (which not only details the pilgrims’ encounters with the Shrike, but also the galaxy-spanning war that is precipitated by surrounding events). I recommend this book as a must-read for any true sci-fi fans (4.5 out of 5)

Yggdrasil tree ship (illustration by J. S. Rossbach)

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