Classic review: Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos 1) by Dan Simmons

Hyperion is one of the best science fiction books of the 20th century.  It perfected the art of worldbuilding, while providing several very personal, emotionally upsetting, and gripping stories.  The writing and ideas were way ahead of their time, still ringing fresh more than three decades later.  And its subtle moral and social commentary can be applied on today’s world just as well as to a world hundreds of years into the future.

Hyperion is a backwater planet in the Hegemony system, a political entity that dominates mankind in the universe.  There are the web planets, connected with farcasters, teleportation devices that allow for instantaneous travel between worlds, and then there are the rest, which are still waiting for their farcaster terminal to be built.  Hyperion is a slight exception: for some reason, all requests to connect it to the web are being denied.

The planet is exceptional in another way as well.  It is the site of the so-called Time Tombs: mysterious structures, which exist in a separate time flow and appear to actually move back in time.  They are the home of a homicidal being, the Shrike, which tends to impale its victims on the thorns of its giant metallic tree where they are being kept artificially alive, suffering for eternity.  Still, a prominent cult rose around this Shrike, which advertised a pilgrimage to the tombs.  According to the cult, seven pilgrims would have to travel in a very specific way, and once at the end of their destination, the Shrike would grant a wish to one, while killing the other six.

The very last pilgrimage is a special one.  The Ousters, a race of space-faring humans who are the only ones not subjugated by the Hegemony, is about to attack the planet.  Chaos reigns on the surface, and the pilgrims must use subterfuge to begin their illicit journey, and some ingenuity to travel across the land where everyone disappeared in a bid to leave the planet.

The pilgrims are a special and varied bunch: a consul and former governor of Hyperion, a private detective, one of the most famous soldiers, a university professor, an ancient poet, a priest, and the captain of a flying space tree.  They realize their uniqueness, and in order to understand why the seven of them were sent on this pilgrimage, they agree to exchange their personal stories.  Stories that are full of personal tragedy, but also a glimmer of hope that the Shrike will either help them or end their pain.

I will not describe the stories.  They are fully worth exploring by an untainted mind.  I will dwell on some of the content, though.  Through these separate stories, the readers get a wonderful look at the universe that Simmons built.  You may not even realize it at first, as all of the stories are very personal, very engrossing and ultimately very tragic.  I once read that if you don’t shed a tear while reading the Scholar’s Tale, one of the stories, you are not human.  I would not go so far, but as a parent I did indeed choke a few times.  You can’t read the stories from a distant view.  Simmons forces you to close in and become part of the pilgrimage, to listen to the story as it is told after a meal or at camp.  Not all stories will do this to you, but they are varied enough that most of the audience finds at least one that will have such a personal effect.  I found several.

Through the tragedies, Simmons subtly introduces the elements of his worldbuilding.  In the beginning and throughout the book, he hits the reader over the head with superficial, but very flashy futuristic technologies: space faring giant trees, flying cars, flying carpets, teleporters, a very believable Internet, and others.  However, the real worldbuilding is introduced surreptitiously, via the pilgrims’ stories.  We learn about the final decades of Earth, how people populated planets, how entire cultures picked their habitats based on their past experience and preferences, or adopted to their environments to replicate old world’s cultures.  And how the Hegemony, a corporatist civil service apparatus (the leader is called the CEO), used the farcaster technology to assert cultural dominance and wiped out hundreds of distinct cultures.  In a sense, the worldbuilding is a repeat of colonialism in our past with American cultural hegemony at the end of the path.

Simmons does all this, the personal stories and the worldbuilding, in the most seamless way I’ve seen.  The text is very efficient, yet beautiful.  It does not reach the literary qualities of Zelazny or Lem, but that just makes it approachable to a much wider audience.  The author does not hesitate to pull on the readers’ heart strings, and sometime almost cynically introduces a personal tragedy just to drum up some additional sympathy for a protagonist.  It works beautifully, and I noticed many such elements only on my second reread, when I focused on the language and writing style.

The narrative is very tight, and I could not detect any significant plot holes or inconsistencies.  In hindsight, as I was rereading the entire series for the first time, I realized that Simmons carefully planned the original duology, as he included plenty of foreshadowing in Hyperion.  Even so, he had the amazing sense of capping the book with the perfect ending scene, so that readers who didn’t wish to continue with the series could depart satisfied with the outcome.

Speaking of scenes, Simmons also has a knack of creating some of the most vivid set pieces.  Here, I’d compare him to Zelazny again: both of them can evoke the setting and mood with seemingly random segues from the narrative, so that the reader often doesn’t even realize how vivid the visuals are becoming, until the scene is fully set up.  Be it the medieval Battle of Agincourt or a toilet on a raft in the middle of the ocean, everything seems very plausible and so close that the reader can almost touch (or smell) it.

If I can think of a single criticism of the book, it is that it’s a little too polished, and a little too cynical.  Simmons knows how to play on people’s emotions to keep them interested in his work.  He also picks a narrative structure, which had been often compared to The Canterbury Tales, which allows him to keep the narrative fresh and engaging, and to establish and refine the voices of his various protagonists more easily.  He is sometimes almost clinical in his prose, but this detachment is almost invisible on the first read.

Despite this little shortcoming, which becomes evident only on rereads, I adore Hyperion.  It is inventive, with some far-out ideas, but also very personal.  It flows through many stories and worlds of Simmons’ universe like a river.  The narrative is multi-layered, making rereads just as fun as the first read.  Even now, more than thirty years after the first publication, the book feels fresh and timely, ready for the next batch of science fiction readers.  Hyperion is a true classic, which I intend to reread every few years, and to introduce to my children when they get older.

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