Book Review: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

This week’s book needs no introduction, but I’m going to do one anyway because something has to go in this space. It’s the Hugo and Locus Award-winning Hyperion. I’m sure we’ve all been left cold by award winners before though – could it be the case for me with Hyperion? If you follow me on Twitter you might already know the answer, but read on to find out!

From the blurb:

The universe of the Human Hegenomy is under threat. Invasion by the warlike Ousters looms, and the mysterious schemes of the secessionist AI TechnoCore bring chaos ever closer.

On the eve of disaster, seven pilgrims set out on a quest for the legendary Time Tombs on Hyperion, home to the Shrike, part god and part killing machine with powers that transcend the limits of time and space. The pilgrims have resolved to discover nothing less than the secrets of the universe itself.

The fate of the universe hangs in the balance then. Isn’t it always the way? But leave any preconceptions you might have at the door – Hyperion is anything but predictable. For a start, that setup, with the seven pilgrims telling their stories to one another, is inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There’s not much in sci-fi that uses that as its starting point. Much of the deeper meaning behind this and the various other literary allusions might well be lost on those who haven’t studied the likes of Keats or Chaucer – or, indeed, have forgotten much of what they knew about them, as in my case – but the repeated references to both never feel like Simmons is showing off. They add flavour, but don’t spoil the taste. That the town of Keats on Hyperion itself is so named feels perfectly natural, as events in Martin Silenus’ story make abundantly clear.

The form Simmons has chosen here could at first cause Hyperion to be mistaken for a Bradbury style “fix-up” novel, in the style of The Martian Chronicles; that is, an overarching narrative being used to connect a collection of what are actually unconnected stories. But in reality, it becomes clear after one or two chapters that Simmons is eking out the world building, giving it to us in little doses as it becomes relevant and when it’s pertinent to that particular tale, but unafraid of referring to key institutions or structures before their storytellers mention them. It’s an intelligent and daring approach to storytelling which makes reading feel like a rewarding experience; dots are joined across hundreds of pages to give a fuller and more organic feeling picture than would have been achieved through massive info dumps. Everything just feels very well woven together, despite the wildly differing tone of some of the accounts – there’s Gibson-esque cyberpunk (complete with a loving nod in the form of a brief mention of the legendary figure of “Cowboy Gibson”) and military sci-fi, as well as well as plenty of moments of humour and heartbreak. So much heartbreak.

Simmons wisely resists the temptation to “overpopulate” his setting with locations too; despite the instantaneous travel afforded humanity by farcaster portals connecting worlds, it almost never feels like there’s any breathless, Star Wars style planet hopping going on. Hyperion itself allows for any number of interesting locations – no desert planet or city planet shortcuts here – with Simmons equally capable of making the fantastical believable and the mundane memorable thanks to his excellent prose. Tombs and temples make for atmospheric and mysterious locations anyway, but the gothic flourishes he wields just add another level to these spaces. It certainly doesn’t hurt the atmosphere, of course, to have a menacing and unknowable antagonist stalking through the narrative. The Shrike looms larger in some stories than it does in others, at times directly interacting with the storyteller and on other occasions affecting them thanks to its long reach through the Temple of the Shrike. That it can have such an effect on the lives of the protagonists only serves to make it all the more menacing, and – as Adam Roberts points out in the introduction to this edition – it’s a figure well served by mystery. 

Hyperion not only stands the test of time, it endures as a high watermark of science fiction and a demonstration of what the genre is capable of. Authors who would seek to distance themselves from the genre fiction fans that embrace them would do well to look to Hyperion and see how beloved and highly regarded it remains.

Currently reading: Prison of Sleep, Tim Pratt
Currently listening: Rust in Peace, Megadeth

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

    1. It was my first read, yes. And I don’t know if I’ll read the rest. I absolutely loved it, but am also aware that things get explained in the sequels and I’m not sure if I want them to be, if that makes sense. Would you recommend I carry on? I want to read more Simmons, and am very tempted by Ilium, but will read the rest of the Cantos if enough people say it’s worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

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