Jan 21, 2013

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for HYPERION by Dan Simmons
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In the distant future, Old Earth has died, humans have spread throughout the universe, and technology has blossomed to both our advantage and detriment. As large-scale war looms, several people are called on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion—so named after English Romantic poet John Keats’ unfinished work. It’s on Hyperion that the mysterious and deadly monster known as the Shrike can be found near the Time Tombs, a place that confounds archaeologists and physicists alike. As the travelers make their journey, each recounts his or her life story, revealing the many ways they are all connected to each other and their destination.

Science Fiction Meets The Canterbury Tales

The universe author Dan Simmons has created in Hyperion is expansive, with many characters, worlds, and technological devices. Entering such foreign, futuristic territory tends to go one of two ways in speculative fiction: Either the story begins slowly as you are introduced to the mechanics of the world, or the author opens a floodgate and hopes you’ll keep up. Simmons chose to unleash the flood, and there’s a lot of techie jargon at the beginning of Hyperion—some of it dated—that might put off readers who aren’t usually open to science fiction. (Tree ships? Fatline messages? All Thing? Farcasting?) Still, if you can roll with this brand of immersion, the book is mostly rewarding beyond its lexicon of buzzwords and occasional pitfalls.

Hyperion is separated into several parts. The book’s present-day story, where war looms on the horizon, is told in a limited third-person perspective, but most of the book is made up of several first-person accounts, á la The Canterbury Tales, from each of the main characters who are on the Shrike pilgrimage. Each character is on the pilgrimage for either personal or political reasons; all are guarding secrets and frightened for their lives.

There is the priest who is physically and horrifically tied to Hyperion, the famed colonel who’s had inexplicable visions, the brash poet whose muse is a monster from nightmares, the scholar who hopes his daughter’s heartbreaking illness can end on Hyperion (as it started), the detective who carries the memories of a reincarnated writer, and a government official who is weighed down by his knowledge of endless corruption and conspiracies.

These first-person accounts are a mixed bag. While I loved the stories the priest, poet, and scholar told, and the government official ended up having some things of interest, I was less intrigued by the tales the war general and detective had to tell. I did some skim-reading. Perhaps that’s a matter of taste, though, and Simmons does deserve credit for giving each character a clear voice, regardless. He’s also pretty good at bending genres whenever and wherever he pleases.

For me, where Simmons falters most is in thinking we need to know about all of the elements of his world. Presumably, this is the reason he chose to write the book in a way that allowed him to tour the universe. As much as I enjoyed some of the characters’ backstories, I would have preferred Simmons stayed out of the past and instead focus on what was only relevant to the third-person plotting that surrounded each backstory. Despite the largeness of the world and some of the individual character’s histories, this book has a very small story itself: some people journey to another planet. Enjoyable or not, the detours into each traveler’s past seriously detract from the book’s present. As such, Hyperion feels a little like a teaser for the real story that’s set to unfold in the rest of the series.

So what makes me generally like this book and want to continue reading, as I plan to?

Above all, it’s the Shrike, which is one of the best, creepiest monsters I’ve encountered in science fiction or horror. I’d rather not spoil the details that exist about the Shrike because how they are revealed through the character backstories in Hyperion is really great. Simmons kept my skin crawling every time the Shrike—and the mysterious cult who follows the monster—came into the picture. I suspect much of the acclaim for this book and the series is based on this creative bogeyman.

Hyperion has its problems, both technical and creative, but I’m looking forward to seeing what befalls my favorite characters and the Shrike that lies in wait. (I have so many questions. Is the Shrike just misunderstood? Is the whole world universe going to end?!) Whether Simmons can hold me for the entire series depends largely on the next book, The Fall of Hyperion.

Quotes from Hyperion

In the beginning was the Word. Then came the fucking word processor. Then came the thought processor. Then came the death of literature. And so it goes.

The lieutenant took his time scanning their visa chips, letting them wait in the drizzle, occasionally making a comment with the idle arrogance common to such nobodies who have just come into a small bit of power.

And Sol awakened half laughing, half chilled by the dream. Amused by the thought that the entire Talmud and the Old Testament might be nothing more than a cosmic shaggy-dog story.

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