Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmon’s Hyperion is one of the most remarkable works of science fiction that I have ever read. If I hadn’t already done it on Isaac Asimov, I would have written my undergraduate dissertation on this novel. Hyperion does more than tell a great story, although it does do that, it is also one of the most philosophically complex works of science fiction ever written. If I were to pick one novel to vindicate the genre from those who consider it to be…well, a frivolous waste of time, it would be this one. The novel takes strong intertextual influences from John Keats, the title being a reference to an unfinished Milton-esque epic from the poet, with a structure gleefully pilfered from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. I’m a firm believer that escapist fun is as a respectable reason to read and write as any other, but sometimes a novel offers something more, something that sticks with you, raising difficult and not always comfortable questions. Hyperion is such a novel.

The setting of Hyperion seemingly has nothing obviously unique about it at first, but there are a few things which set it apart from other settings in the genre. Several elements from other settings are present here; an Earth long destroyed by the hubris of humanity, a morally ambiguous ruling elite and AIs existing in an uneasy pact with humans are a few examples. What makes this setting so interesting is not it’s separation from Earth and what we know, usually the draw of sci-fi and fantasy, but the way in which the people of the ‘Human Hegemony’ still cling to the art, writings and architecture of ‘Old Earth’, creating very little new of any merit for themselves. In Hyperion, Earth seems something of a universal muse for the creative energies of humanity. Fictional space faring human civilisations are usually presented as atheistic, and any religions included are bizarre fictional ones which usually serve as antagonists. The main protagonists of this novel include a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew, and the desperate attempts by these men of faith to retain a belief in God and the teachings of their respective holy book in a society to which it seems less and less relevant is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Subconsciously, the people of the Human Hegemony seem to yearn for Earth, forever lost to them in a calamity known as the ‘Big Mistake.’ So although the Hyperion universe seems on its surface to offer nothing new, Simmons use of intertextuality, containing references to everything from the Shakespeare to The Wizard of Oz (and most particularly John Keats and Chaucer), creates a vivid image of a civilisation which has struggled to create its own identity, relying on the great achievements of the past.

The story is that of a pilgrimage to the eponymous planet Hyperion. Hyperion is home to some mysterious relics known as ‘Time Tombs’, with the area surrounding them seeming to move backwards in time. Linked to the Time Tombs are the Shrike, terrifying and deadly creatures which are the subjects of the influential and hated cult known as ‘The Church of the Shrike.’ Hyperion has entered the sights of the ‘Ousters’, a group of humans who refused to join the Hegemony at its inception, and who are now waging war upon the Hegemony’s planets. The Hegemony send seven pilgrims, each with a link to Hyperion in their past, to the Time Tombs to discover the secrets of the Skrike. One of the pilgrims, a poet, suggests that each tells the story of their link to Hyperion as they travel, and it is these tales which make up the bulk of the novel. Like ‘The Canterbury Tales’, each pilgrim’s tale tells a different kind of story in a different way, which reflects the personality of the teller. There is an epistolary narrative of journal entries from a scholar priest researching a mysterious tribe, an old fashioned military story of violence and sex, the self indulgent ramblings of an incredibly talented poet forced to churn out drivel, a truly heartbreaking story of a family torn apart by a bizarre disease, a cyberpunk detective story and a Time Traveller’s Wife-esque love story.

Although the base narrative of the pilgrims journey to the Time Tombs is interesting enough, it is these stories contained within which make the novel truly great. I was particularly impressed by the ‘Scholar’s Tale’, which left me more genuinely upset by a story than I have felt in a very, very long time. If I were to find any flaw in the structure of this book, it is that absolutely nothing is resolved or revealed in this particular novel regarding the mystery of the Shrike and the Time Tombs, with these are presumably reserved for the sequel (which I shall be reading soon), The Fall of Hyperion. When structuring a multi-novel story arc, it is important to provide at least some pay off in each individual novel, and there really isn’t any here. The quality of the pilgrim’s tales easily make up for this slight flaw however, and each would make an excellent short story in their own right, and are only enhanced by their connection to a broader narrative.

Simmons is an incredibly evocative writer; he is eloquent with his prose, and yet you feel that not a single word is wasted. His descriptions are detailed without being too lengthy, and his characters speak with a humanity which allow them to transcend the stock characters which they could easily have become. One of the things which I find most impressive about the writing in this book is Simmons’ ability to slip effortlessly into a multitude of styles, seemingly as comfortable telling a Chandler-esque detective story as he is with hard-boiled military sci-fi. Not since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten have I been so impressed with a writer’s literary versatility within a single novel.

Each of the pilgrims is an incredibly vivid figure, although not necessarily hugely well developed or complex. Here Simmons does not quite live up to Chaucer, in which each tale painted a vivid picture of the one telling it. We do not really know what makes these characters tick, with perhaps the exception of the incredibly self confessional poet Martin Sileneus. If anything, this lends the novel a believability, even as they tell their most intimate and personal stories to one another, elements of their personality and who they are at their core are held back to the other pilgrims and the reader. At least based on this novel, these characters aren’t necessarily among the most memorable in science fiction, but their stories are.

I really cannot overstate how impressed I am by this novel. I almost don’t want to read the sequel, terrified as I am that it cannot live up to the original (I know I will eventually though). If you have any love for science fiction at all, this is a novel that simply has to be read. My one regret in reading Hyperion is that I did not read it sooner. 

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