Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

One-line summary: The Canterbury Tales as space opera, with a homicidal spikey alien god-thing stalking the pilgrims.

Spectra, 1990, 482 pages

On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope--and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

A stunning tour de force, this Hugo Award-winning novel is the first volume in a remarkable new science fiction epic.

Science fiction, by its nature, is topical -- you can look at books going all the way back to the 20s, all of which are set in the far, far future, but you can tell when they were written. Not just by the writing style and whether or not there are any major characters who aren't white males (though a non-white-male is a big tip-off that either it was not written before the 80s, or else when it was written it was considered "groundbreaking" because a science fiction author could actually imagine someone besides a white dude slinging death rays next to tentacled aliens), but by the technology, the themes, and oh gods, the sex scenes.

Sometimes it seems like every decade of science fiction is just a new batch of Asimovs and E.E. "Doc" Smiths. This is both a good and bad thing. Hyperion is a very 90s book. It has that characteristic of ST:TNG-influenced late-80s early-90s sci-fi: vast interstellar Federations/Hegemonies/Commonwealths/Imperiums/whatever, mostly human but aliens are starting to become more than lackeys or BEMs like they were throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there are more "social issues" popping up but we haven't gotten into the post-human/trans-human/dystopian/singularity era yet, and basically, the far future still looks mostly like Earth (and more often than not, the U.S.A.) with space ships and James Bond gadgets for all.

Fun times, but twenty years on, Hyperion is not completely hoary and even remains kind of relevant, almost-but-not-quite contemporary, but it's showing its age. (The biggest clue to early 90s sci-fi, besides the Hegemony of a Million Billion Stars being mostly white dudes, is that all the technology is unimaginably advanced except for the computers, which are struggling to accomplish what the Internet can do today.)

Hyperion won a Hugo and a Locus Award in 1990. It's got some great storytelling, Big Ideas, and an epic scale, which is how we liked our sci-fi back then. (Some of us still do!) The writing is part of what sets it apart from many other similarly-themed space operas; the book is full of literary allusions, starting with the title, and there is a poetic quality to many of the stories within (chromed nipples and impalements notwithstanding). There wasn't any horrible prose and much of it was quite good.

The main story actually takes place mostly on one planet -- Hyperion, a backwater that hosts a mysterious artifact known as the Time Tombs, guarded by a legendary creature known as the Shrike, believed by most to be a myth.

As the novel begins, the Hegemony -- an interstellar empire made up of the descendants of Old Earth (which was destroyed in the way Earth usually gets destroyed in these stories, by humans being their usual arrogant asshole selves) -- is about to go to war with the Ousters, "space barbarians" descended from the people who fled Earth before everyone else did. At first, the Ousters appear to be much like Firefly's Reavers, but it turns out they are quite sophisticated and technological trans-humanists, and while they're not particularly nice, they're not particularly worse than the Hegemony, either.

On the eve of Armageddon, as the cover blurb says, seven people arrive on Hyperion to make a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs. According to legend, a group of pilgrims (which must be a prime number) journeying to the Time Tombs will encounter the Shrike -- who will kill all but one, and grant the survivor a boon.

Most of the book consists of these travelers taking turns telling their tales: who they are, and why they are making the pilgrimage. So Hyperion is, in a sense, six short stories (the seventh member of the group does not tell his story, at least not in this book) tied together in one meta-story:

  • The Priest's Tale: The Man who Cried God
  • The Soldier's Tale: The War Lovers
  • The Poet's Tale: Hyperion Cantos
  • The Scholar's Tale: The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter
  • The Detective's Tale: The Long Good-Bye
  • The Consul's Tale: Remembering Siri

Each of the pilgrims' tales is an entertaining story in its own right. The Priest's Tale is almost Lovecraftian horror; the Soldier's Tale is your basic military sci-fi sex and violence bloodbath; the Poet's Tale is alternately funny, satirical, and horrific; the Scholar's Tale is sad and heartbreaking; the Detective's Tale is a cyberpunk action romp; and the Consul's Tale is where we learn who the bad guys really are (maybe).

As they tell their stories (which take place on different planets of the Hegemony, but all end up tying back to Hyperion), they are making their way towards the Time Tombs. Besides slowly building towards the climax, we're learning about the Hegemony, the Ousters, the AI TechnoCore, and the Time Tombs. It's a skillful way to infodump the entire history and culture of several interstellar societies.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the fact that trends have changed and science fiction has moved on (and maybe the fact that my own reading is not so limited as it was in the 90s, when I read practically nothing but genre fiction) left me feeling that this was a great story, but not particularly, shall I say, "deep." Simmons throws lots of sci-fi wonderfulness at us, but none of the themes were new even when he wrote Hyperion. Also, I had a hard time getting past that old trope of each planet in the Hegemony being basically a monoculture and monoclimate ported from Old Earth, so you've got Planet Vatican, Planet Hawaii, Planet Kibbutz, Planet Fanatic Jihadis, Planet Cyberpunk, etc.

And my last complaint: there is no climax. Hyperion brings our pilgrims right to the entrance of the Time Tombs, but you have to read The Fall of Hyperion to find out what happens next. I'm hooked enough to (probably) finish this series (The Hyperion Cantos consists of four books), but be warned that book one is in no way stand-alone.

(If anyone who has read the rest of the series can tell me if it gets better/worse/stays the same, I'd appreciate it. I want to know what happens next, but I don't want to invest my time if it turns into a stinker, like so many SF&F trilogies-plus do.)

Verdict: Everything you want in epic space opera: a not-so-benevolent FederationHegemony, invading transhuman space hordes, running gun battles through world-hopping teleportation networks, cyberwarfare against hostile AIs, and a time-traveling alien Freddy Krueger, all woven around seven travelers who might be the cause or the prevention of Armageddon. This is the quintessence of genre fiction, with all the good and bad that that implies.
Tags: books, dan simmons, reviews, science fiction

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