"Hyperion," Dan Simmons

Pros: Engaging, absorbing, unusual, graceful, elegant. Has depth and character, wit and humor
Cons: Some might find parts of it slow; cliffhanger ending
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 10/20/2003

Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” is a science fiction “Canterbury Tales,” with seven pilgrims telling their stories to each other as they journey to a far-off land together. It’s been long enough since I last read the “Canterbury Tales,” however, that I wouldn’t even dare to attempt further comparison. Besides, this book deserves to stand on its own two feet.

The time is centuries in our future, when our planet has been destroyed and humanity has moved into the stars. A planet called Hyperion lies just outside of the “Web” of humanity, and it holds a strange and deadly secret. A creature called the Shrike stalks its sands, slaughtering many and sparing others seemingly without sense. It is intimately tied to the Time Tombs, empty tombs surrounded by entropic fields that protect them from the ravages of time… and move them backwards through time. The so-called Church of the Shrike has spread throughout the Web, and many believe that the Shrike, or Lord of Pain, is humanity’s destruction–its punishment for ruining Old Earth in something called simply the Big Mistake.

The attacks of the Shrike have escalated in recent times, and an alien force called the Ousters seems set to invade human space via Hyperion. The last of Hyperion’s citizens–those the Shrike hasn’t killed off yet–are being evacuated. Yet the Church of the Shrike has sponsored one last pilgrimage, and only seven very specific people are to be allowed on this pilgrimage.

The alcoholic Consul has no wish to return to Hyperion, yet knows he must. The Priest returns bearing more pain than any man should have to experience. The Colonel’s agenda on this pilgrimage has nothing at all to do with petitioning the Shrike. The Poet’s past is intimately tied up in the history of Hyperion, while the Teacher cares only about the welfare of his baby daughter. The Templar ship’s captain is a mystery unto himself, and the Detective came in someone else’s place entirely.

Each of these people carries a story, a story that ties him or her intimately to humanity, history, Hyperion, and the Shrike itself. One of them may be an alien spy. And this is a most dangerous pilgrimage on which they have embarked…

All the grace and beauty of a rose unfolding

The universe of this book is not a simple one. There is a great deal going on in it–much history, many new terms and technologies, great religions and societies. There are two major dangers for such a universe: one is the author who stops to explain everything going on, either by inserting pages and pages of exposition or by having characters core-dump large amounts of information to each other that they really have no good reason to discuss. The other is the author who tosses about terms and references without ever adequately explaining them, so that ultimately you wander around the book confused, like a lone visitor in a vast museum where none of the displays are labeled.

Simmons finds the most graceful and elegant middle ground I’ve ever seen. In the beginning you will see terms go by that you don’t understand, and sometimes it may confuse you for a short time–characters speak naturally, which means they don’t explain things they have no reason to. Simmons certainly avoids long stretches of boring exposition (I can’t remember reading a single one, which means either they weren’t there or they were so engrossing and seamless that I simply didn’t notice). But Simmons has set things up such that each pilgrim’s story ties intimately into the fabric of the universe he has woven, such that eventually, in a most natural and perfectly-paced way, things become clear.

The Big Mistake, Sad King Billy’s colony of artists, the Ouster invasion… you’ll experience the elements of each one for yourself in time, rather than having it force-fed to you as background for the current story.

It is, quite simply, one of the most elegant tales I’ve ever read. The prose is rich and wonderful. In fact, “Hyperion” is so absorbing that when I reached the end of chapter one, at just the 102-page mark (out of 482), I had to stop for a while before moving on to chapter two. I had gotten so caught up in the first pilgrim’s story, so drawn into it, that I had to take a little time to disengage myself before moving on to the next tale. And that’s very high praise–flaws tend to pull me out of a narrative pretty quickly. (In fact, I remember only one very brief moment in the entire book when something struck me as “off”–when one of the pilgrims’ stories includes a particular scene that, as far as I’m aware, he shouldn’t have been able to know about or deduce in any way.)

That wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to stop and take a break before moving on, either. This is no light beach-reading–it’s an interconnected, deeply moving web of tales. Reading the story of one pilgrim sheds light on small details of interactions between characters a hundred or more pages earlier. And it isn’t the all-too-convenient sort of web of connections and coincidences that stretches suspension of disbelief in some stories; in “Hyperion” it’s a much subtler and more organic thing.

Each character has a strong, palpably different voice from the others, without being ridiculously quirky or overdone (well, okay, one character is a bit overdone, but that’s deliberate affectation on his part). Each one is human and complex, not a stereotype or cardboard cutout.

The story contains elements of horror, science fiction, and mysticism. Do be aware that if you’re squeamish there are a few scenes that would certainly make you uncomfortable, and there are also elements of explicit sex. None of it is gratuitous, in my opinion.

“Hyperion” is a well-known book, and that is for very good reason. A few people who simply must have fight scenes and explosions on every other page might find parts of this book a bit slow, but for myself, the pacing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The book does end on a cliffhanger, so if you plan to read it, go ahead and get the sequel, “The Fall of Hyperion,” before you start reading “Hyperion.” You won’t want to wait to start it once you finish the first book.

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