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Review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

By / June 22, 2011 / no comments

In the distant future humanity has spread to hundreds of planets and is kept together by a loose confederacy, the Hegemony, and a network of Farcaster Terminals which allow for instant transportation. Beyond the civilized planets roaming through deep space move the nomadic, and barbaric, Ousters. As the novel opens we learn that the Hegemony, aided by the TechnoCore, a group of super intelligent, sentient AIs, plan to lay claim to the planet Hyperion in order to forestall an Ouster invasion there.

Hyperion is the location of much of the action and is home to a number of idiosyncrasies namely the Labyrinth, a series of unexplained, subterranean mazes which are present on some planets, and the Time Tombs, buildings built for an unknown purpose in a valley where time does not flow forward steadily but instead ebbs and flows in tidal fashion. Protecting these tombs is the Shrike, a being seemingly composed of a network of metal spikes and razors who somehow moves independently of time. A well-sized church has grown up around the shrike, and each year seven pilgrims make the journey to him; according to legend six are killed and one has their wishes granted.

It is here that the framing narrative begins; the Consul, a retired diplomat, is bid by the leader of the Hegemony to join six others on the pilgrimage to investigate the Time Tombs and the Shrike in advance of the Ouster invasion. In a clear allusion to Canterbury Tales as they travel each pilgrim shares their history and tragic connection to Hyperion. There’s Father Hoyt, a Jesuit priest, Colonel Fedhmahn Kassad, a soldier in FORCE the Hegemony space fleet, Martin Silenus, the foul-mouthed poet and possibly the only surviving man born on Earth, Sol Weintraub, a Jew trying to save his daughter from her tragic illness, Brawne Lamia a detective wrapped up in interplanetary intrigue and Het Masteen, a Templar and captain of the Treeship Yggdrassil.

This may all sound a bit confusing, and there is in fact quite a lot thrown at the reader in the first few pages of the novel, but it is all explained (well, not quite all-there are sequels after all) with incredible grace; by the end you’ll have no trouble understanding what’s happening, if not why. Likewise the various plot lines flow from one to the other, each building on the other, illuminating a new area of the world of Hyperion. From Martin Silenus we experience the Hegemony’s decadence and from Brawne Lamia its poverty. Father Hoyt and Sol Weintraub expose the society’s views on religion, the former also serving to introduce us to the world of Hyperion and its mysteries. Fedhmahn Kassad and the Consul describe the aggressive imperialism of the Hegemony. The end result is an incredibly clear and compete portrait of the universe Simmons has invented culminating in the revelation of the roles played by the Ousters and the TechnoCore in the conflict. The novel is also full of allusions to works both in modern science fiction and classical English literature; the titular planet is named after a poem by John Keats, for example. Several of the characters’ stories are also constructed as homages to science fiction works; Fedhmahn Kassad to Starship Troopers and older space operas in general, but with a more modern style and sensibility, Lamia Brawne to cyberpunk and detective novels, and Martin Silenus to the Dying Earth novels. Because of this diversity of narratives there is something for everyone in this novel; romance, action, intrigue, artistry, tragedy and theology are all present and allow each other to exist In fact the stylistic elements of each of these influences are brought out of the stories that allude to them and inform the creation of the entire universe; it’s a remarkable synthesis and interesting in its own right to see how the different genres interact.

Given the divided, almost serial, framing of the plot where to each protagonist a story is dedicated, it’s unsurprising that the best, most interesting characters have the best stories. Though none of the characters are flat, far from it, Kassad’s single-mindedness tends to pale next the stoic determination of Sol in the face of tragedy or the well-paced psychological, theological and later physical, horror of Father Hoyt’s tale, which also has the advantage of novelty (it is told first) and of creativity and symbolism that produces the Tesla trees, the cruciform, the Bikura, an isolated civilization that Hoyt is investigating, and the fate of Father Dure the scholar he was tasked with finding. Lamia too suffers as a character due to her story’s role as a tool of exposition before the novel’s climax. Martin Silenus is probably the most interesting character; a poet of extraordinary talent who converses with crudeness to match. Before the Earth was destroyed his was cryonically frozen and sent on a slower than light journey to another planet while his savings account appreciates. It doesn’t work; instead he wakes up poor and brain damaged. In a book where characters are very much defined by their goals Martin’s stands out for its oddness; only by braving death at the hands of the shrike can he complete his masterpiece. The exception to this is the Consul; despite being the main character during the journey on Hyperion between stories he is the one we know the least about; all the others we feel we know even before they share their stories except him. Despite this his story is one of the best, a truly unique love story lays the groundwork for rebellion and more.

The supporting cast is almost as strong and among them four stand out. Paul Dure, the Jesuit scholar whom Hoyt is searching for and whose journal comprises a significant part of the book. Meina Gladstone, CEO of the Hegemon and, depending on how you look at her a ruthless Machiavellian figure or a savior of the human race. Sad King Billy a patron of the arts amidst the chaos of Hyperion. And of course, unforgettably, the Shrike; in every way inscrutable, an organic killing machine of unknown origins and motivation and a palpable manifestation of fear who maintains a possibly apocryphal Tree of Agony on which its victims are impaled for all eternity. It is truly one of science fictions greatest villains.

Though it may sound confusing, even contrived, Hyperion is almost flawlessly executed, whether as a single coherent story, a series of novellas or a set of incredibly compelling character portraits.

 

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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