Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos 1), Dan Simmons (Bantam Books, 1989)

Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.(In this case, part of series)

In brief:

Dan Simmon‘s masterpiece, Hyperion is the first volume of a series clearly inspired in part by Keats, Chaucer and a slew of classical authors. It is a series of interrelated short stories told in a Canterbury Tales fashion, that really serve as little more than the setup for the next volume. It ends abruptly, but is very literary, quite thoughtful and highly enjoyable. 

Setting:

Far future interstellar space where Earth has long since been destroyed, AI exist, and humans have split into two distinct factions: Hegemony and Ousters

In Depth:

Here is something that everyone who is vaguely interested in this novel should know: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, are really just one book divided into two volumes. Oh, it is also the start of a series of the same name, but this book is part one of a two volume set and has less conclusion to it than The Fellowship of the Ring.  Rumor has it that Simmons’ did not even know that the publishers were going to divide it into two volumes, and so was as surprised as many of the readers when the book ended abruptly just when the story got going.  

If you know that, then this book is really an enjoyable read; if you don’t, I would think it sucks.  It really does leave you just when the story get’s going, and I know one reader who has never read anything by Simmons since because she was so peeved.  Having said that, I did know that Hyperion was a two volume novel and so enjoyed it and look forward to finishing it when I pick up the next volume. 

Hyperion (at least volume one) can be viewed as six short stories told in a Canterbury Tales-esque fashion, with a single over-story tying them together.  The over-arching tale is that of seven non-believer pilgrims going to an arguably sacred site inhabited by a mysterious monster[1] called the Shrike, while the invasion force of the barbarian Ousters looms closer and closer to the planet on which this site lies.  Among these psuedopilgrims may be a traitor to the Hegemony, some man or woman linked to the Ousters and so helping the barbarians with their invasion.  To that end there are two elements to the over-story; one: what is the Shrike and the mystery of the sacred site it inhabits, and two: who, if anyone, is the traitor?[2] 

As complex as this over-arching story is, the true core of this book lies in the six short stories that make up the bulk of the text.  Each story is the tale of one of the travelers: a priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar, a detective, and a consul (of the diplomatic variety), and reveals not only something about the characters in question, but also about the world they inhabit, the nature of the Shrike, and of the Time Tombs it haunts. To this end the story is brilliantly executed, for it really does fill in the blanks and build the sense of mystery, suspense and fear without ever really relying on info-dumps or as-you-know-Bob’s.  As a result, as we make our way through each seemingly separate but actually intertwined short story, we also move candidly through the main plot line and the world in which they live.

From a technical writing standpoint Hyperion’s execution is also interesting.  Each story is told in a slightly different voice reminiscent of the kind of narrative that such a character would tell.  Thus, the detective’s tale takes the form of a first person narrative reminiscent of a pulp fiction gum shoe dick story, while the scholar’s is told in third person in an authoritative style. While this works reasonably well, personally, I think Simmons could have stretched the differences even more greatly, forcing an even greater difference into the varying the Point-of-View voices.  Even so, what he pulls off is solid and it is possible a greater difference in voice would have proven too jarring to the reader.

Having said that, there are a great many passages that really don’t need to be quite as long as they are.  I found myself occasionally skimming through parts of the text, no doubt missing out on the linguistic beauty of his descriptions, but in no way missing out on the plot.  As many of my more loyal followers know, I love good flowing text, and have no problem with the use of grand prose and flowery language.  Still, there are times when you just want to say “Get on with it!” in this book.  

Regardless, this is one of the few examples of American Science Fiction that is “literary” in its style and epic in its approach.  There is a great joy that ran through me as I tried to marry each of Simmons’ pilgrims to Chaucer’s (none are a direct correlation, but there are elements that as very cleverly done), and determine in what ways this book related to the works of the same name by Keats and/or Longfellow, beyond those obvious connections that the author spells out.  Indeed, it was very clear very early on in the reading that the symbolic and thoughtful elements of the book ran very deep.  I was no more than half-way through the first of the shorts tales in the book before I realized I could trust the author when he ran off on some strange or seemingly irrelevant element of the story. That, by itself, was a quite enjoyable experience.

So, in the end, I really enjoyed this book, but don’t think that it will be everyone’s cup of tea.  Indeed, I even thought about giving it an Omega rating, though one really does have to read the whole thing to decide that.  In some ways it can be viewed as slow moving and more thoughtful than adventurous (though there are some very good action sequences in it).  If you want a fast paced, action packed Ripping Yarn, go elsewhere, but if you are interested in a thoughtful read that is more akin to the British School of New Space Opera (e.g. Reynolds and especially Banks), I think you may well enjoy this.

Of course, I may totally disavow this review upon reading The Fall of Hyperion Hyperion Cantos 2…

 


[1] Well, what else are you going to call a giant multi-armed metal thing covered with blades that rips shreds people apart, including 99% of pilgrims who come to the site?

[2] Wow, that was a really hard sentence to punctuate.  I could have re-written it I suppose, but it was more fun to experiment with sentence structure…. Anyone know if I got it right?

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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10 Responses to Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos 1), Dan Simmons (Bantam Books, 1989)

  1. JoJo says:

    I really got into this book – it took a chapter or two, but I enjoyed it. What made me throw it across the room was how book one ended! My advice — have both books before you start so that when done with book one, you can just pick up book two with no delay.

    He’s a talented writer who crafts a wicked good novel!

  2. Neil Fein says:

    > Wow, that was a really hard sentence to punctuate. I could have re-written it I suppose, but it was more fun to experiment with sentence structure…. Anyone know if I got it right?

    Perhaps like this:

    Among these psuedopilgrims may be a traitor to the Hegemony, some man or woman linked to the Ousters and so helping the barbarians with their invasion. To that end, there are two elements to the over-story. One: What is the Shrike and the mystery of the sacred site it inhabits? and two: Who, if anyone, is the traitor?”

    Hyperion and its “sequel” are wonderful, and are among my favorite books. If you like Fall after reading it, you may want to check out Dan Simmons’s Ilium and Olympus, another novel published in two volumes. The books are similar in feel to the “Hyperion” novels and explore similar themes, but are a little more cohesive and personal.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      That sounds very intriguing. I think the decision to split Hyperion into two volumes without expressly noting it on the cover was a marketing mistake, but the book itself really is interesting. I look forward to the ‘sequel’ and if it continues on on theme and quality will definitely pick up the others.

      • Neil Fein says:

        The Fall of Hyperion is very different in structure from it’s predecessor. I find it odd that Simmons would have written half of the book in “Canterbury Tales” format and the rest of it in the format of a conventional novel. However, it could have worked well with the “pilgrims’ tales” scattered throughout the narrative; the order these are read in is less important than their cumulative effect.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        I’m not sure what Simmons was trying to do with the strange shift in narrative, unless it is tied to the nature of the change in literature over time… but I’ll have to read the next installment to know for sure.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    One of my favorite science fiction novels — I found the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, just as good despite shifts in the narrative style. However, the last two books are horrid — downright painful to read (especially the endless boredom instilled by the third volume).

    • Thomas Evans says:

      That is the second time I’ve heard that. How terribly disappointing. Still, I do look forward to the second volume. I like the fact that he plays with narrative style and that, indeed, the whole novel is as much a romp through literature as it is a Science Fiction tale.

  4. Thomas Evans says:

    Having just read the second volume in this series (http://wp.me/pWa2h-iS), I enact my afore-mentioned right to revise my assessment of this book and now give it an Ε (epsilon) – Readable in genre, but you could probably do better. Sad sad day. I was hoping to upgrade it to an Α (alpha) or Ω (omega)…

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