Novel * Dan Simmons * Post-Earth Galactic Empire * 1989
On the occasion when I am asked to provide a science fiction book recommendation, Hyperion is generally my first suggestion. Here’s the quick pitch: it’s a sci-fi Canterbury Tales. If you’re not familiar with Chaucer’s medieval masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales is a framed narrative about a group of pilgrims on their way to, well, Canterbury. Now Geoffrey Chaucer had ambition. The original plan was to have each of his thirty pilgrims tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two stories on the way back. That’s… probably too many tales. Despite falling short of his ridiculous goal, we’re left with one of the towering achievements of English literature, and arguably the most important collection of short stories ever written. Each story is a fascinating insight into medieval English culture, all the more impressive because they’re written in the vernacular Middle English of the time. Each pilgrim is given a platform to present their point of view, and the style of story changes drastically depending on who is doing the telling. Therefore The Knight’s Tale is a tale of courtly romance while The Miller’s Tale is a bawdy romp and The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a look into what the concept of feminism might look like in the late 1300’s. Hyperion is what happened when Dan Simmons finished reading The Canterbury Tales and thought to himself: “Yeah, but what if in space?”
The literary backbone of Hyperion doesn’t end there, and it is my sad duty to report that the title, one of the ancillary characters (and later in the series one of the major players), and arguably the overall theme of the novel is taken from John Keats’ poem of the same name. Down with the Romantics! Down with John “I’m a genius poet who wrote all my brilliant poetry basically as a child before I died of tuberculosis when I was twenty fucking five years old” Keats! Anyway, shady reverence for Romanticism aside, Simmons is steeped in the literature of all eras, and these allusions and themes elevate the entire story. I will also add that Simmons manages to avoid wallowing around in pretension while still using literary canon as his foundation. That’s an impressive skill. I mean, try not to look at the author’s portrait in the back of the book because you will not believe me if you do, but really the literary-ness of the story is not overbearing at all. Of course my tolerance of such things is probably pretty high, so if you’re turned off at the prospect of learning shit between laser-fights, maybe this isn’t for you.
Oh, but there are some amazing laser-fights to be had! And dope spaceships, and androids, and scary A.I.s, and all kinds of awesome science fiction-y things. The world-building involved in creating this universe is top-tier, and the more I think about it the more impressed I am. There are many ways to go about crafting a believable world. You can go the George Martin/Tolkien approach and document every aspect of the world in excruciating detail, ensuring that the reader is fully immersed in the world because they have no other choice. Pretty much any question a reader might have has an answer somewhere in the text. Ever wonder what a lower-class field worker might eat in a seedy brothel somewhere in Flea Bottom? Oh, Martin gots you covered, son. Curious about which vocal inflections to use when pronouncing Elvish poetry? You know Tolkien has your back. Now, that kind of world-building is all well and good, and I love both of those fantasy worlds. Another way to go is to give your reader absolutely zero answers and just let them flail around trying to figure out just what in the actual fuck they’re supposed to be reading. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this kind of world-building, as you can tell from my increasingly futile attempts to make sense of the works of Gene Wolfe. Hyperion, by contrast, takes the middle road, and is all the better for it.
Hyperion, the first in a series of four books (although it should be noted that the first two books and the second two books, while taking place in the same universe, are better understood as matching pairs as opposed to a four-part ongoing narrative), thrusts the reader into a new world without much in the way of a preamble. Simmons throws a bunch of terms and concepts at you right away, and it’s up to the reader to sort out the meaning of all these things by context. Here’s the thing, though: nothing Simmons comes up with is hard to understand, particularly if you’re a fan of the genre. There’s faster-than-light travel, and a human galactic empire, lots of factions and planets and things like that. That’s not to say that the world isn’t well thought out or creative, it definitely is, but the basic concepts themselves are firmly rooted in traditional science fiction. It’s just really, really cool.
Our pilgrims, then, are on their way to the colonial world of Hyperion to confront a creature called The Shrike at an enigmatic place called The Time Tombs. The Shrike, which is a mysterious, enormous humanoid creature with four arms that is made entirely of spikes and steel. It murders people. The Time Tombs are mysterious structures that are thought to be alien in nature and are thought to be moving backwards in time. Nobody knows why, or what any of this means. The pilgrims, who represent a cross-section of humanity, have all been carefully chosen by various powers to travel to the Time Tombs because the planet Hyperion is being threatened by a race of humans known as the Ousters. While the pilgrims make their way across the planet, they decide to tell each other the stories of why they’re on the pilgrimage. Unlike Chaucer, Simmons reigns his ambition in and as a result there are only six stories. Also, Simmons spends more time with the framed narrative, which is nice because it keeps the story moving and gives the characters something else to do other than tell tales. Like Chaucer, Simmons uses each story as an opportunity to tell a different kind of story. These move from an anthropological study told in journal form to a soldier’s story of war and love to a murder mystery/cyberpunk adventure. Each story is memorable in some way, and a few are just heartbreaking punches in the head. I really don’t want to give away any actual details above the break. If you care about science fiction at all, please just go read the book.
It is difficult for me to break down this novel without referring to the second book in the series, The Fall of Hyperion. The two books basically comprise a single story, so talking about this first half without referring to things which happen in the second novel is tricky. Thankfully, Hyperion is mostly concerned with its principal characters, the pilgrims, and the fucked-up stories they tell. The framing, which is to say the world in which these characters exist, comes to the forefront in the next book. That said, most of the basic concepts are presented here simply as the way these people live. The World Web, which consists of over two hundred colonized planets connected by millions of devices known as ‘farcasters,’ is the home to the vast majority of humanity. Each planet has its own flavor, although for narrative reasons only a handful are given more than a cursory sketch. People can travel from planet to planet instantaneously, and are always connected to the rest of society via the datasphere. Travel to planets not connected to the Web – like Hyperion – requires FTL travel via spinships powered by the Hawking Drive. While in transit, people aboard these ships are placed in a fugue state and are not aging while the rest of society carries on in real-time. This is the concept of ‘time-debt,’ which means a young man aboard a ship can leave his home, travel to a colony world for like a year of his own time, and return to find his entire family aged ten years. Yet this is simply life in the Web.
This normalcy is important to the overall theme of the series, which is how humanity deals with apocalypse and its aftermath. Yes, I know, there’s more going on than this, but I mean check the title of the blog. Anyway, Hyperion is set in the distant future, but really not that far in the future. That said, Earth is dead, and that’s kind of a big deal. From the ashes of that apocalypse the Hegemony of Man arose and spun the World Web with the aforementioned farcaster technology. Now humanity has over a hundred billion souls across light-years of space. So that’s an upper. More on that in the next book. Meanwhile, each of the pilgrims is a citizen of this post-apocalyptic society, and each has a unique, often painful perspective on the world in which they live.
First up is the priest, Lenar Hoyt, although to be fair the story he tells is that of an older priest named Paul Dure. Catholicism is nearly dead in the world of Hyperion, despite still somehow rating their own planet. Religion is a common thread throughout the series, which of course ties in directly to themes of apocalypse. Paul has fled the Catholic world of Pacem because he was caught falsifying scientific evidence which he claimed proved the existence of extraterrestrial acceptance of Christ. Sure, Paul was just trying to save the Church he loved so much, but he ended up leaving in disgrace and saw his arrival on Hyperion as a sort of purgatory, punishment for losing his faith. Over the course of his stay with the Bikura – an anthropological expedition that Dure only half-heartedly embarked on – Paul got to experience both a rejuvenation of faith and the utter heartbreak of losing it all over again. The cruciform that Paul discovers is an abomination, and in his attempt to subvert it, Paul of course becomes a little Christ-y himself. The main difference being, of course, that Jesus died on the cross as a message of God’s forgiveness and love. Paul Dure suffered on a cross of his own making to purge what he saw as a perversion of God’s creation.
The story of Sol and his daughter Rachel is also clearly wrestling these religious themes. Like the priests of Pacem, Sol is scholar who ends up living on the Jewish planet – and yes, every major religion gets its own planet – and spends most of his time debating the idea of sacrifice in religion. Sol has very vivid dreams about travelling to Hyperion in order to sacrifice this daughter to the Shrike. Sol does not want to do this, as he considers humanity to have evolved since the time of Abraham. He wants nothing to do with a God who would demand loyalty over love. Humanity is in a strange place. There are all these religion-themed worlds around, and the citizens of those worlds all clearly identify with their faith in some way. That said, most of the Web is not in any way religious, or belong to some wishy-washy non-religion such as Zen Gnosticism. Meanwhile, the Church of the Final Atonement, otherwise known as the Shrike Church, is a menacing presence in the background. These guys consider the awakening of the Shrike creature to be a sign of the true end times, an avatar of pain and suffering that will cull humanity of its sinful. Sol, in trying to figure out a way to cure his daughter of her weird Merlin-sickness, has a run-in with these people, who turn out to be no help at all. The Shrike Church does very little over the course of the series, a stand-in for those who await helplessly for the apocalypse while Sol actively tries to fight against the mysterious forces at work on Hyperion.
Look, this is super difficult to write about knowing how all this ends. The plotting is intricate, details come back in the second book to great effect and trying to evade major plot-points while still discussing events of the first novel in any depth is not ideal. Of course, this difficulty still isn’t impeding the word count, so I’ll wrap it up. Hyperion is an excellent set-up, in large part because the pilgrim’s tales stand up as incredible short stories on their own. They are not dependent on each other to make sense, however each tale fills in the world a little bit more, providing details on the world that become invaluable in creating the tension of the second book. Sure, The Consul’s heartbreaking love story is great on its own, but it also introduces the themes of ecological apocalypse which is vital to the next novel and the series as a whole. The stories about men of religion are doing the same work, as is Brawne Lamia’s cyberpunk noir story about the A.I. John Keats. The Fall of Hyperion is about multiple apocalypses in real time – religious, ecological, artificial intelligence and the stagnation of science – none of which will make any sense unless you have an understanding of these characters and the world they inhabit. Hyperion accomplishes all of this pretty much without the reader realizing it, which is an incredible achievement. I like this book a whole lot, y’all.