I read this book when it was released to great fanfare and acclaim in the 1990s and gave it five stars. Recently, though, I reread the book to prepare for my new science fantasy, Chrome Cobra, and must revise my earlier assessment.
That’s life for a reader. Some works are better than you remember upon rereading years later; some are a little worse; some are huge disappointments.
Hyperion is hardly a disappointment, but not quite the book I remember.
Simmons expertly sets up the premise for the entire (very long) book in a concise Prologue. The Consul receives a communication from the Hegemony that he has been chosen to be one of seven pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the dreaded mysterious Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion. The Shrike, a bloody, invincible, supernatural entity defying all known laws of reality and connected to the Time Tombs, is stalking Hyperion once again. The pilgrims must go confront the Shrike, knowing full well that all but one will die a horrible death at the Shrike’s hands. Meanwhile, vicious pillaging aliens known as the Ousters are launching an all-out attack on the worlds of the Hegemony and may threaten the pilgrims’ ability to confront their fates.
Writers are always exhorted to “show, don’t tell,” and the Prologue is delivered in a Mission Impossible-style info dump that smacks of telling (and there is no “if you should choose to accept it”). Simmons delivers all this in such an engaging style, with shots of whiskey being poured, that the reader mostly won’t notice. Sometimes an author needs to deliver a complex setup in this manner. For writers, Simmons’ take is worth pondering.
The seven chosen ones are ordinary folk from all walks of life, not sworn inductees into a military. Though Simmons tries hard to convince us they have no choice, you have to wonder why any or all of them don’t flee to the farthest planet and wait for the kindly Hegemony to track them down and punish them. What are the sanctions of refusing? Upon rereading, I saw this as a huge logical hole. I wasn’t convinced the chosen ones had no choice the way Dune’s Paul Harkonnen is the chosen one who must fulfill his destiny.
Like Dune, Hyperion is deeply concerned with religious philosophy and spiritual mysticism, in this case Christianity and Catholicism in particular.
The literary conceit of Hyperion is taken from the classic Canterbury Tales, in which seven pilgrims tell their tales en route to their destination. You don’t usually find such literary references in science fiction, and this places Hyperion a cut above the rest. But Simmons plunks each pilgrim’s tale amid the complex melodramatic background of Shrike and Ousters in more lengthy info dumps for which I began to have less patience. To Simmons’ credit, he invents each pilgrim’s tale in a voice to fit the character: the drunken poet, the serious priest, the hard-boiled woman detective, and so on. I’m a huge admirer of authors who give characters their own voices, rather than stamping them all out in the author’s voice.
Precise SFnal details about interstellar travel and the resulting time distortions round out a deeply conceived world.
So there you have it, my friends. Hyperion is one of the science fiction masterpieces of the twentieth century. My early five stars went down to four, but that’s just me.
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