Book Review: ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons

There are some who treat science-fiction and fantasy books like Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters in a vast sea of literature that will consume you if you don’t keep well away from them. It’s common to find them bundled together and thrown out with the bath water, derided as escapist, low in quality, and the territory of ‘nerds’. I’ve argued for their merits before, why escapism is not necessarily a bad thing, and how there is substantial quality present sci-fi/fantasy books, and would gladly do so again, but this post is specifically dedicated to two majestic works of sf by the award-winning American author, Dan Simmons. Published in 1989, Hyperion, the first of Simmons’ quadrilogy, ‘The Hyperion Cantos’, blew me away, and I bought the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, published in 1990, before I’d even finished the first. The combined 1008 pages of the books, which can really be read as a single novel, took me a little over a week to finish and left me utterly dumbfounded.

It is rare that a book utterly floors me. I can only think of a few that have – the likes of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road spring to mind, but both of these books have to be put down on that short list as well. They exemplify one of the really great things about sf, that it is not a genre – limited to certain plots and conventions, but a category comprising many genres, with many books refusing to fit one or another. These two books are probably more space-opera than anything else, one of the more common sf genres that involves space travel and other worlds, but there are elements of all sorts in there, from philosophy to war to romanticism to romance (and no, those last two are not the same thing).

I’ll sketch out the basics of the first book for you to give you a sense of what’s going on, but I’m not going to put any spoilers into this review. The story, inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, focuses on seven humans chosen for a pilgrimage to the world of Hyperion, where they are to meet with the legendary godlike being, the Shrike, in a bid to change the course of humanity’s future. This is set against the backdrop of the Web, a network of planets terraformed and settled by humans in the wake of a mass-migration from the dying Old Earth that are connected by farcaster portals, allowing instant travel over light years of space. This Web is inhabited by humans and the AIs that they have created and that advise them, but another branch of humanity that chose to leave the mass migration and go their own path, the genetically modified Ousters, lurk beyond the Web’s boundaries.

Such a story might not sound like the most impressive or original, but make no mistake, the complexity, innovation and sheer literary brilliance of Dan Simmons’ work was not conveyed by my short summary in the slightest. To put together a coherent story out of seven smaller ones is an impressive feat, and then to spin that web of interconnectedness further into the second book was just incredible.

But the excellent story, the amazing imaginative world and the complex characters were not the features that pushed these books into my 10/10 range, though combined, they were enough to make them easily 8s or 9s. What did it for me was the books’ awareness of their place in literature, and of the love of literature that clearly shone through. That’s something that you don’t get very often in sf, or at least, not in what I’ve read. The Canterbury Tales may have inspired the structure of the first book, but the Romantic poet John Keats was the soul behind the entire story. From the name of the series, to the poetic inspiration of Martin Silenus, a poet and one of the main characters, to the names of the characters Brawne Lamia, Joseph Severn and Leigh Hunt, the books are dripping with Keats Easter Eggs, and I’m sure there are elements that I’ve missed (I’m not exactly a Keats scholar). It seemed to me to be a shameless admission of Keats’ influence from Simmons, and there is a majestic strain of poetry that runs through these books, capturing the beauty and the sense of the sublime that is associated with 18th and 19th century Romanticism.

There are a plethora of other strong points to the book. I loved the mystical elements – Simmons refusal to fall into the naturalistic trap of science being able to explain everything. Though he doesn’t seem to be a Christian, his treatment of the future of Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, was very interesting, and the new religions in his imaginative world, the Templars, the Shrike Cult and Zen Gnosticism, emerge as three very different insights into human religiosity. I find it refreshing in a sci-fi book to find the subject of religion dealt with thoughtfully and intelligently by an author who does not share those beliefs himself.

From an English student-y perspective, I also appreciated Simmons’ experimental, fluid narrative style, switching between first- and third-person narrators and past and present tenses in order to best convey the events going on in that section of the story. His more sparing use of a first person narrator in the second book superbly conveyed a sense of that character’s importance to the plot, and his use of the present, when it occurred, heightened the immediacy and the tension of the proceedings. Simmons also experimented with graphology, changing the font when the consciousness speaking was inhuman, normally AI. This graphic representation of the language conveyed far better than any adjective could how different this communication was from regular human speech.

There is not much more to say about these books than to recommend them to you as strongly as I possibly can. I have read nothing better all year.

10/10 for both.

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