[Book] Hyperion – Dan Simmons [1989]


Title: Hyperion

Author: Dan Simmons

Genre:  Science Fiction

Rating: 8.5/10

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the reach of galactic law, waits a creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all.

On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

I came across this book when I was doing some research for my own novel (due anytime this century, unless medical science continues on its current trajectory and lets me live and procrastinate even longer). I was looking for examples of nested narratives – things like Cloud Atlasfor example, but better. While Cloud Atlas goes for a the Russian Doll / Inception kind of nesting, I was looking for something in which the narrative structure grabbed less of the spotlight. Examples were not at all difficult to find but Hyperion was touted as sci-fi horror and that was enough to get me to buy it (damn you, one click shopping!).

The similarities between Cloud Atlas and Hyperion do not stop at just the narrative structure, however. One of the strengths that the segregated narrative structure offers is the ability to tell different types of stories in each separate section; so much so that reading the book begins to feel like reading an anthology, connected by an overarching story and sharing some similar characters. Each of the pilgrims en route to the Shrike has a story to tell and the stories are vastly different but all centre on the topics of loss, sacrifice, grief. It is not the lightest of subject matter and the pilgrims themselves are far from holy – alcoholics, murderers, ruthless military men – but they each have a cross to bear and come to the Shrike in search of answers.

Hyperion isn’t a perfect book by any means but there are a lot of things that it does right. The chief among these is in creating a sense of mystery around the central antagonistic presence in the book – the Shrike. What makes Hyperion work so well is that sense of imminent danger, the nearby, ever-present but undetectable presence of this demonic entity and how that sense is kindled and built up over the course of the novel. For example – at the beginning of the novel, we only know the vaguest details about the Shrike – that it is powerful and dangerous. Each of the stories that the Pilgrims tell make the legend of the Shrike increasingly ominous; and with each successive story, the characters get closer and closer to confronting the Shrike. In pacing the story this way, it make the reader feel like they are approaching the gates of Hell and that their day of judgement is upon them.

The stories themselves give Simmons’ universe depth and breadth, we touch upon a number of key locations and explore the universe’s more recent history. Funnily enough, the more detail that Simmons offers us about individual planets’ history and culture, the more mysterious and frightening the unexplored titular planet of Hyperion feels. The individual stories are powerful too – they cover a range of topics from the light horror of scientific civilisation clashing with mystical aboriginals to a more unsettling version of Benjamin Button. They are not scary the way books from the horror genre can be but rather they are psychologically disquieting and some can deal a real emotional blow and convey more of an ‘adult’ kind of horror.

Having said that however, the stories do have considerable variance in quality and a big part of that is the fact that the stakes vary greatly from story to story. While some stories tell compelling stories of personal loss, others meander around long winded detective stories. The good news is that the stakes generally escalate, with one or two exceptions, but the bad news is that in this game of escalating stakes, the final story has to be slam dunk in order for the book to be a winner. That naturally puts a lot of pressure on the final story and unfortunately, that final story fails to deliver sufficiently, which ultimately deflates the ending from what it could have been.

From a story-telling perspective, Hyperion has some defects too. The novel’s opening sections are its weakest. It’s clear that Simmons wanted to just get all the characters together and get them talking and telling their stories as soon as possible, rather than waste time providing the reader with context and exposition. I can’t say I blame him for that but regardless, the set-up is forced, and weak. The novel recovering remarkably well from its feeble start, however. The novel also introduces a fair bit of petty drama between the characters on the ship which distracts away from the bigger, more pressing questions surrounding the mystery of Hyperion and the Shrike. I suspect that drama was introduced to give the framing story a little more substance and narrative weight but it ended up dragging some sections of the story out unnecessarily.

Conclusion: On the whole however, Hyperion is a great novel though it might be better to think of it as a collection of short stories pertaining to the same topics in surprising ways, rather than a single novel. Recommended for all fans of soft sci-fi

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