Hyperion by Dan Simmons


My SF education reached an important milestone this week when I finished reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Published 25 years ago to great acclaim, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Hyperion has had a long enough shelf life to obviate a formal spoiler warning. But this review won't shy away from discussing sensitive plot details, so those who haven't read Simmons' masterpiece are encouraged to go do so now and return afterward.

I've been delving deep into the history of science fiction lately. One reason for my fascination with Hyperion is that it stands between optimistic Campbellian SF and the current, more nihilistic trend.

Often described as "Canterbury Tales in space", Hyperion resembles Chaucer's celebrated work in general structure and premise while tackling perennial SF issues like the relationship between humans and AI, whether identity is wholly defined by the contents of one's memory, and how interstellar distances might affect warfare.

The events of Hyperion take place centuries after earth's destruction scattered humanity among a number of colonized worlds--some intimately joined by an all-encompassing web of data and instant travel; some languishing as cosmic backwaters linked to civilization only by FTL ships subject to relativistic "time debt".

One of these frontier worlds, the titular Hyperion, plays host to mysterious ruins that draw pilgrims from every corner of the Web. Pilgrimages to this valley where time's ebb and flow don't always match the universe at large consist mainly of the desperate and despairing. These doomed supplicants--always traveling in prime-numbered groups--seek out a mytho-historical horror known as the Shrike, who according to legend will grant one pilgrim's request and slaughter the others.

the shrike
Shrike pilgrims' suicidal desperation makes sense. This is not someone you'd want to ask for a boat loan.
The novel uses the Shrike pilgrimage--perhaps the last one ever--as a framing device for each pilgrim's personal tale. In the prelude to an interstellar war resembling a space opera version of the apocalyptic Russian-Afghan standoff in Watchmen, the seven pilgrims are informed of their selection by the Shrike Church and an AI-assisted government committee.

Sensing that all is not as it seems, the pilgrims agree to tell their accounts of how they became involved with the planet Hyperion's menacing secrets. It's hoped that sharing information will shed light on their journey's true purpose.

The Poet: a puckish hedonist from Old Earth blue blood stock, he abandoned a series of lucrative but stultifying book deals to join an artists' colony on Hyperion. Though he survived the ensuing bloodbath, his sanity did not. The poet hungers to complete his magnum opus by reuniting with his muse--the Shrike.

The Priest: the archetypal novice who's in over his head. A relative nonentity, he's far less interesting than the late mentor whose quest for proof of Christianity predating Christ (which, for reasons never explained, is expected to boost the Church's dwindling social capital) infects them both with alien parasites that are among the most disturbing plot devices I've ever encountered.

The Politician: besides orders to unmask an enemy spy among the pilgrims, this diplomat par excellence is Hyperion's former governor. His initial presence on the planet--and his subsequent participation in the Shrike pilgrimage--turn out to be steps in a Byzantine plot concocted to avenge the deaths of his loved ones at the hands of both factions.

The Soldier: either a hero or a war criminal depending on who you ask, the colonel has earned the brass' disfavor by advocating drastic--some would say barbaric--changes to the ossified playbook. His betrayal by a possibly imaginary lover and a very real assassination attempt have set him on a mission to destroy the Shrike.

The Scholar: this retired professor of ethics traveling with his infant daughter describes his tale as the least interesting of the seven. He's right.

The Sailor: we never get to hear the captain of the mighty World Tree ship tell his tale. But he likely figures in another pilgrim's back story, and the hints we get are intriguing to say the least.

The Detective: the only woman in the group gives the colonel a run for his rough and bellicose money. Her story ties several other themes and plot threads together, including a living copy of poet John Keats, whispers of an AI civil war, and hints of a cataclysmic conspiracy spanning 10,000 years.

A conspicuous aspect of each pilgrim's background is that each one's motivation for making the pilgrimage is a past goal which resulted in consequences so terrible that only the Shrike can reverse them. It could be said that we find each pilgrim in the aftermath of wishing on a monkey's paw.

monkey's paw
Think twice before shaking hands.
Silenus sought his muse, and finding it nearly destroyed him. Fr. Hoyt searched across the stars to discover his mentor's fate, and the truth devastated his health and his faith. Aspic's grandson lost his family on the eve of his greatest political coup. Kassad met the woman of his dreams on Hyperion only to be duped by the Shrike. What father wouldn't treasure reliving his daughter's fleeting childhood? Sol's chance to do just that destroyed his family's privacy, his community, and his philosophical certainty. Lamia's lust and curiosity led her to lose even more of her humanity.

Another recurring theme of Hyperion is poetry--not just in the abstract; in the quantifiable ways that narratives carried by word and song can shape events. See Silenus' tale for the most overt example. Also note how Aspic's time dilation-haunted love affair with a local girl became a legend with dire ramifications for her world's populace.

Then there's the physical return of John Keats and Ezra Pound, plus a cursed city named after the former. Also, Silenus seems convinced that the act of completing his cantos will itself alter history. Simmons' own appreciation for poetry comes through in the book's vivid and evocative sentence-level wordsmithing.

Tonally and philosophically, Hyperion represents an evolutionary link between the pioneering nuts 'n' bolts SF of Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt and the more cynical vision of writers like Gibson, Banks, and Watts.

Simmons explores his characters' moral systems in some detail. The Modernist view of religion as a quaint, harmless, and ultimately insignificant pastime is much in evidence. Any character who espouses an attitude toward the Abrahamic faiths more favorable than polite agnostic curiosity or more serious than vestigial Christmas and Easter observation is invariably portrayed as a pitiable if well-meaning rube. Even the intellectually formidable Jesuits are led astray by sentiment.

Predictably for a Late Modern work of Western sci-fi, Christianity is singled out for special strawmanning. Catholicism in particular is said to be on its deathbed, as if to specifically belie Christ's promise that the gates of hell would never prevail against her. (This decline is ascribed to nebulous "change", even though Web society is said to be quite stagnant.) Meanwhile, a renewed Islam is thriving, and Judaism has survived a second Holocaust. All three, however, are dwarfed in numbers by adherents of faddish cults like "Zen Gnosticism".

What elevates Hyperion above the level of a vacuous secular jab is the pervasive sense of what John C. Wright called, "...respect for [those ideals'] memory...like saluting the flag of a sunken Atlantis." Most of the book's characters at least act as though the faiths of Old Earth--even if false--enshrine standards of truth and beauty that are worthy of honor.

Though its nostalgic agnosticism toward traditional religion is a trait that Hyperion shares with Campbellian SF, its plot is not driven by indomitable characters who overcome problems with know-how and elbow grease. Its allusions to grand conspiracies, inescapable fates, and false choices owe more to the neo-noir influences of William Gibson's Cyberpunk books. Its glimpses of a post-human future echo certain works of Charles Stross and Iain M. Banks.

This fascinating mix of Heinlein and Gibson; Asimov and Watts, with due consideration for the high caliber of craft on display, makes Hyperion a worthy and enjoyable luminary in the pantheon of modern sci-fi classics.

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