First Published: 1989 (Gollancz edition 2011)
My copy: bought new in paperback
Memorable quote: “From my earliest sense of self, I knew that I would be – should be – a poet. It was not as if I had a choice; more like the dying beauty all about breathed its last breath in me and commanded that I be doomed to play with words the rest of my days, as if in expiation for our race’s thoughtless slaughter of its crib world. So what the hell; I became a poet.”
Dan Simmon’s greatest strength as a writer is perhaps also his greatest weakness: put simply, he’s interested in everything, and seems to take a bit of a kitchen-sink approach to research. While that depth and breadth of detail worked brilliantly in The Terror and Drood (but then I would say that as I am immensely nerdy about the historical periods and topics these novels explore) it really undid Black Hills which had some fascinating material but overall suffered from a crippling lack of focus. Hyperion is commonly hailed as Simmons’ masterpiece and is the first of his sci-fi I’ve read. His diversity is just as apparent here. Hyperion is a sci-fi novel of brewing interstellar war which raises questions about artificial intelligence and temporal experience while also drawing on the life of poet John Keats and the structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It shouldn’t work. But it does. Magnificently.
As the Human Hegemony spirals towards war, seven pilgrims set out on a quest to visit the legendary Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion. The Tombs are presided over by the mysterious but deadly Shrike, part pain-deity, part killing machine. Traditionally the Shrike will grant the wish of one pilgrim and impale the others on its thorn tree. What would motivate an individual to undertake such a journey? This is the central question Hyperion explores and the main thrust of the narrative is the tale of each pilgrim. These vary in tone tremendously including: a tale of adventure/anthropology amidst a mysterious tribe; a poet’s life of debauchery and the seeking of his muse; a family torn apart by the unique fate of their daughter; and a cyberpunk-noir detective’s tale. This dazzling array of genres and experiences really gives this book its depth. Personally I thought that the Priest’s and the Scholar’s tales were the best, I’d love to know your verdict if you’ve read this too.
I do enjoy sci-fi but I have to confess my mind is literary rather than scientific and I tend to switch off if there’s too much technobabble. Simmons get the balance right here for me. He does explore some challenging ideas about AI technology and the problems of space travel but this is tempered by all the historic/literary allusions which give this novel quite a unique feel. If you like your stories neatly tied up then the end of Hyperion might be frustrating for you. There is a sequel, which I’m keen to read too and hopefully that will provide some answers to the many plot threads left hanging. But even ending as it does – to me at least – Hyperion does not feel like an incomplete experience. Like Chaucer’s seminal work, this is a tale all about the journey not the arrival, and it’s a fascinating journey to share.