Hyperion (winner of the 1990 Hugo and Locus Awards) is set some seven hundred years in the future in a universe in which Old Earth is no more, the known worlds (aka “The World Web”) are linked through a network of space-time portals called “farcasters”, and civilization is ruled by the CEO of the Hegemony of Man. The world of Hyperion is a backwater, on the brink of acceptance into the Hegemony, but is also the home of the Time Tombs and the deadly being known as the Shrike that inhabits them. The Shrike is a figure of both terror and awe for the inhabitants of the Hyperion–one-part lethal bogeyman and one-part local deity and angel of retribution. The Time Tombs themselves are a subject of awe and fear, surrounded by an anti-entropic field that rebuffs all but physical exploration and causes some to speculate that the structures are actually travelling backward in time. The novel follows the pilgrimages of seven individuals to the Time Tombs on Hyperion. On their way, each will tell their story, the reasons why they are making a final pilgrimage to a world on the brink of war and, if legend holds true, a journey in which only one will survive to have their desire granted by the Shrike.
In essence, Hyperion takes its structure from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with Hyperion being the destination to which each pilgrim travels. Along the way we hear from the Priest, the Scholar, the Poet, the Soldier, the Detective, and, finally the Consul, whose tale brings the overall arc into context. Through these tales, the reader is introduced to the many strange and wonderful technologies of the Hegemony, the outré way of life of the dreaded Ousters, the violent beauty of the Shrike, and the cold–yet passionate–logic of the AIs of the TechnoCore.
Simmons has created a fairly unique setting–and an especially prescient one considering that the novel was originally published in the late 1980s. He is obviously well-versed in the work of the “cyberpunk” (or “cyberpukes”, as he terms them) novels of the period, with his references to Cowboy Gibson and the descriptions of the Datumplane traveled by AIs and by humans who have a neural shunt interface. It is difficult not to associate his World Web with tour World Wide Web, though one is a network of physical travel versus that of pure information. The technology that is presented is plausible, though not overly explained. This is especially true of the farcaster technology that is central to the plot of the novel. Hard science buffs may not entirely buy the premise of doorways that can allow instantaneous travel across worlds, but within the context of the novel, it works.
The novel is also rife with literary analogy. Multiple references are made to the works of John Keats and other Romantic poets, as well as to the works of Vance, Gibson, and other sci-fi masters. Keats features prominently as both the inspiration for the capital city of Hyperion (as well as the name for the planet itself, being the title of an unfinished work of the poet), but as a primary plot point in the Detective’s tale. Familiarity with the references is not required to enjoy or understand the novel, but certainly would add depth to the experience.
Each of the tales is told in the voice of characters that are as varied as they are colorful. This results in a novel that is almost a collection of short stories, allowing Simmons to cross both points of view and genre. The Priest’s Tale of Lenar Hoyt is both tragic and chilling, a short piece of science-horror that works quite well. In The Soldier’s Tale, General Fedmahn Kassad describes a relationship he has with an avatar of memory (and, perhaps death) across systems, time, and even realities. It is an interesting, if slightly predictable tale, and well-written. The Poet’s Tale of Marin Silenus is equally violent, yet not as sinister, as the tale that comes before it. His tale shines when he speaks of the end of the Old Earth and his nostalgic reminisces of that time in history. Sol Weintraub, the Scholar, tells a tale that serves as the emotional heart of the novel, a story that–though a bit predictable–stirs the sympathies of even the most jaded of the pilgrims, and of readers for that matter. With the Detective’s Tale, Simmons tries a bit of future-noir, with mixed results. What was intended to be a homage to Dashiell Hammett actually reads a bit more like the script for an action film. Brawne Lamia is an interesting character (with a wonderful name) and makes a great action heroine; however it is Johnny, her client, which steals the show. Finally, the Consul tells a tale that rounds out the action of the novel and reveals some of the meaning behind the background events that have brought them all together. Further, it serves as a bittersweet tale of time-crossed love. It was apparently this story that began Simmons’ further explorations of the universe he had created and it shows in its late-revealed centrality to the work.
Simmons has attempted an extremely ambitious work in Hyperion and, for the most part, pulls it off. It is an exciting, interesting look into far-future technologies and relationships that never strays from being primarily about people working, living, loving, and fighting together. Though his prose can sometimes stray toward the purple spectrum, Simmons has a firm grasp of his characters and their foibles and crafts a series of varied, and well-executed, stories.
The only severe downside to the novel is the ending. Throughout the novel the pilgrims approached each other with wary suspicion, curiosity, and (in some cases) outright hostility. However, at the end, they seem to come together under their common fears of what is to come. This development works on a theoretical level, but still comes across as a bit forced. Further, the conclusion, while somewhat revelatory, is extremely open-ended. By many accounts, it will be necessary to read the sequel (Fall of Hyperion) to get the full story, but it does occur that Simmons could have gotten the characters at least a bit further down the road to a true conclusion.
Despite these problems, Hyperion is an ambitious and well-written novel that is well worth time debt incurred to read it.