Top critical review
I respect Hyperion, even if I don't love it
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 23, 2015
Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a rare example of a book I don’t enjoy but that I respect immensely. Hyperion is a work of art. It is regularly ranked amongst the top 15 science fiction books of all time. Simmons employs an innovative narrative structure that really serves to build the tension and mystery. There’s a lot that I really like about the book. Yet, as a whole, the story just didn’t speak to me.
The book starts off around 700 years in the future. Seven pilgrims – a captain, a priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar, a detective, and a diplomat – travel to the planet Hyperion to visit the Shrike, a mysterious, murderous, quasi-religious figure. While en route, the agree to tell each other their backstories and their reasons for wanting to visit the Shrike (a la Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The majority of the book is then split into each pilgrim’s tale.
In reviewing Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, I explained how an intrusive frame narrative could detract from a story. In Hyperion, Simmons provides an excellent example of how a well-constructed frame narrative can enhance a story. The entire pilgrimage to Hyperion is essentially a plot device to tie together six short stories. However, it’s not just a plot device. The frame narrative is intimately connected to each of the stories. The stories explain the motivations of the characters and why they decided to embark upon the pilgrimage. In a sense, the frame narrative begins as an enigma and the stories eventually help the reader make sense of it.
The frame narrative is brief but effectively increases the tension and informs our reading of the short stories. The way secondary characters on Hyperion fear the Shrike, the chaos of a brewing war with off-planet marauders, and the arduous nature of the pilgrimage tell us much about the seven pilgrims, even before they tell their stories. They are desperate and willing to take risks. They have already suffered much. The fact that they still fear the Shrike makes the Shrike all the more intimidating.
Simmons tells each of the short stories in a unique style. Each of the six stories falls into a different genre. For example, the detective’s tale is noir, complete with the private investigator sitting in her office on a dark and rainy day. Some of the stories are told in first-person narrative, while others are in third-person, again as befits the story and the characters. Simmons even manages to explain why the stories do not contain awkward pauses or fillers (the diplomat transcribes and edits the stories).
As much as I love the frame narrative, I felt the stories themselves were a mixed bag. The best stories engaged with larger philosophical and religious issues. Despite my usual inclination against horror, I actually found the priest’s tale the most memorable. The story and complies with many conventions of the horror genre (i.e., the initial mystery, the building dread, etc.), but it also manages to managed an innovative and shocking twist. It had me thinking about faith and resurrection in ways I never thought possible. The scholar's tale is an analogue to the biblical story of Abraham, but with a very different kind of sacrifice. The scholar is aware enough to question the virtues of blind obedience to a god.
I found myself somewhat less interested in the tales that focused on plot or action. The detective's tale seemed like Simmons' attempt at fight scenes, but I didn't think this book really needed so much action. It almost strained credulity that the detective could take out so many combatants at once. The diplomat's tale features two lovers who age at different rates due to the effects of relatively, but I never understood why the characters were in love, especially after spending most of their lives apart. The poet's tale is basically a history lesson on the Hegemony, but it manages to be entertaining because of the poet's dripping sarcasm.
In several places, Simmons’ world-building lacked a sense of verisimilitude. I get the sense that Simmons had a lot of great ideas and threw them all into this book, but without making sure that they fit together. For example, on the one hand, Simmons is careful to keep track of the relativistic effects of space travel. Characters who travel faster than light age slower than those planet-bound. In fact, Simmons uses this scientific principle to great dramatic effect, especially in the diplomat’s tale, when two lovers age at different rates (certainly the best use I’ve seen of relatively until Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar).
Yet, the interstellar government, the Hegemony, also has devices called farcasters, which allow people to instantaneously teleport between planets. These devices are not only accessible, but actually mundane. Simmons describes one house as spread out over 18 different planets, connected by farcasters. Simmons explains that the Hegemony needs to install farcasters and that planets outside its jurisdiction do not have any. Still, the dramatic effect of relativity is somewhat undermined. It’s like learning about two lovers who live far apart, only to learn that if they moved a few towns over they’d be connected by a high-speed train.
The characters make an unrealistically large number of references to 19th and 20th century culture. For example, I have trouble believing that people in the 28th century are going to be so obsessed with John Keats that they name a planet “Hyperion” and try to build a cyborg persona of him. These allusions kept taking me out of the story. In our own world, the average person’s knowledge of major cultural figures from 700 years ago is quite limited (aside from Chaucer).
Another reason why I didn’t “enjoy” reading Hyperion is because of the excessive level of violence and sex. This book is very graphic and at times disturbing to read. Simmons seems intent on finding new ways for human beings to suffer. I admit, some of the deaths in this book were quite clever, but also quite shocking. The most violent scenes often include sex, frequently somebody being killed during the act of sex. This is certainly not a book you want to read in public. I actually had to stop reading midway through the book so I could recharge my emotional batteries.
As I said above, Hyperion is a well written and engaging book. Simmons use of a frame narrative sets the standard for how to use a frame device effectively. Hyperion is a challenging read, but it will certainly make readers think and feel. You might feel depressed, but you will feel. I'm intrigued enough by the cliffhanger ending to read the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, but I don't think I'll be coming back to this universe frequently without lots of Prozac.
[also posted on the NardiViews blog]