Better to travel hopefully: Dan Simmons’s Hyperion

The brilliant thing about Hyperion is that it’s like the Canterbury Tales; it’s a group of people going on a pilgrimage and telling stories, only they’re telling their own stories, and they’re all about why they’re going to the planet Hyperion. But actually, the really brilliant thing is the way that the stories are all in different styles and different modes of SF. They echo earlier science fiction, they draw on it and draw it in, they allude and assume the reader will get it. And, most brilliantly of all, the universe is revealed through the stories, through mentions and details and throwaway comments in a way that’s just incomparable, so that you build up a picture of things before you hear about them, you’ve heard them mentioned without having them explained so you want the explanation when you get it. This is a masterpiece of incluing. They are pilgrims from different worlds, moving through the same universe, going to the same place of pilgrimmage. What happens when they get there doesn’t matter, Hyperion is all about the journey. There are some sequels that try to explain everything and knit it up neatly, but I generally try to pretend I haven’t read them. Hyperion is a stunning tour-de-force of characters and world and playing science fiction like an organ, and it’s good enough as it is. I love it alone and without further explanation.

When a book is a set of short stories making a novel, we call it a fix-up, and it usually shows painful seams and is at best something the book has to be forgiven. Hyperion isn’t that, although the stories are set off as stories with their own titles like “The Priest’s Tale” and subtitles like “The Man Who Cried God.” At least one of them, “Remembering Siri,” was published separately and stood perfectly well alone. But in Hyperion, although it’s all about the journey, the stories are more than the sum of their parts. It’s not that they reflect each other, it’s that they are facets that reflect things about the planet Hyperion.

The World Web is a net of worlds linked by fatline and far-caster—doors you can step through from planet to planet, so that rich have houses with rooms on different planets, you can have the bedroom in low gravity and the exercise room in high gravity. There are worlds outside the web, which you have to go to by spaceship, incurring relativistic “time debt.” It’s a future that has aged well—there are implants and a datasphere and thought processors that work something like word processors and longevity treatments and AIs that have revolted and now work for humanity, not as their slaves. There are odd little retro corners and oh yes, Earth was destroyed by a mini black hole, the “Big Mistake” several hundred years ago.

There’s a structure on Hyperion they call the Time Tombs that are travelling in the wrong direction in time, with time tides ebbing and flowing around them. And there’s a thing, a monster, called the Shrike, who is all blades, associated with them. And since before Hyperion was colonised strange things have been happening, and that’s where the pilgrims are going, some returning, and others for the first time, but all of them because their lives have become bound up with what lies there.

We have the story of the pilgrimage, and within that the six stories of the pilgrims. “The Priest’s Tale” is religious science fiction in the mode of A Case for Conscience. “The Soldier’s Tale” is romantic military SF, kind of like the Dorsai books. “The Poet’s Tale” is a spectacular extravaganza which gives a lot of explanation of the world details that have just been thrown in up to that point. It’s Zelaznian more than anything. “The Scholar’s Tale” is a heartbreaking quest of a man trying to save his daughter who is aging backwards, the best thing in the book, and it could have been written by Le Guin. “The Detective’s Tale” is cyberpunk noir, almost like Blade Runner. And the Consul’s tale, “Remebering Siri,” is like Poul Anderson. And yet all of it transcends pastiche, and all of it fits together like a puzzle-egg.

It was a shining city on a hill. Seeing the ruins today can tell you nothing of the place. The desert had advanced in three centuries; the aqueducts from the mountains have fallen and shattered; the city itself is only bones. But in its day the City of Poets was fair indeed, a bit of Socrates’s Athens with the intellectual excitement of Renaissance Venice, the artistic fervor of Paris in the days of the Impressionists, the true democracy of the first decade of Orbit City, and the unlimited future of Tau Ceti Central.

But in the end it was none of these things, of course. It was only Hrothgar’s claustrophobic meadhall with the monster waiting in the darkness without.

Hyperion expects you to be able to fit everything together, to get science fictional references, to put future histories together on the fly, and also to know what Hrothgar’s meadhall was. I think it would be a terrible book for someone new to SF, it expects you to be able to do all the tricks of reading a text as SF, but it also expects wider referents than just SF. As you can tell, it’s beautifully written. It’s deeply absorbing, one of those books you don’t want to put down.

At the end the central mysteries are not explained, except as they have been illuminated by the stories. Don’t expect closure. But trust me, it’s better that way. The reading order for the Hyperion series is “Read Hyperion and then stop.” But Hyperion itself is well worth reading and re-reading. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece.

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