“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons


Hyperion by Dan Simmons is an 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 10 science fiction books of all time. Simmons employs an innovative narrative structure that serves to create a sense of dread. Despite Simmons’ skills as a storyteller, I found Hyperion a difficult story to read.

The book starts off 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, they agree to tell each other their backstories and their reasons for wanting to visit the Shrike (à la Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The book then proceeds like a collection of short stories, one for each pilgrim.

In reviewing Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, I explained how an intrusive frame narrative could distract from a story. In Hyperion, Simmons provides an excellent example of how a well-constructed frame 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. Hyperion is a puzzle, and the stories eventually help the reader to make sense of that puzzle. The stories explain the characters’ motivations, particularly why they decided to embark upon the pilgrimage.

The frame narrative takes up only a small portion of the book, 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 the 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. These are desperate people, willing to take extreme risks. They have already suffered much. The fact that they still fear the Shrike makes the Shrike all the more intimidating.

Simmons tells each pilgrim’s story in a different style, adding to the sense that these truly are personal tales. Some of the stories are told in first-person narrative, while others are in third-person, again as befits the story and the characters. The stories also fall into different genres. For example, the detective’s tale is classic noir, complete with the private investigator sitting in her office on a dark and rainy afternoon. Simmons plays with horror, sci-fi, and action tropes, sometimes subverting them. He even manages to explain why the stories do not contain awkward pauses or fillers (the diplomat transcribes and edits the stories).

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 complies with many horror conventions (i.e., the initial mystery, the building dread, etc.), but it has an innovative and shocking twist. It also forced me to think 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, leading to some interesting diatribes against “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 action/adventure, but it strained credulity that the detective could take out so many enemies at once. The poet’s tale is basically a history lesson on the government, the Hegemony, but it manages to be entertaining mostly because of the poet’s dripping sarcasm. The diplomat’s tale is a story of two lovers separated by relativity, but their attraction seemed more physical than emotional.

In several places, Simmons’ world-building lacked a sense of verisimilitude. I get the sense that Simmons threw many of his ideas into this book, but without making sure that they fit together. For example, characters traveling on spaceships suffer relativistic effects and age more slowly than their planet-bound counterparts. Simmons uses this to great dramatic effect in the diplomat’s tale, when two lovers age at different rates (certainly the best use of relatively until Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). Yet, there are also devices called farcasters that allow people to teleport instantaneously between planets. These devices are easily accessible. Simmons actually describes one house as spread out over 18 planets connected by farcasters. So why wouldn’t the Hegemony make it a priority to install the devices on all planets rather than requiring people to waste years of their lives on space travel? It’d be as if the United States required people to travel to Japan by boat because the U.S. military did not want Japan to have access to airports.

A key reason I didn’t “enjoy” reading Hyperion is because of the disturbing level of violence and sex. It’s not just that the book contains a lot of violence and sex, but rather that the depictions are a times truly unsettling. Simmons seems intent on finding new ways for human beings to suffer. I admit, some of the deaths in this book are quite clever, but also quite shocking. The most violent scenes often include some sex, frequently somebody being killed during the act of copulation. This is certainly not a book you want to read in public. I actually had to stop reading midway through the book so I didn’t become depressed. I don’t think I’ll reread this book again without a healthy dose of Prozac.

Hyperion is a challenging read, but it will certainly make readers think and feel. You might feel depressed, you might feel horrified, but you will feel something. Hyperion should be required reading for any writers considering use of a frame narrative. Where other authors might simply have published six short stories into a collected volume, Simmons creates a frame that ties the stories together. The final experience is much greater than the sum of the individual stories.

Next week, I review Dan Simmons’ sequel, The Fall of Hyperion

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