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Hyperion   by Dan Simmons

Read: 2009-08-31 Reviewed: 2009-11-25
Re-read factor:

This wonderfully imaginative book is a play on the Canterbury Tales where the author uses the pilgrimage of seven people to unravel the details of an almost mythological creature (but actually quite real) which haunts the planet of Hyperion: a priest who becomes inflicted with a cross, a poet who takes on the creature (Shrike) as muse, and ends up writing about his own future and the promise of enlightenment towards the end of the book; a soldier who finds the Shrike working with him to defeat an enemy of the state, a scholar who's daughter got caught up in the reversed time of the Shrike's ``lair'' and has returned to being an infant by the time of this story, a detective who solved the case of a ``murdered'' piece of sentient software which had worked out about the Shrike's existence, and a Consul/Ambassador, who turns out to be a traitor working as double agent for the state and the enemy and who now has contrived to use the Shrike against both of them. The seventh pilgrim is both superficial -- neither contributing any knowledge of the Shrike nor providing entertainment or even backdrop to the story --, but yet super-important -- he is the one who leads the pilgrimage, owns the ship which brought them all to Hyperion --, and also a big confusion factor -- he disappears halfway through the book leaving a mass of blood, but no body...

The author does especially well with a book of this nature to keep the various contributing parts balanced (the Canterbury Tales being notable for a strong beginning and then tailing off to less developed stories). In fact, the detective story turns out to be the most entertaining (which probably just says something about me and the fact that it comes nearer the end making it more memorable), the scholar's tale is the most challenging from a writing point of view and is, in fact, done very well, and the Consul's tale is the most out of proportion, impersonal trans-galactic super-power-broker rambling of them all, falling out of character in that all the other stories are told from a very personal and unique perspective and imbue a real sympathy with the characters' situations, whereas the latter is the well-worn telling of some epic family heritage followed by the selfish whims of one man -- which sums the man up very well, but slightly knocks the book off-kilter.

The book's real strength is the back story which comes out indirectly through the protagonists' narratives, which builds a picture of a totalitarian government (the Human Hegemony), gradually revealed to be genocidal and ulterior, against a backdrop of conflict with enemies. The strange and mysterious Shrike turns out to be living in reverse time, having been created in the future so that it can grow ``backwards'' and change history for the better, which seems to mean to destroy the Human Hegemony. The whole narrative is constantly clever, constructed in a way which builds up to a big concluding climax -- the problem in the end is that it doesn't really materialize -- although the ending is very unpredictable if not surprising.

The other problem that I personally have with the book is that much of the fictional science revolves around the idea that time can run in the opposite direction in a small part of the universe compared with the rest of it. This can only ever be fiction; imagine sitting on a chair, standing up and then moving into a reverse-time zone -- are you going to sit down again on a chair that is not there, or simply change direction as soon as you hit the temporal boundary and in fact never manage to cross over into the disconnected region? In the end, the author passes the reverse-time problem off as a disease which the scholar's daughter picks up from being in the Shrike's lair (which is never actually established as such, but that's the impression I'm left with).

It is ultimately an entertaining read, but unsatisfying in its inconclusiveness; it holds wonderful imagination of scenes, science, and biography but all in a heavily fictional way -- some of the science in particular is absurd; and yet some, especially the cyber-universe of the Web of the Human Hegemony, is innately credible.

Comment added 2013-09-07 by Jexter [e-mail]
Geez so much negativity over what is a rellay good Science Fiction book. I loved Hyperion. I read all 4 books years ago. Ilium and Olympos as well. Its brilliant stuff. Really. I cannot think of any other writer that does Sci Fi, Horror, and Historical Fiction to the extent Simmons does. My least favorite book by him is Summer of Night, because it comes off as contrived and its damn tedious. Hyperion deserves its accolades.
Comment added 2013-09-08 by Open [e-mail]
Thanks for the review. Like you, I've been hearing good things about it for decades and just haven't gotten around to reading it. It's been on my list of ones I ought to read sometime. Based on this I'm going to move it down the list a bit.

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