The Hyperion Cantos
by Dan Simmons
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 2, 2011; Update on February 16
1. Hyperion / 2. The Fall of Hyperion
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My comments on this book will be limited at this time, until I can re-read its sequel. Even though I have several more of his books, these are the only two of Simmons' novels that I have read so far. It is amazing what twenty years can do to your memory, as that is how long it has been since I read them both, back to back, when the Science Fiction Book Club offered them in an omnibus edition, sometime in 1990 or '91. I did recall several of the characters and a few scenes, but the ending of the first book seems rather abrupt to me at this time, and would have been very frustrating if I had read it on initial publication, especially if I didn't know it was going to have a sequel. It is obvious some of the things I remember are from the second book, which I'll get to as soon as I can.
First off, Hyperion is a perfect example of the fact that science fiction can be as important a style of literature as any other. Simmons is very good at descriptive phrasing, both for setting and character, as well as establishing mood. There are many passages that read as if from a contemporary novel (and an excellent one at that), up until he includes some reference to another planet or technology from this future scenario. He uses first, second and third person narrative techniques within the construct of what is known as a "frame story," or stories within a story. In this way it is similar in both style and content to a classic work of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In that medieval text, individual stories are told by various participants on a pilgrimage to Saint Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. This novel, set on the planet Hyperion, details a pilgrimage of seven people to the Time Tombs, a place revered by the human-created Church of the Last Atonement, known as the Shrike Church to outsiders. The Shrike is a legendary creature which guards the Tombs, and every few years the church sends a prime number of pilgrims to petition the Shrike to grant a wish. Only one such wish is granted per pilgrimage (or so the story goes), the other supplicants are killed, so in many instances these treks are peopled by would-be suicides. It is speculated that the Time Tombs are traveling backwards in time and have been sent from the far future by an unknown entity or group, possibly the Hegemony of Man or maybe their major foe, the Ousters, humans who have rejected the Hegemony and have followed their own path of genetic manipulation and evolution to live mostly in zero-gee space.
Hyperion is also a good example of the old phrase, "the more things change the more they stay the same." While set in a far-flung conglomeration of planets settled by humanity, both before and after The Big Mistake, it shows that humans have been and always will be the same, subject to the same foibles (as well as honorable traits) as we have seen throughout history. A war has been brewing for several years between the Hegemony and the Ousters, and Hyperion is the focal point. Both want to control the planet in order to study the Tombs, and possibly devise a way to control its properties of time manipulation. Humanity has already conquered space, first with Hawking drive spaceships then with the farcaster, a controlled singularity (or wormhole in space) used for instantaneous travel between planets in the WorldWeb, the collection of planets that make up the Hegemony. There are other planets not yet incorporated into the Hegemony, Hyperion being one of those, so it does not have a farcaster portal and is only accessible by spaceship. These other planets were settled before the Hegira, made necessary by the destruction of Old Earth due to The Big Mistake (or was it a mistake?), the tragic result of the study of the singularites that eventually became the farcaster technology. All of this information is given piecemeal, both within and in between the individual stories told by the travelers. It is believed, due to the impending war, that this will be the last Shrike Pilgrimage, and each of these people have been selected by the Church (or was it by the Shrike itself?) because of a connection each of them has with Hyperion. They agree to tell their stories in hopes of discovering the reason they were chosen, as well as to figure out a way that all of them can survive the ordeal.
"I retitled my poem The Hyperion Cantos. It was not about the planet but about the passing of the self-styled Titans called humans. It was about the unthinking hubris of a race which dared to murder its homeworld through sheer carelessness and then carried that dangerous arrogance to the stars, only to meet the wrath of a god which humanity had helped to sire."
This quote is from the tale told by the poet Martin Silenus, born on Old Earth after The Big Mistake but before the planet's total destruction. He is older than the rest in universal years but much of his early life was spent in cryonic suspension on a space voyage to Heaven's Gate. He composes an epic poem about Old Earth which brings him wealth and fame, and later comes under the influence of Sad King Billy, a patron of the arts who moves his palace and entourage to Hyperion many years before the main action of the story. Silenus is the one who has suggested Hyperion as their new home, since it bears the name of a poem by one he considers the greatest poet of all time, John Keats. This is one more literary reference Simmons uses, another being the similarity of the Shrike to Grendel from the Old English narrative poem Beowulf. One would think that "The Poet's Tale" would be the most poetically phrased, even though in prose form, but almost the exact opposite is the case, due to Silenus' brash, arrogant and profane personality. He is also drunk most of the time.
All of the stories are told from unique perspectives and in a different style due to the narrator, and also because in a couple of instances they are reading from someone else's journal, or playing a recording made by someone else. If you deleted a few references to Hyperion or the Shrike, each of them could have been a very good stand-alone short story or novella, and with a few other edits (with one exception) could have been adapted as mainstream stories. They range from accounts of anthropological studies, a war tale, a love story amid a native population's exploitation, a hard-boiled detective yarn, and an artist's account of fame won and lost. The only one of them that would have to remain science fiction, or at least a fantasy, is "The Scholar's Tale," told by Sol Weintraub, a Jewish professor and writer from Barnard's World. Highly recommended, and I will be updating this page soon.
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Continuing with thoughts on the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. There are several things about the first book that I did not mention. Maybe you noted that there were seven pilgrims on this quest, but only six tales are referenced. That is because one of the people, Het Masteen, disappeared along the journey before they arrived at the Time Tombs, and he had yet to recount his story. In the sequel he still does not get the chance to do so, but it can be inferred what he would have told the other travelers given the opportunity. Another element I did not speak of is the TechnoCore, or the Core for short. This is a combination of all machine intelligence that controls much of the social and political life in the Hegemony, even more so than the highest echelons of human power realize. I won't go into detail on that, except to note that past, present and future actions by the Core are at the heart of most of the plot in this second novel.
At times the Core utilizes "cybrids" for certain tasks. They are physically human, in fact their DNA is derived from real people (either dead or still alive), but their brain functions are controlled and are in direct contact with the Core. Two separate cybrids that figure into the story (the first is referenced in the "hard-boiled detective" story in the first book) are essentially twins, as both inherited the DNA from an Old Earth poet named John Keats (remember him?) I'm not sure why Simmons used him as the basis for these characters, except for the fact that Keats did write a poem titled "Hyperion" which dealt with some of the same themes in these novels and it was a strong influence on Martin Silenus' (unfinished) magnum opus, "The Hyperion Cantos." Just as with the opinion of Silenus, perhaps Simmons considers Keats the greatest poet in history. One thing the Core does not anticipate (it is mentioned several times that they can accurately predict almost everything) is that the two Keats cybrids will more closely identify with their human side than their machine side.
The first book used multiple literary techniques to tell the various stories, and that continues to a certain extent in the sequel. The second Keats cybrid recounts his experiences in first person, the rest of the novel is in third person. The tales in the first book exhibit different tones and tempos since they are being told by different individuals, but the only unique "voice" in the sequel occurs when the cybrids are in the Core. The author's long, rambling run-on sentences gives a distinct feel of being among high-speed electrons traveling along silicon highways. But as dazzling as Simmons' literary style, the strongest element of the story is the characters, their humanity, that which makes it easy for us to understand them even though their story is hundreds of years in the future and thousands of light years away.
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I was satisfied with the conclusion to this novel. The major story points were all addressed and concluded, and it would not have been unusual if Simmons had left it as is, but he also left enough to ponder about the after effects of the action, and he did produce two other books in direct sequel to these. I have yet to read them, so at this time the thing that puzzles me is that the Shrike is depicted on the paperback covers of the books I have, both Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, and on the first one seems to be traveling with humans rather than being their nemesis. I hope to stay spoiler free about these two books because it might be some time before I get around to reading them. I've already started on a book which will be the subject of my next review, and there are quite a few others on the waiting list too.
DanSimmons.com - the author's official webpage
Simmons' bibliography at FantasticFiction.com
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