Hyperion: A real treat for the imagination

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHyperion by Dan Simmons science fiction book reviewsHyperion by Dan Simmons

There is space opera, and then there is Space Opera. Dan Simmon’s 1989 Hyperion is S.P.A.C.E. O.P.E.R.A. From grand schemes to the most minute of details, vivid character portrayal to imaginative and original future technology, gorgeous scenery to a multi-dimensional, motivated plot, everything works. Weaving his tale, Simmons proves a master storyteller, each of the seven tableaus presented begging to be devoured. As a result, it is virtually impossible to read Hyperion and not want to follow up with the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. Thus, potential buyers be warned: this is only the first half of a highly engaging story.

Hyperion’s success begins with world building. Simmons put hours and hours of thought and planning into the background details of his universe and how these elements work together. Fully functioning political, technological, and social systems, none of the superb far-future government structures, technologies, or sentients clash with one another — in a logical sense; there are wars and tension galore. The tech not functioning cart blanche, Simmons took the time to think of how the various futuristic elements affect and offset one another, the result being a world portrayed more realistically. Secondly, all of the created technologies serve a purpose. There are no one-offs thrown in to impress the reader or because it felt good that moment tapping away on the keyboard. Thirdly, and most impressive, is that Simmons is able to infuse the description and importance of all the futuristic motifs into dialogue and plot. There are no blatant info-dumps — a plague of sci-fi. Every element is revealed naturally in the flow of story. From the post-human humans to inter-planetary communication, space travel to AI — especially the AI, Simmons worked out all of the details before setting out along storytelling road and the book does nothing but benefit for it.

If world building is the foundation of Hyperion, then storytelling is the palace atop it. Other writers, including Iain Banks, Richard Morgan, and Alastair Reynolds (whose imaginations are nothing to frown at), have stated their dreams of producing such an imaginatively singular yet archetypal story. Borrowing the structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Hyperion is a frame story broken into seven basic pieces: one for each of the pilgrims traveling to Shrike temple on the titular planet. One by one, each pilgrim tells the story of how they came to the pilgrimage and their reasons for undertaking the potentially deadly journey. Simmons uses the interstitial space of the individual narratives to describe segments of their collective journey to the temple. Needing to be read to be believed, the ex-army general, poet, priest, detective, teacher, forest guardian, and diplomat all have the most amazing tales to tell.

And there’s a story for all interests. Readers who enjoy the action/tech side of sci-fi will revel in the ex-general’s account — the space fights are jaw-dropping. Neuromancer fans will thoroughly love the cyberpunk homage Simmons pays to Gibson in the detective’s tale, complete with cyberspace and console cowboys. Dick fans will nod their heads in appreciation of the priest and poet whose happenings are most spiritual and also most surreal, while fans of Le Guin or Aldiss will be satisfied by the sensitive yet alluring histories of the diplomat and teacher. Save the detective’s tale — an acknowledged homage — the voice is Simmons’ own. The stories, particularly the meta-story tying the characters’ lives together, are anything but derivative and prove sci-fi a powerful medium for storytelling.

And what of the enigmatic Shrike temple where the pilgrims are headed? The name is taken from a real-life desert bird that impales insects on cacti spines prior to dining on them, and the impossible-to-describe temple guardian named simply the Shrike is the most mysterious and fascinating idea Simmons has carefully laid into his story. Appearing and re-appearing randomly, groups who visit the temple take their lives into their hands; only one member lives to tell about the visit, the remainder never to be seen again. Killing at will, the Shrike is simply one of sci-fi’s greatest creations, its black spiky visage haunting readers long after they’ve finished the novel.

If the depth of imagination and storytelling or borrowing of Chaucer’s framing device are not enough, then Simmons’ thematic grounding of the tale in the poetry of Keats will satisfy those looking for literary qualities. Not a lengthy testament to the British poet, Simmons instead uses the eponymous poem by Keats as an allegory for the tension between sentient species and artificial intelligences. Not blatantly a Star Wars good vs. evil, situation, the scene set pits uber-intelligent AI constructs against the technically advanced beings inhabiting the universe, each fighting for autonomy. Like the Greek gods warring with the Titans, this aspect of the novel puts the “opera” after “space”.

In the end, Hyperion is one of the best science-fiction books ever written, a real treat for the imagination. The imagery, characters, underlying themes, narrative structure, storytelling, and flat out entertainment value leave 99% of sci-fi in the dust. The only fault is that readers must wait until the second half, The Fall of Hyperion, to discover the fate of the pilgrims. A wholly unique creation, it’s difficult to compare Hyperion to any other author’s works, save the rough comparison of the individual pilgrims’ tales themselves. Hyperion. Read it. The book will be remembered.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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16 comments

  1. One of my all time favorite books of any genre, period.

  2. This book is simply amazing, and the Shrike! The Shrike!

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    A great review, Jesse! I have looked at this book many times in the store and now am more inclined to read it than ever. Many thanks!

  4. I have this book (the whole series) at Audible but have not managed to get to it yet. I can’t wait. Thanks, Jesse!

    • What, Kat? You haven’t read Hyperion?!?! You’ve walked more miles in genre than the average person has driven and still haven’t read Hyperion? While I don’t think it’s the greatest sf book ever written, it remains a tour de force of storytelling that sticks in the head. I think you’ll love it.

  5. With everyone else here — brilliant book.

  6. Imajicaman /

    Hyperion is absolutely superb and so is the follow up book, The Fall of Hyperion. I personally think it is the best scifi series ever written and one of the best books ever written in any genre. The review above is excellent but you really should read the book and judge for yourself. I can not recommend it highly enough. A masterpiece.

    • Thanks, glad you like the review! Just not sure what you mean by “The review above is excellent but you really should read the book and judge for yourself.” I thought I read the book. :)

  7. Imajicaman /

    Sorry for any confusion regarding my post but yes, I am aiming my post at readers in general whom have yet to read the novel.
    I recently learned thst Dan Simmons wrote Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion as one novel thst was split for publishing reasons. I’m about 40 percent through The Fall and it too is proving to be superb.

  8. I discovered science fiction back in the 60s when Iwas9 years old. This was my first SF book:

    Star Surgeon (1959) by Alan E. Nourse
    http://manybooks.net/titles/noursea1849218492-8.html
    http://librivox.org/star-surgeon-by-alan-edward-nourse/
    http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=1299
    http://www.amazon.com/Star-Surgeon-Alan-Nourse/dp/1598180657

    I thought SF was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But eventually I encountered an SF book that I didn’t like. Strangely I remember my reaction but I don’t remember the book. I was shocked, angry and felt betrayed. But then I started reading blurbs more carefully.

    I encountered Hyperion in my regular perusal of SF in books stores. My finely honed instincts told me it was not forme. But starting to use the Internet regularly in the late 90s you get to notice certainblooks getlots more PR than others. For me it seemed to be getting more and more difficult tofind SFI liked. I finally broke down and bought Hyperion.

    As far as I am concerned it is Fantasy/Horror not SF. It might qualify as techno-fantasy but I really don’tthink it istechnical enough for that. Strangely the best sub-plot in the story in my opinionis one of the worst scientifically. The female archeologist getting a day younger every night but only if she falls asleep. LOL Her parents having to “raise” her agian backwards wasvery sad and touching.

    “See you later alligator.”

    But then it was only half of a book. Read 500 pages to learn all about these characters and end the book at the Yellow Brick Road. What a Joke. So I read Fall of Hyperion and am not reading any more Dan Simmons.

    One of the strange things is I read a review glorifying Hyperion but the this reviewer said not to read Fallof Hyperion because the writing is not as good. I do not read forthe ‘writing’ I read forthe story.

    You have to read a book to know why you wouldn’t read it. Strange world. LOL

  9. DS.Hyperion.txt with 997807 characters.
    It uses 123 SF words 612 times for an SF density of 0.614

    The word count limit of: 99 was exceeded by: 262

    18 Fantasy words used 46 times for a Fantasy density of 0.047

    ‘Sols’ is used 360 times.

  10. Imajicaman /

    6 out of 5 stars…brilliant.
    The Hyperion novels including Endymion and The Rise Of Endymion will forever be regarded as some of the very best science fiction novels of all time. Sure, there are some negative reviews but as we all know all too well, there will always be people who don’t like or don’t enjoy them. People’s tastes are different at the end of the day. However, without digressing, for it is rewarding to know that for the main part, the readers who did read the novels, the majority of them enjoyed them. This is proven by the sheer volume of positive reviews and the awards the books have picked up. Dan Simmons penned absolutely phenomenal books with this series. The positive reviews will always outway the negative for these awesome novels.

  11. Imajicaman /

    I forgot to add the stars to my comments above. So…here they are. 5 stars. More if I could.

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