26 March 2017

Book Review: Hyperion

Title: Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)
Author: Dan Simmons
First published in 1989 by Doubleday.
I read the 1995 reissue by Bantam.
Source: the school library

On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands. 

Well, it's finally over. I finally finished what must have been one of the longest reads in the history of books. Hyperion - the first novel in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos series. Yup, it's over. I did not think it would take me almost three months to finish reading it, but this is the reality you deal with when you're up to your cha-chas in school work. I'm not going to lie: Netflix had a lot to do with it too. I've been on Gilmore Girls binge and.... well, I digress.

Okay, I finished it, so let's dive right into the review, shall we? As I was reading this book I knew I would have a difficult time summarizing its plot in just one or two paragraphs. The blurb gives you the premise, but it doesn't even begin showing you the complexity of Hyperion. In short, It's about a group of seven pilgrims who embark on a dangerous journey - you might even call it a suicide mission - to Hyperion, a backwards planet that has found itself in the centre of a war between the galactic empire called the Hegemony and the separatists known as the Ousters. Hyperion is also the home to the Shrike - an ancient creature with the power to send people backwards in time, and the mysterious artifacts called the Time Tombs which the Shrike guards.

With the two military super powers on the verge of a war, the pilgrims' timing could not have been worse. But on their way to the Time Tombs, the pilgrims share their stories and pretty soon their motivations for going to Hyperion become clear. They all come from different parts of the Hegemony, but they all have had tragedies in their lives, all of which have something to do with Hyperion and - in particularly - with the Shrike. Now, as Hyperion is about to become a playground for the most devastating war in human history, the seven desperate strangers cross the desert to make the final plea with the Shrike.

Hyperion is told largely in flashbacks, with the individual stories interwoven with the main plot. What struck me the most about these stories is how different they are from one another. Every story reads like its own self-contained short novel, filled with interesting themes and driven by well-developed characters. But as different and self-contained these stories may be, they all complete each other, like bits in a puzzle.

The world-building in Hyperion is slow. Frustratingly slow at times, but Simmons never rushes. He lets each story show different sides of the Hegemony - as with each new account we get a more detailed and full picture of this world, as well as a deeper understanding of the Hegemony's history. So much so that by the time the last participant has finished retelling their account, we have if not a full understanding of this world but a very good insight into its inner workings.

The slow world-building, the rich and self-contained stories may have to do with the way Hyperion was conceived. In an interview from 1997, Simmons said that:

"It started 25 years ago, when I was teaching elementary school in a small town in Missouri. I first created the Hyperion universe for my students during storytelling hour, little by little, day after day."

Hyperion is very ambitious in what it wants to say about things like technology, progress, religion, faith, the meaning of life and the human nature. This book is not meant to be read lightly. There are themes and undercurrents that don't make themselves evident until much later in the book; little clues and hints hidden in each story, and I'm sure that it will require at least one more reading before I will be able to decipher them all.

For instances, poetry plays a big role in this book, John Keats' poetry in particular. And as someone who isn't familiar with Keats' work, I suspect that some of the references and allusions have gone over my head. What did not go over my head, though - and this I'm pretty positive about - are the questions Simmons is asking about technology and our relationship with it. As well as questions about the future of organised religion and about faith on a more personal and intimate level.

Personal and intimate is what this book is. And that is something that needs to be brought up and praised in all fiction, and particularly in science fiction. The Hegemony, with all its fantastical elements, with all its teleportation devices and time travel paradoxes, and cybernetic organisms, still feels like a real place. Real enough for us to imagine ourselves inhabiting. The Galaxy may be huge, but the people who inhabit it are still small, and the problems they deal with have not been fixed by the advances in technology and science.

My initial takeaway from this book was that it shows us the sad truth of the human nature and our world - that no matter how advanced our technology may become and no matter how far we may travel - even to outer space - we will never be able to escape our vices and our dark sides. Corporate greed, bigotry and general selfishness are as much a part of the human nature as are love, compassion and empathy. Books like Hyperion strip away any hope or illusion that we may someday escape the reality we have created for ourselves.

I really don't have anything negative to say about Hyperion. This is a fantastic book, with a world so rich and diverse, that you could write a hundred stories set in it and there would be room for a hundred more. The attention to details is admirable, and despite this being a very wordy book, there are no fillers, and every scene serves a purpose. Even the sex scenes which are as abundant as they are graphic help move the story along. The characters are all well-rounded and complicated. That applies both to the pilgrims and to the ancillary characters.

The only thing that I can think of is that as fascinating as the pilgrims may be in their own right, they don't work very well together as a group. They feel more as a gathering of strangers bound together by unfortunate circumstances. But this is exactly what they are, and their lack of chemistry reflects this broken group dynamic.

My rating
Plot: 5 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 4 stars
Language: 5 stars

Total rating: 5 stars.

Also, check out this interview with Simmons that I quoted earlier, and find out what the author thinks of the book himself:

World-class maker of worlds: A talk with Dan Simmons

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