Monday, June 11, 2012

Review of "Hyperion" 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, have stated their dreams of producing such an imaginatively singular yet archetypal story—their imaginations alone nothing to frown at.  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 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 taken from a real-life desert bird that impales insects on cacti spines prior to dining on them, 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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