Peter F. Hamilton’s introduction to Dan Simmons Hyperion clarifies that the novel mirrors the structure of The Canterbury Tales. I work in Canterbury and had no idea. Shamefully, I’ve never read Chaucer’s opus, although I am familiar with it. My first thought was a negative one. Is Simmons trying to ape one of reputably the greatest fictions in the English language? I need not have concerned myself. Hyperion is one of the top 10 titles for a very good reason, and not because it is attempting a re-telling of the Tales.
It is the 28th Century and the human hegemony (indirect imperial dominance by the threat of force) has spread across the galaxy using space ships and instant travel devices called farcasters. However, the Ousters, a mysterious offshoot of the early Earth emigrants, and the AI community are upsetting the balance. Into this, a cast of pilgrims are making their way to the planet Hyperion on a quest to visit the Time Tombs and to possibly face the Shrike, a God-like killing machine with inexplicable powers.
While Chaucer’s work encompasses 23 tales, there are but 6 tales on show here. There are 7 pilgrims presented to us and each has a reason to face the Shrike. Clearly, one pilgrim doesn’t have the chance to tell their tale. We do have tales by the Priest (Father Lenar Hoyt), the soldier (Colonel Fedmahn Kassad), the poet (Martin Silenus), the scholar (Sol Weintraub), the detective (Brawne Lamia) and the Consul (unnamed). Each tale starts slowly, leaving you wondering why the teller is on this journey. Each tale is told in a different style reflecting the teller. The detective’s is noirish and the priest’s has notes of piety, for example. As the pilgrims head towards their destiny, Simmons tells us of the universe they live in, the political and religious structures, the technological advances and most importantly, the history of the people who live in it.
Hyperion is an unfinished poem by John Keats which tells the tale of the fall of the Titans from Olympus. Both the poet and the poem are key to the planet and the people on it. And what of the Shrike? A three metre tall killing machine composed of a variety of cutting edges which can move instantaneously, drawing our protagonists to their fates. Is it from the future? What is its relationship with the AIs?
The only thing I can say about this work that is not complimentary is that each tales sets the reader back a little as it begins. You become very involved with the characters’ pilgrimage and by the end of each tale you are so totally immersed with the characters that it is somewhat jarring to have to begin a new story again. Simmons’ skill, however, lies in quickly dragging the reader back into the story of the Hegemony and its peoples. Rarely has exposition of a science fiction universe been so deftly handled. The levels of detail and the imagination are almost beyond comprehension. It almost reads like a historical text, the internal logic being so fully rounded and believable. Simmons’ writing is very clever, changing styles and reflecting characters. The characters, with one or two exceptions, are all extremely well drawn and there is a little of each of them in all of us. I loved this book and I can’t wait to read the follow up.