Review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
by Dan Simmons
I can best summarize my feelings about Hyperion like so: why did someone let me read the terror that is The Terror when I could have read a good book by Dan Simmons?!
Frame stories are not my favourite way to conduct business with a novel. In general, Hyperion's greatest flaws lie within its structure, frame story included. That and the abrupt ending devoid of any real conclusion are probably the two chief sources of criticism, from myself and from other reviewers. Like many other readers, I was suckered into the story as it approached the end, only to find no resolution! That was quite disappointing.
None of the main characters especially invite empathy. Sol Weintraub's tale was heartbreaking, managing to capture the disadvantages of reverse-ageing much better than some books that base their whole story on the premise. Father Hoyt's was creepy. Martin Silenus' bored me. Brawne Lamia's detective story was interesting, and I liked Simmons' take on artificial intelligence revealed therein. I felt cheated that I didn't get to hear Het Masteen's tale. Finally, my favourite had to be Colonel Kassad's. It was just the right mix of adventure and creepiness. Yet despite how I feel about their stories, the characters themselves are much like their Chaucerian counterparts in The Canterbury Tales: stock representations of an archetype intended to provide a certain perspective rather than any real personality.
What all of their tales have in common, and indeed the best part of Hyperion, is the revelation of the backstory of the future. Dan Simmons has some first-class worldbuilding going on here, full of the stock SF conventions like faster-than-light drive, wormhole type instantaneous travel, artificial intelligence, and whatnot. He manages to demonstrate the ramifications of each technology on society without ever veering too far into preachy exposition. The saturated, topical nature of the "Web", worlds connected by farcasting devices, really struck close to home in an era dominated by the phenomena-fuelled Internet.
At first, Simmons made what appeared to be throwaway mentions of artificial intelligence—that the AIs had seceded a couple of centuries previously, that they now resided in a "TechnoCore" from which they conduct their own affairs and assist humanity in various maintenance-related tasks. It wasn't until near the end of the story, particularly in Lamia's story, that we really get an idea of how involved the AIs are in the quest to solve the mystery of Hyperion. I love it with hardcore SF explores the alienness of human-created intelligence, and Simmons doesn't disappoint me. With a couple of homages to Neuromancer and only a little overindulgent technobabble, we're treated to glimpses of the machinations of AI factions and how irrelevant they consider humanity to the grand scheme of the cosmos.
Lurking in the background of every pilgrim's story is, of course, the inscrutable Hyperion and its resident walking death god, the Shrike. This plot point is probably the least "sciency" of the hardcore SF so far presented in the book. Hyperion has artifacts known as the "Time Tombs" that have "anti-entropic fields" that propel the tombs back in time from an origin far in the future. Presumably the Shrike, tied as it is to the Tombs, is also from the future. The debate among the pilgrims is what sort of future that is, what the Shrike's purpose is, and if and when they will die on their pilgrimage to it.
While the component stories of Hyperion are variously interesting or boring, I can't say much about the frame story itself. I am extremely interested in what will happen when the pilgrims finally confront the Shrike, of course. Unfortunately, the cynical part of me suspects that I've been exposed to so many other similar confrontations in other stories that it won't be as impressive as I hope. And that's the problem with the frame story itself—it's a story told in standard definition that's just begging for hi-def. The ideas and scope on which Dan Simmons is writing is huge, mind-bogglingly huge, but his style doesn't seem to compensate for that.
The philosophy behind Hyperion and the themes it espouses definitely make it a fascinating book. The title, of course, alludes to the unfinished poem by John Keats, and Simmons takes the allusion even further in the story itself, "resurrecting" Keats in a sense as some sort of artificial persona, whom we meet in Lamia's tale. So perhaps it's fitting that Hyperion ends abruptly, unfinished, picked up in The Fall of Hyperion, much like Keats did with the original. Like the Keats poem, this is a story about the search for truth (which, to Keats, equates to beauty, of course): the truth about Hyperion, the truth about the agendas and motivations of the seven pilgrims, the truth about the AI's agendas, etc. It's set against the background of a stagnating, sprawling galactic empire. The Hegemony is not evil or repressive per se. However, as the book progresses, we learn it has few qualms about manipulating whomever or whatever in order to achieve its aims. It sanctions genocide of potentially competitive species—and although it hasn't been successful in eradicating them so far, it doesn't sanction the existence of a rival group of humans, the Ousters. In this future, we learned nothing from Earth's destruction, nothing from our Diaspora and fragmentation. Humans are still capricious children, playing with shiny toys.
Brilliant and clever in many ways, Hyperion definitely deserves praise as a work of thoughtful science fiction. It has flaws in its structure and narrative, and it seemed to hold my interest intermittently. I'm looking forward to reading the next book, hoping for resolution to the plot, as well as more character development. Even though each character told a very personal story in this book, and as much as the "big ideas" encapsulated in the book fascinate me, what Hyperion really lacked were real people as characters. And no amount of allusion to Chaucerian and Keatsian style will make up for that.