Monday, February 11, 2008

Review - Hyperion

by Dan Simmons
1990 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

A group of pilgrims share the stories that put them on the road to Canterbury. No, wait, that was Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Dan Simmons's Hyperion is about pilgrims sharing their stories on the road to the Shrike. The similarities are obviously intentional; Simmons structures his book like The Canterbury Tales and throughout the book he demonstrates an affinity for classic literature.

The Shrike that the pilgrims are traveling to is a godlike creature who is capable of nearly anything but is more likely to kill. Regular pilgrimages to the Shrike result in all the members of that party being brutally murdered save one who survives and gets their heart's desire. The Shrike is normally found among the Time Tombs, sealed chambers that move backward through time and are, at the beginning of the story, days away from unsealing. They are found on the planet Hyperion, a world initially colonized by poets.

Hyperion is doomed as a hoard of world ravaging, interstellar barbarians are approaching the planet. There is time for one last pilgrimage though, and seven individuals whose lives have already been touched by the strangeness of Hyperion and the Shrike are journeying to try to get answers to their mysteries. Among them are a priest who encountered terrifying religious icons of an ancient civilization on Hyperion, a soldier who may have seen the true shape of the Shrike, and an ancient poet whose greatest work was done while living in a city haunted by the Shrike. The most touching story is that of man whose daughter had her life tangled up by the Time Tombs and now ages backward a day every time she goes to sleep.

Each story is told in a unique style which Simmons pulls off well. The Lovecraftian overtones of "The Priest's Tale" is completely different from the noir styling of the "The Detective's Tale". There would be no mistaking which character is speaking from a sample. The characters are broad stereotypes but that works in the context of telling stories about them.

Simmons did a great job of weaving a tapestry among his stories. Each one reveals a tiny facet of a rich world and Simmons has paced it precisely to draw the reader in. It's something that a lot of writers in science fiction and fantasy attempt but very few do well. Each tale has a resolution that leads its teller to journey to Hyperion but at the same time it leaves the reader with questions and dangling plot lines that can only be resolved when the pilgrims confront the Shrike. Simmons stacks mystery on top of mystery, crisis on top of crisis until it all builds to a head.

And that's where things fall apart. I don't like handing out spoilers but Hyperion is half of a book. It ends abruptly with no resolution to any of it. The story telling is done but it's like you've just read five hundred pages of prologue. Even worse, the answers when they come (in the next book for the most part) aren't half as interesting as the set up. That's a common problem but it's rare that I've seen such a drop off between the set up and resolution.

Still I recommend reading Hyperion for the style and world building. Even though I was not happy with where Simmons went with the story after Hyperion I have to look at this book standing alone and it is well worth it.