Great Sci-Fi Novels: Hyperion

Continuing our semi-regular series looking at great science fiction novels, today I’m digging into Dan SimmonsHyperion. First published in 1989, the tale of seven lost souls’ pilgrimage to the lair of the nightmarish Shrike creature won won the 1990 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 1990 Locus Award for Best Novel. So what makes this novel such a strong contender? Let’s dig in.

1. A Richly Imagined World

In my opinion, the creativity and imagination of Hyperion’s world-building is what truly sets it apart. In a universe far in the future where humanity spans hundreds of planets (and the Ouster splinter groups live fully among the stars), we receive deep backgrounds on the characters’ diverse histories, cultural viewpoints and struggles through individual tales that make the settings feel very “lived in” and offer the reader the chance to experience life everywhere from paradise worlds to penal colonies while still propelling the narrative.

Take for example Martin Silenus’s tale. As the Shrike Pilgrims work their way through Hyperion, we see the planet’s ruined cities, Sad King Billy’s statue carved into a mountain, and its fantastic landscape of Tesla Trees and Time Tombs. Then Silenus tells the reader how he came to live on Hyperion in its initial colonization, and we see the building of those ruins and what they once symbolized. It’s just one example of the strong backstory that helps weave a richly imagined tapestry.

Great Sci-Fi Novels - Hyperion - Sphinx Time Tomb
The Sphinx Time Tomb

Expanding beyond our characters, Simmons has created a well- thought out method of faster-than-light travel, a fully functioning political system, and interwoven plotlines spanning dozens of worlds that each feel real and fully developed thanks to the characters’ different perspectives and viewpoints.

2. Character Development

Hyperion’s “cantos” structure allows strong character development, with each of the major characters taking a turn giving a first-person narrative for their motivations and reasons for going on the pilgrimage. Where Hyperion excels is in the depth of these characters. Take Fedman Kassad as an example: in most science fiction novels the soldier is either a tortured soul or a take-no-prisoners caricature. Kassad is in love and honor-bound to best the Shrike, and his tale shows conflict and growth as he strives to overcome an invulnerable enemy.

Even the Shrike, inexplicable as it is, has enough characterization to elevate it beyond a mere monster. It treats some of its victims gently, shows brutality or mercy as the situation requires, and clearly operates according to some arcane code that only it will truly know.

3. A Familiar Format Updated for the 21st Century

I’m not sure how many of us remember Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from our high school English classes, but Hyperion follows a similar episodic format that lets Simmons try on different styles in the same book: the redemption story, the romance, the family tragedy are all here along with so many others.

My personal favorite is the “noir” of Brawne Lamia’s tale – the introductory hard-boiled gumshoe vibe flips the gender script so that the detective is female, but still maintains the tropes of a beautiful client-fatale and to me shows Simmons having fun and enjoying himself.

Each character is much more complex than their archetype would imply, just as Chaucer presented things, but the unique episodic structure (which was born from the book’s origin as a collection of short stories) allows for an engaging read.

4. A Novel of Ideas

Hyperion touches a number of heady themes: the struggle against time, the source of religion, man’s relationship to machines, and humanity’s evolution among others. In spite of this depth of subject, the readers’ perspective stays rooted and grounded due to our characters’ experience and perspectives on these ideas.

We see the novel’s world expand and come into conflict as these ideas and perspectives are pressed by different factions. Ideas like eternal life and freedom are shown as double-edged swords, and time does not run as it should, raising themes for discussion as opposed to presenting a black and white view, which is often rare for science fiction.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this great sci-fi novel as much as I did. If you did, there are three more sequels that follow. Now it’s on to the next one!

Credit for the Shrike image goes to Devon Cady-Lee.

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