Friday 28 March 2008

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I kept reading about how good the two Hyperion books were so I eventually bought an omnibus edition including both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. It is the size of a substantial doorstop so it sat on my shelf for a few months while I found excuses to read shorter books. However, I eventually stiffened my sinews, gritted my teeth and got stuck in.

It isn't quite what I expected, which was a conventional, if superior, space opera. In fact, it's an unusual book with an unconventional structure and an inconclusive ending (just as well I have its sequel available, or I'd be feeling frustrated). The setting is a 29th century human commonwealth known as the Hegemony, which spreads over a couple of hundred worlds in one sector of the galaxy. Two other groups with a major influence on events are the Ousters, a renegade human group who had departed long before to live in space away from the rest of humanity and are now in conflict with the Hegemony, and the TechnoCore, consisting of human-created artificial intelligences which had thrown off human control and now had a parallel existence, mostly virtual but occasionally via human avatars. One of the avatars with a significant role is a recreation of the poet John Keats; the author is clearly a fan.

The plot concerns seven very diverse people called by The Church of the Shrike to undertake a hazardous pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the remote world of Hyperion. These mysterious, empty objects predate humanity and are surrounded by strange time eddies. They are also haunted by the deadly Shrike, a legendary being of only partly-glimpsed form consisting mainly of red multi-faceted eyes and steel blades, with the ability to appear and disappear at will. When the seven arrive on Hyperion, they are greeted by chaos; the Shrike has broken away from the constraints which had kept it close to the Time Tombs and is roaming the country, killing at will. The spaceport is besieged by the entire human population who are desperate to leave. Despite this, the seven proceed with their pilgrimage across an empty land, believing that they stand a chance of unravelling the mystery of the Tombs and the Shrike.

The seven were previously strangers to one another so they spend their travelling time telling their stories in turn to the group in order to explain their interest in the Tombs, and the novel principally consists of these stories. This structure is reminiscent of (and presumably inspired by) Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The stories are an astonishingly varied and inventive collection, ranging from a poet whose muse was the Shrike, through a legendary military commander who appeared to have been manipulated by it, to the elderly father of a daughter who, as a young archaeologist, had been caught in a time anomaly while exploring the tombs and from then on had lost rather than gained age, and was now a baby in his arms.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have a general preference for shorter and faster-paced novels. The deliberate pacing of Hyperion coupled with the story-telling format (which, contrary to the general advice for novel writing, largely consists of "telling" not "showing") sacrifices some of the buzz of excitement of a good thriller. However, Hyperion is very well written, highly original and intriguing. I am thoroughly hooked and looking forward to reading the sequel.


bloggeratf said...

I really enjoyed Hyperion, and I agree that the ending was a bit abrupt, but luckily you had the omnibus edition... I had to run to the bookstore!

I am surprised you did not get the adventure feeling out of this. Are you more of a hard military sci fi type of reader?

Anthony G Williams said...

Not really - I just find that my involvement in a story is linked to the degree of tension over what happens next, and the tension is linked to the way the book is paced. If the pace is too slow, tension dissipates and so does my interest. Which is why I tend to prefer shorter, tightly-plotted books.

Considering its length and slow pace, 'Hyperion' actually did a good job in holding my interest.