Hyperion, the first book in the Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons, is simply brilliant. It has all the normal features of a science-fiction book, yet Simmons manages to give the reader more than that — he flexes his writing muscles and provides a book that melds literary traditions to create a work that is beyond a “mere” piece of genre fiction.
The book starts out with the beginning of pilgrimage to Hyperion, a planet at the edge of the system of worlds underneath the interplanetary governing body Hegemony’s reach. No one seems particularly happy to be going; after all, the creature-god they are going to appease will most likely just kill them all. This doesn’t make for the happiest of groups, but they manage to get along well enough without real violence. In fact, it is suggested that they spend their evenings telling each other their stories.
This is part of Simmons’ particular cleverness — he has incorporated the basic structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Each man or woman tells his or her story, and how they are connected to Hyperion and its bloody Shrike, an inhuman killer made of both flesh and metal. The creature has a church dedicated to him, the locals fear and have a mythology that revolves around him, and these pilgrimages typically don’t go well for those who partake. Thus it is comforting for our seven travelers to hear everyone’s stories and to attempt to connect them together.
Our first story, that of the priest, is a standard sci-fi horror story of a foreigner put into a culture he does not understand until it’s too late. The second, that of the military man, was also horrific, but in a different way — it’s an almost-sad tale of a man allowing his loneliness to lead to the release of both lust and bloodlust — and to becoming, for a time, the tool of the Shrike. The third story, that of the poet, is disturbing in its candor in disclosing the mind of a madman. He needs the Shrike in a way that others in the group find abhorrent.
The fourth tale, about the Wandering Jew, is sad — it’s a family and medical drama that is both touching and desperate. The fifth, that of the pilot who brought them in, is mysteriously absent. This is because the man is mysteriously absent. The sixth story is a detective story through-and-through, very well-crafted and very well-told. The seventh and last one, that of the consul, exposes the most about why events have turned out the way they have.
I just love the structure of this book. There’s the Chaucer element, but the material about their actual voyage is also fantastic. There are power struggles, the interactions of the people fit the characters they expose through their stories, and the actual trip is interesting, instead of being a mere vehicle for the pilgrims’ stories.
I’m happy that there are more books to read in the series. Simmons has proven to me how inventive and effective a writer he can be, and I can’t wait to read another of his works.