Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
Hyperion is a far-future novel concerning the motivations behind seven pilgrim's voyage to the world of Hyperion in order to meet with the dreaded Shrike. We learn about the stories of six of the seven through their own words, told at various points in the trek. In between the six tales, which function more like stand alone short stories, are some brief passages detailing the journey to the Shrike. Each of the stories draws on a significantly different style, and the various elements of the universe are slowly and subtly revealed. Additionally, the book has some powerful imagery and symbolism, drawing heavily from the life of poet John Keats. There is something for everyone in Hyperion, as the stories often fit outside of the realm of science fiction, dabbling in the action, romance, mystery, horror, and thriller genres quite often.
The book starts with an introduction to each of the major characters, told through the point of view of the Consul, the only pilgrim character to go unnamed for this book. The Consul is the main character for every segment in between stories, and he serves to guide us through what is a mostly forgettable voyage through the lands of Hyperion. The various segments set in present time are the most dull elements of the book. They aren't bad, and aptly succeed in moving the main story along, but they lack the flair and intrigue of the traveler's tales.
The six stories, none of which are related, form the core of the novel. Each pilgrim relays the story behind why they have decided to travel to see the Shrike. We learn that the motivations must be fairly substantial, as the Shrike is known to kill all but one of the people in any given group. Luckily the book delivers, presenting suitably significant stories that would cause our main characters to risk their lives like this.
Each of our main characters is from a significantly different background, though not all or even most walks of life are represented. We get the stories of a priest, detective, soldier, consul, poet, and scholar. Each of them have a tale that corresponds closely with their profession. The priest has a story about faith, told in epistolary form. The soldier's story has most of the book's action, the poet's is a witty take on writing/culture in the far future, and the detective's is a crime drama. The rich variety from tale to tale forms the backbone for the book's success. The author does an excellent job of bringing a different voice and tone to each of the stories, bringing the characters and their stories to life.
Only the soldier's story is kind of bland. It details his ongoing love affair with a woman he encounters in virtual reality simulations of famous historical battles. He doesn't know her name, yet they continually link up. He eventually makes some startling discoveries about the woman and her purpose for meeting him, with potentially major consequences for the rest of the universe. This section does provide some excellent action scenes, and the concept of historical battle training was an interesting one, but I found it hard to connect to the soldier and the more substantive portions of this segment. His motives seem more simplistic than the other characters, many of whom have deeply symbolic and personal reasons for wanting to visit the Shrike.
Each of the stories is so powerful that characterization takes care of itself. Through the wildly varying stories, the author manages to create a wonderfully diverse cast that is both memorable and relatable. Things get a bit hectic during the present tense scenarios, as some characters are marginalized for entire scenes and play little role in the journey to the Shrike, but overall the cast is juggled relatively well. If there is one real complaint about the cast, it is that there is only one female among the seven members of the group. Not a substantial detraction but it would've been nice to see another woman on the journey, preferably in place of the soldier, Colonel Kassad, whom has a story somewhat similar, yet infinitely more hollow, than that of the Consul.
Writing in Hyperion is very proficient. There is some powerful, extremely thoughtful symbolism concerning the poet John Keats and his role in the story. Character's lives are constructed to parallel his, names are inspired by the names of people in his life, and much of the world is inspired by his poetry (he has an epic poem by the name of Hyperion, though the content is quite different from the world established in this novel.) Keats' inclusion is inspired and thoughtful, but there is an effort to include a great many other contemporaries and modern (by our standards) authors by simple references. These come across as a bit disjointed because many of the figures are so obscure that it breaks suspension of disbelief to contemplate the idea that so many 19th/20th century (and earlier) figures would be in culture thousands of years from now. Some of the references do work though, and I loved the inclusion of a certain song from the Wizard of Oz at the tail end of the book.
World building is another strong aspect of the book, developing a new universe slowly and subtly. The stories are used to highlight a particular element of the setting of the novel. The priest's story highlights religion, poet's literature, soldier's warfare and so on. Each of them, plus the interludes, also contribute something to developing the actual world of Hyperion. Hyperion isn't the most engaging world in literature, and in fact some of the elements not directly related to this particular world piqued my interest more (such as the warfare and political climate of this setting) but it is most certainly an intriguing one.
Hyperion is a phenomenal book. It manages to capture all of the wonderful elements of science fiction (the futuristic worlds, bizarre weaponry, wild speculation) while eschewing many of the genre tropes. Additionally, it throws in many different genres to create a book that uses science fiction only as a springboard into something far more literary, varied, and unexpected. The rare book that truly transcends its ascribed genre, Hyperion is a treat for fans of any form of fiction as it captures nearly all of them at some point in its six stories. Highly recommended.