Of all the wide range of sub-genres that you can fit under the broad rubric of speculative fiction, I have the softest spot for the space opera. I’m not really sure why – too much Star Wars and Star Trek, I guess – and in some ways it’s the most staid and trope-ridden of them all. In the ‘80s, Brin made some innovations with some really alien aliens and some really bizarre technologies, but otherwise, I’m not sure there’s that wide a gap from Lensman and Foundation to Vorkosigan and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Hyperion, however, Dan Simmons manages to shake the genre up by melding it with literary history to create a unique space opera setting.
The novel takes place in the 28th century. Earth has been destroyed, but colonists have fanned out to other worlds. Farcasters provide almost instantaneous travel between them and have forged a Web of worlds, ruled by the Hegemony. There’s also a hostile group of earlier, breakaway human colonists called Ousters, and then there are a few other worlds that remain rough frontiers outside the Web. One of these planets is the mysterious Hyperion, home to strange alien artifacts like an ancient Labyrinth and the Time Tombs. It is also inhabited by the Shrike, a murderous and god-like being, covered in metal spikes.
The novel unfolds through the stories of a group of pilgrims who go to visit the Shrike and ask him for favors on the eve of a massive war. These stories span genres and styles – the soldier’s story is military sf (told in 3rd person); the priest’s tale begins exploring the challenges of faith in an alien encounter (a bit like Case of Conscience), is told through journal entries, and ends as Lovecraftian horror; the detective’s tale is pure noir cyberpunk, narrated in first person; the scholar’s tale is family melodrama with horror elements (not so far from Song of Kali’s best features, really). Some of the stories are stronger than others, though the only one I didn’t like was the final story, which is a reprint of an older Simmons’ short “Remembering Siri.” I’m not sure I would cast this novel as literary sf, as some do, but it’s certainly literate in ways that many sf books are not. The structure follows the middle English classic, The Canterbury Tales and the title comes from English Romantic poet John Keats, who we see more of throughout the novel.
Each of the stories is exciting and skillfully told, and they each reveal further details about the Web and more mysteries about Hyperion while providing rich character development for the pilgrims. Again, it’s the setting that most captivated me here, and I look forward to reading more novels in the quartet. In fact, my biggest complaint is that there’s not much forward motion in the plot in this entry, and it ends, more or less, on a cliffhanger.