I’ve previously read Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali — a dark, sweaty, hopeless horror story set in India. Hyperion, first volume of the Hyperion Cantos and winner of the Hugo award, is science fiction, but Simmons’ horror bones frequently emerge from the book’s science-fictional flesh (now, how’s that for an metaphor…).
Hyperion is set several centuries hence when the “Hawking Drive” has allowed humanity to colonise the stars. Farcaster (teleporting) technology gifted to humanity by powerful and autonomous AIs allows most of these distant worlds to be linked together into the “Web”. Hyperion is one of the rare wild west planets that have been partially settled but not farcaster linked. It has several characteristics that make it notable. First, the entire planet is riddled by a vast labyrinth lying just under the surface. Second, there is a complex of empty buildings (the time tombs) that are seemingly moving backwards in time. Third, the planet is haunted by the Shrike — a mysterious omnipotent figure of metal and spikes with blood-red eyes and a taste for unpredictable murder.
The religion du jour is the Church of the Shrike, which organises pilgrimages from the core worlds to Hyperion. Each pilgrimage must consist of seven people. One, it is said, will have a wish granted; the other six…are not so lucky. A war is brewing between the core worlds and the post-human space-dwelling Ousters that will centre around Hyperion. This war makes it entirely possible that the next pilgrimage will be the last. The novel describes the journey of these final pilgrims, each of whom has very different motivations for travelling to Hyperion.
It is very consciously modelled on the Canterbury Tales. The pilgrimage is a framing story within which each of the pilgrims tells their tale. While they are all set firmly within a hard sci-fi universe (leavened by healthy doses of mysticism and mystery), each tale is quite distinct in voice, style, and genre. Every storyteller sheds further light on the mysteries of Hyperion and the state of the galaxy more generally.
The first, the Priest’s Tale, is a fantastic horror story with great alien echoes of the story of Christ. I’ll say no more about it, other than that I found it genuinely unsettling (a most desirable trait when reading horror). The second, the Soldier’s Tale, was also great. This was pretty hard core space combat stuff — a little bit Ender’s Game, a little bit Heinlein. The third, the Poet’s Tale, was the weakest of the bunch. It concerns an ancient and debauched poet struggling by turns to find his muse and popular acclaim. The fourth, the Scholar’s Tale, is heartbreaking. The eponymous scholar recounts his efforts to deal with his daughter’s unique illness, triggered by a visit to Hyperion’s time tombs. The fifth, the Detective’s Tale, is classic hard-boiled noir. It’s got a brilliant farcaster-enabled planet-jumping foot-chase (from ecumenopolis, to ice planet, to tropical paradise and beyond…) and a fantastically Gibsonian hacker sequence in which the hacker’s head literally explodes. The last, The Consul’s Tale, is another sad one — an elegiac story of environmental and colonial travesties. It’s also a beautiful one. In The Forever War, Joe Haldeman showed us the possible effects of time dilation on future warfare. Here, we see the effect time dilation (or, as Simmons calls it, time debt) can have on relationships, as a space-farer meets his true love only a handful of times over the course of a few (subjective) years. Across those years, however, planet-bound Siri ages far faster than peripatetic Merin.
The book ends with the arrival of the Pilgrims at their destination on Hyperion. It is as cliff-hangery as can be, and readers must go on to the sequel — The Fall of Hyperion — if they want to find out what happens next. I know that it does away with the framing device and uses a more conventional narrative style, but I’m quite optimistic (after reassurances from a friend) that the quality is unaffected. I’m very much looking forward to it.