This is my second time reading this book, and happily it was as wonderful and intriguing this time as the first. Of course, I am older and at least a little more knowledgeable this time, so I think I’m actually getting more out of it.
Firstly let me admit to my own blindness the first time I read it: I don’t think I picked up on the resonances with The Canterbury Tales, which is just embarrassing… although at that stage I’m not sure I’d read any of that poem, so perhaps that excuses me slightly! But still, the pilgrims’ stories are each labelled as such, so you would think that I would have picked up on it. But no. There is also – and I guess this is really only obvious right at the very end, but it doesn’t spoil the story – a bizarrely amusing parallel to The Wizard of Oz.
This is is a story set in the 28th century AD, when Earth is no more and humanity has spread to the near reaches of the stars in the Hegira. Multiple planets have been colonised, technology has advanced, there are sentient AIs… and there are still divisions, squabbles, and politics. Sad, but tragically believable. The plot itself revolves around seven pilgrims who have been chosen to visit the Time Tombs at a time of war between the Hegemony – to which most planets belong – and the Ousters, a renegade human faction. The Time Tombs are on Hyperion, they are protected by a terrifying something called the Shrike, and it all goes from there.
Fascinatingly enough, most of the book itself is not taken up with the pilgrimage. Instead, in the spirit of Chaucer, the pilgrims share their stories with each other in an effort to understand both why they have each been chosen and what might happen when they are arrive. Their stories are very different – a military officer, a diplomat, a private investigator, an academic, a Catholic priest, a spaceship captain, and a poet – but they all have common elements of pain and loss and tragedy. And a connection to Hyperion.
I love the different elements that Simmons combines in this book, through the device of the background stories being told through a deliberate and completely plot-appropritate info-dump. I love the mystery of Hyperion, I love the mix of characters, I am enthralled by the diversity of world tied to a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity itself. One of the things that I really love about the book is its exploration of religion and its place in this future. The first story is that told by Father Hoyt, the priest, and it deals very honestly with the issues that do and will face the Church in confronting technological change and everything else the future promises. I appreciate that he imagines a place for such faith, even in a dwindling and sometimes confused manner. And the academic, Sol, is Jewish, and his story ties in many elements and ideas of Judaism. I hope that a Jewish person reading it would have the same reaction to his portrayal as I did to Hoyt (although I am not Catholic). As well as these Old Earth religious hangovers, Simmons also imagines a plethora of brand-new religions based on all sorts of different things. Which is cool.
I am a bit sad that there is only one female pilgrim amongst the seven. Simmons does imagine an improvement in gender relations overall; the CEO of the Hegemony is female, there are female soldiers, etc. He also does not imagine an entirely Anglo future, either; I don’t know whether the pilgrims are ever described in terms of skin tone, although a few of them are described as ‘paling’ and other such giveaways. But many of the worlds have non-Anglo names and predominant cultures. I think his idea of the great Hegira is that humans will have colonised in like-cultural groups, as a number of SF writers have prophesied, and I guess I see the sense in that. But with the ‘farcasting’ technology of the Hegemony, people are able to move around even more easily amongst these planets than we currently do on Earth, so there is a great deal of intermingling.
The other really clever aspect to Hyperion is its connection to the poet John Keats. Hyperion was a Titan of Greek mythology, is a moon of Saturn, and an abandoned poem of Keats’ about the Titans. He tried again with “Fall of Hyperion,” which is also the name of this Hyperion’s sequel. There are nods to Keats in a number of the stories, and I’m sure I missed a few of them. I loved this idea of incorporating a 19th-century poet into a story set a millennium after his death.
I have a lot of books for review on my shelf at the moment, so I haven’t decided whether to read the sequel yet… heh. Who am I kidding.