Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
The Fall of Hyperion (1990) Book Review
Endymion (1996) Book Review
The Rise of Endymion (1997) Book Review
Available works by Dan Simmons


Set in the 29th Century on the planet Hyperion – just one civilisation out the hundreds that make up the inter-stellar civilisation of the Hegemony of Man – Hyperion is the first book in Dan Simmons’ series Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997). Hyperion represents a high point in postmodern space opera with its playful, self-conscious style and appropriation past genres. Hyperion won the Hugo Best Novel award (1990) and the Locus Best SF Novel award (1990).

The story weaves together the tales of six different people who have been sent on a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on Hyperion by the Church of the Final Atonement, an institution that has sprung around the Time Tombs and and expects the tombs’ monstrous, non-biological and 3m tall metallic guardian known as the Shrike (or Pain Lord) to bring about an end-of-days event. The Time Tombs which cause a distortion in spacetime are after a long period of dormancy now showing signs of activity, and while it remains unclear what the exact purpose of the pilgrimage is, it is clear that the opening of the tombs has the potential to change the course of human history. Humanity’s galactic rival, biogenetically altered humans known as the Ousters are also on course to secure the Time Tombs technology. As are the different factions of the TechnoCore, a civilisation of AIs, also of human origin, but with parallel lives and their own objectives. Gradually the six tales – the Soldier’s, the Poet’s, the Father’s, the Detective’s, the Scholar’s, and the Consul’s – reveal that the pilgrims have been chosen because they have all had an encounter with the Shrike in their pasts. Each of the pilgrims has his or her own reasons for confronting the Shrike.

Humanity was forced to abandon Earth following a cataclysmic event referred to as the Big Mistake of ’08. Now, some 800 years later there is a real nostalgia for everything Old-Earth. The greatest ‘cyberpuke’ of all time is still Cowboy Gibson and Sad King Billy once built an artists’ paradise on Hyperion in a nod to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Tongue-in-cheek references aside, nostalgia underpins the novel’s style, a self-conscious hybrid of The Canterbury Tales (pilgrims recalling narratives to pass the time) and The Wizard of Oz (pilgrims hoping to have a wish granted). Hyperion is unashamedly pastiche, cannibalising several genre styles. While the Priest’s tale is a Victorian lost-tribe adventure with Conradian overtones, the Soldier’s tale pastiches Heinleinian militarist sf. The Poet’s unfinished work, Hyperion Cantos, is a direct reference to John Keats’ two unfinished works Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion which he abandoned just before he died in 1821. John Keats himself plays an import role in the whole of the series, resurrected as a cybernetic organism (cybrid) from DNA samples.

The themes of bioengineered posthumanism, sentient machine intelligence and spacetime manipulation naturally raise a number of fundamental questions about what it means to be human in Hyperion Cantos. While the TechnoCore becomes a vehicle for machine godhood, threatening to usurp mankind, the spacetime manipulation of the Time Tombs opens up for prophesies and messianic impulses, ideas also explored in David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998) and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (1980-1983). Postmodern space operas often revolve around a spiritualism-science axis, where on the one hand technology and inter-stellar pluralism chip away at humanity’s religious inclinations, and on the other hand technology generates new conditions for godhood, religions and messianic cults to evolve. While the Catholic Church is reduced to a historical footnote in the first two books, technology revives it in the sequels.

Instant travelling has also become a staple of postmodern space opera and Simmons is perhaps the most inventive of the lot. In Hyperion instant travel is portal based, known as the galactic-wide Farcaster system. Those who can afford it have homes which spans across several worlds, rooms connected by farcaster portals. There is also a jet-setting social elite dubbed the Caribou Herd who seems to be governed only by fear of missing out on a party. The farcaster system has also given birth to the inter-planetary pleasure cruise circuit known as the River Tethys.