“It occurs to me that our survival may depend upon our talking to one another.”
Hyperion, the Hugo Award-winning 1989 novel by Dan Simmons, is one of the greatest classics of science fiction. An interstellar coalition of 29th-century humans known as the Hegemony of Man is allied with the TechnoCore, an association of self-sentient artificial intelligence (AI) beings. The Hegemony and the TechnoCore join forces against the Ousters, a group of genetically modified superhumans bent on intergalactic domination.
The main plot of Hyperion involves seven travelers making a final pilgrimage to the distant planet of Hyperion before an expected invasion by the Ousters. Hyperion is famed for its legendary Time Tomb structures, which are believed to have originated from the future. The Time Tombs are guarded by a fearsome godlike creature known as the Shrike, who has a cultlike religious following.
Hyperion adopts the same narrative structure as The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth century epic featuring stories told by a group of pilgrims who journey together to visit the Saint Thomas Becket shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. In Hyperion, six of the seven travelers share their stories leading to their current pilgrimage to see the Shrike. Dan Simmons adeptly adjusts his writing style for each of the six novellas within the outer framing story, spanning everything from horror to romance. The ominous, omnipotent presence of the Shrike is felt in the background of each story, haunting each of the narrators.
Oh, and one of the narrators is actually a spy in league with the Ousters.
The line between humanity and AI is blurred in Hyperion, most notably with the development of cybrids, AI-controlled beings with bodies grown from human DNA. In this sense, cybrids are the opposite of cyborgs, which have a biological consciousness but with a machine-enhanced body.
The stories in Hyperion are steeped in religion and references to classic literature. The first novella, “The Priest’s Tale,” is a horror story detailing the journey of two Catholic missionaries on Hyperion who are infected with a wormlike parasite known as the cruciform. The cruciform parasite takes the shape of a cross beneath their skin, leading to indescribable pain. After killing its host, the parasite can resurrect the host’s body, repeating the cycle of grief and suffering.
The second story, “The Soldier’s Tale,” features a Palestinian soldier engaged in military training through a series of simulated battles, where he is saved by a mysterious woman who becomes his lover. The central mystery of the story involves whether the woman is real and her motives for manipulating the soldier.
In “The Poet’s Tale,” a poet obsessively seeks artistic perfection by writing The Hyperion Cantos (also the name of Dan Simmons’s series of novels) using the Shrike as his muse. Whereas the narrators of the two previous stories represent major monotheistic religions, the poet takes a more pluralistic approach to theology, having embraced and rejected a surprising number of faiths throughout his life.
The next story, “The Scholar’s Tale,” features a Jewish scholar seeking a cure for his infant daughter, who has been aging backwards after being infected by a mysterious illness that reverses the arrow of time. Her illness first appeared when, as an adult archaeologist, she visited Hyperion to study the Time Tombs and had an encounter with the Shrike. Her father hopes that the Shrike will also have the cure. But he must find this cure before it’s too late, since his daughter’s birth would also mean her death. “The Scholar’s Tale” is the most heartbreaking of the stories in Hyperion. I particularly love the way it parallels the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
“The Detective’s Tale” is both a hardboiled detective story and a bizarre romance between a private investigator and her client, a cybrid version of English poet John Keats. The real-life Keats died from tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25, leaving behind an unfinished epic poem titled Hyperion. In “The Detective’s Tale,” the cybrid Keats hires the detective to investigate his own murder, where the circumstances of his death are connected to the Shrike. In my favorite part of the story, the cybrid Keats recites the first canto from The Fall of Hyperion – A Dream, another unfinished gem by the real historical Keats.
The last story is from the Consul, the former governor of Hyperion. “The Consul’s Tale” is a love story complicated by time dilation, causing the two lovers to age at different rates. Besides revealing the origin of the Consul himself, “The Consul’s Tale” contains the most important information regarding the history of the war between the Hegemony and the Ousters.
Hyperion is an astoundingly prescient book given its publication date of 1989. Beyond the usual science fiction tropes of space travel and intergalactic politics, Dan Simmons nailed the ubiquitous role of artificial intelligence. Simmons also postulated the development of the WorldWeb, a network granting instantaneous travel and universal access to information. The actual invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee occurred in the same year as Hyperion’s publication.
Reading Hyperion is a transcendent experience. It is science fiction of the highest caliber and a multi-layered allegory of human existence in all its beauty and horror.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.