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July 24, 2021

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, is a literary science fiction book. Hyperion is a planet, and its biggest city is called Keats. The original Keats was a poet and he lives again in this novel, although the manner of his rebirth is so technical that it’s hard to call it necromancy. Like the life of the Romantic poet, the life of the cybrid who calls himself Johnny is brief and beautiful.

The novel is told in a series of tales, reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales, as the characters are all on a pilgrimage to Hyperion. It took me a while to get interested in the tales; the first one, by a priest, is slightly reminiscent of the priest’s tale in Mary Doria Russell’s SF novel The Sparrow. As the tales went on, however, I got more interested in them than in the overarching plot, which has to do with the relationship of the Ousters, the Hegemony of humans, the datumplane of AIs, and a rebellion based on the planet Maui-Covenant against those who have been murdering any species with the potential to be a competitor to humans.

About Hyperion, the priest says that “the whole planet reeks of mysticism without revelation,” and the same can be said about the novel itself, although the world-building and character development tell enough of a tale to satisfy almost anyone. In the first story, the priest’s, we learn about some of the flora on the planet Hyperion, like its “flame forest” with “groves of tall Prometheus, trailers of ever present phoenix, and rough stands of amber lambents.” The forest also has the “tesla tree,” which opens in “spasms of violent energy” so that “a Prometheus less than thirty meters from us exploded, dropping flaming brands fifty meters to the forest floor.” We discover secrets important to the plot, like what a “cruciform” does (it’s necromancy-adjacent and therefore the priest abjures it) and what the “legendary Shrike” looks like to a human:
“it was vaguely man-shaped but in no way human. It stood at least three meters tall. Even when it was at rest, the silvered surface of the thing seemed to shift and flow like mercury suspended in midair. The reddish glow from the crosses set into the tunnel walls reflected from sharp surfaces and glinted on the curved metal blades protruding from the thing’s forehead, four wrists, oddly jointed elbows, knees, armored back, and thorax….it extended four long arms, hands extended but fingers clicking into place like chrome scalpels.”
So much of the mystery is revealed in the first tale that a reader can’t be too impatient for more but settles in to enjoy each tale and see how the individual pieces come together.

Some of the most interesting pieces are the references to old Earth literature, like when the characters go to a bar in Keats called Cicero and they think that it “was not named after some piece of pre-Hegira literary trivia.” Readers get the sense that this exceedingly advanced civilization doesn’t remember all the things they know, and this keeps us interested in why what is remembered is remembered at all. We also get a little bit of editorializing on how things have turned out as they have in the future, like when we learn about “the obscenities of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries on Old Earth, when military leaders had committed their nations to strategies wherein entire civilian populations were legitimate targets while their uniformed executioners sat safe in self-contained bunkers fifty meters under the earth” so that now, in this future, “the repugnance of the surviving civilians was so great that for more than a century the word ‘military’ was an invitation to a lynching.” At other points it becomes less editorializing and more humorous, like when a character says that “in twentieth-century Old Earth a fast food chain took dead cow meat, fried it in grease, added carcinogens, wrapped it in petroleum-based foam, and sold nine hundred billion units.” One character, a poet, remembers a three-day party thrown by his great-aunt on Old Earth: “guests ferried in by dropship from Orbit City and from the European arcologies. I remember the Empire State Building rising from the water, its many lights reflecting on the lagoons and fern canals; the EMVs unloading passengers on the observation deck while cooking fires burned on the overgrown island mounds of lower buildings all around.” And we wonder with the poet why “the traces of intelligent life we have found—the blimps on Jove II, the labyrinth builders, the Seneschair empaths on Hebron, the Stick People of Durulis, the architects of the Time Tombs, the Shrike itself—have left us mysteries and obscure artifacts but no language. No words.”

We learn a lot about the universe of this novel in the section told by a private investigator, Brawne Lamia, who falls in love with a cybrid re-created to be John Keats. She describes “TC2, the age-old nickname for Tau Ceti Center…the most crowded world in the Web. Besides its population of five billion people scrabbling for room on less than half the land area of Old Earth, it has an orbital ring ecology that is home for half a billion more In addition to being the capital of the Hegemony and home of the Senate, TC2 is the business nexus for Webtrade.”

The unfinished epic poem by Keats, “Hyperion,” is germane to the plot of the novel even though the cybrid, Johnny, never goes to the “outback world” of Hyperion. And damn if Dan Simmons didn’t make me sad all over again about the death of John Keats when the cybrid dies in Brawne’s arms, murmuring “Fanny.”

With the last story we get a wider perspective on what has been going on from a character called The Consul. He sees that the future human race has not changed enough, still fighting with the alien Ousters: “barbarians, we call them, while all the while we timidly cling to our Web like Visigoths crouching in the ruins of Rome’s faded glory and proclaim ourselves civilized.” There are many secrets in the stories that comprise this novel but they don’t add up to an easy answer about what to do, where to go, or how to communicate with beings unlike ourselves. Oddly, it’s very satisfying.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2021 11:02 am

    I need to reread this one, I loved it.

  2. July 24, 2021 10:14 pm

    I remember loving Hyperion and its sequel when I read it 20-ish years ago. I’d fallen in love with Keats in Ron Sharp’s class at Kenyon and had been a fantasy and sci-fi fan long before that, so it was a natural match. Reading your review, I really need to go back and revisit it.

    • July 26, 2021 10:13 am

      It is a SF novel made for lovers of literature.
      Really, if a person doesn’t fall in love with Keats by the time they’re 20, there’s something wrong with their reading list.

  3. July 25, 2021 4:39 am

    Lovely review!
    A clear 5 star from me, and one of my favorites.•-1989-•-sf-novel-by-dan-simmons/

  4. July 26, 2021 3:46 pm

    This has been on my TBR for ages. After reading your review, maybe I will be inspired to finally get around to it!

    • July 26, 2021 4:31 pm

      Because I had a small paperback copy, I’d had it in the pile of books I was saving to read while traveling for a couple of years. I’ve let myself dig into that pile lately, though. I’d say it’s worth digging out of your pile!

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