This is the first book in a science fiction tetralogy called The Hyperion Cantos by the versatile and consistently readable Dan Simmons. I won’t even try to beat around the bush here to pad out this review: The Hyperion Cantos is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi series, so I recognize that there is simply no way I can be impartial about this. But I’ll do my best.
As the first book in a series, it is hard to imagine a better example than this one. Simmons took a fascinating premise–a story of several travelers on a pilgrimage to meet a powerful and mysterious monster–and created a work of timeless beauty and originality that stands as a testament to what the sci-fi genre, in the hands of a true master, can be. The characters are memorable, the story is epic and the pacing is pitch perfect. If you are a fan of science fiction at all and space opera specifically, you simply must read this novel. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
The novel follows seven pilgrims in the distant future who are, each for their own reasons, on a quest to meet the murderous creature called the Shrike, a being who has come to be worshiped as a god by many in this universe and who can seemingly control time. It is an homage of sorts to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, as, during their voyage, each of the pilgrims tells their own story on why they are going to see the Shrike (knowing full well the whole time that the Shrike will almost certainly murder them). And as each of their stories is laid out, we slowly begin to see the big picture unfold before us and realize that the stakes here are much, much higher than the lives of these seven individuals.
There is Father Lenar Hoyt, a drug-addicted priest from the nearly extinct Catholic religion, whose missionary predecessor may just have discovered the key to eternal life, or something close to it. There is Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a brilliant soldier of the galactic military group FORCE, whose love for a mysterious woman could change the entire course of human history. There is Martin Silenus, a decadent poet whose epic poem the Hyperion Cantos is intimately tied up with the Shrike’s existence. There is Het Masteen, a member of a religious order devoted to nature, whose spaceship is carved from a single gigantic tree. There is Professor Sol Weintraub, a Jewish scholar whose daughter had an accident at the very destination the pilgrims are traveling to which causes her to age backwards. There is Brawne Lamia, a female private detective hired to solve a mystery that the most powerful AIs in the known universe want to keep buried. And there is the Consul, a man who holds the secrets of the Ousters, the biggest military threat to the Hegemony of Man.
Of course, none of that is likely to mean much to you until you actually read the story. And read it you should, as well as the rest of the series. But we’ll get to those in time. Right now it is enough to say that this should be required reading for sci-fi fans, particularly those who are less interested in the mechanics of gee whiz futuristic technology than in the development of human civilization and the evolution of humanity across hundreds of diverse worlds. Simmons deftly explores the nature of religions, whether ancient or new, and how both humans and intelligent machines deal with the question of God in a civilization no longer bound by the old rules or the old geography. He also addresses the inevitable conflict between those factions of society who seek to hold on to the old ways and those who are interested in forcing technological progress no matter the cost. In fact, I would say if there is an overriding theme in this book (and the series as a whole), it is the true price of abiding ignorance. There are no obvious heroes or villains here, merely humans dealing with their lives as best they can. Even the horrific Shrike–and he is horrific–may be an agent of the greater good in the end, for all that is known about him.
Hyperion was first published in 1990 (winning both the Hugo and the Locus Award that year); it’s hard to believe this novel is a quarter of a century old at this point. Like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this is book that only seems to become more relevant with age and, like the Shrike, ultimately may be timeless. If you’ve never read anything by Dan Simmons, this is a great place to start. It will stick with you long after you have closed the back cover and set it aside. Simmons knows how to write characters that resonate with purpose, intensity and humanity. He also understands what makes great sci-fi great: that it’s not just about bad-ass spaceships (though there are plenty of those here) or exotic alien worlds (ditto). It’s about asking the tough questions concerning human destiny. Where will we wind up in the future, and why? Are we, like the old adage says, really doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes again and again? Can we learn to get along despite all our differences? Maybe, but can we do it before we destroy ourselves? For Simmons, the answer is both troubling and hopeful.