There was no thunderclap, no sudden smell of brimstone, not even a scientifically sound inrush of air. One second the thing was there, surrounding me with its beautiful certainty of sharp-edged death, and the next instant it was gone.
Whatever I was expecting when I picked up Dan Simmons’ 1989 sci-fi novel Hyperion, it wasn’t a version of The Canterbury Tales set in space.
Think about it: A bunch of strangers embark on a pilgrimage together and make a game out of telling stories. A couple small parts even mirror Chaucer’s Middle English prose. The characters follow a randomly determined sequence to decide who speaks when, and each narrative differs not only in theme but also in structure. The contents of these tales are supposed to better prepare them for the hardship ahead and reveal which of them is a spy.
General unease about their journey, which may not come to fruition, and the deadly creature known as the Shrike pervades their recollections. Each pilgrim has joined because of a specific spiritual calling — an obligation to the future of humanity, which is under threat from several sides.
Piecing together the larger significance of these tales takes time, but eventually, new details illuminate the characters whom readers and the other travelers know nothing about and each of whom brings a token of their past or troubles with them. These possessions of value take different forms and are in plain sight for the entire novel, but readers don’t realize their importance until each person tells his or her tale. It’s amazing how powerful these moments of clarity can be — with some characters more than others.
Indeed, some stories, like the Priest’s, are riveting. His in particular is weird, disturbing, and hard to forget. It puts a perverse twist on Christianity and religion in general. Others, like the Soldier’s, are dull and uninspiring, with little thought to bolster the action. It’s in this segment that a passionate sexual relationship with a woman ends in a cliche expression of masculine fear, which is explored through a sci-fi lens — you know, the vagina is a mouth of metal teeth — and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Hard. It read like a bad porno.
Hyperion contains several polarized looks at sex, though, including a few that are meaningful. It’s the diversity between them that’s important — a reflection of how these remarkably different characters see the world and a reminder that they’ve met on this pilgrimage for a common reason.
Simmons’ writing is often haunting and, in rare moments, quite beautiful in description. The strength of the book rests with its depth and interplay of ideas and the variety of its stories (an Asimov-esque detective thriller, a devastated romance, a familial tragedy, and so on) but that also serves as its major weakness. I got bored of Hyperion once I hit a tale I didn’t like, and any renewed interest from that point on died with every new section that failed to appeal to me.