Some Thoughts on Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Saga

Over the last year I’ve tried to develop a habit of reading a book before bed on most nights.  It’s a good habit, and I find that it’s a great way to help settle into sleep, particularly since I’m especially prone to dozing whenever I’m supposed to be reading.  Whenever it’s not working as a sleep aid, I also have the added benefit of being able to work through the list of books my friends have recommended to me.

For the last six months or so, I’ve dedicated my regular reading time to working my way through Dan Simmons’s four book Hyperion series (well, technically through the three sequels; I read Hyperion a couple years ago after it was given to me for my birthday by some friends).  It’s been pretty satisfying, and naturally I have thoughts about the series as a whole.

The Shrike appears on the cover of every book in the series, but all except the last one fail to portray it with the right number of arms. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

For anyone not familiar with the series, here’s a brief overview of what’s going on: about eight or nine hundred years in the future (I’m fuzzy on the precise timeline), humanity has spread out among the Milky Way galaxy after the accidental destruction of Earth.  With the help of a network of sentient AIs known as the TechnoCore, they’ve developed technology that allows for instantaneous travel across vast distances through portals known as farcasters, which have been slowly built on colonized planets, developing into what’s known as the WorldWeb.  One planet on the fringes of human space, Hyperion, is on the cusp of being integrated into the Web as a major conflict between humanity and a faction of separatists known as the Ousters is about to escalate.  The TechnoCore possesses significant predictive capabilities, and all of their calculations suggest that Hyperion will play an integral role in the conflict, although no one knows in exactly what way.  Hyperion also happens to be the home of the Shrike, a mysterious figure who inexplicably kills or rewards people who sight it, and around whom an entire cult has developed.  Seven disparate people are chosen to go on a pilgrimage to Hyperion to visit the Time Tombs, a site that’s flowing backwards in time from the future and where the Shrike seems to have originated from.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens, but plotwise, that’s all the setup you need to decide if you’d like to read the first couple books in the series.  If you want to read the latter books, then it’s best to go in understanding that the events of those books are set nearly three centuries after the first two.

Besides the larger plot that’s swirling around the small cast of characters who anchor the story, the first book also does some interesting things with structure (being about a pilgrimage, Simmons saw fit to structure Hyperion like The Canterbury Tales, where the primary story advances in small sections that act as prologues to each of the pilgrims’ personal stories that explains their connection with the Shrike and why they were selected for the pilgrimage in the first place) that set it apart from its sequels, which all unfortunately stick to a more traditional narrative structure (I suspect that this change in structure was simply necessary to facilitate the larger story, since all of Hyperion serves more or less only as an introduction to the concepts and conflicts that play out more explicitly in its sequels; the fact that the book just ends once the pilgrims reach the Time Tombs with no further explanation of what they actually need to accomplish there drives this point home).

The series also deals with some interesting metaphysical questions regarding the nature of empathy and whether evolution on a macro scale exhibits any kind of greater direction.  There’s significant discussion of the concept of the Omega Point, which the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described as the ultimate goal of evolution within the universe (the concept resonated with me as similar in thought to what John Haught describes as his “aesthetic principle” in his book God After Darwin; it’s been a few years since I read that one, but I’m pretty confident that Haught, who’s also Catholic, is thinking in light of Teilhard’s work), and also quite a bit of philosophizing over humanity’s relationship with artificial intelligence and the symbiosis that emerges from that relationship (or even if it can be symbiotic at all).

The ending of the second book, Fall of Hyperion, reminds me a lot of the Mass Effect series.  Without getting too spoilery, I can say that there are multiple story beats that Mass Effect seemed to be pretty clearly cribbing from Hyperion (I’m confident the series was a point of inspiration for BioWare, especially given that they have a Hyperion shout out built into the Mass Effect universe with a recurring star system across all the games that’s called the Shrike Abyssal), but in the books they were executed in a much more satisfying way.  If you found Mass Effect 3‘s ending to be a little lacking, then reading through the first two Hyperion books gives a very similar sort of payoff, but in a way that, at least for me, doesn’t leave the audience angry with the writer’s decisions.

Also, if you decide you just don’t want to commit to four books, Fall of Hyperion ends in a very satisfying place with all the character threads neatly wrapped up.  As for Endymion and Rise of Endymion, well, they’re not bad, but they conclude in a way that feels pretty hollow to me.  I’ll discuss those two in more depth next time.

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