Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1988) 482 p.
I love reading good science fiction. It’s a shame that with genre fiction Sturgeon’s Law is closer to 99% than 90%, because I know I’ll have to read about twenty mediocre sci-fi books and five awful ones before reading another one I enjoyed as much as this. Hyperion is an excellent piece of writing, the only flaw being the shitty, frustrating non-ending.
The novel revolves around the world of Hyperion, a planet at the edge of mankind’s interstellar empire, where there dwells a creature called the Shrike: a three-metre tall bladed killing machine who is nigh-invincible. Fortunately it never ventures beyond a small series of structures called the “Time Tombs,” a tiny slice of the planet’s territory, and so the rest of the world has been settled.
The book opens on the eve of a war between the Hegemony of Man and the post-human Ousters who live beyond their reach. The Church of the Shrike (for there are those who worship it) has selected seven apparently unrelated non-believers to make a final pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and meet the Shrike, apparently in the hope of stopping the war. Ordered by the Hegemony government to obey, apparently as a last-ditch “what have we got to lose” effort, the reluctant pilgrims set off on their journey. Along the way they agree to tell each other their stories in order to learn more about why they have been sent and how they might survive meeting the Shrike.
And so the novel is modelled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: we have the Priest’s Tale, a creepy journal-style story of mystery and horror that had me hooked on the novel in the first 50 pages; the Soldier’s Tale, of epic sci-fi space battles; the Poet’s Tale, a disturbing story of the first settlement on Hyperion which made the mistake of establishing their first city too close to the Shrike’s territory; the Scholar’s Tale, a heartbreaking story about a father who loses his daughter Benjamin Button-style; the Starship Captain’s Tale, which doesn’t actually get told and left me quite annoyed; the Detective’s Tale, a hardboiled private eye story where the client is an AI; and the Consul’s Tale, a romance.
Nearly all of these stories are excellent on their own terms, but the story in between is fascinating too, even though it’s mostly journeying. The party lands in the largest city on Hyperion to find it swamped by refugees desperate to escape, because “the Shrike has begun ranging as far south as the Bridle Range…. at least twenty thousand dead or missing.” There is a sense not just of impending war, but impending Armageddon. As the pilgrims travel overland to reach the Time Tombs, they find chaos and disorder, ruined towns and deserted villages, and while they don’t actually encounter the Shrike itself (though some of them do in the stories they tell) it builds up a great amount of suspense.
And so, with all the tales told, as the pilgrims finally climb the last sand dune and see the Time Tombs laid out in the valley before them, bathed in the light of an orbital battle above their heads as the first Ousters reach the system, they descend into the valley to meet their fate… and the book ends.
I felt like throwing it in the fucking lake. It’s the equivalent of ending Star Wars just as they make the final run on the Death Star, or ending Watchmen just as they arrive in Antarctica. I know this is the first book in a series, but what I don’t know is whether the next book will deal with the same plots and characters or simply be set in the same universe. I really hope Simmons wraps this story up properly, because apart from the lack of an ending this book is great.