You don’t need to have read The Canterbury Tales to appreciate Dan Simmons’ epically epic first installment in the Hyperion Cantos series, and really, I suppose you don’t even need to know what The Canterbury Tales is, but you’re certainly not going to appreciate this book very much if you don’t. Hyperion, like Chaucer’s famous Middle English collection of tales, follows a group of pilgrims on their way to a famous shrine. As a way to pass the time, they tell stories. In Chaucer, the goal is to tell the best tale, and the winner will get a free meal on their return, but the stories really were a clever way for Chaucer to paint a large and witty portrait of English society. Simmons uses the tales his pilgrims tell to similar effect, except it’s not English society he’s portraying, but a strange and feral one set in a future where Earth has been destroyed and humanity is spread across hundreds of worlds.
Seven pilgrims are journeying to an ancient series of tombs on the Outback world of Hyperion (Outback, meaning not yet connected to the web of farcasters–teleporters, essentially–that connect all the planets in the Hegemony of Man). In the background of their journey, interstellar war is threatening to break out, and they all understand that not only is this the last such pilgrimage, it is almost certainly the last thing they will ever do. In The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims are going to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket. Here, they’re going to see the Shrike. The Shrike is an infamous figure on Hyperion, a seven foot tall monster covered in quicksilver spikes, with red, thousand-faceted eyes. For decades, the Shrike has been supposedly abducting people, all of whom are never seen again. Spaceships and other forms of aircraft cannot approach the Time Tombs where it is located. If they approach the tombs, they come back empty. A religion has also grown up around the cult of the Shrike, and supposedly out of every pilgrimage, the Shrike chooses one person to spare, and to that person he will grant a wish.
This is where our seven pilgrims are headed, and because this isn’t the peaceful type of pilgrimage that ends with everyone holding hands and buying each other beers–in fact, each pilgrim has very specific reasons for being there–they decide to tell each other their stories in hopes to gain some idea of the bigger picture: of the Shrike, the war, the Time Tombs, and each other. This set up is brilliant because it allows Simmons to give us a picture of the world he’s created without infodumping, but in a way that is still satisfying. He also gets to play around with genre as he’s hopping all over his made-up universe with his characters. He plays around with detective stories, romances, military sci-fi that is concerned with the love of destruction and violence, time-travel, religion, artificial intelligence, murder, horror, revolution, and meditations on creativity and art. His characters are also extremely varied, and while they aren’t all instantly likable, they are all very interesting and engaging.
And of course, threaded throughout each pilgrim’s story are elements of the overarching story about the Shrike. The soldier, the priest, the poet, the detective, the captain, the consul, the scholar: How are they all connected to the Shrike and the Tombs? Why are they really on the pilgrimage? What/who is the Shrike? Where did it come from?
Just so you know, these are mostly answers you won’t get until the end of book two. Hyperion and its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, are a duology in the truest sense of the word. One can’t exist without the other, but both are also separate entities. Hyperion may not explain all its mysteries, but it does give you a sense of finality once the final pilgrim tells their story.
I held off on rating both books until I’d finished them and sat on my thoughts for a while, and now that I have, I’m undeniably impressed with Simmons’ achievement. These are the kind of books that are fun and smart, but also woven all the way through with deeper concerns that I could probably spend a crapload of time unpacking. The kind of books that every re-read will tell you something new. But they are also both really satisfying on the most basic storytelling levels. I will have more thoughts in the review for book two concerning the characters, the themes, and Simmons’s prolific use of literary allusion. But for now all you need to know is FIVE STARS.