I had a very unclear understanding of what I thought this book was, not by reading about it or looking at reviews for it, but by looking at the original cover. It looks like a kind of sci-fi fantasy novel ala Dune or some other kind of adventure in space. And while there’s elements of that throughout, the book ended up being so much smarter, better written, and a number of other things as I started to understand what I was reading. We begin aboard a pilgrimage ship or rather a ship travelling to the colony planet Hyperion with a group of pilgrims aboard. It becomes clear over time that Hyperion is an old colony and one that has not exactly been abandoned, but has shifted as it’s come under the control of some sort of cult (hence the pilgrims) because of the presence of a demi-god like beast that terrorizes the population there or read another way, that provides guidance and contrast and moral instruction to the population. Whether the monster is Grendel or akin to a Greek or Hindi god is unclear or depends on who you ask.
The novel then begins as this group of pilgrims is discussing what has brought them aboard and when it becomes clear that their reasons vary, but their goal involves confronting this being, they decide they must share their stories with each other to help everyone out mutually. So the rest of the novel is the set of six stories. So yes, it’s a kind of Canterbury Tales by way of space colonies with some Heart of Darkness (and lots of other references throughout). Each story is told in different voices (often third person, but occasionally first) and with a mix of different genres. There influences contained within each story and within each voice is also a wonderful part of the book. I wouldn’t want to get into the individual stories, but I will say that three of them were absolutely fantastic, two were highly interesting in their own, and one was at least adequate, but the totalizing effect of everything was almost unlike any other novel I’ve read, if not for the fact that Dan Simmons works so much in the realm of reference and trope.
Simmons, and I’ve read three other of his books, is just a master of understanding and dominating a genre, even if he doesn’t necessarily innovate. He’s like a virtuosic player, while someone else composes.