The Hyperion Omnibus by Dan Simmons – book review
As soon as I read the first of these books (there are 4 total, 2 in this vol.) I knew at some point I’d be writing and blogging a review of them, and ever since then I’ve been screwing around on Twitter and avoiding the damn thing…
The first thing to be said is that these books are good and important, maybe not in the sense that they will make the world a better place or end hunger, but in the sense that they’re very well written works of science fiction that also have things to say about man’s place in the universe, morality, identity, religion, poetry and politics. The second thing to say is that they’re full of logical leaps and dead-ends that make me think that Simmons was making it up as he went along for large chunks of it, including the (many) twists towards the end which I have to say (in spite of that) do work. Like a really big motorway pileup, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The author throws in many motifs and themes that are sort of trademarks of his, which I think is good writing. The only slight problem is in the second part, but I’ll come to that.
From the first few chapters of this book I was gripped in a way that few works of fiction do, but Dan Simmons reliably can do. The books are rather long but don’t feel long at all, rather taking the time to fully develop their ideas, the first part of Hyperion being (in particular) a well-thought out and character-driven study in several genres that skips effortlessly from travelogue to high-science fiction in the vein of Dune or the best Star Trek to Gibsoneque Cyberpunk to whodunnit to tear-jerking drama. The later, Sol Weintraub’s story, is the pick of the bunch, one of the most moving stories I have read in any genre, whilst simultaneously something that could only work in the field of Sci-fi. It would work incredibly well as a short piece on its own and it comes at just about the right place in this book.
The linking structure for the entire first part of the book is something like a “Canterbury Tales” kinda format with each of the main characters saying their piece in turn whilst on their pilgrimage, at the end of which a semi-legendary creature may either murder all of them or grant one of them their wish like some bizarre Wizard of Oz in reverse, with perhaps a touch of The Seventh Seal thrown in for good measure. The second part reminds me of Joseph Heller’s Closing Time, the sort-of sequel to Catch 22, being a sequel to a book that is almost impossible to follow. I liked the second part (Fall of Hyperion, if you’re reading the individual edition) less, which is when the story becomes so epic that it almost collapses under its own weight. Simmons definitely does the best he can having sort of written himself in to a corner, his strong suit is definitely his characters, which he makes you really care about, and they almost get lost under all the Star Wars / cyber punk / Terminator 2 crap going on around them. Simmons throws the kitchen sink at them, and it’s only because of his skill as a writer that the story still sort of works.
The second book, the Fall of Hyperion, is narrated by (spoilers!) the poet John Keats, whose work appears strewn liberally throughout the book. In the context of this story he has been resurrected by an AI because he is some sort of “cyborg Jesus,” which is to say, his presence is a good excuse for some particularly Neuromancer-ish parts which do feel a little bit too similar to the William Gibson stuff to which they’re clearly an homage. This book did come out in the late 80s, so I suppose it was the fashionable thing do do at the time. Actually it’s funny how Neuromancer inspired so many other books, and works of fiction, but none of them have ever come close to it. I am sure I could write one. It would probably be terrible. If there ever is a sentient all-powerful computer AI created, I’m pretty sure it won’t sound anything like the one in this book when it speaks. There also isn’t really any clear reason ever given why the machines have decided to destroy humans completely, or why they need humans complicit in it to make their plan work. Like, I can come up with any number of head-canon reasons for this, but it isn’t really in any way explained by the author.
The plot finally twists around around to just about manage to avoid collapsing in on itself, and it does have a surprisingly satisfying payoff for all the reading you have to put in (there’s almost 800 pages here in the collected version). I am almost convinced that Dan Simmons knew where all this was headed. Cyber Jesus John eventually gets sent back to Earth (or something like it) in order to die and get resurrected in what I’m sure is some kind of elaborate metaphor that I’m too dumb to grasp (seriously this book almost screams at you “LOOK, I’M SCI-FI BUT ALSO, I’M LITERARY!”). He’s able to come back and influence events (because he’s cyber-Jesus), but it’s also never really explained how or why. Maybe it will be in the sequels?
But these small gripes aside, if you can go with it, Hyperion is a hell of a ride. It also rips liberally from Robocop, Blade Runner, the Dune books and The Terminator, but it was the 80s, so I suppose that’s allowed. If nothing else at least Dan Simmons was watching and reading the right things back then, so I’ll give him a pass for this one.
As I said, there is a good amount left unexplained at the end of part two, but there are two more books to come in the series, which I will review next up, so we’ll see if any more plot holes get filled in (when is a plot hole a set-up for a sequel? Answer: quite a lot, if you’re Star Wars). Also, and this is kind of set up at the end of part 2: there WILL be more strong female characters. Because if we’ve learned anything in 2019, it’s that every book and movie needs more strong female characters who are good at everything.
Star Wars: Episode IX, I am looking at you…