THE PILGRIMS PROGRESS
SEVEN STRANGERS EMBARK UPON A ONCE IN A LIFETIME MISSION, EACH WITH A STRANGE TALE TO TELL
(Hyperion Cantos, Book 1)
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 496 Pages
Date: 12th May 2011 (First Published 1989)
It’s difficult deciding how best to describe Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award winning novel, Hyperion. Though it is a full-length novel it is structurally more like a collection of short stories loosely connected by an overarching conceit; a narrative choice acknowledged to have been directly inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Likewise, though Hyperion is a book that is ostensibly science fiction, stripping away the copious amounts of technobabble leaves a story that reads very much like a work of literary fiction. This is, perhaps, not surprising given the author’s known fondness for classical literature, which is very much in evidence throughout Simmons’ narrative.
In spite of the numerous classical literary influences that can be found littered all the way through the book, Hyperion should in no way be construed as being inherently derivative. It is unquestionably an original, unique work of fiction; it’s hard to think of another novel quite like it. And leaving aside Simmons’ literary pretensions (or perhaps snobbery) it is obvious that he put a great deal of creative effort into the science fiction aspect of the backdrop for the novel. The detail in which he writes about the technology, history and culture of his futuristic setting is instrumental in conveying just how well constructed and deeply thought out it all is. Which is all the more impressive given that not all of these elements are necessarily vital to the plot, which could work just as well without them.
The plot essentially focuses on seven strangers chosen to perform one final pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion before war breaks out between The Hegemony and a rival human civilisation, for control of the world and the terrifying mystery lurking on its surface. Although nobody has returned alive from any previous pilgrimage, the seven not-so-randomly chosen pilgrims, the priest, the soldier, the poet, the scholar, the detective, the consul, and the Templar, must make their way to the Time Tombs of Hyperion; a mysterious archaeological discovery believed to be travelling backward through time from the far distant future.
The purpose of the journey to the Valley of the Time Tombs is to ultimately discover the secrets of Hyperion by making contact with The Shrike, a preternatural being and sadistic killer that has come to be worshipped by some of the colonists, and many more people throughout The Hegemony. According to the religious doctrine of The Shrike cult, if a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs is successful one of the pilgrims will be permitted to live, by the so called Lord Of Pain, and granted a wish.
So that is what the story is basically about, but the actual journey undertaken by the pilgrims is not at the forefront of Simmons’ narrative. Instead, the bulk of the book is devoted to the pilgrims’ decision to use the time it will take to travel to the Time Tombs to narrate each of their individual stories of how they came to be chosen to embark upon the pilgrimage, in the hope that doing so will paint a better picture of how best to succeed in completing their objectives, and what to expect once they reach their destination. As each tale is told it becomes apparent that each of the pilgrims has, in one way or another, a previous connection to the world of Hyperion.
For all the inventiveness contained in Simmons’ novel, Hyperion isn’t always a particularly engaging or enjoyable read. The principal reason being that not all the pilgrims have equally interesting tales to impart. This unfortunately results in some parts of the novel being rather tedious to read, and a chore to get through. In addition to this, many of the characters just aren’t distinct enough. It is often hard to remember the names of people or keep track of who’s who. It is also possible that some readers may grow tired of all the literary references Simmons manages to shoehorn into his story. In particular, anyone not familiar with the poet John Keats and his writing, or simply not interested, will likely find it hard to understand why it was necessary to include so many references to Keats; or their significance.
The manner in which the story ends brings to mind the adage about the journey being more important than the destination. Hyperion’s conclusion is notoriously divisive among readers of the book, as Simmons does not ultimately reveal the outcome of the pilgrimage. Some readers are dissatisfied with what they view as a cliffhanging ending. Yet, had Simmons not subsequently went on to write a sequel novel, Hyperion’s appropriately surreal end could be viewed as a satisfying open-ended conclusion that leaves the fate of the pilgrims to the imagination of the reader; which to my mind works better than have it be a frustrating cliffhanger.
To conclude, Hyperion is a very clever novel, permeating with so many interesting ideas and some incredibly effective plot twists. Yet, despite the high regard in which it is held it’s probably not a book that can be enjoyed by most readers. For those who like fast paced, action driven narratives, Hyperion will likely prove a difficult story to finish reading.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.