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Across centuries we trundle along with Dan Simmons’ characters, in this epic encompassing considerations as diverse as time, love, death, computing, space travel, religion, bionics, god, parenthood, politics, poetry, human relationships, war, history, pain and redemption. And this is just for starters.
We follow the fateful pilgrimage of seven individuals to the valley of the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion, where they will meet the Shrike, a fearsome creature with godly powers and a body of blades. During this trip, the seven people will in turn tell the story of their life, which will bring to light the reason why each finds himself or herself engaged in this endeavour.
The seven stories each constitute a short novel in its own right, all welded together by the common backdrop of the journey. As their stories unfold, the purpose of the whole enterprise begins to come vaguely into focus. We understand in a confused way that the Time Tombs and the Shrike hold the key to some major upheaval brewing in the galaxy, while we discover the connection of each of the characters with the Time Tomb / Shrike phenomenon, though we don’t really understand the phenomenon itself. Indeed none of them has much of an idea of why this whole thing is happening, beyond their own involvement with the creature.
The seven stories are of unequal interest and style, though they form on the whole an interesting body of ideas and phenomena : a parasite resuscitating or maintaining the life of its host for eternity, gradually creating a tribe of practically brainless humans who don’t breed, think or do anything, just numbly worship this cross-shaped creature and wait to die and be resurrected ; the datasphere, where exists a civilised and organised race of creatures of data, digital personalities, called the TechnoCore and which acts as all-knowing advisor to the human Hegemony government ; cybrids created by the TechnoCore with the personalities of Old Earth poet John Keats ; the Time Tombs, large buildings apparently launched backwards in time by humans from one of the possible futures ; etc.
This makes for mostly captivating reading, though-provoking moments and presents some interesting characters. The volume ends, however, with the pilgrims, each having faithfully told his story in turn, walking towards the valley. The promise of this momentous encounter that held you through all the book is just not delivered. So, really, you have little choice but to open the next volume (provided you had the forethought of buying it) The Fall of Hyperion if you hope to ever make any kind of sense of what you have just spent two weeks reading.
There the narrative stance shifts to a subjective mode, interspersed with dreams from the narrator providing a rather thin justification to being able to tell what’s happening on Hyperion and elsewhere while the narrator is having one-to-one discussions with the CEO of the Hegemony herself on Tau Ceti Center. Anyway.
It then becomes difficult to fathom the concise point of the work from the fairly complacent and ecumenical philosophy, beyond such concepts as "In the end this is all we are, these limpid tidepools of self-consciousness between crashing waves of pain." Pretty and spirited (or even true) as this may be, it isn’t quite enough to hold on to in the midst of the thunderstorm of spur-of-the-moment ideas and clichés, admittedly randomly scattered with insightful scenes or concepts.
The narrative is complacent, stereotyped and humourless, to the extent where one would almost expect to find Dan Simmons’ name on postings in alt.creative.writing or some such Make money out of your writing ! course :
the characters, with their monomaniac concerns and predictable behaviours straight out of a character database, randomly punctuated by "Fuck this !" in italics to justify improbable actions obviously vital to the preordained plot ; the dialogues, with their "And, Brawne ? -Yes ? -Be careful."-style lines straight out of L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues ; the cheap redemption theology, with the nasty humans reaping their just reward of suffering in retribution for centuries of ruthless colonising and submitting to the comforts of the machine intelligence ; the politics, with CEO Meina Gladstone single-handedly and courageously turning billions of human beings into cannon-fodder ("Look in the archives under Old Earth - Churchill", she instructs her aides when they are off to draw up her war-declaration speech) while mindless and obtuse mobs led by demagogues protest and refuse to quiescently walk to the slaughter, dim-witted individualist louts as they are ; the science, with such mindless sentences as "It was night on Tau Ceti Center, but Meina Gladstone knew that it was daylight on other worlds" ( !) ; the sky, which is invariably either covered by looming clouds or lapis-lazuli ; the fucking, with manhoods being received into warmths, and other turgid adolescent euphemisms.
Despite all this junk and more littering the pages, smelling of unwarranted show-off, unfortunate misunderstandings of basic realities, complacency and bad taste, the whole thing does manage to wring out a number of captivating moments, startling you out of the droning chuck-a-chuck of this air-conditioned wagon of a novel, opening the separating sliding doors and awakening your dulled senses in a rush of noise and fresh air. Moments of imagination, like the ride between two asteroids in a punt ; interesting sub-plots or trains of thought ; coherent recurrent visions of blade against flesh, like on the evasive Tree of Pain where victims of the Shrike by the million hang transpersed by meter-long stakes of steel through their chests while the Poet, himself in excruciating pain in such a situation, recites whole pages of Keats to a grateful and co-suffering Sad King Billy.
There is more to say about this work, interesting in many ways but falling ever so self-obligingly into romantic logorrhoea, easy plot-doctoring, pseudo-scientific considerations, new-age theology and consensual politics, all of which it could mercifully shed to exhume a bone-lean, skin tight and powerful single-volume novel.