Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hyperion Omnibus - Dan Simmons

In an effort to make a dent in the stack of unread books in the house I picked up this book two weeks ago. It has been gathering dust since I bought it at a discount almost two years ago. It's the first book by Simmons I read. His bibliography includes books in several genres but the science fiction novel Hyperion is one of his best know works. This Omnibus edition collects the novels Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion, two books in a four book series known as the Hyperion Cantos. Both are books or fair size so the omnibus is a huge tome. Taking this book on is quite a project but definitely worthwhile. Stylistically the books couldn't be more different. The skill the author displays in these books in impressive.

Much of this book is influenced by a number of classic works of literature. Hyperion for instance takes the same approach to telling a story as the Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims leave for the planet of Hyperion named after an unfinished epic poem by John Keats. Hyperion is the focal point of a large interstellar conflict, the causes and precise nature do not become clear in this first part of the omnibus yet. What the pilgrims do know, is that they are to face a dreadful creature known as the Shrike (I can't help but think of him as Edward Scissorhands' older brother for some reason). The creature seems to drive people away from the mysterious Time Tombs on the planet. A region in where time seems to flow in the opposite direction. Nobody has figured out what the Tombs contain but they appear to be on the verge of opening.

Hyperion doesn't really delve into the larger conflict but explores the reason for six of the seven pilgrims to join the expedition. While on their way to the site of the Time Tombs to face the Shrike they tell each other their story. Their stories are bloody, violent, dramatic and often heart wrenching and slowly an understanding between the pilgrims of what makes them join what is by most of them regarded as a suicide mission emerges. As the company nears it's destination, despite their differences, a bond between the pilgrims is forged.

The book is divided in six part, one for each loosely related story, with a few snippets of the adventures of the pilgrims on the road in between. Simmons manages to create a distinct voice for each of the six story tellers, partly by using different styles. Much of the Priest's tale is written in a series of diary entries for instance, while the Soldier's tale is told in the third person and the Detective's tale in the first. The risk with this technique is of course that not all stories will appeal to the reader in equal measure, thus creating parts of the books that will be a struggle for some readers. Hyperion opens with the Priest's story, which in my opinion is the least interesting of the bunch. This section is some 70 pages long, made it hard for me to get into the book. After that, as we launch in the more action packed soldier's tale, the book really got going for me, steadily working towards the best tale of the six, the consul's tale. I very much like the way the consul uses a non-linear structure for his story, especially since time and time debt (as Simmons put is, think time dilation) plays such a large part in his tale.

Hyperion is not an easy book to like. While the pilgrims' tales are engrossing, the reader's view of the overarching story remains hazy. Simmons drops a lot of hint and sets things up that will not make sense until you have read Fall of Hyperion. You have to appreciate this book for it's style, the individual stories and the unique voices Simmons creates for his characters but don't expect a conclusion of the overarching story. After the first fifty pages I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it, after reading the Consul's tale I absolutely loved it.

The nice thing about this omnibus is that you can dive straight into the next book. Right from the start it becomes clear that Fall of Hyperion is nothing like Hyperion. Simmons introduces new characters and points of view and switches his tale of the pilgrims' confrontation with the Shrike and events in the decision making centres of the Hegemony, an interstellar federation that rules most of the planets colonized by humanity. In this book Simmons delves deeper into the overarching conflict. An interstellar war is about to break out between the Hegemony and the Ousters, a space faring faction of humanity that mostly has come into conflict with the Hegemony before, with Hyperion as the first battlefield. Of course the conflict does not turn out quite a simple as it appears at the start of the book. As the conflict escalates more layers of intrigue, deceit and planning are uncovered and it soon becomes clear that human liberty and the very survival of the human race are the real stakes in this war.

Fall of Hyperion has much more of a Space Opera feel to it that Hyperion. It deals with some classic SF-themes such as star travel, artificial intelligence, colonization and terraforming of alien worlds and of course interstellar warfare. The structure of the book is more conventional than that of Hyperion as well, although Simmons continues to use various styles for various characters. Fall of Hyperion is not a book that is likely to provoke the either very positive of very negative reactions that Hyperion does. Personally I don't think Fall of Hyperion is any less of a literary achievement than the previous book though. It's Byzantine plot and interesting characters make it a very good read. I suppose Severn/Keats is meant to steal the show but I liked Gladstone better.

These two vastly different looks at the same conflict make the books almost inseparable in my opinion. Putting them in one omnibus edition makes a lot of sense. Without the in depth looks at the motivations of the pilgrims Fall of Hyperion doesn't work well as a novel. On the other hand the ending of Hyperion is rather abrupt. There isn't really any sense of conclusion at the end of the book the see what the sacrifice the pilgrims are making is all about. I rarely read two books that are so different yet so much interlinked. Each of these books has its merits but it's the combination that makes it a great work of science fiction. Do not start on Hyperion without a copy of Fall of Hyperion at hand.

Book details
Title: The Hyperion Omnibus
Author: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 779
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-575-07626-7
First published: 1989/1990


  1. I always thought the hyperion novels where the best sf novels ever written, but the the same author then wrote Ilium and Olympos. And now, I'm not so sure..

  2. Have you read the Endymion books by any chance? They've been lingering on my to read pile for quite some time but I haven't gotten around to reading them yet.

  3. Oh..but you should! You bet I read them too. The Endymion books moves the story only further. So if you want to know more about the Shrike, martin Selenius and so on, give it a go. You won,t regret it!

  4. Hmm, maybe next time I have a few days off. I own the omnibus edition, it's almost a 1000 pages so not a quick read. Will get to it eventually ;)