THE PILGRIMS’ PROGRESS
(Hyperion Cantos, Book 1)
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 496 Pages
Date: 24th February 2011 (First Published 1989)
It is the 29th century, and humanity has conquered the stars, establishing the Hegemony of Man that comprises innumerable worlds across the galaxy. But war is on the horizon. An invasion to seize control of the planet Hyperion is imminent, which may herald the destruction of the greatest unsolved mystery known to man. Before that can happen, a final mission to the surface of the planet must be undertaken to unlock that mystery. Now seven strangers will embark upon a once in a lifetime journey, each with a strange tale to tell of how they came to be the last pilgrims to the world of Hyperion.
It’s difficult deciding how best to describe Dan Simmons’ Hugo Award winning novel, Hyperion. Though it is a full-length novel, it’s structurally more like a collection of short stories connected by an overarching conceit; a narrative choice acknowledged to have been directly inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales. Likewise, Hyperion can be described as a work of science fiction, which it ostensibly is, but looking past the copious amounts of technobabble within the worldbuilding (that betrays its genre) serves to further highlight a story that reads very much like a work of literary fiction. This, perhaps, is not surprising given the author’s known fondness for classical literature, which is very much in evidence throughout his narrative.
In spite of the numerous literary influences littered throughout 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 science fiction 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 facets of the backdrop for his novel. The detail in which he writes about the technology, history and culture of his futuristic setting is instrumental in conveying 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 itself is centred 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 ever 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 planet’s colonists, and by 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.
While the plot may be about the objective of the protagonists, 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 to each other 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 objective, and what to expect once they reach their final 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 within 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, some of the characters just aren’t distinct enough. It is often hard to remember the names of people or keep track of who is 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 (if any) to the story.
The manner in which the story eventually ends brings to mind the adage about the journey being more important than the destination itself. Hyperion’s conclusion is notoriously divisive among readers of the book, as Simmons does not ultimately reveal the outcome of the pilgrimage, leaving some readers dissatisfied with what they view as a cliffhanger ending. And yet, had Simmons not subsequently gone 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 this reader at least) does work better than have it be a frustrating cliffhanger.
In summation, Hyperion is a very clever novel, permeating with several interesting ideas, and some incredibly effective plot twists. However, despite the high regard in which it is held, it’s probably not a book that will be enjoyed by readers who like their sci-fi a little less cerebral and literary; so anyone looking for a fast paced, action driven story will likely have difficulty finishing Hyperion.