From time to time I’ll be dredging up some of the old reviews I’ve written of novels on Amazon. Back in 2012, I wrote up a review of the Dan Simmons 1998 novel, Hyperion, which won a Hugo award for best novel. Here it is.
An R-rated Space Opera set to the tune of Canterbury Tales
(4 stars out of 5)
As many other reviewers have stated, Hyperion is a sort of Canterbury Tales in space, a book set around seven pilgrims and their journey to a location known as the Time Tombs. At nearly 500 pages, the book stops before everything is resolved, forcing readers to move ahead to the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion.
What the book does well, it does very well. The multi-voice Canterbury-esque approach allows Simmons to not only explore the lives of the pilgrims, but also expound on the vast galaxy and history upon which the book is set. I was concerned going in that the book would simply confine itself to one planet without exposing me to the larger galaxy, but was pleased to discover that the individual tales become the vehicle for lifting the veil on the rest of Simmons’s universe. The Hegemony (the name of the galactic political body), its varied planets, and its mysterious adversaries are all well-developed and alive, inspiring as much wonder in the mind as Star Wars or Star Trek ever did on the screen. The pilgrims themselves are a diverse lot — some endearing, some irritating, others mysterious — and their interactions add to the flavor of the stories they tell.
The individual tales vary in quality but the best are peerless. The haunting story of Father Hoyt and the emotional journey of Sol Weintraub represent some of the highest caliber of science fiction drama I’ve ever read. A third, the Lamia story, has a few flaws but is a well-paced mystery in its own right. The rest aren’t on the same level but are still better than average and don’t out-and-out sink the novel. The interludes between the stories, meanwhile, work serviceablly to advance the overarching storyline and build dramatic tension.
The book’s flaws are few but unfortunate. Chief among them is the indulgent sexuality that runs through some of the stories. In my view the best writers (i.e. Asimov) lead the readers to the proverbial door and leave the rest to mystery. Simmons, seemingly playing out his own weird fantasies, is at times graphic in his depictions of his characters escapades… and in ways that are neither helpful to the narrative or in some cases even plausible. The Kassad story, which at times reads like something out of a low-budget direct-to-DVD sci-fi movie, is the worst example. More than just titillation, these scenes have a cascade effect on the book: they detract from character development and leave some of the pilgrims less fleshed out than others. It is perhaps no coincidence that the demure tales of Hoyt and Weintraub are regarded as the best of the lot.
In the end, Simmons book is well deserving of its Hugo status and is one of the better science fiction narratives of its time. Its few flaws keep it, at least in my opinion, from it from the rarified air of the best science fiction novels ever, but it nevertheless is a solid epic that successfully creates and moves forward a living, breathing, universe all its own.