Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review: "Hyperion," by Dan Simmons

This might be the only book that I've actually risked being late to work for, even though I was only on the second chapter. That's right: I wasn't making risky delays because I wanted to see how it ended; I just wanted to know what happened next!

Hyperion is a masterpiece of science fiction, let me say that right off the bat. I haven't encountered a book that made me think this hard about so many complicated issues in a long, long time. As I listened to the book over the course of no less than 18 CDs, I felt as if my brain was being punched. The sheer weirdness of Simmons' alien flora and fauna is literally awe-inspiring(the Tesla trees and the Motile Isles being among my favorites). His characters are deeply flawed and deeply human, and no brief description of them here could possibly convey their myriad personalities, to say nothing of the incredible ways in which they grow and change in the week or so during which the story unfolds.

I have heard Hyperion described as 'a sci-fi homage to the Canterbury Tales,' and the comparison is fitting. Simmons describes the journey of seven pilgrims to, and across the surface of, the planet Hyperion. It's a backwater hole, not even important enough to have its own farcaster. But it is important as the site of the (literally) anachronistic Time Tombs, and the home-world of the mysterious creature known only as "the Shrike."

The Shrike, a cryptic being that lives backwards in time, appears to be made of living metal, and can teleport itself through space and time with little or no effort, is the object of veneration for a powerful religion known as The Church of the Final Atonement. It's not clear what the Shrike is supposed to represent in this book (War? Death? Violence? Humanity? God? Technology? The Unknown? The Unknowable?); indeed, our opinion of the creature changes radically with each pilgrim's tale.

I could literally go on all day about this book, but I'll spare you. I couldn't possibly do justice to any of these magnificent stories. Instead, I can tell you a bit about the premise of the first tale (the one that I almost missed work for), in order to whet your appetite:

In the first tale, a Catholic priest named Father Lenar Hoyt tells the story of his mentor, Father Paul Duray. Several years ago, Duray was convicted of falsifying archeological findings, making them seem to suggest that intelligent creatures had worshiped Jesus Christ before humanity had left Earth - a desperate attempt on Duray's part to save his dying church and his dying religion.

After being exposed, Duray was exiled to the planet Hyperion, to do missionary work in the southern jungles. According to his recovered journals (which have mysteriously come into Hoyt's possession), it was there that Duray discovered solid, undeniable physical proof that intelligent beings had indeed worshiped before the sign of the cross (and in a manner shockingly similar to our own), millions of years before human life even evolved!

But soon Duray is crushed by the realization that, even if he survives a second trip through the Tesla trees, no one. is ever . going. to believe him.

The story is called "The Priest's Tale, or, The Man Who Cried God."

Happy reading.

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