Some science fiction not only speaks to the effect of technology on people, but also the epic sweep of character and the overall character of humanity in the face of the unknown. In this way, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos series approaches a sort of soft science fiction poetry by propelling its character driven storyline into the annals of the must-read books from this genre.
First published in 1989, Hyperion won the Hugo science fiction award and it extensively employs a literary device known as framing. This device tells a story by having each of the character in-turn tell the stories of their own lives and uses that to bind together the plot of the book—imagine something like Scheherazade’s Thousand Tales or the more modern incarnation of Lost. Each of the characters in Hyperion may have entirely separate lives that have taken them to peculiar corners of the universe that works to construct the framework of the Hyperion worldbuilding.
The book Hyperion follows a small “chosen” group of seven characters who make the dangerous pilgrimage to a strange set of artifacts on the planet, Hyperion, in order to head off an oncoming galactic crisis. The name of the book comes from a John Keats poem Hyperion, which seems to really guide the poetic effect of the plot and the interaction of the stories of the pilgrims.
Each of the characters tells the story of their own lives and how they came to become part of the pilgrimage. The stories unveil a strange world haunted by an antagonist named the Shrike—a giant metal, robot-like monster that impales people on metal thorns causing extreme agony—and a universe colonized by humanity using FTL and wormholes to connect distant populations. The plight of humanity in Hyperion also revolves around the fact that Earth is gone—destroyed in something called the Big Mistake. (Essentially the generation of a black hole that swallows the planet, obliterating everything.)
Each of the pilgrims is memorable either due to their strange personalities or the obstacles presented in their stories. Amid them, there’s a priest who had a mission to the planet of Hyperion and discovered a strange parasite organism that eternally resurrects its host; there’s a soldier who tells a almost-backwards story about a lover who moves backwards in time as he moves forwards; and there’s a moving story about a famous poet who suffers from a strange psychosis that affected his ability to speak but still became the most renown author in the universe (his rise and fall from said at least.)
The book also plays with some Christian and Jewish religious themes as one pilgrim is Jewish and another character is a Catholic in a universe where the sect has dwindled to only a few thousand members. Their stories reflect their role in the society and how they see the inner workings of their cultures against the ever-changing landscape of humanity.
Hyperion approaches science fiction with a sense of awe and grandeur and, as I’ve mentioned above, time travel is a big facet of the storytelling. In fact, the pilgrims are taking a trek to a strange place on Hyperion situated with alien artifacts called the Time Tombs. One of them is directly related to the Jewish character who’s daughter—an archaeologist who studied the tombs—became caught in what’s called Merlin Sickness. She is slowly aging backwards day-by-day from the day she was affected by the Time Tombs and in the story she’s merely an infant, living out her last days as she ages backwards into nothingness and her father seeks to save her from whatever fate to give her a life again.
The plight of each of the pilgrims is very human, although eccentric and very fantastically science fiction in theme.
Each story leaves a sense of awe and wonder and sometimes resonates with a particular human mood or need from fatherhood, to childhood, to fame and fortune and loss, even loyalty, religious fervor—all of these things address the various desires and impulses all humans find themselves pulled and pressed by all their lives distilled into strangely compelling stories told by each of the pilgrims.
As soft science fiction, Hyperion is excellent for plane trips, car rides, or just falling asleep at night. While it’s a page-turner, it doesn’t require a great deal of intellectual attachment; but it will probably catch a bit of emotional attachment to the characters and their goings-on. The story is told through their eyes, their feelings and lives, and it leaves intact all the wonder that epic science fiction seeks to instill in a reader.