Although it’s set hundreds of years in the future, Hyperion spends very little time trying to catch you up about how society has changed in the time between today and the 29th century. That’s a specific kind of challenging: as a reader, you’re forced to sit with ambiguity and slowly build context based on inference. The effect is compounded in Hyperion because it’s a frame story with a rotating cast of narrators: the perspective (along with the assumptions about what the reader knows) is constantly shifting.
Done inexpertly, this style can be downright frustrating. More often than not, an author’s decision to withhold information feels arbitrary and distracting. To me, anyway. Your sensitivity to this is probably related to your level of perfectionism. If you don’t use measuring utensils for your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you might not feel as threatened by this literary device. But it’s why I got all nervous when I recognized that Hyperion was going to be “one of those books.”
Well, I’m pleased to report to the neat freaks out there that author Dan Simmons knows what he’s doing. If you give him a chance, you’ll find yourself discovering details at just the right pace, never feeling too far behind, and occasionally feeling clever for the insights you make. The learning is a challenge, but it’s a fair challenge.
And rewarding at that. Each story is a compelling sci-fi vignette in its own right, containing a compelling narrative and a distinctive voice. The voicing is actually a little confusing, though. On the one hand, it’s a subtle way to layer on more characterization. I felt empathy for Sol Weintraub’s tragic experience as a father, and I grew to trust Brawne Lamia’s chaotic sense of duty. On the other hand, the changes in tone don’t fully embrace the larger narrative. Each speaker seems to be addressing you, the reader, rather than the pilgrims who are ostensibly their audience. The difference is their level of honesty: the characters are more transparent than one might be with a group of strangers. At times, it almost feels like the “confessionals” in The Real World, where people are speaking via isolated interviews rather than in a group setting.
Interesting as the individual “tales” may be, I can’t say they stand alone. They’re all building toward something–it’s the central conflict the pilgrims are literally driving at. The novel itself doesn’t deliver on this. In the final pages, it very quickly ties together a whole bunch of loose ends (almost to the point of being disorienting), but it ends with a tremendous cliffhanger. If I were reading in the months after the book’s publication, I’d have some choice words for Simmons about this. He didn’t keep his readers waiting long, though: The Fall of Hyperion was published the very next year.
I’ll certainly be reading that, but I can’t recommend Hyperion until I do. Much as I enjoyed the novel, its value as a work of science fiction is riding on its conclusion. Wrapping this up won’t be easy, but I have a lot of confidence that Simmons knows what he’s doing. He’s earned that.