#15 – Hyperion Review – Dan Simmons

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Hyperion is one of the truly revelatory books that I came across while working my way through this list. While discovering some of the other books on this list felt like finding a $100 bill in my pocket, this one felt like a winning lottery ticket. From its beautifully striking (and unnerving) cover to its deep literary allusions and grand themes, Simmons’ classic has everything that a science fiction fan could want: complex characters who are flawed yet sympathetic, worlds and landscapes of unprecedented beauty and menace, powerful cosmic forces on the brink of war and an enigmatic villain/savior whose mere mention can strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful men.

The fact that the writing is also fast-paced, engaging, evocative and purposeful makes it easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read (in any genre). Although I was humming along through this list when I read it, I couldn’t help but take a break to read each of Hyperion’s sequels (collectively known as the Hyperion Cantos) in quick succession. If you’re a fan of fiction in any form, I can’t recommend it more.

Hyperion Summary

The structure of Hyperion mirrors that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in its use of a pilgrimage as a framing device during which each of its main characters get a chance to tell their own unique story. The voyage is made up of seven pilgrims: the Priest, the Soldier, the Poet, the Scholar (and his daughter), the Detective and the Consul – each of whom have their own compelling back story that help give us an idea of why they chose to make the trip.

The trip itself involves a pilgrimage to the distant planet of Hyperion in order to confront the legendary creature known as The Shrike (so named for its habit of impaling its victims on a tree of metal thorns). With the WorldWeb on the brink of war with a barbarian group of genetically altered humans called the Ousters, the pilgrims have been asked to make one last journey to the Time Tombs (ancients structures that move backwards through time) in order to learn the secret of the Shrike and hopefully help prevent the destruction of human civilization.

The stories that the pilgrims tell are by turns spiritual, passionate, humorous, frightening and tragic. From the tale of Sol Weintraub (the Scholar), whose daughter Rachel contracts a disease which causes her to age backwards, to the mad poet Martin Silenus whose obsession with finishing his epic poem requires him to make some terrible sacrifices, the one thing that all of the pilgrims share is a connection with the creature known as The Shrike and the Time Tombs that are supposed to hold it prisoner.

Described as being a nine foot tall mass of razors, blades and wires, The Shrike is the ultimate killing machine – seeming to have the ability to appear and disappear at will, as well as travel through time and be in multiple places at once. The Shrike’s motives and creators are unknown, but the conventional thinking among the cults that have sprung up to worship it are that it was sent as a form of divine retribution for humanity’s hubris and decadence, although others think that it may have been sent back in time by an Ultimate Artificial Intelligence. Either way, it seems to play a central role in the coming human conflict, which is the reasons the pilgrims have been chosen to confront it.

Hyperion Review

My brief description of the story can’t even begin to describe the complexity and originality of the universe that Dan Simmons has created. In addition to the novel as a whole, each of the pilgrim’s tales work as a standalone narrative that could hold their own as a short story in their own right (or maybe short novella). Although the book does contain a few pretty disturbing moments (such as a description of The Shrike’s “Tree of Thorns” on which thousands of victims writhe in pain and torment for eternity), it manages to balance them out with moments of true tenderness and pathos. And while the series does lose steam towards the final books (as most series do), the first book is still a masterpiece that deserves to be compared with some of the classics of science fiction. A must read in my opinion!

The Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion | The Fall of Hyperion | Endymion | The Rise of Endymion

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September 16, 2010

#13 – Ringworld Review – Larry Niven

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Any book that begins with the main character teleporting to different time zones in order to prolong his 200th birthday party is worth giving a chance. And while Ringworld doesn’t exactly live up to its intriguing opening, it’s still a fun read with its share of interesting ideas and characters. The most interesting of those ideas is the titular Ringworld, a colossal artificial ring orbiting a distant star. The architects of the Ringworld and their purpose in building it form the central mystery of the novel, although the shallow characters and improbable circumstances threaten to overshadow it.

Ringworld Summary: The book tells the story of Louis Wu (our birthday boy!) and his fellow companions on a mission to the Ringworld to investigate its origins. Joining him on the journey are Nessus (a two-headed herbivore with a cowardly streak), Speaker-to-Animals (a Tiger/Human hybrid-like alien with a nasty temper) and Teela Brown, a fellow human. While it’s not immediately apparent, each of the members of the crew have been selected for a specific reason. After crash landing on the mysterious world, the group sets out on a mission to the edge of the ring where they hope to find some sort of technology that will help them get back into space. Along the way, the group encounters a number of strange things, including a primitive human-like civilization and a field of sunflowers that somehow shoot laser beams at the intruders (don’t ask).

Ringworld Review: Although the basic premise of the novel should have made for a great read, I felt like the book got bogged down in the middle with too much exposition and technical minutiae. While I wouldn’t exactly call this “Hard” Sci-Fi, I do think that Niven spent way too much time explaining the mechanical workings of the Ringworld (including exact measurements of its radius, gravity and spin velocity) and not enough time painting a vivid picture of what was actually happening to the main characters – or why we should care about them at all. I often found myself not being able to tell which of the two alien species were talking at any given moment. I’m as much of a fan of otherworldy awe and spectacle as the next guy, but if its not supported by someone I can relate to (or at least root for), then it often falls flat.

In its defensive, Ringworld actually seems like an introduction to a much larger (and more interesting story), and with three sequels and three prequels currently available, I’m betting that the characters and story eventually get fleshed out even more. And while I may not be clamoring to figure out exactly who these mysterious Ringworld Engineers were (and how the hell they built it), I’m sure that there are plenty of people who are.

Ringworld Series: Ringworld | The Ringworld Engineers | The Ringworld Throne | Ringworld’s Children

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September 18, 2010