Writing a book review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a daunting task. Few books can claim to reference cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, the works of John Keats and Romeo and Juliet in the same chapter. This review will give a brief outline of Hyperion’s structure and will then look at why the poet Keats works as an inspiration for a novel about a time travelling killing machine.
The plot of the novel sees seven pilgrims on their way to see The Shrike. The Shrike being a metallic abomination who, legend has it, impales his victims on a metal tree where they writhe for eternity. The Shrike only appears rarely throughout the pilgrims’ tales, but in his few appearances he becomes one of the most terrifying figures in literature,
As these pilgrims travel to visit the Shrike they tell each other tales about their lives (Canterbury Tales style). The success of Hyperion rests on each of these tales being different in tone and style. Had they been too similar Hyperion would have collapsed under the weight of its monotony. As it is, each story is as distinct as the characters telling it. This device lets the reader tour a universe where humanity has spread out amongst the stars. This is a clever way of allowing the reader to see the grand sweep of a science fiction universe while developing the characters’ personalities and stories in an intimate way.
As you might expect from the title, the story drips with references to Keats. While it may seem odd for a romantic poet to serve as inspiration for a work of science fiction, Keats is an apt choice for this particular work.
Keats, beauty and science fiction
Two themes recur throughout Hyperion: beauty and loss.Two themes Keats was obsessed by. You probably know Keats’ most famous quote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and you will have at least heard of his most famous work “Ode to a Nightingale”. Though Keats often wrote of beauty and its effect on the soul, his own life was brutal and short. The love of his life, Fanny Brawne, was doomed and they neither married nor consummated their love. He nursed his brother Tom as he died of tuberculosis, only to realise when doing so that he had contracted the disease himself. His poetry was largely ignored and he was so convinced of his lack of success that he asked for his gravestone to bear the inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Like Keats in Ode to a Nightingale, where he experiences beauty only to be brought back to the real world with his brother dying next to him, our pilgrims all experience beauty through happiness only to have it snatched cruelly away from them. Due to this loss, they are willing to risk being impaled on the Shrike’s Tree of Pain for all eternity in the hope that the Shrike will grant one of them a request.
Both the work of Keats and the Simmons’ Hyperion resonate with readers because they show how much we struggle to cope with profound loss. Due to this, even if we don’t like every one of them as characters, we emphasise with all of the pilgrims as they make their way to the terrible Shrike.
It’s this very human aspect to the novel that elevates this very clever book to the levels of great literature.
A wandering humanity
Throughout Hyperion the reader is also given a sense of humanity’s displacement since the loss of ‘Old Earth’. Much is made of Humanity trying and failing to recreate Earth in their new homes, giving the impression of a species not comfortable with its own place in the universe and unable to move on from a lost past. This provides an interesting parallel to the pilgrim’s inability to move on from their own individual losses.
Hyperion is a beautiful and mysterious novel and in many ways defies description, or at least I lack the talent for adequately describing this work to you. If you haven’t read Hyperion I suggest you do. if you have read this great space opera, I would love it if you would share your thoughts in the comments section below.
- Hyperion Rating