The Hegemony is a federation of worlds colonised by humans; they have an ominpresent internet, starships, and the ability to teleport between Hegemony worlds using 'farcasting'. The technology is supported by the AI core, androids who were Hegemony slaves until they seceded several centuries ago and now provide independent services. The Ousters are relatively technologically backward but fearsome warriors who have been involved in the genocidal destruction of Hegemony worlds. Furthermore, some human-colonised worlds seek to stay independent of the Hegemony, despite the advantages offered (mostly of commercial exploitation).
Hyperion is structured after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A group of seven pilgrims (and a baby) travel to the planet of Hyperion to visit the Time Tombs from which a monster called the Shrike has been unleahed who, like Grendel's Dam on Beowulf, is terrorising the human colonists. The group, who include a Consul, a priest, a soldier, a female private detective, a poet, a scholar and a Templar, as representatives and stereotypes, each have to tell a tale on the journey; each of these tales explains the connection between the pilgrim and Hyperion and provide the motive for the pilgrim to undertake a pilgrimage from which, notoriously, no one returns (especially in a time like the present when the Ouster are fighting the Hegemony for control of the planet). The background to the tales is the journey to the Time Tombs but the bulk of the story is the six (one pilgrim disappears before telling his tale) stories. Thus the novel as a whole is unresolved and it becomes more like a collection of six novellas. I suppose I will have to read the sequel to discover what happens.
I have to acknowledge that the imagination of the author is stunning. He is not just describing a world but a universe. The various different modes of transport (starships, treeships, farcasting, ships that work by wind, cable cars, trams, dirigibles, skimships) compete with the different religions and differing societal structures and the variety of geological and metereolgical conditions found on different plants, and the ways in which different branches of the human race remember Old World before the Big Mistake.
The author's descriptive powers are immense:
- “An ancient, flat bottom tow with five barges lashed around it like ragged children clinging to their tired mother’ skirts.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
- “The Shrike Church’s central temple was part awe-inspiring cathedral, part Gothic joke with its fluid,buttressed curves of stone permabonded to its whiskered-alloy skeleton, part Escher print with its tricks of perspective and impossible angles, part Boschian nightmare with its tunnel entrances, hidden chambers, dark gardens, and forbidden sections.” (C2)
The description of the Shrike’s multibladed interruption into the soldier’s sexual congress with his fantasy lover Moneta, complete with “metal teeth click shut in a steel vagina, missing his glans by a moist millimeter” (C 2; The Soldier’s Tale) echoes the sexual violence of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs.
- “Del appeared to be thinking, wrestling with the concept. He was overmatched.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
- “Firing squads had been busy day and night settling ancient theological disputes.” (C 2; The Soldier’s Tale)
- I also liked the cybergeek's description of the non-virtual world as “slow time”
Sometimes he is insightful:
- “I felt bad about not getting to know young Hoyt better. He seems a decent sort, all proper catechism and bright eyes. It's no fault of youngsters like him that the Church is in its final days. It's just that his brand of happy naivete can do nothing to arrest that slide into oblivion which the Church seems destined for.” (C1; The Priest’s Tale)
- “No book is ever finished, merely abandoned.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
- “In twentieth-century Old Earth, a fast food chain took dead cow meat, fried it in grease, added carcinogens, wrapped it in petroleum-based foam, and sold nine hundred billion units. Human beings. Go figure.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
- “The unthinking hubris of a race which dared to murder its homeworld through sheer arrogance.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
- “Anticlimax is, of course, the warp and way of things. Real life seldom structures a decent denouement.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale)
- “A man whose idea of epic adventure is speaking to a class without his notes.” (C 4)
- “When you’ve spent thirty years entering rooms filled with strangers you feel less pressure than when you've had only half that number of years of experience. You know what the room and the people in it probably hold for you and you go looking for it. If it's not there, you sense it earlier and leave to go about your business.” (C 6; The Consul’s Tale)
- “Barbarians, we call them, while all the while we cling to our Web like Visigoths crouching in the ruins of Rome's faded glory and proclaim ourselves civilized.” (C6; The Consul’s Tale)
But.“In the end, my friends, it is character which wins or loses immortality upon the vellum.” (C3; The Poet’s Tale) Perhaps I might read the sequel just to see what happens in the second half of this unfinished adventure. But I don't really care whether any of the characters, except perhaps the unspeaking baby, survives. And I ought to care.
January 2020; 473 pages