Archive – Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion – Dan Simmons

This review first appeared in Interzone sometime in 2006. What worries me is that I now have absolutely no recollection of having read either novel, though I evidently enjoyed them at the time. Also, 500 words was nowhere near enough to do either one justice, let alone the pair. In short, I would not have written this review in this way if I were starting it today.

Dan Simmons Gollancz, 473pp £7.99 pb
The Fall of Hyperion
Dan Simmons Gollancz, 535pp £7.99 pb

When Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion were first published, they generated a huge amount of excitement. Fifteen years on, the paperback reissue of both titles provides a welcome opportunity to reassess their impact on the genre. Reading them now, Hyperion in particular, I can understand why they attracted so much attention at the time. Hyperion has everything one could hope for in a space opera: a galaxy-wide culture, the Hegemony, linked by the Web, which permits instantaneous travel by farcast; mysterious alien invaders, equally mysterious alien artefacts, a small group of humans pitted against forces beyond their ken, other humans involved in political manoeuvring of such intricacy it does take two readings to work out precisely what’s going on, artificial intelligences – you name it, it’s there. The death throes of a galaxy-wide civilisation are played out through the novels, echoing the fall of the gods and the rise of new gods, as portrayed in John Keats’ original (unfinished) poems.

It is a rich mixture, but we could all think of other authors who had done something similar. I was reminded of C.J. Cherryh’s early works, and of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels; in fact Simmons unashamedly referenced Vance’s novels a number of times. And not just Vance. What made Simmons distinctive then, what continues to make his work distinctive and exciting for many people, is the way in which, alongside the component parts of very well-written space opera, he plays fascinating games with the literary canon. Apart from the inspiration provided by Keats’s poems, the first of the novels is structured as a series of tales which do homage to Chaucer and to a number of different genres. I identified references to Shakespeare, Yeats and J.G Ballard, among others. The references to Keats are legion, and indeed his avatar plays an important role in both novels. I feel sure there is much else I have missed so far.

There is something so joyful about Simmons’ uninhibited pillaging of the literary classics that it is very easy to get caught up in the game of reference-spotting, when maybe one should be stopping to ask, ‘why is he doing this?’. It is clearly more than just a jeu d’esprit for Simmons, but is it significant that the second volume is calmer, and settles for one narrative viewpoint, that the literary games are more restrained? Frankly, I do not know. It is, I think, entirely possible to read the two Hyperion novels without knowing a thing about the literature they reference, and enjoy them as the solidly written, intelligent space opera they are. But once you start reading the novels, plays and poems that Simmons references, there is no doubt that the stories develop a richer flavour. Maybe it is as simple as Simmons wanting to encourage us to read more widely, and recognise how science fiction participates in the broader literary canon, in which case, it is as much a pleasure to do that as it was to read these two influential novels.