These days, Dan Simmons is mostly known as a hard-right Islamophobe* who thinks that moderately progressive social policies will destroy America and tries to keep himself relevant by scolding climate activists. But in ye olden days, he was famous for a series of weird, genre-bending novels that made readers say either “wow, that’s deep” or “the heck did I just read?”
Perhaps the most famous of those novels is Hyperion, the first book in a space-opera quartet. Although calling it a “novel” is a bit misleading, as the book’s structure makes it more akin to six novelettes in a trench coat. In theory, the story is about six pilgrims* traveling to meet a spooky entity called the Shrike so they can either get a wish or die horribly, but in practice, the book is taken up by the main characters’ tragic backstories or, in some cases, the tragic backstories of people they know. This novel is often compared to The Canterbury Tales, but at least Chaucer didn’t give his protagonists a high-tension goal only to detour from it immediately.
But what kind of setting is revealed to us through this collection of tragic backstories? Is it a thrilling galaxy of bizarre creatures and marvelous worlds, or is the worldbuilding as scattered as the plotting? Let’s find out.
Hyperion is rightly remembered as being on the surreal end of science fiction, and the best aspects of its world follow accordingly. They’re weird, spooky, or both, and they’re great at making your inner Keanu Reeves say “whoa.”
Cool Lightning Trees
In one of the six backstory sections, Father Duré* has to hike across miles of difficult terrain on the planet Hyperion to reach a remote community, and the main obstacles in his way are the tesla trees. These unusual plants build up and release electric charges during their “active” season, turning the whole forest into a deadly web of lightning.
That’s a very cool image, and it works really well in the plot too. The tesla trees provide most of the tension for Duré’s journey, as the failure of even a couple of shielding rods around the campsite would be deadly. Simmons also does a great job describing the secondary effects. Even when safe from the lightning itself, Duré has a difficult time sleeping because of the heat, ozone smell, and constant noise.
When Duré reaches his destination, the tesla trees serve as a barrier to keep him there. Once the active season really gets going, it’s impossible to get through the forest alive, even with the shielding rods. This is important, because Duré has to be stuck there for creepy horror things to happen. Speaking of which…
Past the tesla forest, Duré encounters a community where everyone has been infested by a strange parasite they call “the cruciform.” It’s a cross-shaped lifeform found in an underground chamber, and it quickly merges into the host’s body, entwining its tendrils through the nervous system. While this isn’t immediately harmful to the host, it is incredibly disturbing. It also traps Duré even more securely than the tesla trees did, as the parasite won’t let him leave. Finally, there’s the fear that the longer Duré is infected, the more his body will be changed into something that suits the parasite’s purposes.* Not even death is an escape, as the parasite will just regenerate him.
Adding a personal and spiritual note to this body horror before Duré learns the parasite’s true nature, he thinks it might be evidence of Christian imagery that predates human arrival on Hyperion. This would have huge theological implications, giving Duré’s declining church a desperately needed boost. This allows Simmons to build up Duré’s hopes, only to smash them into a million pieces. Not only is there no boost for the church, but Duré’s discovery is also his doom.
That leads to another cool, if also extremely gross, moment: Duré discovers that pain reduces the parasite’s control over his body, but nothing he can do to himself is enough. Eventually, he figures out a solution: nail himself to a tesla tree so he’ll be constantly electrocuted. This is obviously reminiscent of the Crucifixion, once again manifesting Duré’s religious beliefs into the plot.
A Kingdom of Poets
In the present, Hyperion’s human settlements form a fairly standard frontier colony, with all the ramshackle buildings and decaying spaceports you’ve seen before. Granted, the inhabitants do use airships and barges pulled by giant rays for transport, which is pretty cool. But otherwise, most of the novelty comes from nonhuman elements like the previously mentioned tesla trees and cruciform parasites.
However, Hyperion’s past is far more interesting. Long before the novel begins, the planet was ruled by Sad King Billy, which might be my favorite royal title ever. Billy’s big project is gathering artists of all stripes together and funding their work, calling back to the Renaissance’s system of artistic patronage. Writers, painters, sculptors, all of them flourish under the melancholy monarch. Billy does fall prey to a few Romantic fallacies about storytelling, but he’s giving artists free money, so that still puts him ahead in my books.
The need to work for food and shelter is a major dampener on artistic endeavors, so a world where that’s not the case could be very interesting. We see a few hints of this in flashbacks, with Billy’s subjects working on ambitious projects that they could never have attempted while paying a mortgage. Sadly, that’s all over by the time our story starts, leaving us only with Hyperion’s dingy present. Despite that, the flashbacks are enough to give us a taste of what could have been, and Billy’s personal charisma doesn’t hurt either.
Novel Space Travel
Interstellar travel is a little more complicated in Hyperion than in a traditional space opera. Instead of simply zipping around in a matter of hours, it takes years to travel the vast distances between stars, even for ships traveling faster than the speed of light. In an extra twist, interstellar travel includes time dilation. This means for the crew on board, only a few months could pass, while they might arrive in port 10 years after they departed.
Scientifically, this is a bit shaky. If I understand Einstein’s theory of relativity correctly, and there’s a good chance I don’t, time should slow to zero once a ship reaches the speed of light.* Since the ships in this setting actually travel faster than light, I’m not sure how they’re affected by time dilation. On the other hand, the FTL drives in this setting are effectively magic, so who knows how they would interact with ol’ Albert’s time rules anyway?
Dramatically, this so-called “time-debt” is very useful, as it imposes a major cost on interstellar travel. It explains why distant planets like Hyperion are so remote, and it allows for plots where spacers watch society radically change each time they stop in port. It also makes warfare more complex, as hostile fleets often spend years reaching each other.
Even better, Simmons has a way to have his space cake and eat it too. In addition to flying across ships in space, people can travel instantly between worlds via farcasting portals, but farcasters are expensive and time consuming to build. Only certain worlds have them, so the novel can have one sequence where characters travel effortlessly between two alien environments and another sequence where space travel puts them a decade out of sync with the rest of humanity.
Unfortunately, the list of negative qualities is significantly longer than the positive section, and not just because I’m a joyless monster who hates fun. Hyperion’s worldbuilding is all over the place, with a number of choices feeling like they were made based on whatever was convenient in the moment rather than what actually worked best. Also, racism!
The cruciform parasites are gross and creepy, but their introduction to the story is distasteful in an entirely different way. Before Duré can get to any of the body horror, he first encounters a people called the Bikura, and, oh boy, are they just a pile of bad ideas. It’s almost funny, because Simmons seems to have realized the perils of using a largely uncontacted jungle community as an antagonist. Duré mocks the idea of “naked savages, perhaps, with fierce expressions and necklaces of teeth.” If only that was the worst it actually gets.
Instead, the Bikura are portrayed as not only technologically primitive but mentally undeveloped as well. Despite not being described with obvious racial markers, the Bikura’s childlike nature means they play into a lot of ugly stereotypes about “lost tribes,” even more so when they start murdering people.
But wait, there’s more! The Bikura are also described as all having Down’s syndrome, and later Duré discovers that they’re all sexless. Both of these are used to reinforce how disgusting and pathetic they are while also somehow being dangerous despite reduced physical ability. This is a particularly ugly form of ableism, where disabled people are held up as threatening and incapable at the same time.
Most of the Bikura’s condition is eventually revealed to be the result of cruciform parasites,* but that doesn’t help. Simmons is simply using supernatural elements to justify indulging in harmful tropes. Regardless of the explanation, the Bikura drag the story down and would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
As a whole, Hyperion’s wider human society is fairly secular. Religion still exists, but it doesn’t seem to be especially influential in galactic affairs. The Catholic Church is specifically mentioned as a waning organization with little power. The only exception to this rule is the Shrike Church, which is different because the object of its worship has obviously supernatural abilities.
That all fits together, until Simmons throws the Templars into the mix. These guys are immediately confusing, because they don’t seem to have any connection to the knightly order for which they’re named. They aren’t soldiers, they aren’t bankers,* and they certainly aren’t Catholic.
Instead, they’re really into trees. In fact, they worship trees and apparently derive their principles from John Muir, the activist who helped create the USA’s National Park System. I can’t see how that leads to calling themselves “Templars”, though. If Muir had any interest in the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,* I couldn’t find it. You might expect the Templars to be part of the Shrike Church, which is very Catholic in its organization, but nope! They’re completely separate.
Beyond their odd choice of name, it’s really hard to figure out the Templar’s role in this setting. They fly “tree-ships,” which is a really odd choice in a world where everyone else sticks with metal hulls and fusion drives. For some reason, the Templars are chosen to transport our six protagonists on their important mission, but there’s no mention of why. Are tree-ships faster than conventional vessels? Do the Templars run a really efficient taxi service? No one knows.
The AI in Hyperion have an interesting setup: a couple centuries back, they peacefully declared independence from human society and formed a polity of their own known as the TechnoCore. In the Core, AIs are free to chart their own destiny, so naturally they have goals and ambitions that are difficult for human minds to understand.
That’s all fine and dandy, until Simmons makes his AI so good at compiling data that they can predict the future. Scifi authors do this all the time, and it’s always a mistake. For one thing, it makes everyone who isn’t an AI seem unimportant. Who cares what the humans are doing when the AI are effectively all-powerful? It’s even worse once we find out that at least one major AI faction is entirely devoted to wiping out humanity, only held back by not having enough votes in Robot Congress.* Now the story is just bleak, since the TechnoCore might choose to wipe humans out at any time, and no one could do anything about it.
On a smaller scale, the AI’s future sight is a problem, because the AIs are mostly antagonists and Simmons can’t have them wiping out his heroes. Not until the backstory chapters are finished, anyway. So when it’s time for one of the characters to info dump about the time she went up against the TechnoCore, suddenly the AIs can’t actually predict the future. At least, not with perfect accuracy. They can guess what’s going to happen and what other parties will do, but in the same way a human can make those guesses.
Unless, of course, the idea is that the AI lost on purpose because it’s all part of their nine-dimensional chess game. That’s technically possible, because Hyperion is fiction and Simmons can write whatever he likes, but it would bring us back to square one: if AIs can predict the future, then nothing in the story matters because there’s no uncertainty.
In Hyperion, the Hegemony governs most of human-settled space, and it’s not a kind overlord. New planets are brought into the fold whether they like it or not, and anyone who doesn’t get on board with central economic policies is brutally dealt with. What’s that? You want to limit tourism to preserve delicate local ecosystems? Orbital bombardment for you. Your planet has a native lifeform with the potential to achieve sapience and rival humanity? A little orbital bombardment will fix that. There’s no problem the Hegemony doesn’t want to fix with orbital bombardment.
That all makes sense, as imperialist powers are rarely known for being gentle, even when they cloak their intentions with terms like “free trade” and “spreading democracy.” But then, Simmons throws a wrench into the gears by establishing that the Hegemony is actually not very good at fighting wars, because they exercise too much restraint.
This is called “New Bushido,” and it supposedly harkens back to the olden days of warfare, when battles were kept small and civilian casualties were limited. That’s an incredibly simplistic view of history,* but, more importantly, it doesn’t fit with the Hegemony’s present. It’s difficult to see how such a brutal and expansionist state could ever have the problem of being too nice in war.
Simmons tries to justify it by saying it’s a reaction to destructive wars fought on Earth centuries in the past, but that doesn’t work either. It’s like claiming that the modern US military still fights wars with tactics learned in 1776. Military doctrine isn’t always rational, but it evolves along with technology and strategic goals. The Hegemony’s technology certainly doesn’t fit the idea of restrained warfare,* and its strategic goals include the subjugation of all human space.
So why is this idea present at all? Partly, it’s because the Hegemony’s brutal nature is a quasi reveal that Simmons saves for near the story’s end; never mind the retroactive problems that causes. But mostly, it’s to make one of the main characters, Colonel Kassad, look more badass. As described, Kassad’s military tactics are pretty standard: he wears the enemy down through attrition, and when a battle turns against him, he sacrifices some soldiers so the rest can retreat. That’s only impressive because Simmons describes the rest of the Hegemony as not knowing how to fight a war.
Dolphin Rebellion Good! Muslim Rebellion Bad!
Continuing our look at galactic politics, Hyperion shows us two planets that rebel against the Hegemony: Maui-Covenant and Qom-Riyadh. Simmons portrays these rebellions very differently.
The Maui-Covenant rebellion is shown with the utmost sympathy. The rebels are fighting to preserve both their culture and their planet, as the Hegemony plans to displace them with huge waves of new colonists. Not only does this threaten the Covenanters’ way of life but also the dolphin populations they rescued from old Earth, and who doesn’t love dolphins? We also see how the rebels’ initial resistance is aimed exclusively at property, like the Hegemony’s new farcaster, and that they only take human life because the Hegemony forces them to. Meanwhile, the Hegemony’s response is incredibly destructive, laying waste to the planet, people, and dolphins alike.
On Qom-Riyadh, the rebellion is a murderous band of religious extremists who want to wipe out everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. They attack locals and offworlders alike, using bloody human-wave tactics. The rebellion’s leaders are screaming hypocrites who foam at the mouth about all the murder they’re doing. When the Hegemony responds, it is with the minimum viable force and only targeting the rebellion’s leaders. It then defuses the rest of the conflict with perfectly handled public relations.
Can you guess the main difference between these rebellions? The Qom-Riyadhians are Muslim, while the Maui-Covenantors are not.* It’s little more than the all-too-common trope of portraying Muslims as bloodthirsty and violent, and it even has the one “good Muslim” put in charge of stopping the rebellion: our old friend Kassad! When I first read that he was Palestinian,* I thought it was really cool. Then I saw where the Qom-Riyadh storyline was going, and it all fell apart.
Given Simmons’ later Islamophobia, this turn may not be very surprising. But this is the sort of mistake that any writer can make, even ones who don’t intend anything hateful. After all, rebellions often are brutal and murderous, even against unjust occupiers, so what’s wrong with showing that? It’s a question of focus. Simmons chose to portray his Muslim rebellion negatively and his non-Muslim rebellion positively. With Islamophobia just as bad (if not worse) today as it was in 1989, authors need to do better.
Romantic Writing Fallacies
Moving on to a less distasteful subject, we have the backstory of Martin Silenus, celebrated poet and novelist. Very little of that backstory actually affects the plot, but it does give Simmons several pages to rant about his views on writing, so that’s… fun?
Right away, it’s clear that Silenus is a braggart and blowhard, so we can’t take everything he says as having authorial endorsement. When he goes on about poets being gods, that’s probably hyperbole. But examining the actual events of his backstory, we can still see how Simmons builds the tenets of Romanticism into his world.
First, Silenus only becomes a good poet after he struggles through years of torturous labor while also suffering from brain damage. This is the all-too-common idea that suffering leads to better art, which is wrong at best and dangerous at worst, as it can lead to the conclusion that artists don’t actually need money, since the suffering of poverty will improve their art. While there are certainly great artists who’ve undergone great hardship, many more never got a chance to create art, because they couldn’t make rent.
Second, there’s his writing career. His first book of poetry goes viral, because it’s about old Earth and it’s released during a time when the general public is really into old Earth, so it sells billions of copies. That much makes sense. But then, when Silenus releases a second book of poetry, it barely cracks 20,000* despite a healthy marketing budget.
That seems unlikely. The intended message is that the masses don’t appreciate good poetry, and they only bought the last book because of timing and all the high art being edited out. We’re even told that most people didn’t read the first book; they only bought it because it was popular. But if the masses are such sheep, why aren’t they at all moved by a super-popular author putting out a new book? Name recognition alone should have boosted sales significantly. And if they never read the first book, why would it matter that this book’s poetry was less accessible? Are the masses all psychic, so they can tell whether a book is “high art” without ever looking inside it?
Then, Silenus is pressured by his publisher into writing novels rather than poetry, which he can apparently just do right away. Poetry and novel writing are basically the same thing, right? This is described as “hack writing,” with the idea being that anyone can write a popular book that the tasteless masses will enjoy. This is similar to the idea that it takes little skill to write a successful romance novel,* and it’s just as silly. You can tell, because most people aren’t getting rich writing novels, romance or otherwise.
As a final stab at the tasteless masses, Simmons includes some statistics about falling literacy in the second half of the 20th century, aka, the time he was writing. He even has one character claim: “By the twentieth century, less than two percent of the people in the so-called industrialized democracies read even one book a year.”
That specific claim is laughably wrong. The best numbers I can find are that about 75% of Americans read at least one book a year, and it’s probably more in other countries, as we aren’t super high when it comes to total time spent reading. As for reading rates across the board, there is some evidence that they’ve dropped a little in the last few decades, but that evidence is incomplete, and it’s nothing like the doomsday scenario described in Hyperion. In fact, reading rates went up significantly in the decade after Hyperion was published!
Silenus’s whole section is a mean-spirited rant at people who don’t have “proper” literary tastes, and it depends on poor worldbuilding to work.
A Contrived Monster
Finally, we get to Hyperion’s big claim to fame: the Shrike. It’s a mysterious monster made of knives that just loves stabbing people to death with said knives, but sometimes it switches things up and stabs people by putting them on its knife tree. The Shrike’s origins are unknown, and its motives can only be guessed at, making it a truly terrifying monster… for a low-tech fantasy setting or isolated slasher story.
Unfortunately, Hyperion is neither of those things. Instead, it’s a high-tech scifi setting where security forces have routine access to laser guns and powered armor, not to mention all manner of advanced sensors. In any rational scenario, the Shrike would be quickly shot to pieces. Don’t worry, though, Simmons has an explanation for why his knife monster can’t be defeated: it has total control over time and space. It can teleport and stop time whenever it likes, all while stabbing its victims with knife hands.
Fair enough, that does explain why the Shrike hasn’t been lasered to death. With that godly level of power, it’s effectively invincible. But this also brings the whole stabbing method into question. Why kill people in such a mundane way when it has much more powerful options? It’s like if Cthulhu went around giving people arsenic poisoning.
In the novel, there’s speculation that the Shrike may be a weapon sent back in time, which sounds even sillier. In that scenario, some future group has the power to manipulate time itself, and the best they could do was send back a mean-looking dude who’s good at stabbing? They couldn’t think of anything more creative or effective? Maybe send back a nanoswarm that eats cities or a planet-gobbling singularity? No, better go with the knife enthusiast.
There’s even a plot to release the Shrike off of its home planet and into the Hegemony’s farcaster-connected worlds. At which point, it would marginally increase the murder rate, I guess? The Shrike kills a lot of people for a single town or city, but a civilization of over 100 planets wouldn’t even feel it.
The Shrike succeeds at being mysterious,* but its impact is so minimal that it’s hard to see why everyone cares so much about it.
What We Can Learn
As fun as it was to roast Hyperion’s worldbuilding, there isn’t actually that much to learn from it. This story isn’t really trying to have a coherent or even particularly evocative world, focusing instead of maximizing shock value by any means necessary. Even so, there are still a few lessons to be had.
Audit Your Characters’ Identities
From a worldbuilding perspective, Hyperion seems to take place in a relatively egalitarian setting. We see women in positions of power, and if modern racial discrimination remains, it’s never mentioned. That’s why it’s doubly disappointing that the six main characters are remarkably uniform in their demographics.
Of the six, we have one Jew, one Palestinian, and one character described as having “fair” skin, which probably means he’s white. If the other three have any racial or ethnic markers, I could not find them. It’s possible Simmons overlooked this aspect of their description, or he might be one of those authors who thinks that not describing a character’s race means the character could be of any race. In reality, readers generally assume that a lack of description means the character is white.
The group also features exactly one woman.* Again, I don’t know if Simmons set out to do this or if he inadvertently created five of his six protagonists as men and then didn’t see a reason to change things. This lack of diversity would be disappointing enough in any setting, but it cuts especially deep in a world that’s supposed to be free of discrimination. It feels like Simmons wants the kudos of showing an egalitarian world but won’t actually commit to it.
Assuming you aren’t trying to do something like this on purpose,* the best thing to do is write down what kinds of characters you have in your story and see how well the numbers match what you’re going for. Otherwise, unconscious bias can take over and lead to stories where everyone looks the same.
Match Power and Threat Level
A number of Hyperion’s worldbuilding problems stem from Simmons not matching up how powerful something is with how threatening it’s supposed to be.
- The Bikura are supposed to be scary, but they’re physically weak and easy to outsmart.
- The TechnoCore is meant as a defeatable antagonist, but it can supposedly see the future.
- The Hegemony is an imperialist superpower that can’t fight wars properly (except when it can).
- The Shrike is written as an existential threat to humanity, and all it can do is stab people with knives.
If a bad guy is meant to be threatening, you need to give them the power to back up that threat. Otherwise, you’re building tension on smoke and mirrors, which readers will eventually see through. For the Shrike to work as a mysterious and unstoppable monster in a scifi setting, it needed something a bit more exotic than knife hands. Personally, I’d have gone with a creature that rapidly aged its victims, time-vampire style. That way, it wouldn’t feel like some random god powers had been bolted onto a high-fantasy monster.*
The same is true of factions like the Hegemony and TechnoCore. If you want to reveal that a seemingly good organization is evil, that can work, but the story still needs to make sense afterwards. You can’t show the brutal imperialists as soft and helpless first, because that won’t fit once you get to the twist. And honestly, just say no to future sight. It’s a really difficult power to rein in, and it’s almost always contrived.
Practice Deeper Worldbuilding
The main reason it’s so difficult to draw lessons from Hyperion’s worldbuilding is that most of it is surface level, which is a consequence of the book being divided into six stand-alone stories and an awkward framing device. This story isn’t about Dryad Templars, dolphin rebellions, or tesla trees. Nor is it about Romantic writing ideals, evil Muslims, or racist uncontacted tribes.
Those elements are all just window dressing, with few of them making any impact outside of their own siloed backstory section. Once you look past them, Hyperion is a pretty generic space-opera setting, with little to make it memorable or coherent. That’s why I haven’t mentioned the Ousters at all: their presence is so minimal that there’s nothing to say about them, good or bad. Despite the book clocking in at over 170,000 words, there’s not a lot I can actually tell you about the world as a whole.
Fortunately, there are a few exceptions. The Shrike is clearly a big deal and very memorable, despite the issues with how it kills people. The unusual space travel also affects all six backstory sections, as well as the framing device. These two elements feel much more real than any other aspects of the world, because they still matter once each character is done telling us about that one time at band camp.
To be clear, it’s totally possible to create a big world with lots of variety across different areas, and I believe that’s what Simmons was trying to do here. But even eclectic worlds still need some kind of unifying aesthetic, something to help them stand out from the pack, and Hyperion just doesn’t have much of that.
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