Hyperion: Overview


Cover of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsBlog post subjects over the last four years will show that science fiction hasn’t historically been my jam. I read much of Jules Verne’s works over the years, and the husband and I were putzing through the Stranger in a Strange Land audiobook. (We stopped because there was a glitch in the app we were using, and we never picked it back up–no knock on the book, really.) But that’s about where my sci-fi journey ends.

We bought Hyperion on Audible because it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was younger. The way he described it was intriguing–an involved, imaginative system of future worlds imagined by author Dan Simmons, conveyed through the personal stories of pilgrims off to see the world’s creepiest deity: the Shrike. So into the car speakers it went.

Tl;dr Synopsis

With a war that may destroy humanity on the horizon, seven people are summoned to go on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a giant, walking Ginsu knife set who probably didn’t get very many hugs as a child, what with the being made of sharpness and all. (Just kidding. The Shrike was probably never a child. It was never innocent.) To pass the nights on the way to see this metal nightmare, the pilgrims decide to tell their stories. Most of the book consists of the personal stories, and each pilgrim has a strange, usually sad connection to the world of Hyperion and this uber-terrifying Lord of Slicing and Dicing.

Writing Style

You know, the writing (other than the obnoxious use of ellipses as throat clearing) is way better that I would have thought. This is terrible of me, but I assume books that are very plot/action-centric will be designed with writing quality taking a backseat to various happenings–that, at best, writing will not get in the way of the plot. But the writing style of Hyperion was consistently elegant and creative, I thought. The dialogue could be over the top, especially in the beginning when the author was trying to establish the different personalities of the seven pilgrims. But to be fair, that’s a really hard thing to do: introduce seven characters and expect your reader to keep them straight. It was when Simmons wrote the lines for the poet that he went most over the top, but I also found the poet’s lines were the ones that most often the showcased what Simmons could do with the written word. I also think Simmons is a well-rounded reader himself. His many references to classic and contemporary lit weren’t lost on me. Much of Hyperion revolves around John Keats, and I thought that was a nice touch. Simmons’ writing did his references justice.


The characters won’t be your life-changing new best friends, but they’re decently developed and seldom cliche. All are quite serious, with the possible exception of the poet. I was quite pleased with the woman character being second on the list of most capable fighters on the quest and that Simmons made her of a stocky, muscular race.  Some of the characters are obnoxious–the poet is bawdy and full of cursing. And while the scholar is in possession of a heartbreaking story, there’s a current of pretentiousness and self-importance that runs just under the surface of all that he says. But overall, I think Simmons did a pretty good job with the people who populate his book.


I personally found the very first story the most moving (and the most horrifying). The poet’s story is fascinating as well, and so much understanding of the Shrike, the history of Hyperion, and why things are the way they are come in his chapter. The last story is a little male-gaze-y (please, make sure I’m always up-to-the-moment on the texture of the female character’s breasts), but it becomes very moving at the end. It’s also a familiar story. The cruelties of colonization is a song being played on repeat throughout history, and I think Simmons would argue that it will continue playing as long as humanity is around.

Who Should Read this Book

I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi fan to love this book. It’s a fabulous choice if you’re looking for an “escape novel,” one you’d read every night to take a break from your own life. It isn’t exactly uplifting, but reading it was a great experience.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I just adored some things about this book. One: there’s a skillfully executed mimicking of The Canterbury Tales‘s structure. Two: I thought the in medias res intro left enough to imagination but not so much that it was too confusing. Related: the way each story filled in blanks bit by bit was quite satisfying. It was generally a great device for story creation. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who’s done this in the same way. The mini-stories themselves are all very involving and inventive.

As you saw, I have a few bones to pick with the book. But it’s really very few. As few bones as you’d have attached to your skin after the Shrike fillets you.


Grokking the Dionysian and the Apollonian in Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve been listening to Heinlien’s Stranger in a Strange Land, bit by bit, on audio for the last few weeks.  Orientation on less conventional formats such as audio and the Kindle is never easy–I really have no idea how far into the story I am, and I’m too lazy to check by looking at the track listings.  But there was just a delightful passage about the difference between the Dionysian culture (human) and the Apollonian culture (Martian) which inspired me to type a few quick words.

I did a large project on the Apollonian and the Dionysian about this time last year, and it was one of the most intriguing, insightful (and COMPLETELY unintuitive) ideas I’ve ever had the pleasure to explore.  For those who haven’t read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, let me say that briefly summarizing these ideas is quite a challenge, so please know what follows is an anemic explanation.  The Apollonian is everything that makes sense.  It like lucid dreaming.  The Apollonian is harmonious, geometric, individualistic, dispassionate, and logical.  As for the Dionysian, my philosophy teacher described it like this:  Imagine you’re at a party, and everyone has been drinking.  There’s loud music, and the whole room is dancing in unison to the music.  Everything seems surreal, and you feel united with all the people at the party. Also, you have to throw up.  Also, if you drive home, you might die.

In Stranger, Jubal calls Smith’s Martian culture Apollonian and Earth’s culture Dionysian.  He’s right.  Earth seems to be a place of emotion and revelry.  There is fury and ecstasy, war and dance, conniving and rescuing.  Smith, all the while, retains a stillness that seems…well, alien.  The degree to which humans experience emotion is incomprehensible to a Martian, and there is no word for war in their language.  When the two cultures blend in a balanced way, just like in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, it is the best of all worlds.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Smith kisses the girls of Jubal’s house as an experiment.  In true Apollonian fashion, Smith focuses with all the powers of his mind on the action, with no hint of anything sensual at all–indeed, no idea what that word would even mean.   The girls, of course, swoon in a typical Dionysian-culture reaction to such attention.  They completely let go of all mental control, giving themselves utterly to the sensation of the moment. As a result, both entities are delighted.  I thought it was a fun illustration of the perfect marriage Nietzsche described between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

The clashes come, of course, from the imperfect balance.  When Earthlings attempt to dominate the conversation, injustice results.  This is why Jubal insists on a council of equals when the Secretary General and Smith meet–to try to foster that Nietzschean balance.