Study Guide

Hyperion Setting

By Dan Simmons

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Our Universe, Approximately 700 Years from Now, Multiple Planets


Hyperion is an important planet. Duh, it's title of the book! Plus, it sounds like a wonderful place, with cities like Port Romance and The Poet's City. Great vacation spots, can't wait to buy postcards.

But don't pack your bags yet. Hyperion may be a nice place to visit, but we're not sure we'd want to live there. Described as "a poet's world devoid of poetry" (1.195), it's in bleak shape. What's going wrong? Well, a war is about to break out. The Shrike is teleporting around and killing people indiscriminately (not that discriminate killing would be any better). And there's all that weird Time Tomb stuff that just might bring about the end of the universe as we know it.

Yeah, we're fine not having a Hyperion stamp on our intergalactic passport. Let's check out all the ways that this planet is different from Earth:

We'll Take Hyperion Geography for $200, Alex

When Father Duré descends to planet Hyperion as part of the Priest's Tale, it's his first trip there. It's also ours. This introduction to the planet makes us feel a part of the journey. We're strangers in a strange land. (Yeah, that's Heinlein, not Simmons. So sue us.) Unlike the rest of the crazy stuff in the book—which just expects us to know about fatline transmitters, farcasters, and Hawking mats without explanation—planet Hyperion is explained to us in detail. It's an unusual place, even for people living in the 28th century.

For one, three continents were originally named Creighton, Allensen, and Lopez, after "three middle-level bureaucrats" (1.205). Doesn't quite have the same ring as Asia, Europe, Africa, or America, does it? The people on Hyperion seem to agree, because they call the continents Aquila, Equus, and Ursa, or the Eagle, the Horse, and the Bear, because the continents kind of look like those animals from above.

The Shrike resides on Equus, riding it like one of the horseman of the apocalypse. Father Duré conducts his fateful anthropological study on the Bikura on the Cleft of Aquila. And although we never see Ursa, we can only imagine what horrible things happen there.

The point of these names? Well, we like that Hyperion is supposed to be a poet's world, but it has these boring, official names—and the people won't stand for it. Instead of using the bureaucratic names, they use evocative and mythological terms. It's as though all the bureaucracy and ugliness in the world can't destroy humanity's need for poetry.

Trouble Cleft

And there's a lot of ugliness. Following Father Duré in Chapter 1, we get a whirlwind tour of the worst parts of Hyperion. Its capital, Keats, is "a mixture of tawdry false classicism and mindless, boomtown energy" (1.195). Port Romance is full of death and violence. And the less said about the wilderness, including the Flame Forest with its Tesla Trees (trees that shoot lightning) the better.

But we do want to say one thing about the Cleft, where the Bikura live: "Caused by the weakening of crust through periodic freeze and thaw over the aeons [...] running like a long scar" (1.275). (You can read more about the Bikura and their mysteries in their "Character Analysis.") In addition to a chapel built into a cliffside that predates Christ's teachings by millennia, the Cleft also hides an entrance to Hyperion's labyrinth at the bottom. We get the feeling that this planet is pretty close to its people.

Maze Makers

You won't find David Bowie in this labyrinth, but after you meet the Shrike, you might be wishing to meet a Minotaur instead. Fewer spikes.

After Father Duré's descent into the labyrinth we never see it again. The labyrinths are a great mystery unsolved in this book. It seems that they were man-made: "The labyrinths were [...] created more than three quarters of a million standard years ago. The details were inevitably the same, their origins inevitably unsolved" (1.549). But why? In Greek mythology, escape from the labyrinth was supposed to be impossible. And the millions of people hoping to get off Hyperion before war strikes might find it equally impossible to get off the planet.

Come Sail Away

One of the most striking features of Hyperion is the Sea of Grass, which the pilgrims sail across on a vehicle called a windwagon. This great plain is "comprised of several billion acres of grass" (4.3)—sharp glass. (It puts the blade back in blade of grass.) It's also riddled with grass serpents, which we're glad we never see. Like many things on Hyperion, it's a combination of beauty and death.

The Sea of Grass is yet another strange feature unlike anything we could ever experience on Earth. Many things in Hyperion—war, technology, the planet itself—can be described by the phrase "terrible beauty." And the Sea is Grass is one.

Chronos Crossed

Back to man-made structures: Chronos Keep is much smaller than the labyrinth, but impressive in its own way. Built for the Shrike, a "living deity" (6.4), and this imposing Gothic castle built on a dangerous precipice shows just how far people are willing to go for their faith.

By the time the pilgrims arrive, Chronos Keep is deserted. There aren't any signs of Shrike-induced carnage, so it's possible that its residents fled, fearing the coming war. If so, it's strange that these people don't want to die in war, but have no problem living next door to a teleporting human meat grinder like the Shrike. (And we thought our neighbors were bad.)

Convinced yet that Hyperion is one vacation spot that you're better off avoiding? Well, it's not the only planet in the universe. Let's check out a few more:

Out of this World

few of the more appealing (read: not deadly) and plot-relevant planets include Lusus, Maui-Covenant, and the TechnoCore's recreation of Old Earth (you know it as Earth. Love it, it might not be here forever.)

Lusus is Brawne Lamia's homeworld. Lusians are shorter than average and more muscular because of the 1.3x gravity on this planet. People live in tightly packed residential complexes called hives. It's all very industrial and stark, like Soviet-Bloc Russia. We're okay with skipping this one, too.

Sadly, we'd probably have to skip Maui-Covenant, too. As you can probably tell by the name, the tropical paradise Maui-Covenant is almost the exact opposite of Lusus. It has a lower gravity field than Earth, so you feel thinner just by setting foot on it. Plus, it has movable islands: "A century ago the island could have been driven by the bands of dolphins brought here originally during the Hegira" (5.679).

So a tropical paradise with dolphin-driven islands. Incredible! We would love to vacation there if, you know, greedy humans hadn't ruined it.

By inducting it into the WorldWeb, the Hegemony opened up Maui-Covenant to tourism, oil drilling, and more. They killed all the dolphins and rendered the planet's moveable islands stationary. Maui-Covenant is a stark reminder of what greed can do to a fragile ecosystem. Mike Osho observes with little sympathy, "That's what this colony was all about. [...] A bunch of do-gooders [...] wanted to save all the mammals in Old Earth's oceans. Didn't succeed" (6.208).

You Can Never Go Home Again

Human greed may have destroyed Maui-Covenant, but it wasn't climate change that took out Old Earth. Instead, a black hole formed at its core that dissolved the planet from the inside out. Did we mention that the hole was part of a government plot to force humanity to flee into space?

But there's good news and bad news. First the good: the TechnoCore has recreated Old Earth, with different areas being set in different eras. Rome has been recreated in the era of the Coliseum. The bad news: you can't visit it, and it's all part of the TechnoCore's complicated plot to know everything in the universe. Robots might not be taking over the world (yet), but they know everything you're going to do before you do it. (Like Google, but scarier.)

The cool thing is that many works of sci-fi deal with this "lost Earth" theme) but most of the time it's humanity trying to get it back, not robots. Hyperion spins this convention on its head.

Set Us Up

From the Time Tombs to Old Earth: Hyperion takes us on a whirlwind tour of the entire universe. Some of it can be chalked up to worldbuilding, the sci-fi and fantasy technique of making you believe that the story is taking place in a real place. But it also gives us lots of places to see humanity in action—good and bad. We may have destroyed Maui-Covenant, but can we save Hyperion?

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