Hyperion by Dan Simmons (audio)
I attempted Hyperion a decade or so ago, but couldn't get into it. If I recall, I found the introduction obscure and difficult to follow and gave up. However, after many of my friends raved about it, I gave it another shot, and really loved it.
Set in a far, post-Earth, space-faring future, the Hyperion universe is really compelling. A core group of planets is run by a giant corporation with relatively little opposition from rebellious factions. Interstellar FTL travel is commonplace. Everyone seems to be basically human, but there are really fun variations. I especially enjoyed the templars and their treeships, giant living, space-traveling trees like Yggdrasil, which initially housed the party bound for Hyperion.
The book itself unfolds as a thrilling mystery set in this wonderful universe. Narratively, it's modeled after the Canterbury Tales. A rag-tag group of pilgrims each tells his story en-route to their destination. The stories are the best part. Each one stands on its own, and the fact that they are all set in the same universe, and are all about one planet make it feel like you're hearing each blind man's description of the elephant in turn.
All of the stories are about Hyperion and the Shrike, but more importantly, are very emotionally moving. I found the Catholic priest storyline to be totally gut-wrenching, but that was just the beginning. My favorite by far was Saul Weintraub's daughter Rachel, aging backwards. This might be my personal bias: I too am the Jewish father of a young daughter. But more likely, it's incredibly well written. Sauls struggles with God and the problem of theodicy in a way that is far more heartfelt than any theoretical treatise on the subject. The final story told by the Consul about his grandfather Merin's is also great, and the conversation with dolphins "scene" is incredible. There is so much more there, though: romantic implications of time dilation, the chronological complexity in the narrative, flashbacks and flashes forward are masterfully written. Kassad's and Silenius' stories are also excellent and stand on their own, although less compelling than the aforementioned in my opinion. Lamia's tale was emotionally weaker and leaned too heavily on AI mumbo jumbo.
Each sub-story is so diverse, and spawns so many questions, it feels nearly impossible to integrate into a final product. I shouldn't be surprised at the cliffhanger ending. I did find that the book lost some steam towards the very end, but this is excusable given that Hyperion is the first of four highly acclaimed books. Whether or not the series itself wraps up coherently, the way to read this book is to enjoy the Hyperion universe and each of the pilgrim's tales for their brilliance in their own right.