The first book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, Hyperion is a complex and beautifully-imagined work of science fiction. Using the same framing structure as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it’s a breathtaking work of worldbuilding. On the eve of an apocalyptic invasion, a group of pilgrims travels together to the planet Hyperion, where a terrifying creature called The Shrike guards the time tombs. To pass the time on their journey, they tell each other tales. Those tales slowly reveal the nature of Simmons’ universe and of The Shrike, ultimately setting up an epic story that takes three more novels to finish. If you want a similarly mind-blowing experience, here are 10 intricate sci-fi books like Hyperion.
1. Dune, by Frank Herbert
Rivaling Hyperion for sheer density of worldbuilding, Herbert’s classic 1965 novel Dune delivers a story of humanity tens of thousands of years in the future. In a future where “thinking machines” are outlawed, a sprawling galactic empire relies on intensively trained pilots and the powerful drug melange, a.k.a. “spice,” for space travel. When the aristocratic House Atreides is given stewardship of the only planet where melange is found, it’s the beginning of a complex game of politics, betrayal, and revolution that’s as beautifully detailed and complex as any story in sci-fi history. Like Hyperion, Herbert reveals his immense universe slowly, savoring the mystery and glorying in detail as he sets up a story that required several more books to explore.
2. The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
The Book of the New Sun is set on a dying Earth and sits somewhere between science fiction and fantasy. It’s a universe built from half-forgotten history and technology that’s almost indistinguishable from magic, rendered in prose that’s often dream-like and unreliable. We follow disgraced torturer Severian after he is cast out of the Citadel and sent on a journey to a crumbling city. As Severian’s journey takes him to places (both literal and emotional) he’s never been before, the sheer scale of the world Wolfe has imagined is made clear. Wolfe’s use of obsolete words and his oblique handling of the clues as to the world’s true heritage are both brilliant and will appeal to fans of Simmons’ subtle worldbuilding in Hyperion.
3. Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
Banks’ celebrated Culture series is set in a post-scarcity universe dominated by artificial intelligences and advanced humanoid alien civilizations. Use of Weapons uses a complex narrative structure that sees one story move forward in time while another moves backward. A man is recruited as a Special Circumstances agent with a mission to intervene in less-advanced civilizations. But slowly it’s revealed that the story is much more complex and bigger than it first appears. The two timelines converge on an incredible twist—the best kind of twist, one that not only infuses the entire story with a sudden jolt of emotion but recontextualizes everything that has gone before. Fans of Simmons will love it for its scope and its ability to surprise.
4. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton
Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy is set in the 26th century. Humanity has ascended to the stars and divided into two main groups, the telepathic and genetically-engineered Edenists and the diverse, more technological Adamists. The story is an intricate weave of storylines. When the dead begin to aggressively possess the bodies of the living, the entirety of human civilization is thrown off balance—there are a lot of trapped souls out there eager to grab onto anyone they can find. It’s a space opera with a huge cast of characters, and like Hyperion, it isn’t afraid to sprawl a bit. Despite its complexity, it’s also a pretty entertaining space opera, filled with action and cliffhangers that will satisfy any fan of the genre.
5. A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge
Vinge’s classic novel A Fire Upon the Deep combines fast-paced space opera with a beautifully complex fictional universe where space has been divided into three “zones of thought.” The Slow Zone is filled with dimwitted, planet-bound creatures. The Beyond is populated by advanced civilizations who aspire to ascend into the Transcend, where godlike beings known as Powers exist. When humans in the Beyond accidentally unleash an apparently unstoppable force known as The Blight, a ship carrying what might be the only way to defeat it crashes on a medieval world in the Slow Zone. A desperate rescue mission is mounted. Deceptively complex and tightly-plotted, this is the perfect book to follow Hyperion.
6. Ilium, by Dan Simmons
If you loved the way Simmons used The Canterbury Tales as his template in Hyperion, you’ll enjoy Ilium and its sequel Olympos just as much. Simmons draws from Greek Myths and the plays of Shakespeare. The story is divided between a Greek scholar named Thomas Hockleberry, resurrected from death and sent by the Gods to observe and report on the Trojan War, a group of humans thousands of years in the future, and a band of robots exploring a terraformed Mars. Incredibly, Simmons guides these disparate threads towards each other until, like Hyperion, they meet to form a surprisingly cohesive whole.
7. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Like Simmons’ Hyperion, Russell bases many of the details and themes of her story in an explicitly Catholic universe. When an alien broadcast is detected, the Society of Jesus (a.k.a., the Jesuits) organizes an expedition to make first contact. But connecting with an alien society proves disastrous and results in unimaginable suffering for the crew dispatched to the planet Rakhat—suffering so intense that the sole survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, nearly loses his faith entirely. The Sparrow is a somber, contemplative story, and Russell’s description of the violent, cruel, and beautiful society on Rakhat is on par with any other novel’s worldbuilding.
8. The Saga of the Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
If what appeals to you about Hyperion is the scale of its ambition, The Saga of the Pliocene Exile is an obvious next choice. In a future where humanity is poised to join a beneficial but restrictive “Galactic Milieu,” misfits and non-conformists have a one-way escape option: A time portal that leads to six million years in the past. Instead of an empty prehistoric world, however, they find the Earth was colonized by mentally powerful alien races—and the humans are soon caught up in their power struggles. With a huge cast of characters and a fictional universe simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, this is a sure bet for any sci-fi fan looking for a read in Hyperion’s league.
9. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Thousands of years in the planet Arbre’s past, an approaching societal collapse inspired the creation of “concents,” essentially monasteries designed to protect intellectuals from the dangerous, ignorant world beyond. Within the walls of the fortress, learning and singing take precedence, and the “avout” are forbidden to wield technology. But when an alien ship is spotted in orbit around the planet, one avout named Fraa Erasmas must leave the protection of the concent to help plan a response. The story eventually erupts into a complicated maze of parallel events inspired by the Many Worlds quantum theory, Anathem is a beautifully complex story exploring faith and learning with a very Stephensonian love of language.
10. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Any time you’re looking for an epic, complex science fiction saga, Foundation will be mentioned—and with good reason. A man named Hari Seldon develops “psychohistory,” which allows him to broadly predict the future based on the probable behavior of enormous populations. The discovery leads him to realize that the Galactic Empire will soon fall, ushering in a lengthy Dark Age. Taking steps he predicts will cut that dark age short, Seldon bets everything on a theory—and leaves it to his followers to see it through. Like Hyperion, Asimov explores the impact of time, faith, and legend in equal measure in a classic sci-fi book series that absolutely deserves its reputation.