The Hyperion Cantos - Dan Simmons
The Fall of Hyperion
The Rise of Endymion
In the days before Ilium, Dan Simmons was my super-duper number one favourite author of all time, and the main reason for this was Hyperion. The original book is a real classic, combining elements of sci-fi, horror and fantasy in an intelligent piece of space opera based roughly on the Canterbury Tales, with quite an awesome breadth of imagination and invention. It's set in a far-future galaxy where humanity is scattered across hundreds of worlds, following the "Big Mistake" which destroyed Old Earth, all connected by FTL travel and wormhole technology, and united under the Hegemony. Among the various colonised worlds, all sorts of strange artefacts have been found, but none are stranger than the Time Tombs on Hyperion - alone in the universe, they seem to be travelling backwards in time, and a series of mysterious cults has sprung up around both them and their vicious guardian, the Shrike.
With Hyperion under attack by the space-dwelling post-human Ousters, the last group of pilgrims are making their way across country to the Tombs. To pass the time, to work out why they have been chosen as pilgrims over the thousands of other supplicants, and to increase their chances of surviving the Shrike, the pilgrims exchange their histories and search for connections; what emerges is a patchwork portrait of a human race on the verge of destruction, the rise of strange gods, intrigues in high places and enemies closer than you might think. Hyperion is the one wild card which could shift the balance of mankind's fate one way or another, and somehow these pilgrims hold the key...
If not for the open-ended conclusion and the number of trailing plot threads, this would work very well as a stylistic standalone. It's essentially six short stories cobbled together with a loosely linking plot, but all of these stories are very good, particularly the Priest's Tale. Simmons slips in a lot of intelligent theology and literary references (notably Keats, who even makes an appearance as a character) between the grand genre ideas, and the only real flaw is the drunken poet Martin Silenus, whose forced humour and ostentatious poetry-quoting foreshadows Ilium like the ominous tramp of doom. However, when we get into book two, the cracks start to show.
The Fall of Hyperion starts off as standard sci-fi, with space-battle tactics in the Ouster war, plotting and scheming among humanity's leaders and the AIs in the TechnoCore, and plenty of SF-tastic jargon. The narrative is split between the first-person view of another Keats, who is privy to all the political and military action, and a third-person view of the pilgrims still on Hyperion, about whom he dreams. Now, the contrivance of one resurrected John Keats cybrid analogue I could just about deal with; the appearance of a second one, with the ability to telepathically communicate with his implanted double, I found much harder to swallow. Simmons had obviously done his research on Keats's life, and made damn sure we knew about it; the historical and philosophical infodumps, along with the literary quotations, go from being an interesting device to just gratuitous showing off, and stay that way for the rest of the series. Still, despite several boring passages and some dubious exposition, this book still serves up a decent conclusion to the pilgrims' stories.
The second duology is set a few hundred years later. With the relatively benign Hegemony effectively destroyed at the end of the second book, the human galaxy is now controlled by the Pax, a horribly twisted form of Catholicism. Endymion tells the story of the Pax's pursuit of annoying prodigy Aenea, time-travelling daughter of one of the original pilgrims and potentially a threat to their existence. We get the dual viewpoint of Raul Endymion, assigned to protect Aenea, and Father de Soya, who has been sent to capture her. Essentially, this consists of a chase across several worlds, spiced up with the odd contrived bit of drama; it's really all worldbuilding and backstory rather than an actual plot. De Soya's viewpoint is actually a lot more interesting than Raul's; he gets an interestingly conflicted personality and some dark political machinations to explore, rather than just running away from stuff. Later on we also, bizarrely, get the viewpoint of boringly evil super-robot-soldier Nemes, sent back in time to deal with Aenea, in a plot twist that looks suspiciously like that of Terminator 2.
The Rise of Endymion starts off with more of the same with Raul traversing several new worlds, though we also get a lot more detail about the scheming at the heart of the Pax, and the real reasons behind humanity's plight. Once he gets going, Raul's chapters are not too bad here, and there is a truly awesome passage describing his journey through a gas-giant. However, this then derails completely for the second half, which is just painfully dull. Aenea is now several years older and has become the One Who Teaches, which basically means that she gives long speeches explaining the plot and dumping in huge quantities of rather suspect philosophy to bulk up the page-count. The series' ending was quite moving, but getting there was so arduous that the impact was very much lessened; the entire second half could have been trimmed down to a fraction of its size without losing anything important.
While my first reading of this series had me missing food and sleep (and even an entire weekend of snowboarding), going through a second time was really quite a chore; the only book that still stands up well is Hyperion itself. I've found this a lot with Simmons' books - however great they seem first time round, they are much less interesting once you already know what's coming. In addition to this, what seemed, on the first read, to be nagging loose ends and inconsistencies, now appear as gaping holes in the plot, all hand-waved away and patched over with more dodgy authorial tinkering. The ideas are just too large to be held together by the weak plot links, and Simmons has a nasty habit of explaining away earlier inconsistencies by blaming unreliable narrators, rather than just getting it right in the first place. I'd still recommend reading the entire series through once, just because the scope and ideas are so dazzling, but don't expect it to hold up to multiple readings.
6/10 (the rest of the series)