Friday, February 29, 2008

The Hyperion Cantos - Dan Simmons

Hyperion
The Fall of Hyperion
Endymion
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.


10/10 (Hyperion)
6/10 (the rest of the series)

12 Comments:

Blogger Howard von Darkmoor said...

10/10, huh? So I'm guessing you think I should read it, eh?

2:39 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

I think you probably should :)

3:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

6/10 is maybe a bit harsh for the rest of the series. I agree Simmons regressed but the series still made me think about life, death, religion, the struggle for existence and eternal life. For that I would give it 7/8 out of 10.

Exa Inova

2:18 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

I would probably have given the other books at least 8/10 the first time round, maybe even 9... but on the second reading definitely not. When I find myself skipping chunks and nodding off, that's not a good sign.

11:32 am  
Blogger Delirious Edd said...

I agree with your assessment completely. When I read Hyperion I was just blown away. It was 3 or 4 years later that I got my hands on the rest of the books. I decided to read Hyperion again and it deserves 10/10. Really really good.

The rest was just crap. Maybe not a 6 in their own right but as a follow up to Hyperion, 6 may be generous...or maybe I'm just bitter over the huge letdown.

5:57 pm  
Blogger Lane said...

10/10 for Hyperion is fair. But I disagree with the rating for the rest.
Like Exa Inova said, Simmons touches on the horrors of perverted religion with the Pax, the power of the promise of eternal life with the cruciform, and the constant sturggle to understand the human spirit and set it free, a theme that has and will remain relevant throughout the ages. Rise of Endymion alone deserves another 10 if only for the gravitas of its message.
However, you're right about the use of Keats. his dual existence and consistent re occurrence throughout the series, including the titles, was a tad bit frustrating. And on the whole, very solid synopsis of a very complex story. Good work.

6:01 am  
Blogger Joao said...

I recently bought the Hyperion while waiting for a flight. read the critics, 2 pages and voilá!
After getting into the reading mood, I couldn't wait to finish it.
it's a very good book, with lot's of research and all.
for all it's worth I'd never read a Dan Simmons book. now, I'm chasing them in Amazon.
hope the fall of Hyperion has the same taste.
take care

3:35 pm  
Blogger OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Hmm just recently finished the second one and I personally don't think it merited a six. Can't say for the rest of the series yet... but I might not pick them up for a while. Fall makes for a nice conclusion I think, so I might just stick with that and see what else Simmons has been writing.

6:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was always going to be tough to come up with a sequel to the masterpiece that is Hyperion.
I'm surprised to hear you call Martin Silenus a flaw. Each of the characters is an archetype and he represents a loud-mouthed buffoon of which there are many today (so you can imagine how many there will be in the future). Dan Simmons didn't just throw him in there by accident. I suspect the forced humour and poetry-quoting are entirely in character for someone like Martin.

And surely you mean 'trump of doom' not 'tramp'?

2:38 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

Oh, my main problem with Silenus was his resemblence to the horror that was Ilium; without that comparison I'm sure he's much less annoying. And no, I meant tramp, not trump.

4:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't rate Hyperion a 10. It has some great stories; but they're just stories, there is not a great deal of meaning embedded in them. The Fall tries to extrapolate meaning and plays with philosophies and beliefs. I submit that a dislike of The Fall stems from a dislike of the philosophical debate. The Keats stuff isn't that important to the core, and I would agree that it is self indulgent; but I don't believe Hyperion to be a masterpiece in the first place, so I am not bothered by it. I read Hyperion and The Fall back to back and found little discrepancy in the quality of writing. You have made me think twice about reading any further though, or reading Illium.

5:32 am  
Blogger Daniel said...

I just finished Fall and after the wonder that was Hyperion (Book 1) it was such a huge let down. I have to agree with your assessment. Just the first chapter has convinced me that I will not like the Pax plotline. Now the Catholic church is the evil villain and the Ousters are still referred to as the enemy? Everyone wears a cruxiform after it was known to be a terrible existence? No thanks. Sounds like simply more Christian bashing that I'm quite tired of. Hyperion managed to do a wonderful thing in that it melded science and religion as being able to exist together instead of the tired trope of more leftist authors who try and abolish faith as stupid or supplant it with science as religion.

Fall of Hyperion was setup for an easy grandslam after Hyperion, and the start was actually very intriguing. A second Keats retrieval persona was actually a great device and interesting way to change the point of view of the story. I didn't mind the dream sequences but by the end the entire thing was just infused with a bunch of mumbo jumbo mysticism and pretentious philosophy made to sound more deep than it obviously is. Characters like Gladstone behave a little too cartoonish and destroyed some of the wonderful grounding in reality that the first book always contained.

There is one thing that the second book did which was a fantastic concept which wasn't realized, and that was the duplicity of the AI Technocore's plot and war with humanity. The long arranged and subtle plan to destroy humanity and humanity's secret resistance would have made for a fantastic book in itself if handled in a more intelligent way than having a zen Buddhist monk of an AI just spit out the entire plot like some scene from the end of the original Tron movie.

6:35 pm  

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