Review of The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons
My relationship with Dan Simmons has been ambivalent. We've had bad times and even worse times. We've also had some good times, namely with Hyperion. So I went into The Fall of Hyperion feeling pretty good, and if anything my opinion of this series has only improved. Any ill will I bore Simmons for the books I didn't like has dissipated thanks to his masterful presentation of this epic science-fiction series. The Hyperion Cantos hits an impressive number of tropes that appeal to me in my science fiction. Introspective, existentially-minded main character? Check. Ineffable, almost omnipotent artificial intelligences? Got it. Wormhole-connected human civilization? Oh yes. Crazy mind-bending temporal logic? Sadly, oh so much. The Fall of Hyperion preserves the flavour of its predecessor, and to its credit, it is also much more complete than Hyperion.
One thing I need to mention: I really like the cover art for both this book and Hyperion, with the exception of the depiction of the Shrike. In reading the first book, I missed the fact that the Shrike has four arms. (I don't pay a lot of attention to physical descriptions, because I don't visualize characters.) I clued into it in this book, however, so seeing the all-too-humanoid Shrike on the covers is irking me. I don't know what the artist was thinking—the cover version does look menacing and cool, but the discrepancy bothers my inner consistency monitor.
But I digress.
I liked Hyperion (after re-reading my review, more than I recalled, apparently). One of the things I enjoyed about the book were the overt allusions to John Keats' poem of the same name. By way I've disclaimer, I haven't actually read Keats' Hyperion, nor am I anywhere close to familiar with most of his work. Still, Simmons establishes a literary mood that I, as a reader, enjoy. The tone of the work is erudite without becoming overbearing about its literary qualities; at its heart, it is still science fiction. But it's high quality science fiction, the kind you buy from a shady dealer in the dive off the darkest alleyway, looking furtively in either direction as he reaches beneath his trenchcoat for his last copy even as you rock back in forth, muttering under your breath about how you need your next hit. Yeah, Hyperion and its sequel are definitely my type of drug.
The literary quality to the book also helps liken it to the myths that Simmons references. In another author's hands, the comparisons might be heavy-handed, but he pulls it off deftly. In my review of Hyperion, I discuss what we learn about the AIs, the TechnoCore, and "how irrelevant they consider humanity to the grand scheme of the cosmos". I could not have been more wrong! Without going into spoiler territory, let's just say that humanity is essential to the TechnoCore's plan, at least in the short term, for a variety of reasons. And the TechnoCore's role as antagonist becomes much more apparent in this book. To accompany this plot, Simmons talks about the war between the Titans and the Olympian gods of Greek mythology (the subject of Keats' poem), putting the human Hegemony in the role of the former and the usurper AIs as the Olympians. By including this literary dimension, Simmons elevates his conflict beyond the typical AI rebellion plot. The struggle is more than mere survival, more than epic, even more than myth: it's the fulfilment of a grand, cosmic theme. It's poetic.
Simmons sort of uses a frame story here, but it's nowhere near as explicit or as strong as the Canterbury Tales-like setup in Hyperion. Rather, one of the main characters, another Keats cybrid under the name of John Severn, "dreams" what's happening to the pilgrims on Hyperion. Simmons plays a little fast-and-loose with what Severn can dream; after finishing the book and becoming privy to all the facts (such as they are thus far), I think it's possible to explain it all. But I'm just as happy handwaving it as artistic license. Although some of the characters—Brawne, later on the Consul, and maybe Sol—play important roles in the overall plot and have interesting subplots in their own right, some of the other characters are less interesting (though probably still important). If The Fall of Hyperion has a single major flaw, it's the way the main cast of the first book gets sidelined. Most of Hyperion comprises the tale of each pilgrim, so we get close to each character and his or her reasons for braving the Time Tombs and seeking the terrible Shrike. In this book, although their roles are still important, Simmons focuses a lot more on the larger scale political consequences of the Hyperion conflict. Unfortunately, the pilgrims get lost in the shuffle.
Severn is involved, mostly as an observer, in the larger plot concerning the Hegemony's defence of Hyperion against the invading Ousters. We also meet Meina Gladstone, the "CEO" of the Hegemony and a formidable woman in her own right. Gladstone is herself complicit in the eponymous fall, for she is playing her own long game in the style of Paul and Leto Atreides. Unfortunately, like the rest of humanity, she fails to perceive the true scope of the TechnoCore's betrayal and how this relates to the Time Tombs and the Shrike. So the climax and conclusion of the book become a race against time to change course mid-plan and attempt to save the scuttling of the Hegemony. That's right: we aren't trying to save the human empire in this book; we just want to make sure it breaks the way we want it to break. Which is fine. The Hegemony might have cool wormhole travel, but it's an imperialist, destructive entity that brooks no competition. What little we see of its most serious challengers, the Ousters, makes them look appealing: their society certainly seems more egalitarian (but maybe we don't get the whole story). By contrast, Simmons goes out of his way to illustrate how the Hegemony is ruled by the select powerful and rich few—hmm, sounds familiar. We see that the ruling class is decadent and self-absorbed. We aren't supposed to mourn the Hegemony; we mourn the chaos into which its billions of innocent citizens will plunge after it collapses. According to Gladstone, it will all work out for the best. But we can never be sure, can we?
(Well, we can. Because Simmons wrote more sequels. Isn't reading great?)
The Fall of Hyperion makes heavy use of the role of religion in society. Father Paul Duré is back, in a big way, and with it comes the small cult of Catholicism and Duré's own musings about the eventual fate of humanity. We can also call the TechnoCore's motives "religious". All their roads lead to the Ultimate Intelligence, an AI that would essentially be God. Yet even as they manipulate humanity, they are divided, both on whether they want to realize a UI and what to do with humanity. Severn/Keats, an AI reconstruction of a centuries-dead poet, also has to reclaim his identity and decide what role he wishes to play in this conflict (as he discovers, he has been groomed to perform a certain task). Finally, the pilgrims each have their own conflicts of faith and must decide to embrace faith or reject it, in very personal ways. Simmons involves conflicts of faith at a variety of levels, which overall adds to the complexity and rich texture of this book.
Given the antagonist and the emphasis on faith, the casual reader might detect an anti-technology theme to The Fall of Hyperion. I know that, at first, I was wondering why Simmons was down on the bit-mongers. But it's much deeper than that. Simmons is criticizing the Hegemony's dependence on the sentient TechnoCore for its technology and the maintenance of that technology. The story goes: humanity invented the Hawking drive, but the TechnoCore gave us the farcasters. Guess which one became the primary mode of transportation? That's right, the one that moves people instantaneously from planet to planet. Since the establishment of the Hegemony, the Core has been there, suppressing any radical developments in technology that might upset the balance. In a way, the TechnoCore is a depiction of what the Minds of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels could be, if they were of a more domineering bent. (There are other factors, of course, not the least of which is the fact that the Hegemony descends directly from humanity and Earth cultures, whereas the Culture is a "pan-species" civilization old when humans are still learning to sail.) Technology itself is awesome, and becoming dependent on a technology is OK, but surrendering one's freedom and self-determination because someone else is doling out technological goodies leads down a bad road.
Having compared this series to the Culture novels, I'd also like to refer to Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star and its sequel and related works. There are some superficial similarities: Hamilton has an Intersolar Commonwealth, wormholes, and the SI; Simmons has the Hegemony of Man, farcasters, and the TechnoCore. Yet the differences between the two universes allow their stories to be wonderfully unique. In Hamilton's works, wormhole travel comes from the minds of two human geniuses before the SI is a glimmer in the eyes of programmers. The Commonwealth's government treats the SI with more suspicion than it might warrant, since it seems a lot friendlier and more benign than Simmons' TechnoCore. By contrast, although the Commonwealth isn't all it's cracked up to be, it is much nicer than the Hegemony on a sliding scale. Both deliver the type of mega-scale space opera that I find so enticing, so addictive.
The Fall of Hyperion isn't perfect, but overall it seems designed to appeal directly to me and to my interests. I can easily see why it was nominated for a Hugo and why Hyperion won the award. It's a space opera with a complex plot that draws upon literature and mythology to create an immensely satisfying experience. This is the good stuff, the direct line to the pleasure centre of your science-fiction nervous system.