Over seven years and four books later, I have finished the Hyperion Cantos. What a journey. I’d be lying if I said I remembered much about the first three books at this point (that’s why I write reviews). I kept putting off reading The Rise of Endymion; it has been sitting in my to-read pile since I bought the last three books from the used book store. But Dan Simmons’ science fiction is just so damn dense I knew it was going to take days to get through it, and I was not looking forward to making that commitment. Nevertheless, I decided last week that enough was enough.
The Rise of Endymion gets something right from the start: the cover depicts the Shrike with four arms!
Anyway, it picks up pretty much where Endymion leaves off, give or take a little bit of time passing. Aenea sends Raul on a quest to retrieve the Consul’s ship, although it is also kind of a spiritual journey that separates him from her long enough (thanks to relativity time shenanigans) for her to get closer to him in age, so the sexual relationship stuff isn’t so squicky, and for some other shenanigans that I won’t spoil. Reunited with Aenea just in time for the Pax to catch up to them, Raul’s role in the story is split between confused narrator and occasional action hero. I spent large parts of the story trying to ignore how obtuse Raul is and how boring it makes things.
Fortunately, I had other plots to keep me occupied. The Pax and its unholy alliance with the TechnoCore gets fleshed out (pun intended) in more depth here. I don’t think anyone who makes it into book four is going to be surprised by the seemingly-boundlessness of Simmons’ imagination. I’m reminded of Pandora’s Star, which has a similar space operatic setting including AIs and wormhole travel. Simmons blends elements of posthumanism, transhumanism, and time travel. The result can only be described, for better or for worse, as epic. Even if you don’t like the series, it is hard to dispute the scope and style of it.
I, myself, have rather mixed feelings now that I’m done. The narrative in this one is quite clunky, with endless pages of exposition that Simmons barely deigns to dress up as dialogue—and sometimes he doesn’t even do that. The nerd in me, who likes learning about the ideas, just drinks it up, of course. But it does stop the story dead in its tracks. Simmons is very good at creating complexity but not necessarily at displaying it, and sometimes he sacrifices pacing for the sake of completeness. As a result, The Rise of Endymion has a pedantic feeling in parts, losing something of its edge.
Similarly, the foreordained nature of Aenea’s victory of the Pax doesn’t appeal to me. Although I am loath to agree with Raul about anything (because he’s such a tool), I agree with him that prophecies and predestination suck. Since Aenea is so sure of how things will work out, I never feel much in the way of danger or suspense. She can talk “probability waves” all she wants, but the fact remains that she is not really a “human” protagonist in the classical sense of someone with flaws. She is Other, progeny of a cybrid, touched by the Lions and Tigers and Bears. I never get the sense that she is really tempted to stray from the path laid out for her, and that makes her boring. In the same way, her romance with Raul and the inevitability of it, up to and including the predictability of the conclusion, just makes me yawn.
For a book about interstellar warfare where the stakes are the future of the human species’ development, there is remarkably little conflict at times.
The TechnoCore’s master plan turns out to be ho-hum, pretty standard run-of-the-mill evil AI stuff. And that is a bit disappointing. Simmons gives us some good villains, but he never really gets to turn them loose on anyone we care about. Rhadamanth Nemes gets to slice the heads off redshirts and monks and other minor characters, but no one in the main party even loses an arm here. Were they all rolling natural 20s?
Like the series as a whole, The Rise of Endymion’s strength lies mostly in the scope of its ideas and the ways in which Simmons explores them through his characters, rather than the characters themselves. Raul, Aenea, et al might be forgettable as individuals. But it’s hard to forget how Simmons weaves them into a science fictional tapestry drawing on messianic echoes of Christianity, older stories and tropes of the genre, and of course, classic and Romantic literature.
This is a lovely, nerdy text in the way it is embedded with rich meaning and connections to other texts and other ideas. Every planet visited gives Simmons a chance to show off a new society, a new what-if evolution of a culture here on Earth. He indeed takes us on such a whistle-stop tour towards the end of the book, visiting some worlds familiar to Cantos readers and others new. Practically every page of this book is just saturated with allusions to or extensions of diverse cultural practices, religions, myths, etc.
That being said, this cornucopia of cultural extrapolation means that the series, like many other sprawling sagas, suffers from its sensational scope. Simmons might blow one’s mind with the sheer diversity of human thoughts, expressions, and even body plans—but we spend so little time with each one, we barely get to scratch the surface. In this sense, a shorter, more intimate novel will always win out against the epic.
Fortunately, I have time enough and desire enough to read both such story types. I don’t know if I would recommend the Hyperion Cantos to readers like I would, say, the Hitchhiker’s series or the Culture novels. But if you want science fiction with an extra helping of literary allusions, this series might be right for you.