Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Reviews -- HYPERION CANTOS novels by Dan Simmons, Part Two

In my last post, I reviewed the first two novels of Dan Simmons' epic science-fiction epic, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. The overall impression I have of those two novels is extremely positive. My expectations were incredibly high for the following books, which I read immediately following the end of The Fall of Hyperion. I shall now continue with my overview of the Hyperion Cantos, which closes with Endymion and The Rise of Endymion.

Just as Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion were named after unfinished poems by John Keats, 1996's Endymion was named for the final novel of Benjamin Disraeli. The original work was a very political romance set in early 19th century England and dominated by the Whig hero, Endymion Ferrars.

Simmons' novel opens 274 years after the end of The Fall of Hyperion, in which protagonist, Raul Endymion, is given a second chance at life in exchange for protecting the child-messiah, Aenea, from the Pax, a galactic empire that is effectively ruled by the Catholic Church.

The book opens with an excellent line: "You're reading this for the wrong reason." Endymion narrates the tale from a Schrodinger's Cat box in orbit, awaiting his death sentence, alive and dead at the same time. Life and death are integral to the plot of Endymion. Since the destruction of the farcasters at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, one of the only ways to effectively travel through space is by accelerating at such speeds the human body is effectively liquefied. The Church overcomes this by offering the Sacraments of the Cruciform and the Resurrection--the Catholics in this book have somehow managed to unlock the secrets to eternal life. But there is a price, heavily tied to the Cruciform that Father Lenar Hoyt spoke of in his story during the first two novels.

Approximately halfway through the novel, Simmons turns the story into a riverboat voyage, invoking tales such as Huckleberry Finn and The Heart of Darkness, once-again showing that his literary savvy didn't expire with The Fall of Hyperion. Unfortunately, that savvy doesn't show through as powerfully as it had in the first two novels. The story structure is unique, however, which showcases Simmons' talents as a novelist.

The main character of the novel, however, is not truly Endymion, but Aenea. A twelve-year-old girl who exits the Time Tombs, she is pursued by Father Captain de Soya and a cadre of Swiss Guards because she poses a threat to the Church (and by extension, the Pax) that even she does not quite yet understand. Her name is heavily symbolic--Aenea is the feminine of Aeneas, a legendary founder-hero to the Romans, an escapee from the fall of Troy and subject of Virgil's attempt at a national epic for the Romans, the Aeneid. Considering her role as a messiah-figure, her name is extremely important. Simmons is trying to tell us something. As a result, a great many of the themes present in Virgil's epic are also present in Endymion, such as the conflict of opposites (passion vs. reason, male vs. female, freedom vs. slavery, nature vs. the synthetic, Endymion vs. Aenea) and the idea of a voyage over water being somehow guided by higher powers.

Simmons' talent for creating worlds is one of the main attractions yet again. The raft along the river leads the characters through farcasters to a number of different worlds, their ultimate destination a mystery, and always one step ahead of Father Captain de Soya. When a new race of super-soldiers and the Shrike become involved, Simmons is artfully increasing the tension and building toward a surprising and exciting climax, but with a dangling resolution designed to heighten anticipation for the fourth and final volume.

However, some cracks are beginning to appear in the surface of Simmons' otherwise excellent storytelling, mostly in the form of Aenea and her relationship to Endymion. Aenea herself is extremely mysterious and has a habit of speaking in ciphers in lieu of giving straight answers. This is partially because she is twelve and is quite uncertain of her ultimate destiny (as she, herself admits). However, it feels like a very clichéd and overused technique, and Simmons begins a long, drawn-out project of beating this trope to death and beyond. In addition, the author states quite blatantly that Raul Endymion and Aenea will become lovers someday (intensifying the clichés by putting them in conflict with one-another through much of the novel). While this, alone, isn't so bad, Simmons' need to constantly foreshadow events through openly admitting what will happen later in the series becomes increasingly tedious.

Despite its flaws, Endymion is still an exceptional science-fiction novel. Simmons has spent the first two books establishing a dynamic setting and telling an excellent story. While that story very much stands on its own, it forms an integral foundation upon which the author builds the final parts of his epic tale. It also served to create a great many assumptions for the reader. It would be these assumptions that Simmons' final volume would seek to overturn, quite drastically and violently in some places.

The Rise of Endymion
The novel opens with the Resurrection of Father Lenar Hoyt, and his accession to the Papacy as Pope Urban XVI. He takes the name symbolically, and declares a Crusade against the Ousters. Through much of the novel, Simmons describes interplanetary combat with incredible depth and realism. He brings a heavy knowledge of astrophysics to bear, and works in the tremendous distances involved in space-travel and interstellar conflict. The result is absolutely fascinating and imaginative. The reader cannot help but imagine the enormous distances of space being bridged by lasers or missiles cruising near the speed of light on curved trajectories through star systems only to impact with their targets after soaring for hours through the coldness of space.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story is often not as engrossing as these parts. Where the previous novels were imaginative, literary, and compelling, The Rise of Endymion is simply didactic. And that really destroys the symmetry of science and storytelling that Simmons had managed to fuse so wonderfully in the first three volumes. The cracks that had begun to appear in Endymion had become hideous gaps by the time The Rise of Endymion was released in 1997.

As a result, the reader will experience a work that will engross and absorb at times, and at others irritate and frustrate. The scenes of space-warfare are handled beautifully, and for the most part, Simmons' ability to take the reader on odysseys through fascinating and vibrantly-designed worlds is still top-notch. The fatal flaw in the book, however, is Aenea.

Aenea has become the most annoying character in the series. She denies being a messiah, but she speaks in koans. She can glimpse the future, but refuses to tell anyone anything about it. She doesn't say anything about why. She is ultimately secretive and holds back a lot of what she knows. There are parts of the book where characters ask her questions where her answers could save them, make their lives easier, etc., and she point-blank refuses to reveal anything, or begs to put off answering until "the right time." All this clichéd and cryptic messianic behavior is just far too ridiculous for me. Frank Herbert was far superior at handling characters who could see the future. Dan Simmons' "the One Who Teaches" is sadly reduced to a mystic know-it-all.

A fine example of Aenea's pointlessly cryptic behavior is the kayak she gives to Raul Endymion. She cannot accompany Endymion on his voyage because she has a mission of her own to fulfill. She refuses to tell him what he will encounter, but she does put a big red panic button on the kayak, with strict instructions not to push it.

Endymion's response makes perfect sense, "Why give me a button you don't want me to push?"

Her reply: "Well, don't push it until you absolutely must."

Him: "When do I know?"

Her: "You'll just know."

This is pathetic. She is stereotypically cryptic and mysterious for no good reason. She could have easily informed Raul of what was ahead without ruining the story or spoiling any surprises. After Simmons has spent much of Endymion telling us (through Aenea) that her and Raul are destined to become lovers, it is extremely annoying to have her suddenly seize up and withhold vital information that could save Raul's life. Instead, Simmons chooses a much more trite, overused, and incongruous technique that doesn't really enhance the story at all.

The second half of the novel is where the didactic dial is turned up to 11. The Rise of Endymion basically reads like a pro-Zen Buddhism/anti-Catholic Church polemic. For the first time in the series, I found myself getting bored and wanting to skip pages. The description of Tien Shan, the mountainous planet full of Zen monasteries, is extremely tedious. Many of the obstacles the characters encounter from the environment seem to have been designed simply to give them a hard time--they effectively serve no literary purpose. Usually Simmons' description of planets, environments, and lifestyles of the inhabitants are absorbing. However, much of the characters' sojourn on Tien Shan is incredibly dull and uninteresting. For all the featurelessness that it presented, the gas giant that Raul glided over was far more readable than the laborious chapters on how he navigated the peaks of Tien Shan, or the countless references to East Asian Buddhism, and the consistent portrayal of Buddhists as infinitely enlightened and morally/mentally superior to Christians.

And this is why The Rise of Endymion is the weak link in an otherwise incredibly strong chain. The Hyperion Cantos began as an exploration of literary themes in space--a space opera that refused to be a space opera. Approximately halfway through The Rise of Endymion, however, Dan Simmons transforms this epic into an agenda-driven polemic. Instead of exploring his political philosophy through setting and characters, Simmons opts to mount a soapbox and, using Aenea as his mouthpiece, subjects the reader to his sophistry.

The overall message that I get from The Rise of Endymion is that Simmons' exploration of themes and ideas has been abandoned in favor of the following axiomatic statements: Religion (i.e. Catholicism) is bad. Zen Buddhism and enlightenment are good. The Universe is made of love. Trees and flowers are good. Love is what matters. Computers and AI are parasites, not symbiots. Nanotechnology is good, because it allows humans to adapt to hostile environments (see transhumanism)--the reverse, terraforming, is bad because it adapts (or destroys) environments to suit our needs. Dan Simmons seems to believe that terraforming Mars, Venus, or the Moon would be an environmental faux pas. Instead, we should nanotech and genetically engineer ourselves to survive in a vacuum.

The net result is an extremely myopic and contradictory mess. Nanomachines are good, but computers are bad? Planck space and Planck time, instead of being measurements, are now a quasi-mystical other dimension where Love resides? And of course, by creating FTL drives and instantaneous communication through this alternate medium, we are "raping an environment we don't understand."

The most disappointing factor in these stories, however, is Raul Endymion's ultimate fate. In brief, he's been taken advantage of and screwed over, but is happy about it. He's been deceived (never directly lied to, but misled through omission or deliberate ambiguities) by his "beloved" Aenea so many times that the ending of the novel left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. The final deception just capped it all.

Too much was revealed at the "big ending" all at once, and it seriously numbs the reader. The catharsis and exultation from a mystery solved loses its potency if these solutions are presented rapid-fire throughout fifty pages or so. The reader is no longer shocked, amazed, or intrigued. Indeed, some of the mysteries are resolved quite lamely, such as the identity of the "Observer." The reader may not have seen it coming, but that was because he/she may have briefly considered it, but then discarded it because it felt like a weak cop-out.

It feels as if Simmons spent three superb books creating a vibrant setting, integrating it with science and technology, and investing it with a plethora of mysteries and puzzles that he felt compelled to resolve. The problem is, the mysteries were far more intriguing as mysteries, and the solutions honestly dispelled some of the magic of his universe. He painted himself into a sort of corner, and ended up having to write his way out.

Hence, the questions are all answered, and everything is neat and tidy at the end... but it is too neat, too tidy. Humanity is too perfect at the end. Everyone is going to just get along now, and be happy, now that they've all been enlightened and theirs is a shiny happy future. It feels false, forced. Without struggle or pain or opposition, without the knowledge that Mankind is flawed and imperfect, I feel as if it is a universe the likes of which Francis Fukuyama wrote about--the end of history. I find the resolution of the entire thing to be... well... trite isn't the right word, because the ending absolutely is not trite. It is grand, possibly magnificent. But not satisfying. Perhaps it is the optimism of the ending? The knowledge that everybody just wants to get along?

To me, they are no longer human, and nothing is more interesting to read or write about than humans.

I must compare this to Frank Herbert's vision of the future--at least the humans of his universe were human, albeit advanced. They were humans with magnified intelligence. Here, in Simmons' work, we are given the hippy's dream of peace, love and intergalactic understanding.

The ability to write a number of books in a series, each utilizing disparate narrative techniques and story structures, demonstrates Simmons' skill as a writer. His world-building is superb, complemented by the manner in which he constantly layers on detail without resorting to massive info-dumps onto the reader. The science is woven into the story so intricately that it is a part of the characters' lives, making it feel real and viable. The characters are dynamic, complex, memorable, sympathetic, and endearing. Their experiences are, at times, tragic. The emotional impact of the novels, especially the first two, is enhanced by Simmons' literary awareness and passion for Romantic poetry. However, Simmons surrenders that in The Rise of Endymion in order to barrage the reader with his message. If the reader agrees with the message, perhaps they will enjoy the final novel much more than I did. However, for me, the magic and power of The Hyperion Cantos were not in any overall message, but Simmons' exploration of themes, ideas, and world-building.

Style B+
Substance B+
Overall B+

The Rise of Endymion
Style B
Substance C
Overall C+

The Hyperion Cantos
Overall B+


Mad Professah said...

Very thoughtful review,even though I disagree with your conclusions.

I liked the ending of Rise of Endymion

Nate C-K said...

Endymion is also a poem by Keats.

Dave Cesarano said...

Nate C-K:

I forgot to mention that.