It no longer matters who consider themselves the masters of events. Events no longer obey their masters.
And so it is with the complex skein of events in this hefty pair of books by Dan Simmons. Taken together, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (published 1989 and 1990) represent 900+ pages of high-quality space opera able to simultaneously satisfy both fans of action/adventure and those who appreciate philosophical depth and the presentation of Big Ideas. All of those ingredients are present in
abundance as Simmons weaves a vast tale of humanity a millennium from now, living in a far-flung empire of hundreds of worlds, as it faces threats to its existence in the form of war, betrayal, deception, and manipulation by adversaries both known and unknown wielding awesome powers beyond understanding. I’m reviewing these two books together because they really form one long continuous story, often referred to collectively as the Hyperion Cantos.
After the Earth was lost through an experiment gone wrong, humanity spread to the stars, and the Hegemony of Man now includes about two hundred worlds (the Web) connected by wormhole-based “farcasters” which allow instantaneous travel (the rich even have mansions with rooms on different planets!). Farcaster technology is beyond humanity’s understanding and was given to them by the TechnoCore, a population of AI’s who broke free from their human masters centuries ago and now live in their own separate society, but ostensibly on good terms with mankind, whose government they assist through the AI Advisory Council. Travel by spacecraft is of secondary importance, as it is quite time-consuming and complicated by relativistic effects, and is used mainly to worlds that don’t yet have farcasters.
Enter Hyperion, a frontier world outside the Web with a strange claim to fame: it’s the home of the Time Tombs, a valley full of mysterious artifacts that appear to be moving backwards in time. And the Tombs are the home of a terrifying creature known as the Shrike, a seemingly invincible 9-foot-tall 4-armed metallic being covered in sharp spikes and able to control time itself. No one knows the purpose of the Shrike and Tombs (well, not until the end of the story), but a tradition has formed over time: if a group of pilgrims travels there, one individual will have a wish granted, while all the others will face horrifying suffering at the hands (and spikes) of the Shrike.
As Hyperion opens, the Hegemony is on the verge of war with the Ousters, a branch of humanity that went into self-imposed exile long ago, choosing to roam space in their vessels and asteroids rather than being bound to planets. The Ousters have evolved away from the human norm and are seen as almost alien now. And they have an intense interest in the Time Tombs and Hyperion, an invasion of which seems imminent. Against this backdrop, with chaos looming on the horizon, a final Shrike pilgrimage is arranged, with seven unique individuals carefully chosen for reasons unknown to them. But then, they have their own reasons, which we learn about during their journey as they each share their story with the others, in the style of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This structure works well, and each story is fascinating in its own right — and much more so when you try to figure out the mystifying puzzle for which each character’s story provides some of the pieces. The characters themselves — soldier, detective, diplomat, priest, scholar, poet, and others — do what any good character should, drawing the reader in, making us try to figure out what makes them tick, and causing us to become emotionally invested in what happens to them. The novel closes with our pilgrims, having told their stories throughout the journey, just entering the valley of the Time Tombs.
The Fall of Hyperion picks up there, and takes a more straightforward narrative structure as all the individual stories blend together into one hugely complex story. As the pilgrims prepare to face the Shrike, Hyperion comes under attack, only one part of a wider war which threatens the entire Web itself, a war in which it is hard to tell who the enemy really is, and which brings long-held assumptions into question. The action is thick and fast, ranging over many planets (and the space battles between and around them), and the viewpoint switches frequently from character to character. Twists and revelations abound; it’s difficult to say more about the second book without giving too much away, so I’ll leave it at that.
The Hyperion Cantos is built from a rich array of themes and concepts, any one of which would have been a worthy subject for a novel in its own right. There is the theme of man vs. machine and what happens when we create artificial intelligence and it goes its separate way. There’s also the theme of stagnation vs. change. The Web has endured for many centuries virtually unchanged, indeed resisting change, while the Ousters have wholeheartedly embraced the inevitability of evolution and welcome it as the way forward. Related to the stagnation issue is the matter of over-reliance on technology that is not understood, and the possible disastrous consequences.
Another major idea used here is that of an evolved God (taking inspiration from Teilhard’s Omega Point) — in short, an Ultimate Intelligence as the endpoint of evolution far in the future, projecting its effects back in time. Would such a being be distinguishable from a “real” (i.e. supernatural) God? If not, what might that mean for religions based on such an Intelligence, mistaking its actual nature? Simmons draws fairly heavily on the concepts of Christianity, putting it in just this context. The Cantos involves religion in other ways as well. There is a constant thread of sin, atonement, and punishment running through the novels, as well as sacrifice. One of the pilgrims, Sol Weintraub, engages in an ongoing theological debate about obedience and sacrifice and whether or not God is owed them; this debate is largely centered on the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Weintraub comes to believe that mankind has matured past the point of blind obedience, and, in his dream conversations with a being he takes to be God, he boldly lays out his position:
“Listen! There will be no more offerings, neither child nor parent. There will be no more sacrifices for anyone other than our fellow human. The time of obedience and atonement is past. That’s all! Now either leave us alone or join us as a father rather than a receiver of sacrifices. You have the choice of Abraham!”
One final thing worth mentioning is Simmons’ extensive use of poetry; and by that I don’t mean simply quoting poetry (though there is some of that), but also the use of poets as very important central characters. For starters, one of the pilgrims, Martin Silenus, is a poet whose lifelong masterpiece-in-progress is called, fittingly enough, “Hyperion Cantos.” This epic work haunts and obsesses Silenus, and is the reason he agreed to join the pilgrimage. But even more fascinating is the crucial role played by another poet, namely John Keats, brought back to life, in a way, as a “cybrid” — an AI mind with an amazingly accurate reconstruction of Keats’ memories, placed in a body genetically identical to the original Keats. This “reborn” Keats is one of the most important characters of the entire story. In fact, the very title “Hyperion” is from a Keats poem. William Butler Yeats also gets some recognition; more than once his poem “The Second Coming” is referenced. You know, all that about the center not holding….. anarchy loosed upon the world…. some beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born. I’ve always loved that poem, and its use here seems very appropriate.
This has definitely been one of my more satisfying reads lately. There is also another pair of books forming a sequel to this pair: Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. They are on my reading list for the coming year, no doubt about that. I will also be looking at other work by Simmons, since Hyperion Cantos easily establishes his credentials as a writer of the first rank.ef