Friday, February 18, 2011

The Fall of Hyperion

Given the complexity of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, the following review would probably make more sense after reading my review of Hyperion and my oddly popular post on the Shrike.

The first thing I noticed upon starting the book was that I disagree with several reviewers; Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion shouldn't necessarily form a single book. My copy does indeed bind both books together, but it's been out of print for a long time.

Hyperion is told as a space opera version of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As I mentioned in my review of Hyperion, the first novel is composed of the pilgrims' stories of how they ended up on the Shrike pilgrimage. With each story the reader better understands the nature of the Hegemony and the mysterious creature known as the Shrike. Also revealed is the basic relationship that humanity has with the highly evolved artificial intelligences (AIs) that form the TechnoCore. Once slaves to humanity, the AIs of the Core declared independence centuries before the opening of Hyperion, declaring themselves as allies and friends to the Hegemony of Man instead. At least that's what the AIs claim. There are factions within the Core that see humanity as a parasite and a distraction from their goal of developing an Ultimate Intelligence; effectively a deus ex machina.

The first book ends on a cliffhanger, which is why some reviewers believe that the story shouldn't have been divided between two novels. However, The Fall of Hyperion is narrated very differently and has a broader focus than the preceding book. The viewpoint character is a "cybrid"; a being whose body is fully human but whose intelligence is an AI that is shared between its body and the Core. This particular cybrid, a replica of the 19th century poet John Keats, has the ability to dream events happening elsewhere. It is through these dreams that we find out what's happening to the pilgrims featured in the first novel.

Although the pilgrims' experiences continue to be an important part of the story, much of the novel's focus is on the organization of Hegemony itself, the conflict between the factions within the Core, and the invasion by the Ousters. Introduced in Hyperion, the Ousters are groups of humanity that chose to live between the stars because they refused to be dependent on the Core's technology. They particularly abhor the Core-controlled farcaster teleportation system that makes the Hegemony's WorldWeb possible.

Many of the mysteries and apparent contradictions introduced in the first novel are explained in this book. After the buildup that the Shrike received in Hyperion I had been certain that it would be impossible for Dan Simmons to reveal its origin and purpose without disappointing the reader. Not only was I not disappointed, but the truth behind the creature turned out to be even more interesting than I thought it could be. Even after we know what the Shrike is, the creature loses none of its menace.

The Fall of Hyperion is even more epic in its scope than Hyperion. The story is about nothing less than the destruction of worlds, the clash of gods, and the fate of humanity. Despite this, Simmons gives us a great cast of complex, believable characters. I love a story with a noble protagonist and Simmons' books gives us several. My favorite example of this occurs when one of the pilgrims, Colonel Kassad (who is equipped with a combat suit from humanity's far-future), is seriously injured while fighting the Shrike through time and space. However, when he finds the Shrike approaching two other pilgrims, he heads back into combat. Moneta, a woman from that same far-future, warns him about his decision:
"If you fight again," she said, her voice soft and urgent in his ear, "the Shrike will kill you."
"They're my friends," said Kassad. His FORCE gear and torn armor lay where Moneta had thrown it hours earlier. He searched the Monolith until he found his assault rifle and a bandolier of grenades, saw the rifle was still functional, checked charges and clicked off safeties, left the Monolith, and stepped forward at double time to intercept the Shrike.
I have a soft spot for characters who choose to face certain death because of loyalty and friendship.

Having now read two of Simmons' books, I'd like to comment on how much I like his prose. His writing is perfectly balanced between the bare-bones simplicity of an Orson Scott Card and the over-abundant descriptiveness of a Greg Bear. While I enjoy Card's writing, I feel that Bear's approach meanders too much from the plot and the characters. Although the worlds that Simmons has created, Hyperion's Valley of the Time Tombs, and the Shrike are all lovingly detailed, it's never to the point of distraction. Thanks to the grand scale of his stories and his writing style, I will definitely be seeking out more of Simmons' novels, especially the final two books of the Hyperion saga: Endymion and The Rise of Endymion.

A final word on my complaints about the first book. The Fall of Hyperion also contains some strong language and sexuality, although not nearly as much as in the first book. I'm glad that Simmons doesn't employ these elements gratuitously but rather as character traits or plot points that didn't often come into play in the second novel. Although I prefer that an author avoids such things altogether, it's worse when he or she distributes foul language or sex liberally throughout his or her writing, regardless of its relevance to the story.

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