Friday, October 25, 2013

The Hyperion Cantos

Far-Future Science Fiction Landmark

For the past few years, I haven't been reading all that much. Recently, I began again. I collected quite a few notable science fiction titles several years back, among them the first three books of The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. When I read about the Shrike in a post on Invisible Oranges, I made a mental note to put those books on the front burner.

In several hundred years, Earth is gone, but humanity has moved on to, I believe, several dozen worlds. Artificial intelligences have ceased to be tools and are seen as having their own rights and independence. Portals built by the AIs allow instantaneous travel to developed worlds. A splinter group of humans known as the Ousters is a looming threat.

Hyperion has a structure similar to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A diverse group of characters take turns telling their stories. Each story is different, taking such forms as anthropological journal, action story, detective story, or (most compelling of all) a touching story of a family dealing with a uniquely horrible disease. This is set against the backdrop of their journey to the unknown, to face the Shrike, a creature which seems unbound by the laws of physics and reportedly communicates only through pain.

The first book is part short story collection, part exposition. Though it ends on a "to be continued" note, I would have been satisfied had it ended there. It won the Hugo Award, after all, and I think that's because of a combination of well-developed characters and an imaginative world. The book begins a theme of the author's personal hero worship, which could have completely ruined it, but makes it work.

The Fall of Hyperion is where the story of Hyperion is resolved. It introduces new characters in addition to the old. It's political intrigue, war on an enormous scale, and conspiracy, but also the very human drama of the original characters in extreme circumstances and fear as they get picked off, one by one, by the Shrike. It's an incredible story. It gets almost too complex to handle, but it works.

Endymion deals, in part, with the long-term fallout of the events in Fall. Taking place about 200 years later, there is little consistency in the characters, and that works out for the best. It's a simpler story. On the one side, the protagonists are three very different people--one of whom is supposed to be a messiah. They hop from world to world, exploring very different environments from jungle to ocean to desert to ice, along the way facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. On the other side, there is the once-again-ascendant Catholic Church, which has its own military and political machinery (and attendant corruption). But the Church acts primarily through a single officer, who may be the most sympathetic antagonist in any work of fiction.

In short, the Hyperion Cantos have all the incredible world-building and fantastic ideas that draw readers to science fiction in the first place, as well as the compelling characters that make fiction ultimately worth reading. There is one final book in the series, and I'll definitely be reading it.

The Verdict:
Hyperion: 5 out of 5 stars
The Fall of Hyperion: 4 out of 5 stars
Endymion: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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