I don’t know why, but I have a bad habit of picking up series during the second book. It seems like book two in a series always falls into my lap before I get hold of book one, and such was the case with Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion. I first read this shortly after graduating from high school, and although I was missing a great deal of information by not having read Hyperion first, I still enjoyed it immensely and knew I had to read the earlier volume, but I set aside this goal for awhile and forgot about it for several years. I’m glad I did, because by the time I returned to these books, the entire tetralogy was complete and I was able to purchase the whole series at once, something I never do. I devoured them all the summer after I graduated from college–an awful summer, in fact, and this series was one of the few saving graces for me that year. I now consider The Hyperion Cantos collectively to be among my top ten books of all time, and that is saying something because I have a lot of favorite books.
The Fall of Hyperion tells us what becomes of the seven Shrike pilgrims now that they have reached the Time Tombs, but it also fleshes out the story of Meina Gladstone, the leader of the Hegemony of Man, as she deals with a coming war with the Ousters that looms large throughout this novel. Bridging these two plot elements is yet another Keats cybrid–this time going by the name of Joseph Severn–whose dreams are linked to the pilgrims. Severn serves as an adviser to Gladstone and is, for all intents and purposes, the narrator of the novel.
What’s particularly beautiful about this book is how absolutely amazingly Simmons ties up the stories of the Shrike pilgrims, whose lives turn out to be more connected than the first book let on. And all of the pilgrims, including the cantankerous poet Martin Silenus (one of my favorite characters in the series) get to be heroes in their own way this time around. Characters with fairly small roles in Hyperion–Amelio Arundez, the Consul’s friend Theo Lane, and so on–appear again with expanded roles. Simmons is extremely generous to his characters in ways that feel both natural and dignified–even those who perish horribly (there is one key character whose death near the end of the novel can only be described as George R.R. Martin-level shocking) are ultimately redeemed.
Then there’s our old friend the Shrike, that time-traveling death machine whose nature is utterly impenetrable. We do learn quite a bit more about him here, and yet it only seems to add to his mysteriousness and his monstrosity. Yet he feels like an essential part of this universe, a sci-fi devil whose cold silver cruelty stands in stark contrast to the golden humanity of the other characters. Even the Ousters–who are a sort of futuristic analogue to the fair folk of fantasy, those beings who are somewhere between human, angel and spirit–aren’t quite the dreadful enemies we learned they were in Hyperion. Indeed, The Fall of Hyperion is a novel that, although it describes the collapse of perhaps the greatest human empire of all time, is ultimately about the unquenchable beating heart of that same humanity. No matter what we are subjected to, mankind endures.
Now, the book does delve a bit into some ideas that will probably prove a little frustrating to those fans of hard SF who don’t like their chosen religion of Pure Science tainted by mysticism. (People who hated Interstellar, I’m looking at you.) But for the rest of us, this all feels beyond true in the same sense that G.K. Chesterton ascribed to fairy tales. This, to me, is what good sci-fi has always been about–not the comfort and safety of the perfectly believable but the very edge of believability, that rich realm of the imagination where the reader isn’t quite sure if its possible or not, and thus it becomes wondrous and transcendent. Modern science fiction has largely gravitated away from this realm, much to its deficit in my estimation. It is a genre that used to be daring and dazzling and even a little dangerous. Now it has become oppressed by the weight of those twin yokes of political correctness and scientific accuracy. Blech. I consider Simmons to be one of a dying breed of sci-fi writers–the inheritors of the New Wave, who took the softness of New Wave sci-fi and brought it down to earth. But enough about that for now–I have a whole essay planned about this very topic coming soon!
Anyway, Dan Simmons . . . this dude can write. This and the horror novel Carrion Comfort (I can’t recall which of these I actually read first) was my introduction to Simmons; I have been a devoted fan ever since. And I think once you have read the Hyperion Cantos you probably will be too. If you love imaginative fiction and good storytelling, you simply can’t afford to miss this series. From the thoroughly original take on AIs to the bizarre nature of the planet Hyperion to the obvious affection Simmons has for classic literature, references to which are spread lavishly throughout the books, this is science fiction at its utmost. It is a thing of beauty, and you know what Keats said about that . . .