At last we arrive at the final book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. To be honest, I finished reading The Rise of Endymion in preparation for this review a while ago. I’ve just been hesitant to review it because . . . well, let’s just say it’s easily the most depressing book in the series. And yet, it is the most hopeful as well. That seems like a contradiction, I know, and it is, but there are few writers quite like Simmons when it comes to weaving these contradictions into a story that is somehow satisfying when everything in your gut tells you it shouldn’t be.
The novel begins four years after the events that transpired at the end of Endymion, when Father Captain de Soya turned against his orders to capture the then 12-year-old Aenea and instead saved her and her companions Raul Endymion and the android A. Bettik from certain death at the hands of the Technocore-engineered soldier Radhamanth Nemes, who is a kind of female Terminator, only (like the Shrike) she can stop time. Basically, she is an unbeatable killing machine, but de Soya managed to stop her, giving Aenea and her friends time to farcast to Old Earth, which had somehow been transported to an entirely different galaxy, assuring their protection from the Core and the Pax both for as long as they wish to remain there.
Now 16 years old, Aenea has begin to fulfill her destiny as the prophet of a new belief system, one that can potentially undo both the Church and the Core. As prophets go, Aenea is somewhere between Jesus (which Simmons goes out of his way to compare her to in several obvious ways, including a communion process where her disciples literally drink droplets of her blood), Buddha (self-denial, and Aenea eventually winds up on an Asian-dominant world called Tien’ Shan, where even the boy Dalai Lama looks at the young woman as his teacher) and Charles Darwin. Meanwhile, our hero Raul, who again serves as narrator of the book, is sent off alone on another series of world-hopping adventures in order to retrieve the Consul’s ship, which they abandoned early on in Endymion. But inevitably they will come together again, and here they will hatch a plan to confront the devil in his own lair.
For the most part Aenea’s reluctant messiah shtick works, though there are a couple of times where it feels like Simmons is beating a dead horse. There are a few other sour notes in the book, such as the ludicrous degree of evil displayed by the high-ranking members of the Church, including the weak-minded Pope Urban XVI. There’s even a none too subtle comparison of the Pax to the Nazis early in the story. But this is space opera, and I tend to give a pass to things like this, because these characters exist on a scale almost unimaginable to us, so they almost have to be larger-than-life and twice as evil, or twice as good as the case may be. Of course, in demonizing the Catholic Church, Simmons is certainly playing with fire, though he makes it clear that the Church, like every entity that has endured through the ages, will go through phases. This just happens to be one of Catholicism’s darker periods.
There’s also a lovely sense of the two sets of books, the Hyperion set and the Endymion set, being mirror images of each other. Not just in the titles but in the way the larger plot unfolds in them. Both Hyperion and Endymion deal with a lot of traveling in pursuit of vaguely defined goals. Likewise, if you know what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, you may have some inkling as to what will occur at the end of The Rise of Endymion. To be sure, it was spelled out pretty clearly throughout the book. It somehow felt both necessary and gratuitous at the same time, which is far more frustrating than if it had been merely one or the other. But Dan Simmons is far too clever a writer to give you exactly what you want. This is a book—and a series—that was meant to be debated. That we aren’t much debating it is unfortunate, because it has much to offer those interested in the future of religion and philosophy. Even though it is the weakest book in the series, it is also the most important. To be fair, very few series end perfectly. The Lord of the Rings is the only one I can even think of at the moment that did, and even that is debatable.
Moreover, this is yet another love letter (if a bittersweet one) Dan Simmons has penned to literature itself. Who else but Simmons could concoct a lesson in English and American lit masquerading as an exciting outer space adventure? Perhaps there have been other examples, but none are quite as memorable as The Hyperion Cantos. The last book in the series has its own interesting lessons. I probably learned more about Catholicism and the Vatican from The Rise of Endymion than I have from any other single source. And, as per usual, Simmons’ fantastic world-building skill is on full display. But it is the lessons of the One Who Teaches that resonate most profoundly here. The mystical focus of the book may turn off a lot of hard SF fans, but for me it feels like the flip side of the same coin. In the end the entire Hyperion Cantos, with its overall plot spanning hundreds of years, its large cast of characters, the different structure of each book and Aenea’s messiah parallel, begins to feel something like that most widely read piece of literature of all: the Bible. If so, then The Rise of Endymion is obviously its Gospels.