Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Hyperion Cantos

If I were to be asked right now what books I would take onto a desert island, with a maximum limit of ten, there would be very few automatic picks. Dune would go, as would The Windup Girl and Use of Weapons. However, beyond those three there would be very few easy picks. Would I take A Game of Thrones? Is Perdido Street Station worth reading again and again as one of very few books I'd read for the rest of my life? In short, I'd struggle to pick, in no small part because I would only want the very best with me.

Books one and two of the four-volume Hyperion Cantos would be among the contenders to go. If anyone hasn't read my reviews of both of them (Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, if you don't know the titles), I'd recommend they go and read them now. If you just need a recap, I think they're two of the finest space opera novels I've ever read. Both offer something different, with book one being a scene-setter for the apocalyptic second volume. Book two takes a more traditional structure, whereas book one adopts a structure not dissimilar to The Canterbury Tales, forcing each of the Shrike pilgrims to recount their backstory amidst a trek to save the universe as humanity knows it.

What I don't have is the time or inclination to explain in detail the world of Hyperion, other than that it's a richly detailed and multi-layered complex of advanced humanity. It's not simple. To get a real grasp on it, you need to read the books and gain understanding of the subtle interplays. We have the familiar extrapolated into the future. Familiar institutions such as the Catholic church and Judaism play an integral role. And then there's the mixture of the political and the personal and the technological, ranged against a backdrop of humanity's fundamentally fragile position.

With humanity in the form of the World Web under threat from the alien Ousters, the Shrike pilgrims are sent to Hyperion, a backwater planet, to visit the Shrike in the Time Tombs. One of the pilgrims will have their request - as explained in their back-stories - granted. The others will find themselves killed by the Shrike. In the mean time, we have the political intrigues and other dramas away from Hyperion, which mostly take place in The Fall of Hyperion.

The richness and the complexity of those two books is nothing short of remarkable. Without reading them it's difficult to appreciate all that goes into them. It would have been so easy for Dan Simmons to have written a simple adventure with cardboard cut-out characters and wafer-thin intrigue, but he didn't. The quest itself takes on an almost mythic scale as it progresses. The decision to go back and have each character tell his or her own backstory and motivations in what count as 80-page novellas helps this scale no end. The immersion is wonderful, made even more so by Simmons not taking us away from the main quest until the second book. But by then we've already seen the World Web, and it doesn't feel jarring to be moving among a separate set of characters - especially as the stories in the first book cover such a range of the experiences to be found in the World Web.

Clocking in at over 1,000 pages in total, the two books aren't short reads, but then this is the sort of duology you don't want to be short. I'd be lying if I said that it was a perfect space opera (because it isn't), but it's an absolutely essential read for anyone who likes a range of fiction. At times gasp-out-loud horrifying and at others heartwarming, this half of the Cantos might just be on that list of desert island books. That the ending actually manages to surprise and live up to its billing only adds to that high recommendation.

Unlikely to be on that list, however, are volumes three and four, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. I'll start by pointing out that this isn't because they're bad books: far from it. When I read them over the summer I thoroughly enjoyed them both, but they fell a way short of the standards of the first half of the Cantos. The depth of the previous duology just doesn't exist in these books, which is what most readers will feel the most keenly. Never mind that there's another brilliant connection to be felt with the characters, nor that the story itself is a pretty good one overall, the comparable shallowness comes across starkly with every page.

At the outset, Raoul Endymion is a tour guide on Hyperion, when he comes to commit murder - or so the courts say. At his execution he finds himself rescued by Martin Silenus, one of the Shrike pilgrims of the original books, and sent out on a quest through human space to protect the new messiah, Aenea. With the all-powerful Catholic church on his tail, it becomes a two-volume epic of high adventure.

Taken on its own, the Endymion part of the Cantos is excellent space opera. It just struggles with not being as deep or as epic (despite being longer) as the first two. It might just be me, but the prose never felt as dense or rich as it had been formerly, but that had no impact on how much I enjoyed it. The characters were still superbly drawn and there were still scenes to thrill and shock. Once again the ending of the second volume lived up to billing and brought with it a glorious poignancy and emotional depth that hadn't been seen since halfway through Hyperion. Everything ended up tying together in a satisfying - and most definitely not happy - ending.

However, there were drawbacks. Certain things felt cheap and ill thought-out. Take the re-emergence of Colonel Kassad, who feels like he's been thrown in simply as filler to make the last volume longer. It's not as tight, and there's a very little amount of bloatedness to it that doesn't become the lean, mean machine that The Hyperion Cantos is as a whole. But, that said, the drawbacks weren't integral to the book, and practically everything else was well plotted and superbly executed.

There's a lot I've missed out in this quick review of the four novels that make up the Cantos. There are a few reasons behind this (one of which is laziness, if truth be told - it's a Sunday afternoon and I don't particularly want to work too hard at anything), one of which is that I don't think I can do the series justice in just a few hundred words. The best thing anyone can do to do The Hyperion Cantos justice is to read it, because I guarantee a sensational read.

No comments:

Post a Comment