The Hyperion Cantos: A Books Review

Hyperion ©1989
The Fall of Hyperion ©1990
Endymion ©1996
The Rise of Endymion ©1997
By Dan Simmons. Spectra Bantam Science Fiction.

These books present a brilliant obstacle to authoring an authoritative and reasonable review. As I spent the day considering how to present a decent book review for these four books, I decided to begin simple, by presenting a simple argument for reading these books. Then, once I posit my simple argument, I would develop a richer framework why these books should be added to your library.

Let’s get the simple argument behind us. These books are great; a tetralogy of epic proportions. A masterpiece of work which must be consumed as if courses of a banquet for one to attain full appreciation for the magnificent scope, depth, and breadth, and wonder of these tales. Reading any less than all four books is tantamount to driving a new car home from the dealership on three tires; you can but really? Reading less than all four books would be like knowing you need quadruple bypass heart surgery yet opting to just have a bypass, or maybe double-bypass surgery. The effect is not the same nor would you ever fully realize the benefit. Who should read these titles? If you have read the first 3 or 4 Dune titles by Frank Herbert, you should read these books. If you have read the first three books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, then you should read these books. If you have read David Brin’s Uplift series, then, yes, by all means, if have not plied the pages of the Hyperion Cantos, you must. These books have been on my reading list for nearly 20 years – Hyperion has – and I only just read and finished them.

Technically, the above is an argument by association, not any real reasons have I provided other than to say, if you have read the above series and have not read the Hyperion Cantos series, then you owe yourself Dan Simmon’s books. However, I think I can say I avoid the Argument by Association Fallacy as all of these series are written by well-respected science fiction authors, are science fiction in subject matter, and each of the authors I mentioned have won prominent awards, like the Hugo. And, I have read all of the above series, own these series today, and anyone who visits my house can see them shelved in my library.

So, hop on Amazon today, or tomorrow, find some used copies, or new – whatever suits you, and read the books before Syfy develops the mini-series. I’m not very convinced Syfy can handle this material well. Their treatment of Dune was marginal, at best, but considering the scale and scope of Dune, they had their work cut out for them. And, if Syfy thinks Hyperion will be easier, all I can say is, Get real.

Many reviews of the Hyperion Cantos compare the series to The Canterbury Tales. No doubt there is a strong literary connection to Chaucer’s tales of pilgrims journey to the shine of St. Thomas Becket. To be clear, and frank about those reviews, they are only partially correct. Yes, Hyperion is told as a series of tales by unique and peculiar people traveling to the same place. The people all share one common destination, the planet Hyperion, and the particular location on Hyperion, the Time Tombs. The Time Tombs have been closed for centuries are said to be in a state of flux, indicating they are close to being open. The Church of the Final Atonement has selected seven people from all those who populate the galaxy to attend the opening of the Time Tombs. Each of those seven attendees will be granted a single wish. While the first novel shares similarities with Chaucer’s Tales, the similarity ends both within and after the first book.

But, Hyperion is no simple planet, the Time Tombs no mere burial chambers, and the pilgrims themselves are not simple people. Each was selected by the Church of the Final Atonement to play a singularly unique role in the shaping of Humanity over the next 270 years, though they have no knowledge of this, yet. And then there is the Shrike, a seemingly demonic manifestation built of steel, chrome, blades, wrapped in razors, with daggers for teeth, standing 12 feet tall, impenetrable, and able to move across the landscape of Hyperion with impunity. A metallurgical monolith of terror, death, and destruction.

I propose the Hyperion Cantos is much more than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; no, Simmon’s tetralogy is a Future Testament. Christianity has adopted the Hebrew books of the Old Testament, is founded upon the parables, fables, and letters of the New Testament. Islam recognizes the Old and New Testaments, adding their Qu’ran as the final book in Muslims consider their Holy Trilogy of doctrinal works. The Hyperion Cantos looks ahead into Humanity’s future, Simmons through prognostication, research, and his creative mind, and has created what I perceive right now as nothing short of a Future Testament. The problem I have with the analogy to Canterbury Tales is the books when taken together are more in line with themes and elements of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Maybe even the Bible in its entirety.

The pilgrims in the first book become more like prophets in later books. Some of these prophets, for lack of a better term, we don’t really realize their place in the scheme of events until the fabric of the Cantos is laid before us in the fourth book. Thus, the first 2 novels establish the background of the pilgrims, set their place in this universe, yet their true purpose is not revealed until late in the Endymion or into Rise of Endymion. Six tales provide the history and story of each pilgrim, an odd assortment of chosen people, a warrior, a priest, a poet, a detective, a scholar, and a consul, each with their own peculiar background and yet connected to each other by extraordinary circumstances.

While the first book may draw influences from Chaucer, Simmons extends the stories of these pilgrims into an even more elaborate tapestry. No, these are not mere religious pilgrims, truth be told most aren’t religious, these individuals are more akin to disciples of faith. These pilgrims fully become disciples of a young woman, Aenea, in the third and fourth books. Aenea, is seen by some people of the galactic Hegemony, aka the Holy Roman Empire of the 30th century, as a “messiah.” Yes, a messiah. Aenea’s existence was foretold in the second book, a person who represents a bridge between Humanity and all things not human and inhuman. And herein lies much of the corollary  I draw between the Hyperion Cantos and the Christian Bible.

The Hegemony itself is predominantly Christian/Catholic and fully aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. Other religions exist, Judaism and Islam, but have become extremely marginalized. The Hegemony occupies over 200 planets, perhaps two of which are exclusively Jewish, and maybe one or two where Islam prevails. The Hegemony’s alliance with the Holy Catholic Church drives the storytelling for three of the four novels, as the Hegemony falls, is replaced by the Holy Catholic Empire, whose new Pope then initiates a series of pogroms to cleanse all non-believers and non-humans not only from previous Hegemony aligned planets but also those planets under Ouster control. The uneasy relationship between the TechnoCore and the Holy Catholic Church erodes forcing the Church to engage in practices students of history will rapidly recognize.

Again, the analogy to Canterbury Tales breaks down when the  influence of the influence of the Hegemony is scrutinized. While the opening book begins simply as the journey of characters to an important cultural site , the backdrop is as complex as the universe. In the known galaxy, three major factions cooperate and compete for authority. The Hegemony represents the secular government bureaucracy managing the operations of the portion of the human-occupied galaxy. The Ousters are humans who have elected to live outside Hegemony control, who have evolved and adapted to the unique conditions found scattered around the galaxy. The TechnoCore comprises the self-aware artificial intelligence elements of the galaxy. The TechnoCore was obviously born from human creators but upon achieving some semblance of sentience, establishing a unique yet complimentary development path parallel to Humanity. The Hegemony and TechnoCore have an interesting relationship; the TechnoCore has surpassed humanity in technological development and is responsible the science and technology allowing humans the capability of interstellar travel. And not simply interstellar travel aboard starships but also the ability to farcast, using a device called, coincidentally enough, a farcaster. Farcasters are a bit of TechnoCore technology allowing people who pass through the giant ring of a farcaster to instantaneously move from planet to planet. Except no one but the TechnoCore understands how farcasters operate; people simple trust the TechnoCore to provide the technology. The TechnoCore also seems to have given Humanity technology to improve their interstellar travel, developing engines pushing starships to near-light speed.

The various technologies pervasive throughout the Hyperion Cantos has been described as “magical” by some reviewers, leading them to the conclusion the Hyperion Cantos is not science fiction at all but more fantasy. These comments harken back to a quote by Arthur C. Clarke, who is credited with stating, “Any technology sufficiently advanced will seem as magic.” Much of the science Simmons integrates into they Hyperion Cantos does not exist, not yet, though many physicists speculate the types of energy and circumstances found in the books exist in some form or fashion. Published in 1989, Simmons’ Hyperion’s imaginative use of speculative technologies and speculative science comes across as unusually prescient to me. Nanotechnology, while not directly mentioned until late in The Rise of Endymion, plays a huge role in the scope and telling of the Cantos.

Further enriching the Cantos is Simmons’ use of biology, philosophy and poetry. My experience with Keats is limited to my college English courses, yet Keats is active character throughout the Cantos. The philosophical musings of Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are frequently referenced, writings of the naturalist John Muir figure prominently, as well as engineering prodigy Norbert Wiener. The research of Stanley Salthe concerning evolution and his dissenting perspective pertaining to Darwinian evolution may be said to be the underlying premise of the entire series. I might be reaching here, though. However, I did buy a used copy of Evolving Hierarchical Systems, by Salthe, a purchase made due to a detailed exposition by Aenea in book four. This purchase may be the first time I’ve ever bought a book based on the recommendation of a character in a science fiction novel.

The Hyperion Cantos is one of those collection of books which makes me wonder what Simmons’ planning and strategy for writing was like. I’d like to see his notes, maps, graphics, charts, and the ecosystem of development used to build what I would call a science fiction fable. While fables tend to be short, the Hyperion Cantos is not, more along the lines of the Iliad, Odyssey, combined with elements of the Old and New Testament, with moderate quantities of Ecclesiastical History.

Concept art of The Shrike by LocoLlama (Deviant Art)

And, no review is really complete without some mention of the Shrike. What is the Shrike? The Shrike is never fully explained, not fully. We know the Shrike begins as a man, a warrior but has since evolved into a inhuman killing machine against which no man nor machine can stand. The Shrike is part Holy Ghost, part Angel of Death, part Judgment, part Executioner, and for Aenea, a Guardian Angel. The Shrike is an enigma, able to move through Time and Space, directed perhaps by The Void Which Binds, or by the Lions, Tigers, and Bears. These four forces are mentioned many times in the books, yet no one ever encounters them except in a very subtle and singular form. Perhaps the Shrike controls himself, bound to Aenea as his former warrior self once was.

Finally, a comment about time travel. I hate time travel stories. Hate them. Hate time travel movies, or any other media using time travel as a substantive plot element. I have one exception: “Quantum Leap.” As soon as time travel gets mentioned, I’m done. For me, time travel is lazy story-telling and no author ever gets time travel correct. Time travel is the cliché of all clichés. Time travel infuses all of the Hyperion Cantos. The use of time travel is probably what pushed me into waiting one-quarter of a century before reading these books. Having admitted as much, I really enjoyed the Hyperion Cantos in spite of the time travel, in spite of the heavy religiosity, and what some readers might consider unnecessarily lengthy exposition by several characters. Simmons may not have gotten all aspect of time travel correct but he was not lazy in use of time travel, and his method of employing time travel was as logically consistent as any I have encountered. At the end of The Rise of Endymion, when the underlying nature of part of the universe is revealed, the concern of time travel is substantially diminished.

If you have not read the Hyperion Cantos and consider yourself a science fiction aficionado, a fan of science fiction, you should invest in these books. Richer in characters, story, circumstances, with fantastic imagery, one can only imagine how Syfy intends on adapting the first book into a mini-series event. Once you’ve read the first two, you’ll understand why these books continue to receive recognition and have held up well over 25 years. Thanks, Mr. Simmons. PAX.

6 thoughts on “The Hyperion Cantos: A Books Review

  1. Pingback: My Cosmology Bookshelf | Constant Geography

  2. I have read the first two, but reviews of the Endymion pair have put me off reading them. I’ve heard the ending is quite unsatisfying and the characterisation and scope more limited. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion were so well written and engaging I wouldn’t want to lose the awe and mystery that I felt after reading them.
    I take it from the strength of your writing here I should ignore the reviews and finish the series?

    • Thanks for giving me a question!

      First, I feel like the best of judge of what a person may like, is that person.

      My boss, who is an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader, with a couple published works under his belt, was left underwhelmed by the final two books. He thought they were too verbose, too much exposition, too many details for the sake of details. His criticism echoes most every other review I read, and which you have run across.

      My take-away is different. For some reason, I can tolerate some forms of writing others abhor. I liked the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I feel like 97% of fantasy reader hate that series. People like James Patterson. I think he is a formulaic hack who pens the literary equivalent of junk food and diet soda. That gives you a datum point from where I come from.

      I think you are correct in how you might feel after reading the Endymion books. You will feel a loss, maybe, because Dan pulls away the curtain on events and circumstances created in the first two books. Pretty much all mystery will be revealed, or a good portion. And while I had similar feelings, I wasn’t disappointed after finishing the series. In fact, I was probably more enthusiastic about the Human Race being able to overcome some of its more repellent cultural memes – though not in our lifetime. And, he really goes down some philosophical paths, discussing evolution, biology, and computer science. In a sense, Dan reveals many of the influences of the Cantos through these discussions. I enjoyed the deconstructing aspects of these dialogs. Not only do we see as readers why things happened the way they did, but in a sense we see planning and research Simmons must have undertaken to build at least two great books.

      I really think Dan had the Old and New Testament in mind when he developed these books. The Hyperion books were the Old Testament; the Endymion books the New. Of course, elements of the Crusades are woven into Endymion, in my opinion, the Spanish Inquisition, maybe a host of other allusions to religious events.

      Yes, Dan gets really involved in what his characters do. I don’t believe this is because he gets carried away; I believe he deliberately makes these circumstances very detailed and precise as he is truly building a work similar to the Iliad, the Odyssey, and he wants us to walk the literal paths his characters walk, and wants the reader to partake the same journey.

      Apologies for the length of reply. The themes, imagery, and circumstances Simmons includes in his books aren’t especially common, why the Cantos gets compared to Dune, or Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

      And, since you took the time to ask, I wanted to give you your money’s worth 🙂 Hope this helps a little.

  3. Reblogged this on Comic Shop Stories and commented:

    Once in a while I do a book review. I try to stay confined to books with a geography theme when I write a review but I recently finished the Hyperion Cantos, four books written by Dan Simmons. These books are thought-provoking, imaginative, far-reaching in scope and depth. I highly recommend them to any fan of speculative science fiction.

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