The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
I was completely bowled over by Hyperion, the first novel in Dan Simmons’ so called ‘Hyperion Cantos’, after the unfinished Keats epic of the same name, to the extent that I was rather worried that the sequel could in no way live up to the original. Hyperion was a ‘Canterbury Tales’-esque story, in which a group of pilgrims exchanged tales from their past, but by The Fall of Hyperion all of those tales have been told, so there’s a natural need to change the structure which was part of what made the original so special. I’m therefore pleased to report that The Fall of Hyperion is every bit as wonderful a novel as the original, and in some aspects even goes so far as to surpass it.
The Fall of Hyperion follows two primary narrative strands, one on the titular planet Hyperion itself, following the pilgrims of the first novel around the Time Tombs of the Shrike, and one in the Hegemony capitol of Tau Ceti Centre, as well as appearances from other planets in the farcaster web. The Time Tombs are an incredibly evocative location, feeling mystical and ethereal, yet never losing the feeling of being based in extremely advanced technology rather than magic. They’re a truly unique location, which never feels like anything else in the genre. Simmons has done an admirable job in creating a large collection of human planets which all feel admirably distinct. We may only visit the Catholic planet of Pacem briefly, or the garden planet God’s Grove, but they all feel incredibly distinct, never homogenising. It would have been easy to let the planet of Hyperion do all of the world building heavy lifting, but Simmons avoided this potential for writing laziness and creates a fully fledged universe and filled with distinct cultures where it wasn’t strictly even necessary, to the incalculable gain of this novel.
The Ouster invasion of Hyperion has begun in earnest, and the pilgrims have reached the Time Tombs. One of the main plot strands follows the pilgrims, and their encounters with the terrifying Shrike, with most getting separated and encountering this creature in different ways and circumstances. We are also given the more grounded perspective of the Human Hegemony under the leadership of CEO Meina Gladstone, as she and the military scramble to respond to an attack for which they are woefully underprepared. Behind it all is the AI TechnoCore, long split from humanity, riven from the inside in how to approach constructing an artificial intelligence greater than any other, to, in essence, create God.
Wisely, Simmons sticks with a frame narrative in this novel, one which is even more interesting than that of Hyperion. The protagonist of this novel is ‘Joseph Severn’, in reality a replica of the ‘cybrid’ John Keats which featured in Hyperion. Severn, due to a link to his neural clone carried by the pilgrim Brawne Lamia, is able to ‘dream’ his way into the action of the pilgrims, observing their actions and even their thoughts. This creates a rather unique frame narrative; the frame narrative takes place at the same time as the story that it is framing. This is staggeringly clever writing, and I believe is the subtle triumph of this novel. My one criticism of Hyperion was that it resolved so little, leaving almost everything to its sequel. Thankfully, almost every mystery is explained, with enough ambiguity left to keep things interesting and to limit exposition. One obvious plot thread is left for Endymion, the next novel in the Cantos, but this definitely doesn’t leave the novel feeling incomplete.
Simmons achieves the remarkable feat of writing in an erudite style, heavily reliant on intertextuality, whilst still being fundamentally readable and compelling. The action scenes, something I tend not to enjoy in science fiction, are excellently depicted here, exciting without shaking a horror of violence. Simmons really knows how to pack and emotional punch without becoming mawkish, exhibiting a sentimentality which comes across as earnest and intellectually derived.
The characterisation is significantly improved in The Fall of Hyperion from its predecessor. Severn’s knowledge that he is an artificial intelligence in a highly advanced future, whilst retaining memory of his life as an early 19th century English poet creates a wonderful dichotomy. Bringing historical figures into a science fiction setting (unless played for comedy, think Richard Nixon in Futurama) is almost always disastrous. I’ll never forget how transcendentally terrible the exploits of the AI recreations of Joan of Arc and Voltaire were in Gregory Benford’s Asimov tribute Foundation’s Fear. It works wonderfully here however, perhaps by a conscious effort to distinguish Severn from Keats. Severn may have been created to be exactly like Keats, but he has developed his own (amusingly sardonic) personality upon the way, becoming a distinct and interesting character, rather than hagiographic hero worship by Simmons of his favourite poet. By far my favourite, and in my opinion most interesting, character has to be Meina Gladstone, the wonderfully competent leader of the Human Hegemony, part Abraham Lincoln, part Winston Churchill, with some Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton thrown in too. As you might expect, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Despite all of this, she is not an idealised portrait; she is human, plagued by guilt over the bold actions she must take, beset by doubts which she never reveals to the public. I could quite happily read an entire novel telling the story of Meina Gladstone, possibly the best portrait of a politician which I have seen in science fiction, and really one of my favourite characters in any novel which I’ve read. In Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Simmons has crafted a host of main characters who are complex and human, and a group of secondary characters who are memorable and intriguing, which is exactly how it should be done.
Although The Fall of Hyperion is less obviously groundbreaking than its predecessor, it’s achievements are just as great. In many ways, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion read like two halves of the same novel and one cannot exist without the other. I’ve heard mixed things about the following duology in the Hyperion Cantos, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, but even if they do end up being disappointing, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion stand perfectly well on their own as some of the best science fiction that I have ever read.