by Dan Simmons
“Sometimes . . . the shortest route to courage is absolute ignorance.”
Set a few hundred years after the conclusion of The Fall of Hyperion, our narrator, Raul Endymion, trapped in a jail cell that will kill him at any moment, recalls the adventures leading up to his incarceration.
The Cruciform, a cross-like, parasitic organism discovered centuries earlier on planet Hyperion which gives its bearer resurrection after death, was taken over by the Church, who used the power of everlasting life to seize control of the universe. While a cruciform revives a person from death, he comes back slightly reduced in mental and physical capacity. The Church has perfected resurrection technology, avoiding this pitfall, and gives members the cruciform as everlasting life as long as they give 1 year of every 10 in service to the church–as long as they tithe.
The Church has timed when the young girl Aenea, having disappeared into the Time Tombs hundreds of years ago (The Fall of Hyperion), will finally reappear in the future. They know the prophecy that the girl will bring knowledge and freedom to mankind, and as its current ruler, the church has positioned entire armies to seize the girl when she exits the tomb. But The Shrike appears alongside Aenea, and the entrenched armies and the battleships orbiting the planet don’t stand a chance against this creature of legend.
The girl escapes and an emissary of the Church is given unlimited papal authority to chase her across the universe, expending any and all resources he dreams necessary, to bring her back, and this chase is the bulk of the story.
First, there’s pacing. The book is the longest of the Cantos so far, tells the most linear story and is the fastest paced, alternating like gunshots between Raul Endymion’s story and that of the Church emissary, De Soya, tasked with chasing down Aenea’s party. De Soya’s chase is complicated by the fact the girl’s party is able to use the farcasters, instant transport portals which were outlawed and disassembled in the previous centuries. The Church emissary is desperately trying to catch the group while they journey through ocean worlds, ice caves and the paradise of God’s Grove, and the skill and speed which the author alternates between the two main stories makes the entire book difficult to put down once you’ve read a couple of pages.
Second, there’s the science. It’s not mired in terminology, but we can safely categorize this as hard science fiction using a lot of physics. An aspect other writers may have covered is the fantastic idea of death by acceleration. In order for De Soya to chase down Aenea and her party, he’s given command of a ship that is so fast it can cross the universe in a couple of days. The forces exerted reaching these speeds mean using it kills everyone on board, and they are subsequently resurrected through cruciform technology at the end of each journey. You may begin to image the horror of multi-staged trips across space by this method, and Mr. Simmons really brings this home.
Third, The Shrike in action is brief but glorious. Glorious. We’re all used to the idea of one-man armies. Movies like Robocop and The Terminator have given us visuals on the firepower these individuals can bring to bear, but that’s nothing compared to the instant violence with which The Shrike dispatches his enemies. An army of 10,000 terminators wouldn’t stand the slightest chance against him because of his ability to manipulate time, so seeing him single-handedly rip apart armies that would shatter worlds is a spectacle.
Fourth is the Church, one of the more complicated facets of humanity which this work uses to tell its story. The symbolism is obvious here with the cross-like cruciform, the three-day resurrection, the prophecy of the return of someone who will teach us the way, and towering above all of this is the institution of the Church itself.
Major religions postulate it’s through submission to a power higher than ourselves we find inner peace. It’s through relinquishing control, and much more dangerously, relinquishing personal responsibility for our actions, that people find freedom, as in “The Devil made me do it.” It’s religious institutions that give us permission and encouragement to give up control (though the personal responsibility element is admittedly all over the map).
Because human beings are so corruptible, this is a really big issue. It’s in our nature to abuse power. Any decent investigator knows what to look for first when unraveling a series of events—motive. Now what possible motive would an institution have to incite people to give 10% of their lives to it? To what lengths would it go to attain this level of contribution? To what lengths would an institution go to preserve it? Knowing these things, it’s outrageous we’d let modern interpretation of written words, however ancient or venerated by authority, dictate right vs. wrong. Inform, fine, yes. Dictate? If you allow your actions to be dictated by your religion, then you have to allow their actions to be dictated by their religion, and that’s how you get a bunch of jihadists running around blasting everything.
Fifth, and finally, the theme that power corrupts. Why must power corrupt? In the event a person in power wasn’t an evil bastard to begin with, it’s not the power itself that exerts an evil influence. It’s our limitless adaptability combined with our instinct for self-preservation that exposes us to corruption. A person in power often attains the top spot for good reason, but things change. The king of the world may sometimes find the circumstances which rightly led him to the throne no longer apply after these changes, and instead of yielding to the new order and relinquishing his power, he equates his with his life and quite naturally acts to preserve it. We attain power, we adapt and get used to it, then we mistake the powerful life we’ve adapted to for life itself. No wonder we’re so screwed up.
This is all just takeaway from a complex story, feelings on the deeper constructs beneath one hell of a novel, all housed in a kind of adventure tale more deliberately paced and action oriented than either of the preceding books. But it’s this kind of depth that makes speculative fiction the modern man’s philosophy. Yes, person A went to place B and events C and D happened along the way, but what does it all mean? There’s the real rub and one of the most compelling reasons to look at speculative fiction in the first place.
Dan Simmons, among the smartest writers any of us are reading these days, did it again way back in ’96. The man earns highest respects as a writer of complex, compelling and stimulating fiction. (Also, a deep nod to Subterranean Press for a luxurious presentation, the four-book Cantos now comprising the cornerstone of my library.)
Endymion is an incredible work of science fiction and philosophy, and a 200,000 word reason to read books.