More Thoughts on the Hyperion Saga

More specifically, thoughts on the second half of the series, Endymion and Rise of Endymion.

I really enjoyed the first two books in the Hyperion series; they were deeply satisfying reads for me with all of their interesting world building and evocation of metaphysical concepts that I was previously unfamiliar with.

It’s probably fair to say that Fall of Hyperion built up enough good will in my mind that I was pretty eager to jump into Endymion.

I should say before I get too far that there are some really good things about the second half of this series.  It expands on many of the ideas developed in the first half, and the state of the universe once everything’s all wrapped up at the end of Rise of Endymion is pretty satisfying as it rights many of the societal problems that are left in the aftermath of the second book.

TheRiseOfEndymion(1stEd).jpg

The only cover where the Shrike has the right number of arms. Also the book with the least direct involvement of the Shrike, so take from that what you will. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

And yet.

If there is one weakness that I see in Simmons as a storyteller, it’s that his characters very rarely resonate on an emotional level.  In Hyperion, I cared pretty deeply about the plight of Rachel Weintraub and her father Sol, and I’ll freely admit that the climax of their story in Fall of Hyperion had me teary-eyed, but that was the only significant emotional connection I felt with any of the characters.  Simmons’s strength seems to be in developing a compelling plot and exploring complex ideas, but the characters who are impacted by events never quite hold the weight they’re supposed to.  Unfortunately, the Endymion half of the series relies much more heavily on the reader’s emotional connection with the characters to make the plot matter.

The two central characters of Endymion are the narrator, Raul (rhymes with Paul) Endymion, a native of Hyperion’s city of Endymion (from which his family took their name), and Aenea, the daughter of Brawne Lamia and one of the John Keats cybrids who figure prominently in Hyperion‘s plot.  Their relationship is the anchor of the entire story of the series’s second half, and it’s this relationship that frustrates me endlessly.  Raul meets Aenea as a child after she emerges from the Time Tombs, having walked into the Sphinx three hundred years in the past, and he’s charged with the task of “protecting” her as she journeys to find someone in the universe to teach her how to be an architect.  The problem is that Aenea, because of vague reasons that eventually get explained towards the end of Rise of Endymion, is mildly precognitive, and pretty much already knows the entire trajectory of her life.  Essentially, Aenea never needs any kind of protection, even as a child, and Raul constantly comes across as a rather superfluous accessory to her adventures.  That’s not bad in and of itself, because Simmons is clearly aware of how foolish Raul appears throughout most of the story (and I do enjoy the subversion of the trope of the faithful protector), but it’s complicated by the fact that Aenea also knows that she’s destined to fall in love with Raul (it’s an oddity in the plot that I’m still  wondering about that Aenea, who speaks frequently about the uncertainty of the future, knows with certainty that Raul has to be in her life because they’ll become lovers when she’s an adult).

The romance between these two characters is so off-putting for me, because the reader has to contend with the age gap between Raul and Aenea which even at its smallest is pretty creepy (he’s 27 when she’s 12, she first kisses him when she’s 16 and he’s 31, and then, thanks to a period of separation and long distance travel that results in some time dilation for Raul, they consummate the romance when she’s 21 and he’s 32), and Aenea withholds so much information from Raul that it feels like she’s always manipulating him (spoiler alert: she’s totally manipulating him, but she feels really, really bad about it).  Despite this horribly imbalanced power differential (it’s kind of interesting that both of them are in a position of power over the other on different axes, but this uneven footing never really cancels out the creepiness of the relationship), we have to buy the legitimacy of this relationship in order to really care about the consequences of the story.  Unfortunately, I have a hard time relating to a messianic archetype like Aenea (for all the information she withholds from Raul, she honestly never makes a mistake in the story, which relegates her to the realm of being an improbably perfect character) and a complete moron like Raul (it doesn’t matter if you write a character to be aware of his own ignorance, Simmons, it’s still frustrating to figure out what’s going on a couple hundred pages before Raul does and have to wait for him to catch up).

And unfortunately, you have to buy the romance, because the central idea of Aenea’s philosophy is that everyone in the universe is connected through a near-imperceptible medium which connects the thoughts and memories of everyone living and dead, and allows for instantaneous travel to places near the people that you care about.  If Raul and Aenea’s relationship isn’t believable, then the plausibility of Simmons’s phlebotinum and the fact that Raul develops mastery over the medium pretty quickly once he receives the key to accessing it because of his closeness to Aenea comes into question.

Beyond that relationship, there are other aspects of the story that I found really unsatisfying, mostly because there’s some light time travel that really screws with what’s going on.  In the story’s biggest reveal we see how Raul’s supposed to have a happy ending after all the inevitable trauma that comes from being involved in a galaxy-wide revolution, and it comes across as more cruel than anything.

In the end, I’m not sure how I feel about Endymion and Rise of Endymion.  The story takes some interesting twists, but the device of sharing everything from Raul’s extremely limited perspective is constantly frustrating just because he fails to make connections that an attentive reader would well in advance of their reveals.  These two books seem to be much more about Aenea than Raul, but I can’t help wondering if Simmons stuck with his dimwitted witness because he didn’t feel like he could tell a good story from Aenea’s perspective; whether that’s because Aenea just knows too much at the story’s outset or because Simmons is a weak writer of female characters, I don’t know (I suspect it’s a combination of the two).

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