Book Review: Endymion, by Dan Simmons
There can’t be that many sequels that surpass the original they were spawned from. The Empire Strikes Back? Arguably doesn’t count, as part of a planned trilogy. Blade Runner 2049? That’s controversial. Twin Peaks: The Return? Very good, but technically the third season of a TV show. From Russia With Love? Arguably not a sequel at all but the first proper Bond film, as Dr No didn’t have Q in it, and wasn’t even that good.
There are plenty of examples of crap sequels. I bet you can think of some. Sure, many are not terrible, you’ll often find they just go a little downhill with each new iteration. As though greedy producers were thinking less about the creative side and more about the lovely cash they could make as time went by. But there’s no reason it has to be like this: where the sequel is done properly, the sense of world building and self-referencing adds exponentially to the richness of the lore.
In literature good sequels are almost as rare, if not rarer than in film. Proper “serious” authors tend to avoid direct sequels. Charles Dickens never wrote Oliver Twist 2. Shakespeare never wrote Macbeth 2 (although some of his plays are in 2 parts). The bible has the New Testament I guess, so there is that.
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos run to four books, (I already reviewed the first two). The characters in the first two books were interesting. Those in this one not so much, though. It could be the law of diminishing returns, or something else at work here.
Raul Endymion, the narrator of the piece, he’s fine. No problem with him as our “way in” to the story, although he may be a bit devoid of personality himself. Having a main character who’s been thrown into a situation with no prior knowledge of what’s going on is an often-used literary “trope” that helps give the reader a way in if they’re new to this fictional universe, because the protagonist needs to have everything explained to them. That’s fine if you didn’t read the first two books, although you probably still won’t understand half of this one. If you did read them, the extra explanation is just unnecessary!
So Endymion is plucked from obscurity to go on this suicide mission which he agrees to because… he doesn’t really have much else going on in his diary, I guess? Like so much about this book, it doesn’t really make sense. Just reading a synopsis of it doesn’t really give you a sense of it at all, because it just reads like so much nonsense. When you actually read the book it is well written nonsense, but still nonsense. There is a plot, sure (convoluted doesn’t really cover half of it), there are so many conceits in the book that make you stop and go “well that wouldn’t happen” that the book collapses under it’s own weight if you stop and question it. It does not pass the Karl Pilkington test. Look, don’t get me wrong: I love science fiction that takes a whole lot of concepts and runs with them, but the acid test is if your story can shine through all the weirdness going on. The first two Hyperion books (just about) survived. Endymion feels like it’s lost its way a little bit.
The main problem other than the plot is Aenea. She’s the sassy teen daughter of the resurrected AI-enhanced John Keats, who was the messianic narrator character in the previous book, and whose epic poem gave this series its title (are you following this?) For some reason she’s been careless enough to walk through a time vortex and get beamed 274 years into her future. That is, some 274 years after the events of Hyperion, although some of the same characters are still alive (because, you know, science fiction). Oh, there’s also a cruciform-shaped parasite that makes people immortal that may have possibly been created by a malicious AI from the future for some reason, although it never properly gets explained, because f**k it. Maybe in the next volume? So the Catholic church, who have taken over everything and got into some real inquisition-type sh*t in the time lost since the last installment, determines to capture Aenea because she’s not the messiah, she’s a very naughty girl (are you still following this?? Good).
Actually, she’s supposed to be twelve. I just checked. She really doesn’t speak like a twelve year old girl. I suppose she’s supposed to be somehow more than human, like Alia in the Dune trilogy or something, but that explanation doesn’t really work for me. As Dan Simmons doesn’t explain it at all, we just have to guess.
The problem with Aenea is that, just like Captain Marvel or Rey in the Disney Star Wars films, she’s kind of a Mary Sue: a character who is just good at everything with no obvious flaws. The characters in Hyperion felt human, deeply flawed, capable of failure and betrayal at any moment, and at some point Dan Simmons seems to have forgotten that this was what made them interesting. Aenea doesn’t feel like a regular human being, possibly because she isn’t, and she doesn’t talk like any twelve year old girl you’ve ever met either. She’s kind of a walking Wikipedia, and she also apparently knows the future. Aenea is, arguably, a bit OP.
The other companions that Aenea and Endymion will take with them as they try to escape the persecution of the church are: A. Bettik, an android, who as such also doesn’t have too much in the way of personality; and The Shrike, a semi-mythical god-like being whose chief character trait is mass-murder. The Shrike will appear like walking plot armour whenever Aenea is threatened, because it’s a literal Deus Ex Machina.
The chief bad character in this story is a Soy boy: Father De Soya, to be exact, a Jesuit agent for the church and star captain who has been tasked with hunting our heroes to the ends of the universe.
None of these people are a whole lot of fun.
After the first half of the book, which deals with the rescue of Aenea (not that she needed a man rescuing her of course; I’m sure she’s perfectly capable of doing it all herself), we then get a tour around the planets of what was formerly the “World Web” in the second part. I have to give Simmons some credit for this: I’m not sure the term “World Wide Web” even existed when he wrote the first Hyperion novel, and it’s quite funny to imagine it in terms of an actual web of worlds all linked by matter-transporters. Problem is that these transporters haven’t worked since the techno-core AI’s who designed them went haywire at the end of Fall of Hyperion, although Aenea can fix them up, of course. Many of these worlds now seem to be abandoned. But how, and why? I’m sure we will find out, if we ever read the final book. Look man, you gotta keep throwing the mystery boxes out there so the people keep reading!
Here’s the thing: I don’t know where this whole trope of the ordinary girl who’s “key to everything” came from. But I’m looking at literally every other major franchise in 2019… and I don’t get why men have to write women like this. Writing characters of the opposite gender is hard, sure. I get that. So, it seems like many male writers just write female leads who have god-like powers with absolutely no down-side at all, because they want to virtue signal that they can write strong wammin. When all you really want them to do is write an f’ing realistic character, with flaws, like a real human being. Dan Simmons was maybe patient zero. I know he can write women characters just fine when he wants to, because he’s done it in other books. All right, so he had an ordinary woman outwit and defeat literally Dracula in Children of The Night… so maybe he’s not always been the best guy for believable storytelling. Still I can’t help feel this is partly ideological. I’ll be glad when women are allowed to be bad again, when we go back to the Raymond Chandler femme fatales of the past. Because they were a lot more fun.
There’s really something sick in our society when you exclude people from the full range of human experiences in the name of social justice. It just seems like some of these people can’t allow women to be fully rounded characters – the exact thing that these male feminist allies claim to be against. Their women are either perfect princesses or tragically flawed. But then, men have been writing women like that for hundreds or years. Before it was just bad writing. But bad writing for ideological reasons is worse.
Meanwhile men have almost no good male role-models left in fiction, because they’ve all been ruined. But that’s a TED talk for another day.
Also, I was going to talk about how having the Catholic Church as the bad guys in this feels a little on-the-nose. The message here about organised religion is not subtle. But Father Soyboy is one of the best characters in the book, he at least seems to be a moral grey area, he doesn’t want to kill the child Aenea and her friends, just to help capture them, and he does kind of disobey his orders later on (no spoilers!) so I guess I have to give credit.
To sum up, then: Endymion is not a bad sci-fi novel, but it doesn’t live up to Fall of Hyperion, and it certainly isn’t as good as the original Hyperion. Sequels rarely are that way. But if you’ve read the first two and you want to tackle it don’t let me put you off. These books are all quite long, so they require a bit of an investment of time. Myself, I’ll probably never read the final book of the Hyperion Cantos. And that’s really a shame. Because they’re not really like anything else out there.