Endymion is early Keats, and it’s not very good: inchoate, and written in lumpish rhyming couplets, its most famous bit concerns beauty—‘a thing of beauty,’ the poem’s opening line informs us, ‘is a joy forever’. Contrast this sentiment with the couplet from mature Keats (mature, though only a year-and-a-half older!), the ‘Grecian Urn’s celebrated equivalence: ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’ There’s a world of difference between these two statements; not least in the fact that the former is clearly wrong, where the latter—once we comprehend the chilling, unillusioned force Keats focuses through his particular sense of ‘truth’—not only right, but profound.
Vols 3 and 4 of Simmons’s pretentiously named ‘Hyperion Cantos’. Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, unwind a further 1400 pages of story from the Hyperion-spool. They are not entirely terrible novels, though they are woefully overlong. There are a couple of quite effective set-pieces here and a degree of narrative cumulative power. But compared to the excellence of the first of the Cantos, Hyperion itself, they are terribly weak stuff. There’s a reason for that. Keats’s great insight is that joy dwells with beauty, beauty that must die: that to enjoy the taste of a grape you must burst it upon your tongue. His mature theme, in other words, is that joy is necessarily a transient thing; that beauty is a function of transience—this is his Grecian Urn’s truth. That, not to put too fine a point on it, a thing of beauty is very specifically not a joy forever. Now Simmons, a clever man who certainly knows his Keats, pays a kind of narrative lip-service to this idea at the end of quadrilogy. The villains of the piece, a sort of malignly cathected evil Catholic Church (familiar from Dan Brown, not to mention countless C19th English Protestant anti-Catholic writers) have achieved a kind of sterile immortality. The books’ messiah, Aenea, preaches the necessity of mortality, change and children. (‘the great power of her message is that the Pax [ie Catholic] version of resurrection was a lie—as sterile as the required birth-control injections administered by the Pax. In a finite universe of would-be immortals, there is almost no room for children. The Pax universe was ordered and static, unchanging and sterile. Children bring chaos and clutter and an infinite potential for the future that was anathema to the Pax’, RoE 742). But everything about these novels contradicts this too-pat moral: they are, on the contrary, testament to an authorial desire to keep the Hyperion story going on and on and on.
What makes the first book, Hyperion, so remarkable, over and above its fantastically accomplished embedded stories, was the way it repudiated explanation or indeed conventional narrative satisfaction. The real theme of that first novel was pain, embodied in the hideous, merciless capriciousness of the Shrike, a kind of biological robot, all quicksilver and razor wire, able to travel through time, appear without warning and snatch victims away to impale them on a great metal tree of agony. The book sends seven characters on a quest to get to the bottom of all this, and the naïf reader may expect the origin, rationale and meaning of the Shrike to be disclosed before the last page is reached. This does not come to pass. Brilliantly, Simmons novel understands that pain, as a feature of human experience, is not explicable. We can talk about it meaningfully on a banal physiological level; but on an existential, ethical or ontological level it is quite nonsensical. Hyperion spins unillusioned variations on two Biblical fables of suffering, Job and Christ. To quote Slavoj Žižek:
Like Oedipus at Colonus, Job insists on the utter meaninglessness of his suffering ... The Book of Job provides what is perhaps the first exemplary case of the critique of ideology in human history, laying bare the basic discursive strategies of legitimizing suffering: Job’s properly ethical dignity lies in the way he persistently rejects the notion that suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for past sins or the trial of his faith. .... And it is in the context of this assertion of the meaninglessness of Job’s suffering that we should insist on the parallel between Job and Christ, on Job’s suffering announcing the Way of the Cross: Christ’s suffering is also meaningless, not an act of meaningful exchange. The difference, of course, is that , in the case of Christ, the gap that separates the suffering, desperate man (Job) from God is transposed onto God Himself, as His own radical splitting, or, rather, self-abandonment. [Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity (MIT 2003), 125]In Hyperion, quite apart from the Shrike, Simmons constellates some genuinely excruciating scenes: the priest Paul Duré crucified for seven years upon an electrically-charged tree, burnt to death daily in unimaginable agony only to be wrenched daily and unwillingly back to life by the cruciform parasite he carries; or the poet Martin Silenus suffering a stroke and losing the one thing, his command of words, most important to him; or the parents of Rachel watching her move helplessly back in time, growing younger and younger until the day when, inevitably, they will lose her. All this is potently written, and more potent for Simmons refusal to offer any pat justification of the suffering.
I admire the abrupt non-ending of Hyperion very much. Many readers, though, did not. The reader is monarch, of course. So Simmons provided a sequel, Fall of Hyperion, the job of which was to dissolve away all the unsettling brilliance of non-closure provided by the first novel, and paint over a series of ‘explanations’. The Shrike is causing suffering in order to tempt out a rival God of Compassion from His hiding place. By the end of the Endymion books, the Shrike has become effectively humanised, turned almost into a hero, and thereby robbed of all the dark glamour and power it (or he) possessed in the first book. ‘Give us answers!’ clamoured his fans, and, to his discredit, Simmons obliged them. He knows his Keats well enough to know that central to the Keatsian aesthetic is negative capability, something generated brilliantly by Hyperion, but poisoned and diluted by the remaining three volumes.
Endymion and The Rise of Endymion are set three centuries or so after the first two Hyperion books. Our hero Raul Endymion escorts the young girl Aenea, the daughter of a John Keats clone, as she flees the clutches of the evil resurgent Catholic church. They travel through various worlds and environments, as many as Simmons needs to pad out the many pages of his narrative. We know from the opening—Raul retrospectively musing on his life from inside ‘a Schrödinger cat box in high orbit around the quarantined world of Armaghast’, a capsule that will kill him if he tries to escape, or if anybody tries to rescue him—that he and Aenea will become lovers, which gives the first book (when he is fully grown and she is 12, or so) a bizarrely Lolita paedo vibe. But with a little help from Einsteinian physics, their ages realign so that they are both able to enjoy a bit of consenting-adult hanky panky. And Aenea does indeed become the messiah, preaching a good deal of stuff about the Void that Binds and love and the like. Which is very edifying, or hippy-dippy, depending on your point of view.
Then, at the end of The Rise of Endymion, in a scene worthy of a Saw or Hostel-type film, Aenea is tortured to death by the Catholics. But it’s alright: her message has been spread throughout the cosmos. In a bogglingly-anticlimactic move, Raul hears the music of the spheres and is able simply to step out of his Schrödinger cat box. He gets the girl—miraculously resurrected from her grisly death. And why shouldn't he get the girl? Because after all, what does any red-blooded male want to do with a female Christ, except shag her? On a flying carpet, at sunset, whilst an android recites a Keatsian sonnet? Oh, the disappointment. It turns out Simmons wants his thing of beauty to be a joy forever after all. How art thou fallen from heaven, Hyperion, son of the morning!