Friday, 7 January 2011

Dan Simmons, Endymion (1996), The Rise of Endymion (1997)


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!

7 comments:

Matt Hilliard said...

Interesting stuff. I really love Hyperion. The later books, not so much. Something of a pattern with Simmons, perhaps (cough, Olympos, cough). However:

1) It's been a while, but I thought at the end of Rise of Endymion he doesn't get the girl miraculously resurrected, he just hangs out with her from a somewhat younger period of her life after she time travels forward, and that a year or two after the ending she'll happily leave him to go back in time to martyrdom. Isn't this still pretty transient?

2) I think you're giving Simmons way too much credit when you see the ending of Hyperion as a conscious aesthetic tactic. This interview implies he wrote Fall of Hyperion before selling Hyperion, and in this interview he says the two books are a "very long novel".

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Matt. (1) You're right: but getting a temporally shifted version of your lover back after she has died -- after you have telepathic lived directly through her painful death -- counts as miraculous resurrection to me. Plus they get to have a kid together.

(2) Interesting links, thanks. I'm going to fall back on classic 80s shoulder-pads, sorry, 'the author is dead' and ignore what Simmons says, in favour of pointing out that the form, structure, style and feel of Fall of Hyperion is completely different to Hyperion (which, like you, I really love). It reads like an afterthought, whether or not it was intended to be one.

Matt Hilliard said...

Fair enough. While ordinarily I would find it so, I think Aenea's resurrection is a shoe-in for least-miraculous out of all the books' resurrections, with John Keats' inexplicably retrieved personality taking the prize. In fact, when you add in the cruciform business, could this series hold the record for most resurrections in all of English literature?

halojones-fan said...

To some extent, the "Endymion" novels was "here's some cool space worlds Dan Simmons thought up". The thing that made "Hyperion" interesting was the idea that all of the stories were connected, that--while it was all as made-up as anything else--there would eventually be some way in which all the stories locked together. You don't get that in "Endymion".

And you just have to admire the audacity of a story where the basic plot is "evil robots from the future want to kidnap Jesus Christ". The "Endymion" stories are much more straightforward; there have been any number of "Christ analogue" stories.

And, in summation, the future doesn't like my teleporter? Maybe they could come up with a better way to tell me than "FUCK YOU, TELEPORTERS OFF."

Cody Templeton said...

Hyperion's "non ending" doesn't even qualify as that. Employing the word "ending" implies, to me, that there was a middle preceding it... but there was not. The whole book is a frame story, of the beginning of the pilgrimage, that provides a vehicle for seven more beginnings - of how each pilgrim got there. Well, six beginnings, because Het Masteen never tells his story.

The series does decrease in quality from book to book, and the first duology is substantially better than the second. But Hyperion on its own? It is a collection of novellas bolted together by a narrative that would serve absolutely no purpose at all without Fall of Hyperion to finish it off. My mind boggles how you could heap praise on the first book for qualities it was never intended to possess.

I quite enjoy how you dismiss Keats' earlier poem as "clearly wrong," deciding in favor of a latter one - evidently missing the theme of the Endymion books, which is that beauty is a joy forever because the Void That Binds will preserve those memories and once people learn how to tap into it they can relive those moments as they please.

You also completely omit mentioning the real villains of the piece - the man behind the man, so to speak - the TechnoCore, and their motivations. The Church are obvious bogeymen, but your approach to this review is rather like reviewing Star Wars and going to great lengths to discuss the motivations of the stormtroopers without ever acknowledging Darth Vader and the Emperor's existence.

Adam Roberts said...

Cody: well we can agree to disagree.

"My mind boggles how you could heap praise on the first book for qualities it was never intended to possess."

'Intended'? Intended by whom? The author? I don't believe in authors. Or tooth fairies. Now, I'm prepared to believe that you believe in authors; but I don't see why 'their' views take precedence over everybody else's. Once the book is done, it is the book that matters: and in the first Hyperion the book formally embodies its central theme, the broken-off, anti-narrative, meaninglessness of pain, in a broken-off, ultimately meaningless structure. But, look: I'm repeating what I said in the post now, and that didn't convince you, so I don't expect this comment to either.

"I quite enjoy how you dismiss Keats' earlier poem as "clearly wrong," deciding in favor of a latter one - evidently missing the theme of the Endymion books, which is that beauty is a joy forever because the Void That Binds will preserve those memories and once people learn how to tap into it they can relive those moments as they please."

Pain and pleasure are features on the real world; the 'Void That Binds' isn't. In the real world beauty does not last forever, and pleasure is transient. Fables like these embody a degree of fundamental mendacity when they suggest otherwise. This isn't to say that the fable must necessarily be mendacious just because it is a fable -- some fables are resonant and true. Not this farrago of wish-fulfilment, though.

Unknown said...

"Intended'? Intended by whom? The author? I don't believe in authors. Or tooth fairies. Now, I'm prepared to believe that you believe in authors; but I don't see why 'their' views take precedence over everybody else's. Once the book is done, it is the book that matters: and in the first Hyperion the book formally embodies its central theme, the broken-off, anti-narrative, meaninglessness of pain, in a broken-off, ultimately meaningless structure. But, look: I'm repeating what I said in the post now, and that didn't convince you, so I don't expect this comment to either."

I think it's fairly obvious that if Dan, or the author, had the opportunity, he would've released the two books as one story. How can you not realize that book publishers get the final say on most of these things?