Novel * Dan Simmons * Catholics in Space! * 1995
Endymion almost lost me right away. Here’s the first sentence, which I think sounded cool to Simmons when he wrote it but had pretty much the opposite effect on me when I read it: “You are reading this for the wrong reason.” Oh, shut the fuck up guy, you don’t know me. The narrator then goes on to list a bunch of reasons that are not actually the reason I’m reading this, but damned if he’s not convincing. By the end of the first page I was like, okay dude, maybe you’re right. Bold choice by the author to begin a novel with a lengthy argument about why you shouldn’t be reading said novel. That said, when you as an author write one of my favorite sci-fi novels of all time and an exceptional follow-up, I guess you earn the benefit of the doubt.
The novels I’m referring to are, of course, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Those books are brilliant and if you’re at all interested in science fiction and haven’t read them then you’re wasting valuable time right now. Now, if you’ve done the sensible thing and have already read those two brilliant books, it’s time to decide if you want to read the rest of the series. Actually, these four novels (which we can go ahead and call the Hyperion Cantos) are less a linear series and more a couple of matching pairs. You could probably read Endymion and its sequel, The Rise of Endymion, without having read the first two. I don’t know why you would, but I guess you could. Hyperion is directly followed by Fall, and Endymion is directly followed by Rise. However, about three hundred years separates the two pairs. The events detailed in Endymion are directly informed by what went down in the first two books, but with a few ancillary exceptions, we’re dealing with a whole new cast of characters and a whole new antagonist.
I’ll level with you, Endymion and its sequel aren’t as good as the Hyperion books. They’re not as focused, the character work isn’t quite as strong, and Simmons goes off on some serious tangents (although those are mostly found in Rise of Endymion) that distract from what is happening. That said, very few books are as good as the Hyperion novels. In and of themselves, the Endymion books are very good, bordering on great. I prefer this first one, it’s more rollicking space adventure and less free-wheeling navel-gazing. The narrator, after that antagonistic beginning, is actually a decent enough dude and while his self-deprecating descriptions wear thin after a while, it’s better than being an endless egotistical blowhard. As in the first two books, the world-hopping action is top notch and entertaining more often than not. Now that the social structures of the first books are gone – the Hegemony of Man is about three hundred years dead at this point – something else has risen to take its place.
And it’s space Catholics. Which is super dumb, but also kind of amazing. After the Fall of the Farcasters, the apocalyptic event which totally reset human society in the galaxy, there was widespread chaos. Eventually that settled down and humanity had to decide how to proceed. Along comes the Catholic Church with what appears to be a miracle: a cross-shaped organism with the power to resurrect the dead. If you’ve read the first two books, like you should have, you would be immediately suspicious of this thing. The cruciform parasite from the first books was a terrible thing that brought people back to life as sexless, mindless idiots. Also you couldn’t leave the immediate vicinity of the cruciform home or you would convulse with horrific pain. Well, no worries, the Church fixed all that. If you accept the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart and devote your undying soul to the Church of Peter, you get a new and improved resurrection cruciform which brings you back without making you a dummy. Once this was perfected, the Church was able to create its spacefaring/military wing, the Pax. If that sounds vaguely menacing to you, well, of course it is.
The initial story of Endymion is actually pretty straightforward. The narrator, Raul Endymion, is just some jamoke who’s lived his whole life on the enigmatic backwater planet Hyperion. For almost the entirety of these two books, he is clearly in over his head, deeply involved in happenings far above his pay grade. The structure of the novel is a little strange, in that it’s a flashback narrative told from Raul’s present situation, which has him floating around in a death-capsule in space. He’s basically writing the story for himself, told to himself. This kind of storytelling isn’t unique, of course, but it does have a few effects on the reader. First and most obvious is that literally everything Raul is talking about in this first book has already happened. This removes tension form the life-and-death stakes, because we know all the important characters live. I mean, Raul spoils most of the major story beats within the first few pages of the novel. We know the two major characters are going to fall in love and we know that they’re going to end up in a possibly fatal situation many years later. Now, the story eventually catches up with Raul, but that doesn’t happen until the final pages of Rise of Endymion. Simmons is making a gamble here that his story is worth reading even though we pretty much know the outcome.
He mostly succeeds. Raul is eventually summoned by none other than Martin Silenus, the foul-mouthed old poet from the first two novels. He is then given a quest: protect the girl known as The One Who Teaches. This kid, who turns out to be a spunky twelve-year-old, is the love child of Brawne Lamia and the weird A.I./human “cybrid” John Keats. Her name is Aenea, and she’s gonna change the world, y’all! I’m still on the fence about whether or not Aenea is a good character. It’s a tough sell when before we even meet her in the narrative she’s straight up called a “messiah,” and when she does finally bust onto the scene, it’s alongside the Shrike from the first books. We already know her destiny at this point, we know that she’s going to be The One Who Teaches, whatever that means, we know she’s going to live to fulfil her destiny, we know her and Raul are going to end up together. That last part is a little jarring, considering this entire novel is about Raul and Aenea’s first adventure and she’s twelve the whole time. Like, by the end of the two books it works out and doesn’t feel that gross, but I totally understand if people find it creepy. Raul is in his thirties in this story. Nothing untoward happens – the kissy bits happen in the next book – but we all know it’s coming and yeah, there’s still parts where a twelve year old girl tells a thirty year old dude “yo, we’re gonna bang one of these days,” and that’s off-putting.
I suppose the real issue I have with the characters is that they’re more archetypes than actual rounded characters. I mean, they have personalities and the way they act mostly make sense, but by the very nature of the narrative they’re a bit limited in how ‘real’ they can feel. Aenea is a literal messiah. Simmons does his best to humanize her, but she’s clearly an extraordinary twelve-year-old. She possess a level of maturity that more often than not makes her feel less like a child than a confident thirty year old. Sure, she’s got to save the world from the Space Catholics, I get it. It’s hard to write for The Chosen One. As for Raul, he’s the Loyal Knight, a little dim and a little dull, and even as a kid Aenea doesn’t treat him great. Probably the best character of the bunch is Father Captain de Soya. He’s the conflicted enemy, sent to chase down Aenea by his Church despite evidence that he’s doing something terrible. He is loyal to the Church, and is a true man of faith. The fact that he’s been sent to capture and possibly kill a child weighs heavily on him.
Like Hyperion, Endymion is difficult to talk about in depth without referring to the second novel. This book is here to establish the post-apocalypse left from The Fall of Hyperion, the former Web worlds either fallen into ruin or subjugated to the Pax. The structure of the story – basically an extended chase as Raul and Aenea make their way through a bunch of farcasters to various worlds – describes the setting of the real conflict to come in Rise of Endymion. Nothing is concluded here, and by the end of the novel we’re not even close to the ‘present’ that Raul is writing from. That said, Endymion is still the more enjoyable novel. It’s a fun adventure story, and there’s little to distract from the world-hopping action. There’s plenty of depth here for all that, but mostly Simmons is world-building again. I’m fine with that, since he’s proven that he’s excellent at it. This entire saga is wrapped up with the next book, which I will tell you right now has some issues. It’s difficult to end, we all know this by now. Personally, I still like Rise of Endymion quite a lot – it made me feel serious ways about stuff – but it has problems. In other words, enjoy the good times and fun action of Endymion while you can, because shit gets weird in the fourth and final book.