Hyperion won the contest for my favourite book of last year. How could anything possibly live up to that? The Fall of Hyperion is even more a straightforward science fiction book, without the literary experimentation of the Canterbury-Tales-style first book. It's got to be a lesser book, right? Right?
Wrong. This is one of those very rare few sequels that almost equals the first book. And when the first book is the kind of masterpiece that I would argue Hyperion is, it's mind-boggling.
It took me a while to come to that conclusion, though. At that start, when it appeared to be following a more traditional science fiction format, I was enjoying it, but telling myself that in some way, this made it a lesser book than Hyperion. But I kept reading. And kept reading. And kept reading. And bit by bit, the brilliance of this book crept up on me. Yes, it doesn't have the experimentation in style. But the story is so good. I mean, so good.
It reached right inside me and ripped my guts out. I couldn't stop reading. I was so invested in all the pilgrims I'd met in the first book, and equally engrossed by the wider canvas of the universe they'd trekked right out of, the worlds on the brink of war, the nebulous threat of the TechnoCore and of the Ousters. Of the fate of John Keats. Yes, that John Keats. Or, almost.
And if those stories in the first book had been each a separate little masterpiece, this book weaves them together beautifully. Things that I thought didn't need to be explained were, and the explanations were never disappointing. In fact, for the most part I never saw them coming, and they were flabbergasting in their implications.
While the pilgrims we met on Hyperion continue their quest to find the Shrike, the unstoppable killing machine that haunts the Time Tombs, the wider galaxy of planets, connected by farcasters (read: long-range teleporters) trembles on the brink of war with the Ousters, humans who long ago diverged, physically and psychologically, from the mainstream. To wage this war, humans must trust the TechnoCore, the world of AIs that is everywhere and nowhere. But some say that the TechnoCore does not have the best interest of its human progenitors at heart.
And what is the future that the Shrike was sent back from, anyway? What does it look like? Is it written? Is it mutable? What is the cost if it is not? And what do poetry and religion have to do with it all, anyway.
I have a personal weakness for science fiction that takes religion seriously, as opposed to a shorthand for ignorance. And The Fall of Hyperion does. The Catholic Church is a major player in what goes down, but not in a simplistic manner. The Church of the Shrike is a particular kind of apocalyptic sect that leads to some horrific excesses. The animism of the Templars and their shiptrees circle the story, and are horribly betrayed. The coming of the One Who Teaches is presaged, and I will not give away any more than that.
This story is so complex, with layers and layers of history and symbolism and poetry. But it is not inaccessible - I'm pretty sure it can be enjoyed just at the level of a ripping story as well. But I loved feeling like I was swimming in a deep pool, and often submerged under unexpected waves.
Have I mentioned characters? Because this isn't just a novel of ideas. The characters are wonderful, from the reborn John Keats to the stoic belief of Hegemony leader Meina Gladstone, to the devotion of Saul to his daughter who is aging backwards, to Martin Silenus, the drunken poet whose verses might be tied to the fate of the human race, to Brawne Lamia, the pregnant private detective and former lover of the first Keats cybrid.
This is a novel that embraces complexity, and those who know me know that I love little more than that. I love it when novels do not rely on simple answers to problems they pretend are binary. I love novels like this. I like this nearly as much as I loved Hyperion, and that is saying a hell of a lot.