So this shit right here is exactly why I read science fiction. It’s got EVERYTHING YOU COULD POSSIBLY WANT. Well, these last two books have been lacking the humor of the first two, mostly because the foul-mouthed poet Martin Silenus was relegated to a background role, but he was there a little bit at the beginning of the last book and the beginning and end of this one, so there was a little bit of humor there. But seriously EVERYTHING ELSE is here.
You’ve got your hard science to satisfy the deep nerds; you’ve got your mystically enhanced science to satisfy the spiritual mumbo-jumboists like myself; you’ve got fuckin’ giant flying squids and telepathic amoeboids on a planet made entirely of gas; you’ve got religion (both in support of and deconstructing); you’ve got your humanism and socialism and Buddhism and classism (ALL THE ISMS); you’ve got an epic time and space defying romance; you’ve got a fuckin’ SPACE POPE.
I can keep listing things.
Time travel, homages to classic literature and poetry, epic bloody and disgusting fights between men and fearsome artificially intelligent creatures, a biosphere the size of a fuckin solar system curated by hard vacuum adapted humans, messiahs, daring escapes, discussions of philosophy and economics, teleportation, planets of all shapes and sizes (water planets, gas planets, mountain planets where everyone travels on ziplines, planets where the trees are made of lightning), devices that can bring back people from the dead, nanotech up the wazoo.
THE MOTHERFUCKING SHRIKE!
I will stop listing things now.
Dudes. I’m just so glad I read this series. In all, it’s pretty much a science fiction/space opera masterpiece. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, particularly in the last two volumes–which take place 300 years after the first two, and feature Raul Endymion as their first person narrator as he fights to complete his mission: to keep Aenea “The One Who Teaches” safe, to end the threat of the Pax (the Roman Catholic church run amok and crazed on power–it’s complicated), to find Old Earth and return it to its former home, and to insure the future of humanity. The way all of it shakes out, on both a story and character level, was really really satisfying. In places, Simmons’ writing creaks and groans under the weight of its own cheese (particularly in his love scenes–and I don’t mean sex here necessarily, although that’s part of it, but seriously when the two main characters talk about or exhibit love it’s generally cheesy as hell). Some of the exposition scenes are deliberately obtuse, but it all works out in the end.
Probably the biggest leap you have to make is that the first two books were so deliberately chock full of characters and criss-crossing storylines, that to have such a simplified narrative arc (relatively, I should say–your average reader will by no means think this book is simple) is a bit of a letdown at first. Raul is a good enough narrator, but as he admits himself, he’s not the brightest guy. In the first book especially, we had six different main characters, six different stories, and the fact that it was a deliberate homage to The Canterbury Tales was an immediate hook. The first two books also had the advantage of presenting us with a galactically sized mystery, which was very alluring. These two books had the task of solving the mystery, which is always a dangerous thing in these kinds of books.
As I wrote about recently in my review of the last Unwritten book, when you solve a mystery as a storyteller, the ideal is to trade in that mystery for enlightenment, for a denouement that should make your readers feel as if a light bulb has gone off over their heads. They should hit that moment and FEEL something. And if you fail at that, the whole story can end up feeling ruined. (This is why so many people hate the Lost finale, because the enlightenment route that show went only works for about half of the people who watched the show–the other half wanted concrete answers.) Luckily, Simmons absolutely nails it. (My only quibble with the “ending” is that he totally telegraphs a major plot point of the ending a little too hard, and I predicted it very early on. I wish it would have been more of a surprise for me.)
So in summation, if you like science fiction READ THIS SERIES. If you are curious about what science fiction can do and it doesn’t sound too intimidating, READ THIS SERIES.
I am already looking forward to my inevitable re-read several years down the road.