Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989)
A month or so ago, I asked two of my Kiwi progressive rock/science fiction friends, Russell Clarke and Paul Watson, for some recommendations for dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. We already share a lot in common, and, after comparing lists, Russell realized I’d not read anything by Dan Simmons. I was already somewhat familiar with the unfinished poem, “Hyperion,” by John Keats, and, at that same moment, Winston Elliott asked me and a few others if we had watched the movie, Dead Poets’ Society, recently. Two references to Keats in a day or two of each other seemed a little too coincidental and I decided to read Hyperion.
Because of the inherently speculative and progressive nature of science fiction, older conservatives have traditionally thought little of science fiction as a genre. I, however, grew up on it. As I explored the history of the genre, I found that few took it seriously until the 1960s, when it became profitable. In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, though, the science-fiction community served as one of the few forms of art that actively welcomed non-conformists, non-ideologues, luddites, and others of imagination. Even as science fiction writers had to content themselves with selling their stories next to other forms of pulp, many of them barely reputable and often downright pornographic, they critiqued the conformity demanded by governments, corporations, public education, and mass media. One only has to think of some of the most important writers of mid-century science fiction—Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, and Poul Anderson—to see that some of the best were deeply anti-conformist, anti-liberal, and anti-ideological. Certainly, they explored questions of technology, but they also pondered varieties and possibilities regarding gender, religion, sexuality, ecology, time, space, and any number of other issues, many of which mainstream, “respectable” society would not touch.
With the publication of the first of the Hyperion Cantos (1989), imaginative writer Dan Simmons (b. 1948) took science fiction to yet another level of artistry and respectability. The science-fiction community, in turn, has properly and justly honored Simmons with the prestigious Hugo and the Locus awards for his work. The first of the series, Hyperion, deserves still far more attention than it has received.
Well-written in the way most modern fiction is not, Hyperion references Platonic dialogues, Virgil, Aeneid, the romantics, Ezra Pound, and Tolkien. Indeed, the level of Simmons’ reading as well as his imaginative faculties are so astounding as to know almost no bounds. Every sentence is a new corner into a possible reality, a not-quite-but-could-be future.
The main narrative takes place in the 28th century, presumably on the brink of the apocalypse of mankind. Old Earth is long gone, but three powers originating here vie with one another for control of space and, possibly, of time: the Hegemony; the TechnoCore; and the Ousters. The Hegemony is a hyper, drug-addled, post-modern whirligig of superficial fashion, crony capitalism, and political manipulation and propaganda of our own age but accelerated even beyond our wildest dreams and nightmares. The super-rich do as they want, and the middle class and the poor live for the sake of killing time. Ostensibly a democratic polity, the Hegemony is fascistic in all but name. Of the ancients, the politicos of the Hegemony most fondly remember Lincoln.
The only honorable institution remaining—outside of traditional religion—is the military, itself the product of and maintainer of a “New Bushido,” a type of honor and aristocratic (in the best sense) virtue that demands that civilians be protected from and against warfare. The creation of the ethnic came after the beginning of the twenty-first century when military men would sit in bunkers, controlling weapons over vast distances, demolishing the lives of women and children half a planet away.
Simmons never allows us to view life from the perspective of an Ouster, the mysterious force of ceaseless migrants. The reader only knows that these were the poor and abused who fled the destruction of Old Earth, refusing to accept the life of a luxurious slaves (though called middle class by the real elites) of the Hegemony. They wander the stars, living as barbarians, raiding and exploiting whatever they encounter. Having lived four centuries in space, they have begun to adapt biologically to their environment of vacuum and cold.
The third power, the TechnoCore—comprised of sentient artificial intelligences—remains a mystery through most of the book. The TechnoCore supplies both the Hegemony and the Ousters with information and technology, playing one off of the other in relatively subtle ways. While the TechnoCore represents extreme utilitarianism, it also importantly recognizes that some variables simply cannot be calculated. In this recognition, it both embraces and detests mysteries. One attempt to solve such incongruities is to create cybrids—biologically engineered human beings programmed with the memories and personalities of historical humans, such as the poet John Keats. The creation and existence of cybrids themselves, though, only compounds the mysteries and paradoxes of life, as giving a soul to the machine only makes the machine ponder the soul even more than it already did.
At one point in the story, one character (I won’t state who, as it gives too much of the mystery away) tries to explain the distinctions between the humans:
I will not try to describe the beauty of life in a Swarm [the Ouster ship communities]— their zero-gravity globe cities and comet farms and thrust clusters, their micro-orbital forests and migrating rivers and the ten thousand colors and textures of life at Rendezvous Week. Suffice it to say that I believe the Ousters have done what Web humanity has not in the past millennia: evolved. While we live in our derivative cultures, pale reflections of Old Earth life, the Ousters have explored new dimensions of aesthetics and ethics and biosciences and art and all the things that must change and grow to reflect the human soul. Barbarians, we call them, while all the while we timidly cling to our Web like Visigoths crouching in the ruins of Rome’s faded glory and proclaim ourselves civilized. [Simmons, Hyperion, 468]
Throughout the novel, Simmons successfully plays with notions of free will, predestination, fate, power, love, insight, blindness, personality, collective, fad, permanence, nature, faith, hope, fluidity, and, especially, time. In the decadence of our future history, Catholicism and Judaism have grown old but wise, diminished considerably in power but not in intent. Hinduism remains, for the most part, off stage, and Islam, while existing broadly as a popular and somewhat violent movement, maintains true pockets of orthodoxy as well. All non-Catholic forms of Christianity have either died or become one with mother church again, and a variety of powerful cults have arisen.
The most important of the cults to arise is the Church of the Atonement, an anti-Catholic Church that worships the “Lord of Pain,” the Shrike, trapped on the planet Hyperion but rumored to be what we twenty-first century folk would call the anti-Christ. Another group, based on a hodgepodge of old Earth paganisms, the Templars, worship nature, space, and especially trees.
As mentioned earlier, Simmons’s pen and imagination openly invoke Virgil, Dante, Keats, and Tolkien for inspiration. The Shrike, though appearing only briefly, especially appears to be related to Tolkien’s Balrog of Moria.
Simmons also structures his book, rather brilliantly and effectively, around Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Seven characters find themselves “chosen” for the final Church of the Atonement pilgrimage to the Shrike on its home world of “Hyperion.” As one character says of the planet: “One local year on Hyperion. One year in purgatory. Or is it Hell?” [Simmons, Hyperion, 92] Simmons provides no definitive conclusion to this question, but the character who records the observation soon spends seven years nailed to a crucifix, dying only to be reborn, on the cross, to die again and start the entire cycle over and over.
These seven pilgrims—a Jesuit priest, a military genius, a Jewish scholar, a private detective, a poet, a (star) ship master, and a diplomat and politician—each tell their respective tales as they travel to and across Hyperion. Much of the plot falls into place as each person reveals his story. As it turns out, several other persons are traveling with the group on the pilgrimage, though in bizarre ways. Other characters from the past (or future; it’s hard to tell) such as the earth goddess Siri, the penitential Father Paul Dure, the artistic Sad King Billy, the reconstructed cybrid of John Keats, and the young archaeologist Rachel, become just as important and alive as the pilgrims.
The author cleverly presents and portrays deep philosophical and theological debates within the dialogue of the story. Perhaps the best of these is Simmons’s engagement with what one of his characters calls “The Abraham Problem.” Why, exactly, did God want Abraham to offer his son as a blood sacrifice? What was His purpose, His intent? After all, the Jewish scholar claims in Hyperion, God could never promote an evil. Somehow, atonement and obedience must be wrapped into one in a way lost on most philosophers, the scholar decides.
In terms of pure style, Simmons’s writing ranges from the solid and very good to the sparkling and inspiring. No clunkers are to be found here as one might find in bestseller novels such as those by Stephen King. In parts of the story, Simmons becomes—at least to my tastes—a little overly crude and graphic. Admittedly, though, each of these transgressions plays an importance role in establishing character and plot, as uncomfortable as some of it was for me to read.
It should also be noted that Simmons does not end the novel in a proper fashion. The reader is left with far more questions than answers, and the fate of his characters remains unknown. Only a year later, he published the second of the Cantos, The Fall of Hyperion. Presumably, the reader discovers the fate of these seven in this volume. Your not-so-humble reviewer is about 1/3 done with it. It is quite good, but it is told in a straight-forward narrative style, losing some of the charm of the original story structure of Hyperion.
Whatever the end of the novel and of this review, however, don’t let my slight criticisms dissuade you. This is a masterpiece of science fiction, literature, thought, philosophy, and culture. If you have any interest in imaginative and speculative fiction, this is a must read.
Some writers such as Heinlein, Bradbury, Schulman, Levin, Linaweaver, Anderson, Pournelle, and others openly and proudly wear their “I am not a Leftist” badge. Simmons, as far as I know, has not proclaimed any viewpoint on the political spectrum, at least in this world.
In his own webwritings, he spends most of his time discussing sources of inspiration and the power of one’s muse. So, while he might not be any form of conservative, he is, nevertheless, clearly, openly, proudly, and wondrously imaginative.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.