Monday 15 January 2024

Conservatism in Hyperion

Best science fiction novel videos are ten-a-penny on YouTube, and more often than not Dan Simmons's Hyperion features. A sort-of reimagining of The Canterbury Tales 800 years from now, along with Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas and Player of Games it helped kickstart new space opera as the dominant SF sub-genre. Hyperion won awards, a wide readership and some mainstream respect because of its multiple viewpoints, engaging premise, original turns, and how it wore its literariness and fluency with Greek myth on its sleeve. Simmons went on to write three more in his "Cantos" and had some success with subsequent novels. He latterly alienated many of his readers with 2011's Flashback, an SF novel in which Simmons used his charactered to preach hard right politics: climate change denial, white replacement, Islamophobia, Sinophobia, and attacked Obamacare as some such Road to Serfdom nonsense. What one might expect of a conservatism resisting the near-presence of the grave with all the hysteria it can muster.

As a fully paid up member of the PoMo club with militant characteristics, and not withstanding one's fealty to Saint Barthes and the death of the author, is there some profit projecting back on to Hyperion the right wing positions of the later Simmons to catch them in embryo? And employing this sensitivity, might the identification of an incipient conservatism undermine its narrative thrust?

Hyperion is an otherwise backwater colony on the verge of becoming a full member of the human Hegemony. This interstellar society comprises around 200 worlds and is maintained by instantaneous travel through farcast portals. Travelling to planets outside the 'Web' is done by faster than light spacecraft where the effects of time dilation applies. The Hegemony's government is exercised through the All Thing, which is a real time public forum that constantly runs polls, debates, and passes legislation. On top of this is a senate, which is elected and acts as a check on the democratic excesses of the "lower house" and elects a CEO. For the first two novels of the Cantos this is Meina Gladstone, whose self-regarding toughness may or may not share a resemblance with Margaret Thatcher. The Hegemony is also a straightforwardly capitalist society, and there is no hint the All Thing has extended democratic control to economic matters. It is effectively liberal democracy extended to its limits. This is also a setting where the Earth was destroyed during the "big Mistake" in which a black hole was created and ended up eating the planet, sparking off the 'Hegira' - the mass movement of people to other worlds.

There are no intelligent aliens in Hyperion, but there are several factions. The Ousters are the Hegemony's Other. Not a great deal is known about the branch of humanity who took off on their own to live in Oort clouds and the spaces between the stars, but they are heavily armed and interactions between them and their planet=dwelling brethren almost always means armed conflict. Living in no gravity environments has meant they are much taller than standard humans, and some genetic manipulation have turned their feet into an extra pair of usable hands. Their spacesuits also come fitted with prehensile tails, and exoskeletons can be used for planetary excursions. Why a nomadic splinter of humanity that have happily got on without and have no use for planets would want to take on the Hegemony is not entirely clear. The other most important faction is TechnoCore. These are Artificial Intelligences who declared independence from the Hegemony but retain a close symbiotic relationship with it. They are responsible for working out farcasting, and run much of the Hegemony's technological infrastructure. Citizens can enter the 'datumplane' and interact with machines, applications, and each other in a 'Gibsonian matrix', which is straightforwardly cyberspace as adapted from Neuromancer. But what is their game, and why are they so interested in prosecuting a war with the Ousters?

Hyperion is a location of interest because, like a number of other Hegemony worlds, it's home to a subsurface planet-wide labyrinth. But what differs is the presence of the 'time tombs'. These structures emanate a field that messes with the structure of time, and it's commonly understood that they were constructed in the far future and are travelling backwards. But the main attraction/mystery is the Shrike, an inscrutable murderous being that can manipulate time and wanders freely when the tombs are active. Doing so typically means the gory deaths and disappearances of colonists and tourists, and their impaling on a tree which certain pilgrims have seen in their visions. In this post-Christian future a cult with tens of millions of members and established churches across the Hegemony have grown up to worship the Shrike. The cult is also organises pilgrimages to the time tombs where, it is fabled, the Shrike will grant one wish of one participant and slaughter the rest. At the moment Hyperion takes place the tombs have opened and the Shrike has commenced its killing spree. But also an Ouster invasion fleet is approaching the planet, so as the Hegemony musters its forces seven pilgrims have been selected to petition the Shrike before either the war sees the world change hands or the tombs get obliterated from orbit.

Each of the pilgrims have some previous relationship with the Shrike and/or Hyperion. Lenar Hoyt is a priest for the barely existent Catholic church, who spent time with a lost group of Shrike-worshipping humans. Fedmhan Kassad is a soldier who saw intense action against the Ousters, while regularly visited in battle sims by a mysterious woman. Martin Silenus is a poet working on a Hyperion Cantos epic. Part of a previous failed city-building effort on Hyperion, he regards the Shrike as his muse. Sol Weintraub is an academic philosopher whose daughter, Rachel, was on an archaeological expedition to the tombs where she contracted a condition that reverses ageing. As such she wakes up every day a day younger, and accompanies her father on the pilgrimage as a days-old infant. Brawne Lamia is a private detective hired by a client to solve his murder, which has something to do with his discovery about the TechnoCore's intentions toward Hyperion. The Consul is the former governor of Hyperion, but turns out to be much more than that. And Het Masteen, a member of a sub-faction of nature priests, proves the most aloof and mysterious of our pilgrims.

Spoilers below.

Despite Hyperion earning praise for its literary nods, what is striking is how, for want of a better phrase, Hollywood-mainstream some of the plot points are. Like any 70s/80s slasher movie (and the many-taloned Shrike is the slasher par excellence), there is an indissociable link between sex and death. Characters, whether foregrounded pilgrims or narrative patina, experience misfortune and/or death if there's sex or the suggestion of having had sex. Kassad's frequent dalliances with his sort-of imaginary lover, Moneta, end with her morphing into the Shrike in a post-battle romp. He doesn't die but the subsequent trauma turns him against his previous life and primes him for the pilgrimage. One scene where Silenus is talking to Sad King Billy, the sponsor of the City of Poets colonisation effort, involves calling up the 28th century equivalent of CCTV where an artist who covertly videos her sex sessions with younger men is gorily butchered by the Shrike and her gent is carried off. Rachel encountered the Shrike while she was in a serious but unmarried relationship, with reverse ageing gradually returning her to a state of innocence. And after Brawne Lamia and "Johnny", her client, fall into each other's arms, by the end of her narrative he's been killed by agents of the TechnoCore - for a second time.

Then there are the professions of the pilgrims themselves, which are associated with the production of the social order. A traditional conservative imaginary typically salutes the clergyman, the soldier, the poet (who, here, happens to be aristocratic), the scholar, the diplomat, and the detective. True, Lamia's persona mixes the Chandleresque and cyberpunk, but the idea of the maverick private dick, just like that of the rules-breaking police officer, was as old as the hills when Hyperion was published 35 years ago. It's a well trodden device that remains a crime genre staple, and by fair means (but often foul) works to preserve the status quo and uphold the prevailing state of things. Lastly, Het Masteen is simultaneously the commanding officer of his "tree ship", Yggdrasill, and a nature priest. As part of the Brotherhood of Muir, his pseudo-religious order work to preserve life and ecology. This is against the Hegemony who care little for the environments of the worlds it colonises and exploits. More conservationist than environmentalist, the brotherhood's home world of God's Grove is a reservation of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial species that the Hegemony would have otherwise driven to extinction. Adding in more conservative cache, and despite being decidedly pacifistic, they are known as the Templars.

There are a couple of other world-building notes of interest. Christianity is a spent force. Judaism has grown more philosophical since the promised land got swallowed by a black hole. And Islam, of course, is fundamentalist and violent. There has also been a shift in the rules of war. Following the experience of the 20th century and allusions to subsequent major conflicts, a 'New Bushido Code' governs military confrontation. The set-piece battle and manoeuvres in the field have replaced the attrition of industrial slaughter. However, the Hegemony officially abandoned this following a brutal Ouster incursion. This flags up a persistent assumption of conservative thought: its pessimism toward human nature. That is a contrived construct like the New Bushido is at odds with the amoral realities of the world and leaves its practitioners disarmed and weak versus an implacable enemy. It's not difficult to draw a link between this and Simmons's railing against the pitiful residues the US federal state makes available to the poorest; that welfare supports the weak, and therefore weakens the American body politic as a whole.

Lastly, there is an absence that marks Hyperion. The absence of Earth. The absence of religion. The absence of principles. And an absence of humanity. The Hegemony is not some good natured republic trying its best to balance the interests of the citizens of the Web. It's shown to be a brutal colonial power that puts down rebellious colonies without mercy. It also transpires that the executive have contrived war with the Ousters, and that in conjunction with TechnoCore was responsible for Earth's destruction. Despite the existence of a mass liberal democracy in which direct citizen participation has replaced representatives, this has not prevented an authoritarian and conspiratorial oligarchy from emerging. The AIs are also manipulative and grasping, apparently divided between three factions - one that belives in continuing the symbiotic relationship with humanity, the other which wants to see its extinction (as well as any other sentient or near-sentient alien species), and a non-committal group straddling the two. For their own reasons not revealed in Hyperion, the AIs have also rebuilt (or saved) Old Earth and stashed it in an unvisited corner of the galaxy, and are working toward their own technological singularity by creating a God. Even the machines are driven by a void of lack.

There is no right wing preachifying in Hyperion. Instead Simmons uses his characters to ask questions about the nature of time and fate, the relationship between the subjects and objects of power, and whether a creation can ever have a meaningful relationship with its creator. The tropes - the Hobbesian view of human nature, the subtle acceptance of the props, privileging the viewpoint of characters typically celebrated in conservative narratives (fictive or otherwise), and the Hollywood treatment of sex don't speak of a coherent philosophy. But they do map out the unthought assumptions of the younger Simmons. As such here isn't much here for those who like to see imagination in the social science in one's science fiction, but that would be too much to expect considering the political trajectory whose beginnings can be gleaned here. But ultimately, these conservative dispositions are far from fatal for the narrative and can be largely ignored as the world unfolds and the mysteries Simmons sets up are revealed.


Anonymous said...

Yes and...

The treatment of religion is slightly worse than you remember. Islam isn't just violent and nasty (a theme carried on in the Ilium duology), the Palestinians in particular are passive and somehow still live a bronze age lifestyle, in stone houses. Kassad is the *good one*, who got out and did things.

Judaism doesn't do much better; although riffing off the mythical 'Wandering Jew' for Sol, the books describe Judaism as becoming basically a sideshow, not just becoming more philosophical, when Israel disappeared.

The other thing is the treatment of internet jockeys, which tend to get called something disrespectful like 'cyberpukes'. There's a strong 'old man shouts at kids and their technology' vibe throughout.

Anonymous said...

All true, but a lot of the conservatism which you identify -- especially the militarism and authoritarianism is called into question in the sequel. So this is a bit like reading the first half of Iain Banks' The Algebraist and leaving out the part which (in good old Socialist Worker fashion) calls the morality of the Mercatoria into question.

Anonymous said...

"Gaudy and gory" is Hyperion (and Simmons) in a nutshell.

You might find Carrion Comfort, from the same year, to carry more modern resonance...

Mickey H said...

You read any Becky Chambers? Her Monk and Robot series explores post-capitalist humanity in an interesting way. Recommend all her stuff.

Phil said...

I don't think you're quite right, anonymous. I'm not saying Simmons is celebrating militarism or authoritarianism. He's rather stating they're facts of life and are expressive of the harsh reality of the worlds we inhabit. In as far as he celebrates anything, he centres exemplars of a conservative world view.

And no Mickey, I haven't but Chambers is on the reading list with dozens of other writers!

Anonymous said...

I expect that you will want to revisit your musings after finishing the sequel, though, since the completion of the arc does turn a few of your observations on their head.

Phil said...

Having read the sequel I find nothing there that challenges this commentary, and from what others have told me about Endymion/The Rise of Endymion it sounds even more conventional. I'll get round to reading them one day but there are hundreds of books in the queue before them!