Immortality of Poetry: A Review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

If you are a fan of epic sci-fi space opera literature, you have either read or heard of the titan of its genre – the Hyperion Cantos. Although set in the universe that is immeasurable, barely traversable, and filled with thousands of worlds, the story is still entangled by a single thread of destiny – the world of Hyperion and its buried secrets. In this sense, Hyperion represents the ultimate destination, a sanctuary for those who seek meaning in their short and trivial lives, such are the seven pilgrims on their journey.

There is no way around it, so I’ll just put it out there – In my opinion, Hyperion is not just the modern-day classic but also one of the finest works of its genre. It is a monumental achievement by a single man, a Magnum Opus, I dare say, of a writer Dan Simmons. At the time of its writing (late 1980s), space operas and sci-fi thrillers were quite common as they were established a generation ago by the giants such as Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and the great Arthur C. Clarke.

However, it is the theme of the novel, or just plane scope of the author’s ambition put into writing this, what sets Hyperion apart from anything else. The overarching theme is an all-present, multi-layered, tangible sense of destiny, immortality, pain, regret, and transcendence. Its world – so complex and cleverly crafted – invites us to step into one of the farcaster portals and just go for a journey into the unknown realms of space. 

Entering the world of Hyperion

In Hyperion, Dan Simmons takes us to a world filled with philosophical, existential, theological, and often paradoxical themes and conflicts that are well known to our ever-searching human race, but that are hard to define by words. It is for this reason that the writer cleverly tries to break down this world for us, using multiple-perspective story mechanics delivered by some of the most likable, and well-crafted characters of all time. Hyperion is essentially described through the stories of its main protagonists. It starts in the distant future, some 800 years ahead of our time and the narrative spans a couple of centuries. In this universe, humanity has developed technology to an extraordinary level, which allows it to colonize space as far as it can reach it. Civilized humanity falls under a massive interstellar unity known as Hegemony, which spans its reach everywhere through its high tech network of subspace portals – the farcasters that allow instant travel between two points in space. To maintain control over such a vast space and technology, humanity relies on the system known as Technocore, a body made of AI intelligence and a decision-making entity with an agenda of its own.

One can argue that the six major viewpoints of the story are the six pillars  on which the world of Hyperion is built. And understandably so. It feels like each of the characters is given a spotlight and a fair share of this mind-bending universe to conquer and bring to the reader. To understand the core concept upon which Hyperion is created, we would need to dig deeper, through many of its elusive layers. The answer, or a part of it, certainly lies within the planet’s name – Hyperion.

A poem as a seed for a new world

Hyperion existed long before Simmons was even born, in the form of an unfinished 19th-century epic poem of the same name. Written by John Keats, its name rarely comes up in everyday conversation due to the author’s obscurity and untimely death. But since you are reading this, I’m gonna dare to assume that you have, much like me, run into the ghost of John Keats, among the paragraphs of the novel.

Why is that? It is clear that John Keats’s legacy somehow touched Dan Simmons to pay him homage within this work. But how are Hyperion and a long-deceased poet connected to the space epic written almost two centuries after?

One of the answers is offered by what could be considered a key theme in Hyperion Cantos – Immortality. 

Immortality is a core element of the world of Hyperion in Dan Simmons’s novels. To conquer space and introduce its galactic empire, much like Hegemony did, humanity would first have to struggle to create technology that would allow for interstellar travel. But even this would mean that most of the space travelers, especially the bold and daring ones would have to lose their precious time – months or even years of their life during the cosmic journeys. To help build the Hegemony, the writer uses some of the most obvious space travel mechanics such as the Fuge, self-aware hybrid robots, and the famous Farcaster network. 

The loss of time is inevitable for our characters as they travel to Hyperion, which lies well beyond the Hegemony’s network of instant portals. It is exactly this long and perilous journey that makes us question everything we know about life, its meaning, and its many wonders. Immortality would certainly be an answer to many of these questions. This is hinted in all of the stories, but mostly in the Poet’s and the Detective’s story.

Resurrection of John Keats

The poet Martin Silenius caries his story like a true poet who fights for his creation. Martin is the author of the best-selling epic – the Hyperion Cantos, which in many ways represents the main element of homage given to the deceased poet John Keats.

Martin’s story is complex and interwoven into the centuries of his extraordinarily long life, but it ultimately leads to the main struggle of any artist that has lived before him, and even after him. What is the price of true inspiration? How far is a man willing to go to find it?

Understandably, the underlying message here is that immortality can be reached through creation, but only if the creation itself is pure and untainted. Martin’s Hyperion Cantos represent much more than a single man’s life work. It is a beacon of hope, a device that shows us a price of immortality or at least offers us a glimpse of it. It is known that in his tragic life, John Keats spent most of it in pursuit of pure poetry, but it was his suffering that showed us how a search for true inspiration is never easy, much like Martin’s life after the successful publishing of Hyperion Cantos, a work he did not live up to see published.

But if we are looking for immortality in Hyperion, we don’t need to look further than Brawne Lamia. Her story represents a literal attempt to revive the long lost poet John Keats in the form of the cybrid introduced to us simply as Johnny. Gradually, we observe how the robot struggles to understand its origins as well his role in life. In this, he adopts a fair share of Keats personality and eventually, through his poetry, becomes more than self-aware – it becomes enlightened. It is unclear what sparks the evolution of the AI brain, but it is a clever way to plant the seed of doubt.

Did we evolve up to this point due to our ability to understand art? Do the verses of John Keats successfully spark the ascension of cybrid Johnny to the higher spectrum of consciousness?

Ascension to Immortality

But if you go backward and try to understand Dan Simmons’s work by trying to understand John Keats’s Hyperion, you run into a deeper revelation that helps see the story from a different perspective.

The idea Keats had for Hyperion was centered around the fallen race of Titans, who are being replaced by the new gods of Olympus. The story revolves around sun-god Hyperion who speaks of beauty, poetry, experience, and mainly knowledge. Here we encounter the essence that binds Simmons’s work with that of his predecessor – the epiphany of a greater meaning.

In the words of sun-god Hyperion and those of the lost monarch Sad King Billy, we find the voices of the authors. It may be said that an attempt by Sad King Billy to found the City of Poets on the forsaken planet Hyperion, and start something like Neo-Renaissance in the world where art has no place, much like our world in the time of dark ages, we can see the author’s final calling to revolution, a safe and romantic uprising with the power of words. After all, the clash of the old Titans and the new Olympians in the original Hyperion is the clash of civilizations, a time of great changes in which worlds die. Yet, from their ashes a new race can rise and start its interstellar quest for its own meaning, for immortality…

Knowing this, we can see the clash of civilizations in the Hegemony universe, and even its impending doom. But where does the human race stand? Are we humans destined to become relicts, like old gods Titans, awaiting to be erased by new, and less self-destructive race of AIs we ourselves created? Or are we the new Olympian gods facing a new race of Titans represented in the Cantos as the one, all-powerful entity known as the Shrike, thrown through the passages of time to stop our quest for immortality?

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Nikola

Nikola

Nikola works as an international art dealer. In his spare time, he likes to read, write, and study the history of art.
Nikola

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