Johnny vs. Johnny

essay, literature

Spoilers ahead for Hyperion and Johnny Mnemonic

It is always surprising to me when science fiction or fantasy authors reveal themselves to be reactionaries. It’s true that many SFF writers fall into the category of milquetoast neoliberal; even William Gibson, for all his radical transhumanist writings, has become a Trump reply-guying, Russiagate-pushing bore these days. However, true reactionaries like Orson Scott Card and Terry Goodkind are much rarer. It seems strange to me that someone who makes a living of imagining and empathizing with radical alterity can come to the conclusions that they do.

Dan Simmons is one of these reactionary SFF writers, a fact that I was unaware of when I began reading his 1989 magnum opus, Hyperion. Hyperion is a space opera of epic scale and ambitions. Structured after the Canterbury Tales, it tells the story of pilgrims from the Hegemony of Man as they travel to the Time Tombs of Hyperion. The Tombs are a mysterious artifact of unknown origin, traveling backwards through time for incomprehensible reasons. Guarding it is the fearsome Shrike, a god-like being of metal and cybernetics, who impales its victims alive on its “Tree of Pain”. As the novel progresses, each pilgrim tells a tale about their relationship to Hyperion, in the process revealing various aspects of Hegemony society and posing philosophical conundrums.

It’s a thought provoking read, with some genuinely beautiful passages and an admirably panoramic sweep. Which makes it a far, far cry from what Simmons has been producing in the past decade. His 2011 novel Flashback is a detective story set in a dystopic near-future America, where the Obama administration’s foreign policy failures coupled with the country’s culture of entitlement has led to the collapse of the US. A Muslim “Global Caliphate” has nuked Israel and now is hell bent on destroying America. In short, he wrote a lengthier version of what your racist uncle periodically sends out in chain emails.

So what changed? Perhaps the lazy impulse would be to say that nothing has changed and to re-examine his older works with a suspicious eye, trying to detect proto-fascist themes even in his best work. This is exactly the strategy I’m going to adopt because, well, it’s just fun to do. Whether it’s lazy or true is up to you to.

I think the best way to think about what Simmons is doing in Hyperion is to take a comparative approach: what themes were present in other successful 80s SF works? What, if anything, is Simmons responding to? Where does he diverge in thought?

The Detectives Tale, the fifth tale in the novel, is an excellent entry point, because it is, to put it kindly, a blatant pastiche of William Gibson’s work, in particular the story Johnny Mnemonic. The similarities are almost too numerous to count: both are set in a cyberpunk urban landscape, both adopt a neo-hardboiled voice, both feature a major character named Johnny, both Johnnys drive the plot because of a cybernetic alteration, both follow a badass female character as they try to protect Johnny. Simmons even tries to throw a lampshade on it by mentioning offhand a character named “Cowboy Gibson”.

In Johnny Mnemonic, the point of view character is Johnny, a man with a memory chip implanted in his brain. He makes a living transporting sensitive data in his implant, which he himself does not have access to. (We’ll leave the Freudian implications of this alone for now.) After obtaining some sensitive data from the Yakuza, he decides to go rogue and sell the data himself. He enlists the protection of Molly Millions, a sex-worker-turned-cyborg-bodyguard to protect him, and the pair navigate a series of escalating perils before finding safety with a group calling themselves the Lo-Teks, a liminal gang of body-modification loving technophobes.

It’s a plot structure that reappears over and over in Gibson’s work from the 80’s and 90’s, one that very much defines cyberpunk as a genre. Marginal characters (which map directly onto the marginalized in our current society) find themselves in some situation where they have the opportunity to improve their material conditions by taking from those in power. They build a coalition with other disparate marginal figures and they take on Power, which usually exists as hegemonic criminal empires or megacorporations. Whether or not they succeed in the end, their actions are a small act of rebellion, drawn from a multitude united by their differences and discontent. It’s this radical dynamic that led Mark Fisher to conclude that cyberpunk was the last real literary movement before the total subsumption of culture under Capitalist Realism.

In The Detective’s Tale, the dynamics are reversed, even while keeping the same cyberpunk trappings. The point of view character is not the one seeking protection but rather the one providing it. Brawne Lamia is a detective, written with various tongue-in-cheek references to Raymond Chandler. Notably, she is not the scrappy, working-class detective out of Chandler, but rather a high-ranking senator’s daughter who decided to pursue a life of adventure. She is hired by a man named Johnny to solve his own murder — it turns out that Johnny is a “cybrid”, a half-human, half-AI construct and thus cannot be fully killed by bodily death. Even more intriguing, it turns out that Johnny’s consciousness is a reconstruction of the Romantic era poet John Keats. (Keats and Romantic literature have a big role to play in Hyperion, but I’ll get to that later.)

It turns out that the AIs, which live in a deep space apart from the humans, created Johnny in order to understand the nature of the Time Tombs, and now a faction of them want him dead. (I’ll spare you all the lore and plot convolutions.) After a series of pulse-pounding adventures, Brawne and Johnny fall in love and decide to escape together to Hyperion. Johnny decides to fully vest his consciousness into his body, destroying the parts of his AI self that cannot be contained in his brain, and essentially becoming completely human. You can probably guess what happens from there.

Rather than Gibson’s vision of the marginal disrupting the center, here the opposite occurs. Brawne, a child of privilege who chooses to maintain those powerful connections, takes Johnny, a liminal being caught between humanity and non-humanity, under her guardianship. It is only through the protection of her power that the pair survive, and in the end, Johnny resolves his conflict by completely destroying the part of him which is other than human. In contrast to Gibson’s posthumanism, The Detective’s Tale reaffirms an ethical superiority in being human.

I would argue that this extends to the entire novel in general. Simmons’ political project in Hyperion is to create a vision of humanity, one that is based solely on dominant Western culture. As I mentioned before, John Keats is the main literary reference point of the novel; it’s even implied that it is the influence of Keats’ verse that brings the Shrike into existence and sets in motion the events of the novel. In The Pilgrim’s Tale, the poet Martin Silenus tells of his education in the “classics” — it is very interesting to note that most of the Western classic texts mentioned are real, while the Eastern classics are wholly fictional, seeming to imply that Simmons does not regard any existing Eastern literature to be worthy of propagating among the stars.

To his credit, Simmons does try to temper this conservatism through the figure of the Ousters, humans who chose to break away from the Hegemony of Man and continue evolving in deep space. They are the boogeymen of the universe, dark savages who threaten the very existence of humanity as it exists in the Hegemony. However, in The Consul’s Tale, it is revealed that they are actually benevolent and are the true next step in humanity’s evolution. Through some quick Wikipedia readings, it seems that they become increasingly important in the sequels and ultimately become the saviors of Man.

Still, I don’t think that this compensates for the Eurocentric humanism that is built into the very structure of Hyperion. And as much as he may proclaim the Ousters’ benevolence, Simmons is unable to imagine or empathize with any characters outside of the boundaries of Western (largely bourgeois) subjectivity. The main characters are: 1. a Catholic priest 2. a Hegemony military commander 3. an aristocractic poet 4. a professor 5. above mentioned detective and 6. an imperial consul. It would be quite a stretch to say that any of these hail from the margins of society, or even that they require any effort from the reader to imagine alterity.

I do think that Simmons is a master writer and storyteller. I was so gripped by The Priest’s Tale that I skipped out on several hours of work just to finish it as quickly as possible. However, I suspect that he is a poor writer of science fiction. Unable to imagine otherness, he instead chooses to project the values of 80’s American middle-class society into the future, granting them the status of immortal truths about mankind.

It’s easy to see how someone who was already predisposed to this line of thinking in the 80’s could easily become a reactionary in the 2010’s. Islam, as a challenge to the hegemony of Western value systems, becomes an affront to humanity itself. Progressivism is seen as degeneracy. It’s a path that many intellectuals of yesteryear seem to have taken since 2015, the Richard Dawkinses and the Sam Harrises of the world.

Again, I’m just trying to string together breadcrumbs here to make a nice story. I’m sure that Simmons is far more complicated than I could ever imagine. I’m sure that he did not write Hyperion to be a conservative manifesto. But I do think it’s worthwhile to reexamine the work of the people who once thought of themselves as liberals but in the years since have revealed themselves to hold ideas that are anything but liberal.