Comparing Hyperion Cantos to Battlestar Galactica

Science fiction has a long history of exploring the theme of religion.  Childhood’s End, A Case of Conscience and Stranger in a Strange Land are a few standout examples.  Arthur C. Clarke even has two very famous short stories that depend on religion for O’Henryesque gimmicks, “The Star” and “Nine Billion Names of God.” 

Two contemporary theistic science fiction stories I’d like to explore are The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons and the recent cult TV series, Battlestar Galactica (BSG).  There is a curious overlap between these two epic space operas.  Both tales are long, with the four Simmons books taking 96 hours on audio, and Battlestar Galactica running 65 hours on DVD.  Both stories deal with galaxy spanning human populations in conflict with AI descendents.  Both stories explore religion in a super-science context.  Both stories have human/AI babies playing important roles.  Both stories have a woman leader of the human occupied galaxy.  Both stories features AI minds inhabiting human looking bodies (Cybrid and Cylon).  Both stories depend on easy FTL travel.   Both stories feature heroic fighting women.

Of course, the lists of differences are just as interesting.  BSG’s humans chose not to live with computer networks.  The Hyperion Cantos emphasizes English literature, with the first novel structured like Canterbury Tales, and featuring a cybernetic recreation of John Keats, with many characters often quoting William Butler Yeats and other poets.  BSG plays up astrology, Greek myths, and parallels 9/11 and other early 21st century politics.

Hyperion, the first book in the series came out in 1989, while Battlestar Galactica began airing in 2004, so I have to wonder if Dan Simmons influenced Ronald D. Moore?  Or do these stories just reflect the evolution of science fiction in general?  But why do both stories deal with the intersection of religion and artificial intelligence?  I was totally blown away when I discovered the Cylons were followers of monotheism and hated the humans for not follow the one true God, but strangely enough, the humans of BSG play out the role of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Finally, both stories end up affirming the supernatural and the power of love.  Are they making a philosophical statement about the sacred and the future, or are these just ingredients to make best selling stories by playing up to the public’s sweet tooth for spiritual mumbo-jumbo?  I’m a lifelong atheist, but I love both of these tales, and find the religious underpinnings of the stories to be absolutely juicy storytelling.  In fact, if these stories had been totally secular, I might not have liked them.  Why is that, I must ask myself.

After a few episodes of watching Battlestar Galactica, I wondered how long I would watch the series if it was just a bunch of murderous robots out to exterminate the poor humans.  Ditto for the world of Hyperion.  Another war of AI versus people would be ho-hum.  But as soon as a the Cylon babe in red mentioned her obedience to the one true God, I went, “Whoa!  This is new.”

So are these Astounding Stories science fiction?  I think John W. Campbell would have loved both of them, but I think H. G. Wells would have sneered down at each.  Both yarns play up to sentimentality while being very unscientific.  If you compare their science fiction to the science of Rare Earth Hypothesis, which Dan Simmons prefigures at one point eloquently in his story, we have to consider these stories as escapist fantasies.

This is why I ask if these stories are the direction that SF evolution is moving.  I was totally enthralled by the stories, but they completely lack any realism.  Has science fiction become another hopeful heaven, a new opium of the masses, in which millions dream of escape from the unromantic details of this reality?  Time and again, it has occurred to me that science fiction is a substitute for religion, with promises of far out living up in the sky.

I believe artificial intelligence is in our future, but not faster-than-light travel.  I see religious belief slowly declining in our secular world, so it shouldn’t play a role in speculative fiction about the far future.  Science fiction writers always predicts humans at war with robots, but I can easily imagine that artificial intelligence does evolve, but AI machines leave humans on Earth, and they travel to the stars without us.  Now, that still leaves plenty of room to speculate as to whether AI life will take up religion.  Simmons goes into this, but I don’t want to spoil his story.  But I find it hard to believe that intelligent machines would ever consider something real they cannot detect with science and technology.

Would future robotic civilizations really want to exterminate homo sapiens?  Why do we believe so firmly in that idea?  Is it guilt?  Do we feel that Earth needs to be disinfected from us human vermin?  Is the appeal of Battlestar Galactica and Hyperion Cantos from some deep rooted psychological condition?  Do we secretly fear machines?  Many of my hardcore science fiction friends hated the angelic implications in BSG, but lots of people ate it up.  We’re a nation that loves UFOs and angels.   We want our FTL spaceships and immortal spirits. 

Should science fiction play to this weakness of ours, or should it explore reality in the same way as science?  I can write off my enjoyment of these stories at the expense of believability by saying I’m just having fun.  They are Ben & Jerry’s New York Chocolate Chunk for my brain.  But I’ve always justified my science fiction diet by claiming it’s educational, but the sad fact is science fiction is no more real than a reality TV show.  I just have to accept that I’m getting fat on SF sweets.  I think I’ll go have some more Ben & Jerry’s, though.

JWH – 6/2/9

24 thoughts on “Comparing Hyperion Cantos to Battlestar Galactica”

  1. I think the appeal of religion in SF is two-fold:

    First, religion is something we are familiar with, which for us is a big part of our culture (regardless whether we personally believe or not), so a world or story that incooperates religion will feel richer and more complete.

    Second, religion adds another layer of mystery to the tale, and there is the possibility that it will be “explained” in the context of the story, resolving (at least while we read/watch) one of the mysteries that plague us during our daily live.

    That being said, I’ll maintain that the proper reading order of the Cantos is “Hyperion and then stop”. I did not, of course, follow my own advice, and found the latter books quite enjoyable, but they don’t hold any water to Hyperion, don’t you think?

    Cheers,
    Boris

  2. Boris, I have read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion twice now, once with my eyes, and once with my ears. But I have never read the last two. People keep saying they aren’t worth the effort. I have them waiting, but another 50 hours is daunting prospect at the moment. So your warning makes it less likely I’ll go on soon. I do believe the first two books feel finished as one story though.

  3. Many years ago a lecture in comparative religion began with these words “there is nothing interesting in the world…except religion.” Sorry to play with semantics, Boris but atheism is a religion and so is science/evolution. I define religion as “a system of belief” and the desire to believe in something, to want to believe, as Mulder said, is an intrinsic part of human nature. I do not therefore see religious belief declining and I prefer stories, sci-fi or not, which explore the spiritual aspects of our existence. In the future world of Devolution, the novel, all but one of the tribes has abandoned its belief in God, and this is to the detriment of the non-believers.
    http://www.eloquentbooks.com/devolution.html

  4. David, you are playing with semantics and don’t understand atheism, science, evolution, or religion to make the statements you posted.

    Atheism is a religion the same way bald is a hair color. Atheists simply do not accept that the religious have made their case, without necessarily believing anything except that. You want to call it a religion, then you have to call disbelief in unicorns a religion, too, which is just silly and useless.

    Science doesn’t work at all in the same way that religion “works” if that even makes sense. There is an argument that there are a few items of faith in science, but those are all subject to testing against reality in a way that religious faith is not. Science is a methodology, not a belief system. No one has to believe anything in the way you speak of in order to “believe” in science. We just keep doing things, testing things, testing each other, and getting a better picture of how things work, always subject to revision. The computer you’re using to read this is evidence that science works and it doesn’t matter what you believe about it.

    I find it frustrating that so many people fail to understand these very basic points. If we want to continue, I can just redefine science as “trying to learn about the world” and call religion a science. All people want to learn about the world, don’t they? But this is just dumb and argumentative.

    And personally, I find many things to be more interesting than religion which seems to be to a great degree little more than an effective way people have invented of controlling and fleecing each other in mass numbers. Interesting way to learn about the weaknesses and needs of some fraction of humans, I guess. As a professor, I’m not surprised to hear one of my peers, however, claim that their own subject is the only interesting one around. That’s what I learned from the anecdote.

    Having said that, let me second reading the rest of the Hyperion sequels. Not as awesome as Hyperion, but plenty worthwhile.


  5. People keep saying they aren’t worth the effort.

    They have some good points. I like many aspects of the worldbuilding in the 3rd and 4th books but the plotting and story are weaker than in the first two.

    Still, I recommend you read them.


    Cairns: I do not therefore see religious belief declining and I prefer stories, sci-fi or not, which explore the spiritual aspects of our existence. In the future world of Devolution, the novel, all but one of the tribes has abandoned its belief in God, and this is to the detriment of the non-believers.

    Uh, so what? That may reveal that this author shares your opinion but if you want to support your opinion that religion is essential to human well-being you’ll need real world evidence—not novels.


    Boris but atheism is a religion and so is science/evolution.

    Only if the meaning of the word is broadened to such a degree as to lose any distinctiveness and become merely a synonym for “belief”.

  6. To Mike and David,

    Gentlemen, you sound angry and cynical. My point is simply that everyone believes in something. Either by choice or by default. I do not belittle other people’s beliefs but some atheists tend to want to ridicule perfectly rational people like myself for their belief in God. If you want real world proof of the validity and importance of religion then here I am. My faith gives meaning to the world and all that happens within it. What’s wrong with that?

  7. David, what’s “wrong” is that you think you’re being rational when you engage in having irrational beliefs. I mean, they may be true, but you have no rational reason for believing them. Your premise that everyone believes something by choice or default is not necessarily true, either.

    If I sound angry or cynical, it’s because this is sloppy thinking and I see it over and over and over, and it gets warped into things that are very unhealthy for society.

    You are pushing a perspective that lets you equate everything with a belief system, and then that leads people to make very stupid decisions. For instance, if evolution is just another belief system, then it’s no different from Creationism and it’s equally okay to believe in either.

    That position leads to the erosion of science and reasoning and worse, public policy. Why fund medical research? Why not “teach the controversy” to our children in schools? Why care for the environment when the end times are coming? Etc.

    If these are your beliefs, and they sound like they are and I have heard them before, you better believe I am belittling them. They’re irrational, wrong, and dangerous for a complex technological society.

    I respect your right to believe what you want. I also have the right to tell you that I don’t respect these ideas. Respectfully yours.

  8. David, I don’t believe science or atheism is a religion, but I can understand why you would think that. Some people preach anti-religion like a religion, but I’m not into that. I want to understand how reality works. To me religions are organizations that support various ideas that started with the hypothesis that a God created reality, and religion attempts to explain the purpose and desire of that God. Reality becomes secondary to religious thinkers.

    I ruled out that hypothesis a long time ago. Science is a systematic way to examine hypotheses. I want to understand how reality works and as a thinker, only accept ideas that have been tested by science. Theism offers little to test, and most religious doctrine makes little attempt to explain much of reality, so to me, by saying I’m an atheist just means I consider religious thought outside the scope of how I explain reality. I find the history of religion fascinating, but for other reasons, not to explain how reality works.

    Religion does have an ontological component, but most people embrace a religion for other reasons anyway. Most people expect justice from religion, which is a whole other concept. Most religious people want compassion and salvation and consider reality a cruel place to exist. They have an additional hypothesis that they can exist outside of reality one day, which is belief in the metaphysical. Right now I’m only concerned with understanding reality, and have no interest in speculating about metaphysical existences.

    Thus an atheist is merely a person that doesn’t consider theism as a proper hypothesis. Religion is organizes a belief system. And I guess some people do try to organize anti-theism. I’m not one of them.

    Science is must a system to test ideas. It is not a hypothesis itself. Evolution, for example, is an idea being tested. It is an extremely well tested idea. One I’m willing to accept in my quest to understand reality. But I don’t make a religion out of that acceptance.


  9. Gentlemen, you sound angry and cynical. My point is simply that everyone believes in something.

    Believing in something isn’t the same as having a religion.


    I do not belittle other people’s beliefs but some atheists tend to want to ridicule perfectly rational people like myself for their belief in God. If you want real world proof of the validity and importance of religion then here I am. My faith gives meaning to the world and all that happens within it. What’s wrong with that?

    There are people on both sides of this issue (and pretty much any other matter of contention) who belittle the other side.

    I’m sure you are, overall, a rational person. But that doesn’t mean all your beliefs are rationally warranted. And I disagree with you that belief in God is warranted.

    As to your faith giving you a sense of meaning what’s wrong with it is that its a sense of meaning built on credulity. There are better ways to find a sense of significance in life than in believing implausible things on inadequate evidence.

    That’s not anger or cynicism speaking, the qualities bias against atheists so often leads others to attribute to us for little or no reason (ahem), its a positive love of reason and truth.

  10. Another point, if, when you say everyone “believes in” something, you mean that everyone derives a sense of meaning and purpose from some set of beliefs, I don’t think I’d agree even with that.

    My sense of meaning and purpose don’t come from some set of beliefs about the way the world is.

    There’s a thousand times more significance in an arm around one’s shoulder or looking at the stars on a cloudless night or even a good laugh than there is in beliefs, doctrines and dogmas.

    For me, my beliefs are simply the opinions I hold—based on the evidence available and always subject to change as new information comes to me.

    They aren’t where I look for meaning. If one cherishes a belief as what makes one’s life worth living, the ability to change one’s belief when it looks like it might be in error will almost certainly be lost.

  11. Don’t worry, I’m not angry about this discussion. I love to talk about ideas.

    David, I like what you say here “There’s a thousand times more significance in an arm around one’s shoulder or looking at the stars on a cloudless night or even a good laugh than there is in beliefs, doctrines and dogmas.”

    I’m all for experiencing reality directly, and I embrace my emotions. And, I do believe in things that are just that, beliefs. I can’t justified them. One of my beliefs is: “Knowledge is a good thing.”

    If I didn’t seek knowledge, I think I could be very comfortable with selecting a religion and enjoying the communal aspects of sharing a belief system. Religion offers certainty and answers, which is to say religion offers comfort.

    There are some very beautiful religions, but in the end I want to know how and why more than I want to feel comfortable.

    However, a more interesting question to ask y’all now: Would you want to give up beauty for knowledge? I love finding beauty in the universe, as well as knowledge. But which is more important. Can we ever develop an AI that perceives beauty?

  12. For me the idea of self-deception, belief without rational foundation, is abhorrent.

    I wouldn’t want beauty at the expense of truth (fortunately that’s not a choice I have to make).

    As to AI’s perceiving beauty, I don’t see why not. There’s no reason to assume only meat-based consciousness can have aesthetic experiences.

  13. To Mike,
    Rationality is overrated. Is love rational? No. Is it real? Yes.
    We fund medical research because we care about people. We care about people because they have value. They have value because they are created in the image of God.

    To James, I understand what you say and I accept it without agreeing with it. There is too much in this world that defies scientific explanation, and I don’t really want everything explained.
    My hypothesis is that human beings are physical, emotional and spiritual beings. To deny any one of these is to deny my conception of “human-ness”.

    On beauty and knowledge. If I had to choose, and I would prefer not to…I would chose beauty. Isn’t beauty subjective though and knowledge objective?

    To David,
    From what or who or where do you derive meaning?

    To all,
    I’m really enjoying this but I am going to be offline for a week. Only God knows if we will continue this discussion or not.

  14. David, your poor reasoning is why I can’t take your positions seriously. “Rationality is overrated?” Compared to what? Insanity? Random or arbitrary decisions? I don’t think so.

    Love and other emotions exist for very rational reasons. They’re a quick way of making decisions in the evolutionary best interest of individuals and there are scientific studies to support how they work, both in terms of evolution and in terms of chemicals and brain activity. Love exists and can be measured, and we can understand why it exists.

    I wish people would stop getting bad arguments from movies where a quick verbal jab is supposed to be a complete and reasoned position.

    I care about people. I don’t believe they are made in God’s image. Your reasoning is ridiculous. And anyway, why does God need opposable thumbs or poorly “designed” eyes and backs? Is God well hung? Why? Who is he sleeping with? Does he have nipples?

    This stuff makes no sense and I cannot respect this sort of argument.

    Call me mean, or mad, if you must get defensive about your own shortcomings. Just don’t call me irrational. You can keep that label for yourself. Maybe get a t-shirt and walk around proudly.

    Sorry, Jim, if I’m too aggressive about this. I just find people like this incredibly frustrating. It’s like they don’t care that they’re ridiculous, and expect everyone to turn a blind eye to it. I understand it’s protecting their own egos and their own worldview, but it’s a huge problem when such a huge fraction of the population is like this. According to one poll, 75% of Americans believe angels are real and regularly visit us. I mean, come on!


  15. Rationality is overrated. Is love rational? No. Is it real? Yes.

    No one claimed rationality is the ONLY thing that matters.

    Love isn’t rational but it isn’t, in and of itself, irrational either. And its certainly not irrational to love. Quite the opposite—to avoid love would be to avoid an important part of human well-being.

    Hardly what I’d call a rational thing to do.


    We fund medical research because we care about people. We care about people because they have value. They have value because they are created in the image of God.

    I value the well-being of people whether they are created in any God’s image or not.


    From what or who or where do you derive meaning?

    The term “meaning” in this context is pretty vague. It could mean any of several things.

    Since you didn’t define it I’m going to use the term in the sense I’m most prone to use it:

    that which makes life worthwhile.

    And the answer is quite simple. I find the experience of living to be worthwhile in and of itself. I should think that was clear from my previous comment where I gave three examples of the types of experience that I find intrinsically worthwhile.

  16. Here’s a heretical statement, but I believe it will be true in the long run. Keep in mind, as I write this, that I am not particularly religious, and I believe in evolution, and do not believe in angels, the paranormal, ghosts, etc. I also think complex life is rare in the universe, and interstellar travel will be difficult and expensive, if it is possible at all.

    I also think artificial intelligence will appear in the future.

    Nevertheless, I think that humans in the future, even humans with technology so advanced it will appear magical to us today…will be more religious that we are at the moment.

    Atheism is in decline, and religious belief is as healthy as ever, even as science and technology advance.

    So much SF talks about humans in the future abandoning religion…but I could never buy it.

    I am not saying this because of any “religion is real” conviction — I think that people, in the long run, believe what they want to and rationalize it. People find atheism unattractive on many levels, even if it is more rational then religion in some was. Therefore, atheism always dies out, or remains at a low level. Again, this has nothing to do with rationality, but everything to do with psychology.

    George Kennan said it best…to paraphrase …”Communism may promise heaven on Earth, but it has no answer to the problem of death.”

    As for AI’s destroying humanity, I can’t buy it either. Different ecological niche. Different needs.

    They would go into space, and in the long run have more interest in stars and dust clouds and comet nuclei and asteroids than in Earthlike planets. AI’s will evolve into something that has nothing whatsoever in common with us, and has no interest in anything like us.

    AI’s can flourish in environments deadly to humans. Kind of like an eagle and an ant.

    Ed Sweet

  17. Ed, you and I agree pretty much right down the line. I even expect future humans to invent new religions that jive better with the their times. In Hyperion, Simmons has the dominant religion called Zen Gnosticism. I always tell religious people that I’m a Puritanical Atheist. No drinking, no dancing, no gambling no god, and no fun. In other words, I have the cultural hangups of the Puritans, but intellectually I quit blaming them on God.

    Even though I think Intelligent Design is a foolish attempt at attacking evolution, I have to give the originator of that idea some credit for trying to modernize his deity. I don’t see the hand of a personal God in nature, but I do think nature is moving in a direction that we’ve yet to explain, and a decent religion could be built around that mystery.

    Even though I’m not of a religious bent, I can understand other people wanting religion in their lives. The old religions are tired. They need updating. And I think you’re right Ed, religion probably has a big role in human life for centuries to come. I think religion itself evolves.


  18. Nevertheless, I think that humans in the future, even humans with technology so advanced it will appear magical to us today…will be more religious that we are at the moment.

    I don’t put much store in my, or anyone else’s, ability to predict how religious people will be in the future. Especially in a time whose tech would look magical to us. People with tech that advanced may have mastered uploaded and eliminated all disease—including the disease we call getting old.

    Maybe they’ll still be as religious as ever. Maybe they’ll look back on the religiously dominated past as an insane time of silly and dangerous superstition.

    Who know?


    Atheism is in decline, and religious belief is as healthy as ever, even as science and technology advance.

    I’m not sure where you get the idea that atheism is in decline. Most of the polls and statistics I’m aware of don’t support such a conclusion.

  19. Aren’t there some nations with atheism rates around 50%. Its not something I’ve looked into in any depth so I’m not sure if that’s correct.

    But if that’s the case I don’t think we can reasonably say that the future will necessarily be strongly religious—not with some places being atheistic in such high numbers in our own time—long before the sort of “magical” technology Ed mentions.

  20. David Ellis, you’re right. Polls indicate that atheism is on the increase in the U.S., although still very much a minority, and is also quite high in some other countries. Ed is probably more aware of the political clout the religious right has exercised in the last 20 years, which is much more visible than creeping poll numbers and a few books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc., on best seller lists.

    There is certainly part of the human psyche that wants answers, wants comfort, and security, or is merely interested in making or maintaining a particular tribal affiliation. Those desires are all rational. Truly throwing reason overboard to have them lacks intellectual integrity and is not intellectual rational. Humans apparently do it all the time, however, in large numbers.

    My species is frustrating.

  21. “But I find it hard to believe that intelligent machines would ever consider something real they cannot detect with science and technology.”

    Does this mean the intelligence machines will never speculate about the origins (if any) of the Big Bang, or the multiple worlds theory of physics?

    Worse, if taken literally, you condemn our AI descendants to having no thoughts or speculations about economics, ethics, pure mathematics, or the philosophy of Kant, Plato, or Berkeley.

    They can never speculate about the nature of consciousness, passion, emotion, or memory, or aesthetics, or epistomology, including (by the way) the epistomology underpinning science and technology.

    I think your statement is misworded. You mean that the AI’s, which you assume will think like you, will be atheists or agnostics like you. The set of all things “they cannot detect with science and technology” includes a lot more than theology.

    “I see religious belief slowly declining in our secular world, so it shouldn’t play a role in speculative fiction about the far future…”

    So, no Paul Mu’ad-Dib in the future? No Foundation of Terminus deliberately encouraging a belief in the Great Galactic Spirit? No Church of the Nine Worlds founded by Michael Valentine Smith? No Galactic Overmind to lead us past our racial childhood’s end into some cosmic unity? No Martian forced for a time by human thought to appear as Christ?

    You can define speculative fiction as narrowly as you wish, in order to exclude the type of speculations you find unreasonable, but I note that this excludes (at least some) works by Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.

  22. John, I meant to imply that machines might end up being far more literal about reality than we were. If they have a religion it won’t be based on imaginary beings like angels and gods, unless their artificial senses can detect them. When I said robots won’t accept anything they can’t perceive with science and technology, I didn’t mean they wouldn’t generate their own abstract beliefs based on what they do perceive. But why would the believe in unicorns, fairies and little green spacemen if such concepts only come from the minds of humans?

    The Big Bang can be felt today in the background radiation detectable with instruments. The senses of AIs can be anything we can build today, and that is far ranging. Cosmology will quite vivid in their senses.

    AIs should have no problem with mathematics, even pure math that can’t be detected with any mechanical sense, because it can be derived scientifically or with logic. I believe intelligent machines can have rich inner lives, but not necessary the same kind we have.

    Ethics should be possible for AI minds, and even other forms of abstract thought, if such abstractions can be translated into logic. But can they know passion, sex and even beauty? I don’t know. We will never know what it’s like to be a butterfly. Every creature has its limitations.

    All the famous science fictional religions you list deal with mystical and paranormal knowledge, something AI minds might not see. Of course, robots will have telepathy, in many forms.

    By the way, John, were you impressed by any of the famous made up religions of science fiction? I’ve never been.

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