by Dan Simmons
Martin Silenus (The Poet)
You're probably not seeing a portly drunk with a face as "mobile and expressive as an Earth primate's" (1.26) and "fingers long enough to be a concert pianist. Or a strangler" (1.26). And you're probably not hearing the boisterous voice of a man whose first line in this book is "as if we fucking humans were ever motivated by human logic!" (1.40).
Or someone who responds to the religion roll call by saying, "'I was baptized a Lutheran [...] I helped create Zen Gnosticism [...] I have been a Catholic, a revelationist, a neo-Marxist, an interface zealot, a Bound Shaker, a satanist, a bishop in the Church of Jake's Nada, and a dues-paying subscriber to the Assured Reincarnation Institute. Now, I am happy to say, I am a simple pagan" (1.84).
But if for some strange reason you were thinking of those things, then you have a pretty accurate picture of Martin Silenus, the poet of Hyperion, and author of The Dying Earth, which sold over 2.5 billion copies. You read that right: billion. So how did this guy get to be the galaxy's best-selling author?
We find out the most about Silenus in the same way we learn about the rest of the pilgrims: through their stories. Silenus's tale is one of the few that's actually about himself, and he pretty much gives us his entire life story. It's not a happy one. He grew up on Earth as it was dying (scientists created a black hole at its core) with a cold, distant mother, who was also dying. Most of his education came from his tutor, Balthazar, whom we learn next to nothing about. (Sorry, Balthazar, no character page for you.)
Before both Silenus's mother and Earth succumb to death, Silenus's mother puts him on a spaceship for a distant planet. Not just to save him, but to make sure the family doesn't die off in debt. Since, you know, that would be worse.
But her plan goes awry. Not only does Martin lose all his money, but he also ends up all but brain-dead on a the prison colony of Heaven's Gate. Heaven this isn't.
While toiling away in prison (sound familiar?) Silenus manages to not only overcome his nine-word profane vocabulary—which includes such poetic words as "asshole, peepee, and poopoo" (3.66)—but also manages to write a book that becomes his ticket out of there and one of the best selling books of all time. Now that's determination.
An Abridged Success
You'd think that Silenus would be happy to be such a success, but it came at the expense of his creative integrity. His Cantos was heavy edited by his editor, Tyrena Wingreen-Feif. (See her "Character Analysis" for information on just how she butchered his work. Now he's under contract to crank out dull sequel after dull sequel to The Dying Earth, but "It isn't hard being a hack writer" (3.193).
Well, it may not be difficult (after all, James Patterson and his army can crank out a dozen novels a year), but it sure isn't fulfilling. At least not to Martin Silenus. Sure he has a home with over three dozen rooms on just as many worlds thanks to the magic of the farcaster portal. But he ends up married three times, drinks a lot, and experiments with dozens of religions, only to find that nothing is a replacement for writing.
He revises his Cantos and submits it to Tyrena, who has agreed to publish it without edits this time. She reads it and tells him, "It's perfect... a masterpiece" (3.165). Will it sell? "No fucking way" (3.167). And she's right. It's a major flop, selling only 23,638 copies. We're not mathematicians, but that's a mere fraction of 2.5 billion, the number of copies sold of The Dying Earth. Talks about a blow to the old ego. Even if he's creating art for art's sake, selling a few hundred thousand copies would at least validate his vision.
No longer content with hack writer-dom, Silenus flees to the kingdom of Sad King Billy to chase his muse. Billy's a big fan of the Cantos (he ordered 20,000 to give to the people in his kingdom), and he wants to move everyone to the planet Hyperion, where they will all find artistic inspiration.
Silenus travels with them, where they found the Poet's City on Hyperion. Even in a city with poetry in its name, no muse appears to Silenus. He descends into a life of decadence, transforming himself into a literal satyr, "hairy flanks, hooves, and goat legs" (3.300). Not to mention what he does to what's between those goat legs. He spends his days drinking and having sex. It's like a twisted version of Animal Crossing on the Wii.
Does he finally find peace? Well, maybe not. "It was fucking wonderful. It was fucking hell" (3.311). That's quite a paradoxical statement. Maybe the poet doesn't really want a life of debauchery after all. Can someone who has written something as beautiful (and yes, poetic) as the Cantos be spiritually satisfied by daily orgies as a man-goat?
Nope. In fact, Silenus decides to kill himself, but his suicide is interrupted when the Shrike appears. It starts randomly killing people in the Poet's City until King Billy orders everyone to leave. Except that, since the Shrike's appearance, Martin's words have been flowing just as easily as the blood. So he stays. Apparently, he's found his muse: the Shrike.
As if he weren't cocky and callous already, Silenus grows even more abrasive. He's unsympathetic toward those killed by the Shrike, joking that he bathes in their blood: "It works as a fucking literary aphrodisiac" (3.358). You know, we've heard of blood, sweat, and tears going into a work of passion, but we always thought those belonged to the artist himself, not those who are getting murdered all around him.
He also believes that the Shrike only exists because of him, saying, "The Shrike had come into existence because of the incantatory powers of my poem but the poem could not have existed without the threat/presence of the Shrike as muse" (3.416). But he has no desire to get rid of it. He practically worships it. And in our book, that makes him no different than the Consul, whom he wants to execute after finding out that he too believes he unleashed the Shrike on humanity.
When the Shrike attacks Sad King Billy, Silenus is forced to burn his manuscript to get it to leave. When he finally does, it's too late to save Billy: the Shrike has impaled him. Basically, Silenus put his manuscript ahead of saving the life of a friend—maybe his only friend. Not that we're surprised.
After telling his tale, Silenus tells the pilgrims that he spent a year rewriting the burned pages. "I did not finish the poem. It was not by choice. My muse had fled" (3.470). But ever after the horrible events on Hyperion, he's determined to the point of insanity: "The poem must be finished. It will be finished" (3.474). Silenus shows us how far might just be too far to go for a work of art. After hearing the Poet's tale, it seems that the Consul's initial assessment of Silenus as "quite mad" (1.27) might just be true after all.Martin Silenus's Timeline