Book Review: Hyperion Cantos

February 11th, 2008

I just recently re-read an old favourite of mine, the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

The Cantos is a sequence of four books:

These were well received novels when they first came out – the first won the Hugo award, and three of them one a Locus Award.

I won’t try and summarise the whole story (it’s hard to cover the story of four books without spoiling at least three of them). The central setting is the strange world of Hyperion, with it’s time tombs travelling backwards in time, the labyrinth with its millions of miles of underground tunnels, and the vicious metallic Shrike. And beyond Hyperion, there are the post-human Ousters who live in space, and the independent artificial intelligences of the TechnoCore.

The writing of the books is interesting to follow. The first book is written in imitation of the Canterbury Tales model, with a series of tales told by pilgrims within a thinner framing story. The second book has a different framing device, but so much plot is included in the frame that it becomes difficult to really call it a ‘frame’. The third and fourth books resort to a very conventional framing device, the ‘condemned man’ flashback plot. The writing throughout is good, but I have to admit to enjoying the earlier books with their more ambitious approach more.

The quality of the story, on the other hand, gets considerably better in the second two novels. The story throughout is interesting, but the backing plot is overshadowed in the first book by the tales of the pilgrims, and the second book is weighed down heavily with picking up the dropped threads of the first book. The third book is a much more closely plotted, faster moving story with far more engaging characters – the most engaging character of the first two books is the artificially reconstructed personality of the poet John Keats.

While I personally enjoy the series as a whole, it’s hard to recommend to others. The first book is hard going, and has the least engaging of the pilgrims tales at the start. As a result I suspect that Hyperion is a much-abandoned novel. It’s also not very representative of the story and style of the later books, with pretty much only the setting and a few characters carrying over. Personally I enjoy the first book quite a bit, but it is (far more than the other three) not for everyone.