by Dan Simmons
EOS (HarperCollins) 2003
Review score: *** out of *****
A number of people have observed that the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s was, at its core, optimistic. Although nuclear war lurked in the background, there was an optimism in the work of writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon. Mankind was evolving toward something better. Our current stage of aggression and war was a childhood that, if we survived, we would outgrow. In the 1980s science fiction started to turn inward. William Gibson's Neuromancer was set is a distopian future, the work of an angry young man (according to Gibson's description). Dan Simmons became famous with his book Hyperion, in which millions of humans were enslaved in a distant future, while in the current time of the plot people were hunted by a killing machine called the Shrike.
Dark futures could be seen as a hallmark of Dan Simmons work. Literary allusion is another theme. In Hyperion there are allusions to the work of the romantic poet Keats. Dan Simmons book Ilium is heavily based on Homer's Iliad, the story of the Trojan war. The Iliad is itself a dark tale. Troy is destroyed, many of its men killed, its women raped and sold into slavery. The war did not turn out well in the end for many of the Greeks. Agamemnon, the Greek king who defeats Troy, returns home, fated to be murdered by his wife, Clymenestra (although this is not part of Homer's tale).
Ilium is beautifully written and Simmons' story is compelling. In Ilium the Greek Gods watch (and sometimes meddle) as the Trojan war unfolds. The Gods have resurrected various classic scholars from the twentieth and early twenty-first century whose job it is to record the Trojan war. The war as it plays out on the plains of Troy largely follows the story Homer related, but the scholars are forbidden to tell anyone, even the Gods, of Homers account before the events have come to pass. The book weaves together three plots lines. The story of the Trojan war is told by an early twenty-first century classics scholar named Hockenberry. In Ilium much of humanity has been wiped out by the "Rubicon virus" while other humans have evolved through technology into post-humans. "Old-style" humans remain on earth and one plot line in Ilium relates to them. The final plot line involves Moravecs (biomechanical sentient beings, named after Hans Moravec). The Moravecs have been "seeded" throughout the Jupiter system and the asteroid belt. A group of Moravecs has been sent on a mission to Mars by their government, which is concerned that massive quantum disturbances on Mars imperil the solar system.
Ilium is set in the same "universe" as Simmons short story The Ninth of Av which was published in his story collection Worlds Enough and Time. One of the characters in this story, a woman named Savi, plays an important part in Ilium.
Ilium is a book for the patient reader. The constant switching back and forth between the three story lines can take concentration and at times I found that I had to flip back to a previous section to find a detail I had forgotten. The structure and reasons behind the story line are revealed slowly as well. The Greek Gods reside on Olympus Mons, on Mars. At first I thought that Troy and the Greeks were somehow also on Mars. It was not until the end of the book that I understood the spatial and temporal relationship between the Gods and the Trojan war. Ironically, some of the later arriving characters in the story were confused as well ("How did we end up on Earth?").
In reading Simmons' work I have sometimes wondered if he knew in advance how the story would unfold. In reading the Hyperion books I wondered if Simmons knew, even in broad outline, how this long complex story would evolve when he wrote the first book.
Ilium is the first book of a two part story, which is supposed to be finished in Olympos, so the complete story cannot be judged at this point. As with most Dan Simmons books the story is compelling, but there have been cases were the plot of a compelling Dan Simmons story fell apart at the end (for example, his book Summer of Night). If Olympos is as good as Ilium and Simmons manages to pull all the plot lines into a profound whole these books will be some of Simmons best work.
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