Ilium - Dan Simmons

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Dan Simmons
Gollancz publishers
ISBN 0575072601 (Amazon Link)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that SF fans are a bunch of unwashed, anti-social philistines, whose cultural and literary boundaries are described by Star Trek fanfic and Buffy novelisations. Luckily, no-one told Dan Simmons, who has written a SF novel that asks the reader to be familiar with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Shakespeare's The Tempest and his sonnets, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, the plays of Samuel Beckett [1], and, just to frustrate those who are well read, the Voynisch manuscript (though I admit this last is a guess, hopefully inspired?, on my part).

Ilium is clearly a very ambitious novel, and it's one I think a lot of people have been waiting for - I certainly have - wondering if Simmons can recapture his old form. Simmons gained instant acclaim in the SF world with Hyperion back in 1990, and although he's written fairly constantly since, his horror and crime novels just haven't received the same accolades. I have to admit that reviews of his recent crime novels The Crook Factory and Darwin's Blade for example, just didn't excite me enough to order copies, and, to be frank, what I've read of his horror novels, particularly Fires of Eden, actively put me off Simmons as an author.

Before I launch into the review proper, I feel obliged to insert the Novak Clause here:

Dear publishers, nowhere on the cover, or anywhere inside, this handsome UK trade paperback is there a single hint that Ilium is not a standalone novel. Please don't do this.

Apparently the fact that Ilium is the first half of a duology is made clear on the US cover [2], and to be honest, it's going to hard to judge the ultimate success of this story without Olympus. It seems only fair to warn you that Ilium ends on a tremendous cliff-hanger...

Let's move on to what's between the covers, Simmon's work and not that of the publishers:

Ilium seems to me to be about the power of literature to affect reality, a cautionary story about how advanced technology might permit the human race, or the post-human race, to utterly change our environment, and how such acts of intense imagination (my Voynisch idea) coupled to such technology could wreck havoc. If that sounds intensely precious, fear not, Ilium comes dressed as a SF action adventure, literary analysis of Proust and Shakespeare vies for page time with adventuring robots, exploding spaceships, gods wielding ray guns, little green men and sword-fights.

It's been a dozen years since a Simmons title affected me, and I admit to starting Ilium afraid that my high expectations would spoil my enjoyment. I needn't have worried - Ilium demanded my complete attention from the very first page, and as I always like to quote something of the prose in a review anyway, here is the powerful opening:


Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus' son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you're at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympus, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry - poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D, Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage may be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. not one little bit."

I don't know about you, but the above alone let me forgive Simmons half a dozen mediocre novels.

In this novel, Simmon weaves three major plot threads together - the central tale features our resurrected classical scholar, our reluctant Chorus, armed with his knowledge of Homer but lacking any personal memories, roaming the bloody fields of Ilium, reporting on the war's correlation to the poet's report only after each day has past. Zeus alone of all the gods appears to know how things should turn out, and the scholics are bound not to reveal what they know to anyone. This is clearly a SF tale, Hockenberry goes observing wearing ballistic armour, carrying microphones and wearing vision enhancing contact lenses, and teleports to Olympus to rest - but most of all, he can morph into the form of any person present... This in the midst of war fought over the most beautiful woman ever born? Temptation indeed...

Hockenberry, with all his 20th century world weariness, is under no illusions as to the nature of the gods themselves; whatever they are, whomever they are, they rely on advanced technology - their physical presence, and that of their chosen heroes is enhanced by nano-technology. The gods travel by quantum teleportation, or in levitating chariots drawn by holographic horses. Simmons is having a lot of fun with Clarke's Law here, but the wider questions of who the gods are, and whether this is the real historical event around Troy (remember the title of Proust's major work), or some astonishing re-creation remain open.

Whatever the broader truth, there is no doubting the physical reality of what the scholics report on each day - the awful butchering of men is described in gory detail, true to the classics. (As an aside, Simmons clearly has done his homework, and several times our scholarly observer discusses different translations of the Iliad with one of his fellows, in a very natural way and to good effect.) Immersed in the physical reality of the war that has occupied him for a lifetime, Hockenberry is about to be drawn deep into the gods machinations, after being singled out by Aphrodite for some special tasks... but Hockenberry is weary of the gods games, and becomes a tool that turns in Aphrodite's hand.

The second main plot thread features the most sympathetic characters - the morevacs, sentient robot like creations, part organic. Mahnmut of Europa is a small, humanoid, submersible pilot. He is an admirer of Shakespeare's sonnets, and when not out-running giant squid deep in his frozen world's oceans, loves nothing better than discussing the Young Man of the Bard's sonnets with his friend Orphu of Io, a deep space dweller. Orphu is a massive, heavily armoured, deep space crab. Interested in Shakespeare as he is, Orphu turns out to prefer Proust, but has trouble persuading Mahnmut that the French author repays any study.

I'm not entirely certain that I understand quite how the literary analysis, particularly of Proust, ties into the wider plot and themes of the book, but I'm willing to trust Simmons to tie things up in Olympus. Besides, even if it served no purpose, I adored the concept of a bluff, industrial robot discussing Proust's themes with his smaller, less obviously mechanical friend to pass the time on a long space journey:
"Proust knew - and his characters discover - that neither love nor its more noble cousin, friendship, ever survive the entropy blades of jealousy, boredom, familiarity, and egotism."

Mahnmut and Orphu become involved with an expedition to Mars, part of small group sent by the wider morevac community, scattered within our solar system, to investigate worrying quantum activity, techno-babble excused by Clarke's Law, centred on Olympus Mons. Naturally, Mars is not the planet we know, this Mars is terraformed. The red planet now features wide oceans and deserts in bloom. And hordes of little green men erecting millions of Easter Island heads around the coasts. All the heads seem to be of Prospero... curiouser, and curiouser!

Naturally, Mahnmut and Orphu's expedition doesn't run smoothly, and the pair soon find themselves facing, with some disbelief, the ancient Greek gods. Luckily, the odd pair do have that morevac curiosity about old human cultures and their literature, and as every student of the The Iliad will know, and Hockenberry points out, it's not as though The Iliad doesn't sport robots already! It's odd, but the relationship between the two robotic creations, Mahnmut and Orphu, is one of the most touching in the novel.

The final plot thread is the hardest to summarise without spoilers, and features the old style humans themselves. Earth is populated by Eloi analogues, a weak, decadent race of 'old-style' biological humans, living pleasure seeking lives attended by ancient mechanical servitors, who provide their every need, and protected from all physical harm by the mysterious Voynix. Travel is easy, simply fax from one place to another. Every twenty years they fax to the rings above, two colossal structures crossing the sky, visiting the Firmiry to be revitalised. The fifth such trip sees the 'old-style' human ascend to join the post-humans in an ring-dwelling afterlife. (Those who read the introduction above might have their doubts about such a scheme...)

Daeman is one such human, living his ignorant, post-literate life in an idyll, his copious free time dedicated mainly to bedding beautiful young women and watching the Turin events - pop a special cloth over your face to spend an hour watching the live events of the Trojan war. Until that is he meets an old woman, Savi, who claims to be the Wandering Jew, whatever a Jew is, condemned to wander the Earth since the Final Fax saw the bulk of the population ascend to become post-humans in the rings above. Daeman's comfortable world view is shaken up by Savi [3] by his new friend Harman, who has taught himself to read on the verge of his hundredth year!, by the appearance of a charismatic man called Odysseus, and, most understandably, by being eaten by a dinosaur.

Harman's quest to rediscover what humanity has lost, coupled with Savi's scornful agreement about how much they have lost, and Odysseus' disgust at their soft lives, sets Daeman off on his own personal odyssey, one destined to bring him face to face with creations from a play he couldn't read, by a playwright he's never even heard of.

Ilium then is a complex book, balancing three classical tales, The Iliad, The Tempest and perhaps The Odyssey, in a SF setting. Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. The plotting is rich, the background deep, the dialogue peppered with a well-judged mix of literary allusions and asides, balanced with Hockenberry's unconscious explication of the events and characters surrounding him. We the readers become his surrogate students, sparing us from having to recall the difference between Big Ajax, and Little Ajax, sparing us from needing to take notes on Homer's huge cast.

There are some unfortunate missteps along the way, particularly when it comes to physics - feet and metres both get used, the stars can be seen in daylight from down a deep canyon, mass and weight are confused - but overall any jarring anachronisms seem deliberate, and I'm willing to let any apparent dangling plot threads await resolution in Olympus before I comment. There are a few places where the prose style thins, particularly 3/4 of the way through, but the sheer scale and brazen audacity of the plot climax outweighs any concerns I have. Besides, the sudden shift from literary discussion to all out action adventure, is at least accompanied by some striking imagery and memorable lines - Achilles gets a particularly fine Hollywood retort to Zeus for example.

In Ilium Simmons has written an ambitious and complex novel, but I don't think he's over-reached his capabilities, nor does he mis-judge his old audience. It should be ridiculously pretentious, but in fact, this is very fine SF, space opera imbued with literary depth, respecting what's come before in the field, but having terrific fun messing with our expectations. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that Ilium is comparable in many ways to Hyperion. Highly recommended and terrifically intriguing, but be warned, you might want to wait until Olympus is released if you dislike cliff-hangers, or fear the Endymion effect might kick in.

[1] Okay, I admit it, I didn't really get the Beckett reference, anyone care to explain the joke to me?

[2] Ironically, I only know this after a frantic Google - thinking, "That can't be it?! Is there a sequel?" - turned up a post from John Novak noting that the cover makes it clear that this is the first half of a duology.

[3] Savi is cheekily called Siri at one point.

Posted: Tue - September 2, 2003 at 01:12 AM