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Ilium: Dan Simmons goes (Ancient) Greek!

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Dan Simmons, Ilium. London: Gollancz, 2003.

Readers familiar with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos will no doubt have been waiting with baited breath for his return to epic SF and his sizable new novel Ilium is certainly epic in both size and scope. The novel contains three very different narrative threads, which slowly intersect in provocative, if not necessarily revealing, ways. The first tale, as the title suggests, is based on The Iliad; we meet what appear to be the Ancient Greek Gods who are (subtlety) directing the action of the Trojan War, complete with a full cast including Helen, Paris, Achilles, Agamemnon and ill-fated Odysseus. For some reason the Gods have also ‘resurrected’ scholars from Earth who are experts on Homer’s epic poem; these ‘scholics’ are charged with watching the Trojan War and ensuring that events are unfolding as narrated in The Iliad. The protagonist in this thread is Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D. At first glance, Hockenberry seems to be living the classical scholar’s ultimate fantasy of actually seeing the real Trojan War unfold. However, we quickly discover that his masters, the Ancient Gods, are every bit as childish, selfish and manipulative as suggested in ancient mythology. Hockenberry is the bound and bitter servant of a Muse, and after a parody of the opening of The Iliad, Hockenberry laments: ‘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’ (1).

In complete contrast, the second narrative thread introduces Moravecs, organic-machine hybrids who were ‘seeded’ across the solar system by human beings hundreds of years earlier. The central Moravec is Mahnmut, who spends his time piloting the submersible The Dark Lady through the waters of the Jovian moon Europa, and obsessively analysing Shakespeare’s sonnets. When other Moravecs discover massive and very dangerous amounts of quantum shift energy emanating from Mars they decide they must investigate. Mahnmut joins Orphu of Io (who prefers Proust and argues literature with Mahnmut at the drop of a hat) and two others in order to investigate and possibly eliminate the cause of the extremely hazardous quantum energies.

With the Moravec characters, Simmons is again exploring ideas of artificial life. In the Hyperion Cantos, artificial life and artificial intelligences play a huge role; in the first two books they appear almost omniscient, while by the conclusion of Rise of Endymion, artificial lifeforms play a far more complex role as both part of humanity’s survival and their ultimate threat. The Moravecs are far less empowered in Ilium and spend the majority of the novel trying to figure out exactly what is happening on Mars. The name Moravec is a nod toward Hans Moravec, the head of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, who argues in his book Mind Children (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988) that the next stage of evolution is robotic and digital life which will supersede ordinary organic human beings. Simmons’ Moravecs are less interested in replacing humanity than in making sure the solar system is not destroyed by experimentation which reeks of human arrogance.

The final narrative thread is set on Earth itself, at least a few millennia in the future. The narrative perspective is Daeman’s, an ignorant twenty-six year old who prides himself on being a ‘lady’s man’ and little else. Daeman is a typical of the few hundred thousand humans remaining on Earth: he cannot read, is generally content and uninquisitive, spends most of his time at social gatherings, travels instantaneously across the world via ‘faxnode’, and leads a pampered life with slavish servitor robots and slightly more mysterious Voynix creatures maintaining his indulgent lifestyle. However, when Daeman is at a party trying to seduce the alluring Ada, he finds himself mixed up with Ada’s friend Hannah and the ninety-nine year old Harman who has rediscovered the ability to read; probably the only human being able to do so. Harman is living his final year, as all humans leave the Earth an one hundred years of age, possibly to join the ‘posthumans’ or ‘posts’ who left the Earth for the orbital habitats (and elsewhere) centuries earlier. Harman’s quest to find a spacecraft, visit the posts, and discover what’s really going on with the Earth lead the reluctant adventurers on a journey which uncovers many of the mysterious happenings on the planet Earth, and raises far more questions than it answers.

Just as Simmons used the style of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Hyperion to draw together six separate stories and then end the novel just as they intertwine, the three narrative strands of Ilium slowly approach one another and the novel ends as they finally intersect. However, unlike Hyperion, where the novel stood well by itself and the stories all held readers with their own energy, the three stories in Ilium are only just finding their own momentum as the novel ends. The very disparate cast of characters are harder to empathise with than characters in many of Simmons’ other novels and the shear weight of so many different story elements, settings and intrigues threaten to overwhelm the coherence of the novel; so much is going on, it’s hard to enjoy any one story. So, too, are there many shared elements with the Hyperion Cantos which felt fresh and engaging a decade ago, but somewhat less so as they are rehashed in Ilium. However, I must confess not having read Hyperion until I owned its sequel, which made some of the story much clearer. Despite its shortcomings, Ilium has many powerful passages and reworks historical and literary material in quite creative and sometimes amazing ways. The next novel Olympos is already being written and I have high hopes that reading the two in tandem will clarify some of the loose ends from Ilium and produce a far more rounded and satisfying read.

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  • http://www.makeyougohmm.com/ TDavid

    I enjoyed Carrion Comfort, but boy that’s been a long time ago that I read that book. Great writer!

  • Taybi

    Definetly a milestone in the history of SF literature, a must-have for anyone that has the ability to taste true genius.

    OLYMPOS (Ilium’s sequel) is even more exciting…