- Genre: Space opera
- Series: Ilium/Olympos
- Pages: 752
- My Rating: 9/10
Ilium starts with three crazy storylines and we will just have to deal with it. I will describe shortly the starting point of each of them, just so you know what kind of novel we are talking about.
1) The first storyline is that of the 20th century scholar Hockenberry, who is resurrected a few thousand years into the future, on the planet Mars. Godlike, post-human creatures are living on Mars, on the giant volcano Mount Olympos, and have brought Hockenberry back to observe and report on a war. For, at the foot of the mountain rages the Trojan War – you know, the Greek war that Homer wrote down in his Iliad. It is unclear whether this is just a recreation of the war, or some sort of projection, or the actual war brought to Mars using some kind of quantum space-time shenanigans. In any case, the post-humans are playing the roles of the ancient gods in the tale. Hockenberry gets mixed up in plots between the gods
2) The second storyline is that of some sort of cybernetic organism called Mahnmut, who lives on Jupiter’s moon Europa. He joins a small team of robots, each coming from another moon in the solar system, to travel to Mars to see what the hell is going on back there with those crazy posthumans. Mahnmut’s big friend is the robot Orphu of Io. They are both literature enthusiasts and during their mission to Mars present literary criticism to each other about Shakespeare and Proust.
3) The third storyline is that of Daeman, one of the few authentic humans left on the planet Earth. He is a dandy of the upper-class society, hoity-toity, and a completely shallow, thickheaded sex-maniac. Perhaps modelled on Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray. His shallowness is written to humorous effect, and luckily we readers can make out the import of everything that happens around him by paying close attention to the text.
So, Ilium partly retells the story of the Iliad, but at the remove of a scholar who walks between the Greeks and Trojans, talks about what happens around him and knows how the story will continue in the near future. The post-human gods have recreated the old Greek vision of Olympos, including gigantic white buildings. It seems at first that these future post-humans have surrendered their lives in a way to the passionate vision of the Greek culture that existed thousands of years ago and totally submerged themselves in it, as if the post-humans’ own culture does not exist or has no meaning. The powerful vision of the old Greeks has created their gods in reality.
Ilium may be a celebration of the everlasting power of old expressions of human art, as current culture becomes ever more shallow. That is why, perhaps, that the third storyline about Daeman shows how shallow and silly the last humans have become. And the children of humanity, the robots and the post-humans, inherit the appreciation for human art, while the real humans degenerate into imbeciles.
The inclusion of robotic literary critics seems rather random, but it is not so. Shakespeare and Proust – especially Proust – have certain things to say that have a direct relevance to the question above: why are post-humans playing as gods in the Trojan war on Mars? All societies in this future deal with the quest of finding meaning and truth. For ordinary humans, they are stuck in a place that is designed by the post-humans with strict physical and intellectual limitations. In effect, they are dumbed down. For other interplanetary societies, the answers are more difficult to find, and, as the robots say, human art transcends humanity itself. Some questions are universal and were asked even millennia ago by ancient poets. So, all the storylines do converge in plot and in theme, but it takes some time getting there
Simply said, Dan Simmons wants to write an epic with some deeper layers than pure surface entertainment. If you were to create a gradient where authors like Peter F. Hamilton and James S.A. Corey write space opera akin to hollywood blockbusters, then Simmons would be closer to the other side, to authors like Gene Wolfe, who want to communicate some deeper meaning through their story. At the same time, Simmons does not aim for the same timelessness that Wolfe goes for in his language. Simmons’s characters use more ordinary language or even “affectionately” use 20th century colloquialisms. Especially the old Greeks from the Iliad have been updated so that modern swear words replace the old Homeric utterings. Simmons’s epics remain works of entertainment with a fluff of literary critique, instead of aiming for a deeply serious exploration.
I’ve seen Dan Simmons’s work described as “literary science fiction” but that is just bullcrap for a number of reasons. The guy just admires old poetry and mixes it into his science fiction. In his previous work The Fall of Hyperion (1990), the poet John Keats shows up as an actual character, and Hyperion (1989)’s story structure was modelled on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I don’t think Simmons does this to be pretentious, although it is ok if you feel that the marriage between science fiction and old poetry is too artificial. I think that it works, up to a point, because those old poems that Simmons chooses are epic and heavy, and science fiction often has a larger-than-life quality to it as well that meshes with mythology.
As Simmons makes his scholar say that the old Greeks did everything in a grand way, in “full danger of failure”. Simmons clearly admires this attitude and his characters, like Hockenberry and Mahnmut, often speak for him
Science fiction itself could be considered the mythology of the modern world, in the sense that modern ideas about science, technology and progress are extrapolated to understand their implications for human life. Somehow it makes sense to take old mythology, and to pour it into the tropes of the new one. Space opera’s larger-than-life approach to storytelling even reinvigorates the Iliad from a quaint old fantasy tale with gods to a vision where the old gods are powerful and their work impressive in a way that resonates with the science-focused modern mind. Only a few science fiction novels attempt this conversion. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light takes the Hindu pantheon to do the same. Some biopunk novels like Paul McAuley’s Fairyland reinvent elves in a nanotech setting, and there was that old Star Trek episode where captain Kirk encounters the Greek god Apollo. But Simmons’s Ilium may be the most impressive of the lot.
The scope and vision behind this novel are grand, although I do get the sense that Simmons simply wanted to retell the Iliad for the Star Wars generation and used science fiction so that he wouldn’t get laughed at by literary critics. He talks about quantum nonsense to tie it all together, which is slightly disappointing, but I can’t help being impressed by the audacity of the story and being engrossed in its twists and turns.