- Genre: science fiction
- Pages: 912
- My rating: 8/10
[Some spoilers for Ilium]
Ilium was great, but now it is time to get some answers. Ilium attempted to combine high science fiction concepts with both Greek mythology and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. That was an exciting idea but it was also a bit confusing. And to be honest, the two genres mixed a bit like oil and water. You see, this science fiction world is constructed as conceivably our future, but the literary characters come from books. How does this click together? Throughout the story, Simmons gave hints that these characters – Achilles, Odysseus, and characters from The Tempest, like the wizard Prospero and the monster Caliban – are the actual characters from the books.
Simmons does provide some answers in Ilium to how this is possible. In the sarcastic words of Terry Pratchett: “it must be quantum.” Post-humans had opened holes in the fabric of space-time and things came out. Now, all these extra-universal things and emergent consciousnesses took up the identities of literary gods and then opened a portal to the distant past of Greek antiquity.
That… that must be it, but don’t ask me to be confident about this. I got the distinct impression that Simmons just wanted to talk about Homer and Shakespeare, and then argued back from that starting point to figure out how he could combine that with science fiction. But arguing the other way around doesn’t work: literary gods are not a reasonable expectation to have as a consequence of advanced technology. And Simmons never managed to convince me of that. Coming from an interest in science fiction, that made this series just a bit silly and confusing. And the idea of “in a post-singularity future anything is possible”, that is also a cop-out for loopy ideas.
There is an undercurrent in these books that is about an exploration of what is means to be human, or how to find meaning in life. The dumbed-down humans on Earth are rediscovering humanity, and the post-human/emergent consciousnesses have appropriated literary figures that imbue them with a predesigned meaning that is articulated through human art. This exploration becomes the main theme of the book Olympos. Especially the character Odysseus plays a vital role in this because he finds himself amongst the poor future humans who have no culture or memory left.
The way Simmons deals with Gods interacting with humans brings to mind the works of Gene Wolfe – especially his Soldier of Sidon and The Book of the Long Sun. Also like Gene Wolfe, there are many questions and mysteries in this story that make you wonder more strongly about its underlying themes. For instance, there is the mystery of Odysseus on the Earth of the future. In effect, he is undergoing his odyssey but at a different time and place, and teaches his values to future humans like a prophet. And then the siege of Troy is mirrored on Earth and we see whether Odysseus’s lessons were the right ones.
So, on the one hand Simmons creates a dialogue with Homer’s texts; he mimics Homer’s style with acceptable results, and lets his storylines play out along similar lines in a SF setting. This is impressively done. On the other hand, by mixing these stories with science fiction he asks whether the old Greek way of life was superior to that of current or future Earth. Such value judgments are hidden between the lines, but Simmons is not lauding the old Greeks unconditionally. He clearly admires their passion and confidence, but uses his other character Hockenberry to show that the Greeks are difficult to understand and judge from a modern point of view, because Hockenberry is from our current age. So, Simmons presents humans from the distant past (the Greeks), from the current age (Hockenberry) and the far future, and lets them interact.
There is a truly magnificent epic quality and uniqueness to this duology of Ilium and Olympos. The premise and setup of the story was so audacious and the plot lines so many that simply hammering this story into shape is an achievement on its own. The story stays unpredictable and flipping the pages to see what comes next is a joy. Especially the moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu of Io, are memorable characters.
Unfortunately, Simmons does not quite succeed and his exploration of meaning in life is muddled up in the story structure. Odysseus who teaches the humans disappears halfway through the book and no longer plays any important role. Simmons keeps on introducing new ideas, more and more and more, while having great problems wrapping it all up nicely. The main characters have their arcs but no real conclusions. Daeman, for example, goes on an important quest and he had a “nemesis” in the creature Caliban, but that story then never really culminates into anything.
The main story is about the new humans trying to become proper humans again. But this process is a very thin thread, concealed beneath plotlines about the future of the solar system, and all those epic plotlines are built up to with a lot of bombast but then sort of fizzle out because they were never Simmons’s focus. So, story-wise this is very disappointing or simply makes little sense. For example, certain characters are woken up because they are “important”, but then they don’t seem to do anything. Or alien robots are given a sudden explanation about Muslim fundamentalism that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story. But it is all meant to tie in with Harman being the new “Prometheus” because he learns new knowledge about good and evil this way, but if you take these events less metaphorically it all feels rather ridiculous.
I could go on but the point is that the story feels like a whole bunch of unrelated stuff without payoff, because the point of it all about humans rediscovering humanity is told metaphorically through very illogical events. On top of that, Simmons adds characters from The Tempest and from Greek mythology because he has bound his novel to those other works; it is in dialogue with those other works, so out of the blue new characters like Circe show up because they “have to”, but story-wise this is not fulfilling. On a page-to-page basis it is exciting to read, but in the end the novel left me disappointed. Its ambition is great, but its meaning is hidden beneath messy storytelling.