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Ilium
Dan Simmons
Gollancz (UK) / HarperCollins Eos (US), 576 pages

Ilium
Ilium
Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award and a number of others. He is the author of Song of Kali, the Hyperion books, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, the Endymion books, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, and a number of other terrific novels.

Dan Simmons Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Dan Simmons
SF Site Review: Worlds Enough And Time
SF Site Review: The Crook Factory
SF Site: Dan Simmons Reading List
SF Site Review: Rise of Endymion
SF Site Review: Song of Kali
Dan Simmons Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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After a six year hiatus during which he has worked within his usual medium of horror and suspense, Dan Simmons dramatically returns to the literary-influenced space opera with Ilium. Reportedly ten years in conception, this epic, the first of two parts, opens before the gates of Troy, not within the myths of our ancient past, but reenacted in some far-flung future, and not on Earth but Mars. Homer has been supplanted by a twentieth century classics professor, Thomas Hockenberry, in his own words an "unwilling Chorus" who, along with other "scholics," has been resurrected from remnants of his own DNA to observe and report the unfolding saga to the gods on Mount Olympos. Though he and his fellow academics know how events will play out -- this new siege so far faithful to Homer's verse -- the gods, aside from omniscient Zeus, haven't a clue as they act out their appointed tasks.

As he has done in the past, Simmons is once again incorporating earlier literature into the fabric and themes of his novel, this time turning to Shakespeare, Browning, Tennyson and Proust -- even H.G. Wells -- along with Homer for inspiration for his plots, adopting and recasting some of their characters and motifs. This appropriation has proven successful in the past, most notably in his last foray into science fiction, the exceptional Hyperion Cantos, in which he both toyed with and rewrote the tales and verse of Chaucer and Keats, at times playfully, at others in earnest. It appears this is once again his intention here, though by this book's conclusion it remains unclear whether his use of literary referents is anything more than a framing or stage set of ready-made tropes cleverly used to assume gravitas. I suspect, based upon Simmons previous work, that it is more than just that.

From the outset the author warns the reader not to place much faith in the narrative's source or inspiration. Told by a dead man who can't entirely account for his memories, either of events observed or the emerging past informing them, the novel opens with an invocation of Homeric verse, a paean to rage and animus that ends up damning its own spirit:

"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."
Any confidence in the text, or the players' free will, is instantly dispelled.

Thus forewarned, the novel starts out as three seemingly disparate storylines whose relationship to each other is slow to emerge. For this reason more casual readers may find the initial stages to the novel reluctant to admit interest, each tale appearing to proceed in divergent directions, the resulting shifts in the novel's focus and characters interrupting the threads of what has preceded, regardless of each separate story thread's imagination or promise for future development. It is easy instead to become seduced by the action and direct drama staged on the plains of Ilium, a saga already well familiar, whereas the two attendant storylines seem less immediate and, at the outset, far less animate.

As Hockenberry repeats, with an admixture of fascination and cynical disinterest, a story told many times before -- in the process drafted by Aphrodite to spy on and murder Athena -- elsewhere the last few humans on Earth live an eloi-like existence, tended by mechanical servitors and the mysterious voynix, who function both as servants and guardians. Fourteen hundred years ago, humanity was nearly wiped out by a "rubicon pandemic." Only a little over nine thousand Jews survived, due to some unexplained genetic resistance. Following this near extinction, the post-humans, a race of women apparently able to manipulate their own DNA, abandon Earth, but not until they have tinkered with its environment, haphazardly reintroducing extinct species such as dinosaurs or mammals and birds from the Miocene and Pleistocene epochs. They retreat to celestial cities in the rings that now encircle Earth, leaving behind a constant and managed population of exactly one million humans whose life expectancy is equally exactly one hundred years. For this remnant aging and death have been eliminated, and if the rare accident occurs, the victim is immediately reconstituted and returned to their previous life, any suffering or unpleasantness wiped from their memory. Free of material want, their every need provided for, humanity has forgotten its history, and the limits of human knowledge are only what are requisite for a moment-to-moment experience of ceaseless pleasure and innocence that, after a century, concludes in eternity amongst the post-humans. But at least one man, nearing the end of his hundred year cycle, begins to question this blissful existence, and along with three friends, seeks out answers to mysteries, both past and present, that will lead to a terrestrial journey that will eventually exceed the bounds of Earth.

The third story thread, on the other hand, concerns a mission to Mars mounted by the moravecs, sentient machines originally sent into space to explore the outer solar system. Twenty-five hundred years ago they broke with their human masters, settling in Jovian space. They have grown concerned of late over dangerous levels of quantum activity or phase-shifting detected on the Martian surface. The degree of this activity "amounts to a hole torn in the fabric of space-time," and is perceived as "a threat to the entire solar system." At some point over the past two hundred years, Mars has been terraformed by the post-humans. Yet there is no evidence they have remained on the planet. Instead, little green men (LGM's) have been observed mysteriously erecting millions of stone heads along the coastline of the northern sea. Though neither they nor the post-humans appear to be the cause of the quantum activity, the moravecs elect to send four of their own to investigate and put an end to the phase-shifting, regardless of who is responsible. Half of this crew are students of Lost Age literature, old correspondents who will make use of their travel to discuss the relative merits of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu and Shakespeare's Sonnets, posed as alternate views of experience, though the import of this dialogue and its relationship to the overall narrative, as with other literary references within the book, remain unresolved or at best suggestive by novel's end.

Homer's relevance, however, is much more obvious, at least as an opening prop. It is the Iliad that initially provides a bearing, a compass for the reader around which Simmons constructs the rest of his narrative, and without which, it could be argued, the rest, at least during the first third or so of the book, would unravel. In terms of its plotting, this is a complicated novel whose integrity is slow to reveal, and it is the familiarity of the Iliad storyline that initially binds the work together, serving as a form of place mark while the other two strands, at first seeming unrelated, gradually come together.

Part humor, part literary space opera (and perhaps part intellectual snipe hunt), Ilium is fascinating in its grand scope as well as the way it refits earlier works to conform to an entirely new epic and context. References abound, not only to literature but popular culture, current events, philosophy and recent concepts of physics. At times one feels the need to annotate, in order to sort through the scale of events, characters and themes so often touched upon or merely suggested, only to be later reexplored from different circumstance or vantage. And so much of what occurs throughout the novel is driven not by drama -- though there is plenty of that, especially towards the end -- but by anticipation of how the author will ultimately resolve and integrate all of his various plotlines, cast and speculation. Intriguing hints are laid, sometimes in opposition: Proust's exploration of time, memory and perception or the secret paths to the puzzle of life; the moravec Mahnmut's interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets as a dramatic construct; the interaction and influence of will, represented by Zeus, the Fates, and kaos, upon events taking place upon the plains of Ilium; the fulcrum Hockenberry is urged to find in order to change the outcome of Homer; or the identity of "'A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.'" Cosmologies and ontologies, as well as metaphors, are borrowed, their identities and purposes remaining unclear or unexplained, as is so much else by novel's end, though suspicions are delectably stirred. Yet those who recall The Rise of Endymion should ready to jettison any assumption.

Without possibly giving a part of the game away, and cautioning the reader that the novel ends as a cliffhanger, the story concludes aptly enough at a precipice of war between gods and humanity. Much of what has occurred retains a mystery whose outlines have only started to be glimpsed, and the reader will be forced to wait for the publication of Olympus to learn how this grand epic, now having abandoned all pretence of its traditions and literary moorings, will ultimately be resolved. In the meantime, Simmons has given us narrative rich in allusion and ripe for further speculation and discussion, a work I suspect that many will go back to and ponder again as they patiently wait for its sequel. And assuming Simmons is able to deliver upon all the promise generated in this novel, as well as address the many questions left so intriguingly unanswered, this duet looks destined to equal if not excel the earlier Hyperion Cantos.

A small caveat: despite my enthusiasm for this novel, I will admit to being bothered by Simmons decision to address recent political events within his narrative. Incidents of this were brief, almost parenthetical, but nonetheless intrusive. Obviously, the author has every right to include what I assume are his personal views, but the depiction of Jerusalem as the focus of "five thousand years of pain, terror, and virulent anti-Semitism" is a gross over-simplification as well as not entirely accurate, and the mention of 9/11 that occurs on page 520 seems gratuitous and possesses little relevance within the context of the rest of the novel. Had the author chosen to address these issues or incorporate them more fully into the novel, perhaps their inclusion could be viewed as more legitimate and less pretence, regardless of any difference of views.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His criticism has also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses degrees in studio art and creative writing, as well as library science and special collections. He serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction, and has worked with noted scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall at the Cushing Library on the Michael Moorcock Life Collection. He is currently a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl, Richard Bleiler, and John Clute, et al.


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