by Dan Simmons
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Dan Simmons has returned to writing science fiction with the novel Ilium, the first of a two volume series based, in part, on Homer's epic poem The Iliad. However, not content to mine the works of the ancient Greek, Simmons also draws liberal inspiration from Shakespeare, Proust, Wells, and Tolkien, to form a story which begins in front of the walls of Troy, but ends, if this volume can be said to have an end, after traveling to a far future Earth, Mars, and Jupiter, in the primeval Indiana forest.
Three primary story lines follow scholic Thomas Hockenberry, modern observer at the siege of Troy, Mahnmut, a moravec (biomechanical organism) explorer from the Galiliean moon Europa, and Daemon, a human on earth in the far future when society appears to be one great garden party. Eventually, of course, their various tales will become intertwined, and Simmons gives every indication of their being a scientific rationale for everything, although much is left unexplained when Ilium ends, setting up the second, and final, volume of the work, Olympos.
Although the story focusing on Hockenberry appears to be the primary tale, that perception may be based solely on his ties to the city of the novel's title. Furthermore, as the story progresses, Simmons ties the disparate threads together, although there are still separations and questions when the book ends. Furthermore, as the stories proceed, the reader's interest shifts from one plot line to another, not just because Simmons has elected to write about one plotline or another, but because the plots are paced differently and incorporate more and less interesting parts at different times in the novel.
As with Simmons's earlier science fiction opus, Hyperion and its sequels, Ilium is rife with literary references, not only to Homer's Iliad, which is to be expected given the title, but also to an on-going discussion about Shakespeare's sonnets and Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Other authors' influences flit in and out as the novel progresses, including H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien. While readers who are less well read may not understand all of Simmons's referents, he successfully incorporates all of them, along with explanations, into the text in a manner which holds the reader's interest.
The major drawback in Ilium is that Simmons does not tell a complete story in the lengthy volume. Detailing Hockenberry's rebellion against the gods on Olympos who appear to control his fate, Mahnmut's own discovery of those gods and his attack on them under the auspices of the Five Moon Consortium, the playing out of the events of The Iliad, and much more, Simmons appears to be only setting up the events of the next novel, Olympos and is more than willing to leave unanswered many of the questions which will have been nagging at the reader from the opening pages of Ilium.
Ilium is a major work of science fiction in much the same way Hyperion was, but while Hyperion could more easily be read on its own, Ilium clearly can only be read and fully understood with a reading of Olympos when the later work is eventually published. Until then, readers will be able to hunt for clues in Ilium and enjoy the adventures of the scholics, the moravecs, and the strange, peaceful humans who inhabit a garden party existence in the far future.
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