REVIEW - Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium is the new book by multi-genre author Dan Simmons (Hyperion, Carrion Comfort, The Crook Factory, Hard Case, etc). It is the first volume of an unknown length series (at least one more, Olympos, is planned that I am aware of). However, I still found it quite enjoyable even though much is left unexplained. I felt there was enough movement in the major plot threads that the book did not disapoint.

The overall theme is the author exploring a combination of three elements: Clarke’s Law (a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic); advanced post-singularity intelligences, and literary world-building (specifically the idea that a sufficiently powerful creative process can have very significant impacts; although this angle is only hinted at in this volume).

Set about 2000 years in the future in a solar system that has gone through at least one (and possibly more) post-singularity metamorpheses, the novel has three main plot threads:

First off we meet Thomas Hockenberry, a 20thC Classics Professor from the American Midwest, who is serving the pantheon of Greek “Gods” (their divine provenance being a matter of significant question throughout the book) and observing the siege of Troy (Ilium) by the Greeks. Hockenberry doubts that the Gods he serves are truly divine and guesses that they are simply beings of immense technological advancement. Hockenberry is primarily reporting on the siege of Troy, which is hewing quite closely to Homer’s narrative, until events and Hockenberry conspire to knock things off track. Along the way, we meet Achilles and Hector and Helen, along with a host of characters (both human and God) from the Iliad.

In alternating chapters we meet Mahnmut, a moravec (autonomous self aware robot) who explores the seas of Europa in a submarine. There is a large community of Moravecs (who seem to have near-human or slightly-above-human intelligence and a fairly advanced but not godlike technology) in the 5 moons of Jupiter. Mahnmut and 3 other Moravecs are drafted by their version of government to explore some disturbing quantum activity on Mars. The Moravecs are the primary civilization of the outer system and have little knowledge of events in-system. The remaining “old style humans” on Earth are not in contact, and the “post-humans” seem to have disapeared. Mahnmut and his intrepid fellow travelers are sent hurtling across the system where they have an eventful rendevous with Mars. Many of the Moravecs have a strong fascination with the human cultures of lost Earth. Mahnmut is fascinated by the sonnets of Shakespeare. His literary friend is a large crab-shaped robot named Orphu of Io, who is a Proust fanatic. Along the way, Mahnmut and Orphu have lengthy literary discussions, and although it seems tangential I get the sense the literary issues will wrap into the plot more significantly later in the series.

The third plot thread follows Daemon, one of the very few “old style” humans (ie folks like us), living on Earth in sybaritic luxury, his every need catered to by mechanical servitors. Human life has grown so plush and decadent that the old styles don’t understand the technology that serves them: they cannot even read. Eventually, Daemon gets dragged into the plans of a headstrong young woman seeking adventure, an older man seeking lost knowledge and the Wandering Jew. Along the way, they begin to encounter characters who appear to be from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and much strangeness ensues.

The book sounds a bit weirder than it is: at heart it is primarily a sci-fi epic with some literary-analysis elements. I felt the three plots worked well together and overall I found the book to be very good. Each thread, to a degree, is exploring the issue of human-scale heroism in a post-human world.

The writing is very good throughout, as is typical of Simmon’s work. He has a very clean prose style that never feels over-done or flashy yet manages to convey dialogue, description and idea with great effect. There are quite a few sci-fi “big ideas” in the book, but there are almost no “info-dumps”. The few explanations that exist tend to be seamless, and the reader is left to figure the rest out from context or just to wonder about the mystery. Simmons does a very good job of implying certain concepts and I find myself with a whole host of questions (the good kind).

Overall, I feel this is the best science fiction Simmons has done since Fall of Hyperion: IMO it is quite a bit better than Endymion or Rise of Endymion
both of which I disliked). I wouldn’t put it quite on the level as Hyperion yet, but I do recommend it for readers with a taste for epic sci-fi and/or Dan Simmons fans.

Last Note: this novel is a sequel of sorts to the story The Ninth of Av, which I recently read in Simmon’s latest short story collection. If you read Ilium without having read The Ninth of Av, then there will be 1 or 2 passages that won’t make much sense in passing. I found the Ninth of Av to be a near-impenatrable reading experience. Even after reading immon’s introduction in the collection, I still don’t fully “get it”. And Ilium didn’t really help :). Perhaps all will become clear later.

Dan

Interview with Dan Simmons:

Thatnks for the reminder. I had been waiting for this book and had forgotten all about it. I’m looking forward to reading it this coming weekend. :)

Just got and read Ilium. Great stuff.

SEMI SPOILERS AHEAD

The one thing I was a little confused about was that the Daemen thread hasn’t seemed to tie completely into the other two threads, which unified nicely at the end of the book. There’s a common character between the two remaining threads (which I also don’t get), but it seems like he’s leaving that for the next book.

I didn’t read Endymion. I thought the Hyperion series was good but got a bit murky here and there where the sequence of events and actions was a bit cloudy for me, but I liked it much better than Ilium.

I guess Ilium isn’t awful, but by the end I found I didn’t care a whole heck of a lot about any of the characters. The whole situation is so contrived and hokey, it didn’t grab me. In some respects it resembled a less fun and less original Golden Torc series – Julian May messed around with Celtic mythology in a SF setting, subjecting humans to the superpowers of the quasi-Celtic aliens, while in this case they are Greeks, instead. However, the godlike characters are just vicious childish cretins so far as I can make out. In that respect they actually mirror certain qualities of the Greek gods of the actual poem, but Homer’s gods are also transcendant and awesome, whereas these gods would be just bathetic if they weren’t so evil.

These Greek gods or transhumans or whatever they are just seem stupid to me, the moravecs don’t seem that smart either, and I failed to sympathize even slightly with the Eloi, I mean, the latter-day humans, or with Hockenberry. And why he should drag in the Jews is just beyond me, it’s like the weird token Jewish presence in the Dune series… The Tempest thread is likewise neither here nor there and makes no sense at all to me. Since obviously these aren’t really Greek gods any more than these are really Tempest characters, and since the point of all this stupid fictional recreation is not explained, the whole book just seems flat and lifeless to me.

In other words, meh.

I just finished this one last week. Although I occasionally find the “start mysterious and spill out bits of world info slowly” irritating wherever I find it, I found the writing vivid enough to keep me hooked until the pace kicks into overdrive toward the end. I half wish I’d waited for the sequel to be out before picking up this first one so I wouldn’t have to wait to resolve a few basic questions, but I still enjoyed the book. And, though it’s silly, I do appreciate the symmetry of cut-off points between Ilium and whatever its sequel is and the Iliad and Odyssey (as well as the shift in focus to the new hero).

I’m not a big fiction reader, so take it for what it’s worth, but I had a good time with Ilium. I’m certainly geeked up in semi-related way for the movie Troy now. :D

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Thanks for the warning. Let me know when the series is complete.

Why is it named after the distal-most portion of the small intestine?