Dan Simmons - Ilium

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Posted by Sulkyblue (1st May 2004, 15:22)

Ilium - Dan Simmons (published 2003)
I picked this book up for 3 reasons:
1) It had a shiny cover and was on the best sellers table in Books Etc.
2) It claimed to take the themes of the Iliad and "view them through the lens of sf". Having studied and loved the Iliad I found this concept fascinating.
3) It was nominated for a Hugo, and as it’s rare that I’ve heard of, let alone considered reading any of the nominees.
I was slightly scared of the 650-page count and expected to be carrying it around for at least a month, but have actually managed to finish it in just under a week. The speed with which I read it indicates that I enjoyed reading it, which is indeed true. Simmons has a casual writing style that I found very easy to read, even for long periods. His characters are easy to become involved with and relate to, they for the most part know even less about what’s going on than the reader does and they make interesting guides.

The main disappointment however was that the story was not what I had interpreted the blurb to mean. I had hopes and expectations of the story of the Iliad shifted into an sf universe, some epic battle between alien races, science replacing metaphor etc. This is not actually the case. The events of the Iliad are actually occurring and being watched by people in the future, observers on the battlefield seeing what Homer was right and wrong about. There is sf in there; the observers are resurrected scholars from the past, given ‘magical’ technologies by the gods who actually live on Olympus Mons on Mars. Once I got over my disappointment the story was still interesting, particularly when an observer starts getting a little too involved and things start to divert wildly from Homer, but I’m still waiting for someone to write that retelling of the Iliad (Ulysses 31 worked for the Odyssey didn’t it?)

The other problem I have with the book is that the Iliad is only about a third of the story. There are 2 other stories running concurrently with pretty much equal page time. The other main story moves from Ancient Troy to the Earth of the future where all sorts of funky stuff has occurred that frankly, even after finishing the book I’m confused about (whether it wasn’t explained properly, or I just didn’t get it, I’m not sure). This stories more standard with a quest of sorts, a sceptic and some believers and gradual uncovering of what has happened to make the world as it is.

The third story is also more traditional sf, starting in the oceans of Europa and following a group of robots on their way from the moons of Jupiter to Mars to find out what weird stuff is going on there. The robots we end up following are an engaging pair who spend lots of time discussing Shakespeare and Proust, making them in many ways the most familiar and recognisably ‘human’ characters in the book.

I spent most of the book wondering how these threads were going to link up, indeed much of my inability to put the book down for the last 150 pages or so comes from the way that two of the stories do collide. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised the other story would not be integrated, but would have to wait until a sequel that I didn’t even know was going to exist (Olympus to be published mid 2005). So this means that you have a novel that read by itself is 1/3 too long, telling 2 almost completely unrelated (at this point) stories. Will I read the sequel? Almost certainly, but I’m not sure that I’ll be happy about it. I’m not sure that it can ever live up to the cliff-hanger that Simmons has set himself.

Another nitpick of the book. It read to me like a first novel. It contains just about every science fiction concept under the sun! There’s biotechnology, evolutionary issues, robots, colonisation, quantum stuff, terraforming, dinosaurs, space travel, information theory, little green men…seriously absolute oodles of stuff all thrown together. Don’t get me wrong, this does actually work and fit together, it just feels like there’s a kid in a candy store going "I want a robot, and I want a Golem…" and he just can’t resist putting them all in at once. Yes, this is the way that epics can be born; it’s also the way complete messes appear. This one’s probably on the side of epic and is sometimes only saved from degenerating into farce by the author and characters pointing out the deus-ex-machina and clichés.

Reading this review back to myself it comes across as very negative, I suspect this is due to the fact that as I think back over the book I remember most keenly what the book isn’t. But the very fact I read it so fast shows that it is an enjoyable read. For all it’s length it’s not slow, all the stories and characters keep moving and developing and it has plenty of plot, just maybe a little too much. I find myself wishing that he’d worked a little harder to shorten the novels into one book and removed a few of the concepts from them. The power of the edit seems to be missing from many writers these days, tightness and conciseness sacrificed to the god of page count.

Summary: An enjoyable read with some great ideas and characters in it. A lot is going to rely on the second part to see if Simmons can actually tie everything together and live up to the promises he’s made. I suspect if I’d done a little more research on it before starting and been aware it was the first in a pair of novels I’d come away feeling less disappointed. I’d probably recommend it to people, but may advise considering postponing reading it until the conclusion is published.

About item:

- Ilium

Related items:

- The Iliad

About author:

- Simmons, Dan

Related authors:

- Homer

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