EOS, 2005, 690 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97894-6
Well, it’s over and it was about time it was.
It’s not that I disliked Dan Simmons’ Ilium. But even ambitious novels trying to tie together science, literature and the human condition can leave some lingering resentment after lasting about twice as long as what they should have. Obviously, mine was a minority view: Ilium went on to earn critical raves and was nominated for the 2004 Hugo Awards. But it was still, after all, half a story and now that Olympos is out, we can learn how it all ends.
It ends well, fortunately. Olympos is not without its own considerable lengths, but at least it ties everything together and enlightens us as to the nature of Simmons’ artistic and thematic choices for Ilium. Picking up a few months after the Iliad-changing conclusion of the first volume, Olympos continues the adventures of the humans, moravecs, post-humans and even stranger entities of a far-away future. At last, issues are settled and questions are answered. (Not the least being “why the parallels with classic works of literature?”)
Olympos is an epic work not especially because of the subject (which is ambitious, but still small-potatoes compared to some of the most overblown space-operas out there), but because of the amount of time readers are expected to sink into the entire 1,100-pages story before getting a good payoff. The “eloi” plot thread never started cooking for me until well into the second half of Olympos, and given the density of the book’s 600-odd pages, that’s a long time awaiting. (Simmons fan will note that a similar problem affected the Endymion diptych: The first volume wasn’t terribly useful, but the second one was the whole point of the setup.)
This being said, it’s entirely possible that the Ilium/Olympos series may be too big for my own little head to contain. The references to classical literature kept eluding me (heck, says “Achilles” and I picture Brad Pitt in TROY.) and the thematic underpinning of the book seemed a lot more obvious after reading an interview in which Simmons himself explained what he was trying to do.
Still, none of my perceived inadequacies at understanding the text invalidates my feeling that it ought to have been much, much shorter —say, the entire story in a slim 500 pages. There’s a notably jarring sub-thread about a doomsday submarine that I found particularly out-of-place, especially given how it relates to one of the book’s most egregious plot-cheats, a honking big coincidence that ties two threads together. Neat stuff, but it may have been better as a stand-alone novella than a part of the series.
On the other hand, there are a number of lovely images and concepts here and there, from the nature of genius to a road sliced through the ocean. The moravecs are interesting characters (some will say that they’re more human than the humans) and the reconstructed twentieth-century human observer Hockenberry is still a dependable viewpoint character. There’s also a pleasing complexity in the levels of technology exhibited by Olympos‘s assortment of gods, demi-gods, robots and humans of all descriptions. This isn’t a simple side-A-versus-side-B type of arrangement, but something scaling all the way from plain humans to the functional equivalent of world-altering magic, and all points in between.
Obviously, this isn’t quite enough to overcome my lack of patience with the book’s length, and for that reason alone I would suggest to leave it out of the Hugo Award ballot next year. There are already a number of faster, more interesting works out there this year, and Olympos certainly isn’t a perfect candidate. (It’s a candidate from a well-respected, well-known writer, however, and that changes things.) I suppose that readers with patience and a classical education will have another take entirely.