Ilium, Dan Simmons

EOS, 2003, 576 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97893-8

Anyone who’s been paying attention to Dan Simmons’ career know that the man can write anything in any genre, from horror (Carrion Comfort) to thriller (Darwin’s Blade). But even with impressive credentials in other genres, Simmons started out as a science-fiction writer, and it’s still in SF that he produced his most impressive work, from dozen of excellent short stories to the massively successful Hyperion quartet. So any new SF work from him is a major event: Expectation for Ilium ran high as soon as the book was announced.

At first glance, it appears that Simmons has delivered the goods with Ilium, the first part of a duology to be concluded in Olympos. (In a rare feat of honesty, the American EOS hardcover edition says as much both in the liner jacket and on the back cover. Hurrah for honesty!) An adventure tale set in a far-flung future packed with nanotech, quantum tunnelling, moravecs and other exotic technology, Ilium alternates between three plot threads: The story of a Greek scholar resurrected to report on the real-life recreation of the Iliad, the travels of two robots going from the Jovian system to a mysterious terraformed Mars and the adventures of a small group of humans on a very different future Earth.

The first thing of note in Ilium is Simmons’ considerable literary ambition in telling a story which almost-literally takes place during the Iliad, featuring robots likely to quote from Shakespeare and Proust, and minor characters named “Caliban” for relevant reasons. The amount of research involved in writing this book must have been staggering; as a relatively ignorant reader (who had to rely on memories of TROY and visions of Brad Pitt as Achilles) it’s easy to be snowed under the weight of paragraphs packed with references to the Iliad, from character names to interpretations of Homer’s intentions to the complete back-story of even unseen characters. (Heck, this novel even has Greek gods as major characters.) Other literary allusions are just as likely to fly high above any non-scholarly heads, though the presence of such allusions is unlikely to be missed. In short, it’s easy to see classics-loving non-SF readers go nuts for Ilium‘s depth, even as it may not be totally successful in other areas.

Things like pacing or plotting, for instance. Yes, it’s a long book, and one which doesn’t start to cook until well after the halfway point. There’s a ton of exposition (it’s difficult to do otherwise when quoting from Homer), a lot of scene-setting and plenty of description. For Ilium is first and foremost and adventure tale in which plenty of words are spent describing how characters go from point A to point B. There is a complicated plot, oh yes, but for the longest time it’s hard to see the difference between movement and progress.

All of this is complicated by the fact that Ilium is, after all, the first half of a bigger novel. The three hundred pages of setup are for the 1100-pages entirety of the duology, not just for a single book. Some things don’t make a lot of sense; we can only hope that they will once the second half comes out. Similarly, the sense of pointless exasperation sure to strike any reader during the last few pages has to be tempered by the knowledge that the answers so preciously withheld should be coming up in early 2005. (Few of the book’s lines are so ominous as Zeus’s “We’re not?” [P.522]) Frustrating; it’s not for nothing if I usually wait until all the books of a series are out before digging in.

Stylistically, it’s a Dan Simmons novel, so you can bet that there’s plenty of good quotes throughout the entire thing. I was particularly taken by the mixture of Greek mythology and easy swearing from scholic Hockenberry’s narration. (As a proud 20th-century representative, he’s our champion in this post-humanistic tale). The squabbling gods are a lot of fun to read about, though the “post-human” plot line is more often that not an exercise in impatient finger-thumping.

All in all, a solid book but (at this point) not an essential one. I have a feeling that the sequel will deliver on more than enough intriguing suggestions, but a more definitive assessment will have to wait until Olympos.

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