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Review of Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons.

Posted by phduffy on 2006-09-15 16:01:18

Dan Simmons has written one of my favourite sci fi novels of all time. And in fact, I’d say that it’s one of the best sci fi novels of all time - Hyperion. It’s the perfect book to give someone who has no interest in science fiction.

Anyways, the sequel to Hyperion are a lot of things. One thing they are not is as good as Hyperion Sure, this is probably an unfair comparison, but that’s what he gets for writing such a long novel. Anyways, I think that the sequels are okay, some think they’re crap… he also sort of turned away from sci fi after that. He tried to break into the mainstream with a fun look at Ernest Hemmingway in Cuba (Crook Factory, and then wrote a bunch of mediocre mystery/thrillers about a guy named Darwin. He also wrote the excellent horror novel Carrion Comfort.

Why am I running through all this? A couple of reasons. Firstly, I like to give you (yes, you), an idea of why I’m reading a book. In some ways, books are like movies. The attitude perspective you take into them will affect your enjoyment of them. Secondly, Simmons hasn’t really done anything great in over 10 years. However, Ilium and Olympos are sci fi novels inspired by the Iliad and the Odyssey (or so I thought), and that excited me.

So enough of that, what happens, to whom, and how in these novels? Well, there are basically 3 plots. And they’re linked, because why else would they all be in this book? So, there’s the planet Mars, and on Mars it appears as though the Ilium is being acted out. A bunch of Greeks, led by Achilles and Agamemnon are attacking Troy, which is defended by Hector, brother of Paris, who stole Helen from Agamemnon. So, while they’re laying siege to Troy, the Gods are watching and helping out and kind being dicks. Like in the Iliad. However, the Gods have also resurrected a few scholars. So, the main character is John Hockenberry, a 20th century Iliad scholar, who’s been resurrected and placed on Mars, and given the job of watching the events taking place, and reporting back to the Muses on how they compare to what actually happened in the Iliad.

Secondly, a bunch of robots (called moravecs) are out on Jupiter. They see some strange shit going on around Mars. Too much Quantam activity. So they send a team to go investigate. One of them really likes the Shakespeare, another Proust.

Finally, on earth there’s some humans left. Not many. They know that the post-humans have left. They can also teleport from station to station. They call it faxing. Essentially, there are about 3000 fax nodes around the planet, and they can fax from any one node to another. These humans don’t know anything of the past, and every 20 years they fax up to a station in space, where they’re rejuvenated. On their 100th birthday, they’re faxed up and never return, presumably to live amongst the post-humans. The main human character is a guy named Harman, who has taught himself to read, and is thus the only human on Earth with that ability.

So, how does it call come together? Somewhat slowly. The Moravecs explore Mars, which leads them to Earth. There are fights and all that jazz, but that’s not really what it’s about.

Simmons likes to explore the literary, and this is no exception. There are excerpts from all kinds of novels and poems, and discussions of Proust’s opinion of what it means to live. An analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Some Shakespeare characters even show up: Caliban, Sebetos, and Prospero from the Tempest. And of course, the first novel revolves around recreating the Iliad. Part of the story here is how events become separate from the Iliad, why that happens, and who makes it happen. And the second novel isn’t really a retelling of the Odyssey, although Odysseus and a quest do play a part in it. A lot of the story is about characters growing and discovering new things. Despite an abundance of plot, plot isn’t really the main point of this novel. You’re supposed to think, to enjoy, to get lost in the literature.

That said, I’m a little confused as to what Simmons was going for here. You’ll probably enjoy this the most if you’re someone with knowledge of Homer’s works (and Virgil’s), likes his/her Shakespeare (particularly the Tempest and the sonnets), has a passing familiarity with Proust, and enjoys science fiction. Who at one point in the novel is described as “a man who died penniless and alone, after writing a 2000 page novel that might be the greatest in history, that no one reads”. (Paraphrased, hence the poor construct of that sentence). Does this describe you? My guess is no. The number of people described by that is very minimal, and most of them are in university studying literature or classics. It’s not that the books aren’t accessible without all this knowledge, it’s that I’m not sure of the point. At times it seem like Simmons wants to show off all his knowledge (like me above when I mentioned Virgil), and that might help you win a debate, but it doesn’t help you tell a story.

All in all, Iliad and Olympos aren’t bad novels, but they’re also bloated, and nowhere near to Simmons’ best work.