by: Gnĉus Dionysius Draco
AUTHOR: Dan Simmons
PUBLISHER: Gollancz (UK)
PLACE: London, United Kingdom
For those who are into science fiction, Dan Simmons is a well-established name in the genre. He became famous with his Hyperion tetralogy, a masterpiece in its own right that could be labelled as literary science fiction. The work contained many cross-references to John Keats, Shakespeare, English history, Greek myth, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zen Buddhism and reflections about the possibilities of artificial intelligence and time travel. The good thing is that Simmons didn't trip over his own ambitions with his Hyperion saga but delivered a story that is at once exciting, compelling and deeply reflexive.
Naturally, I was quite excited to see what Ilium was all about. A science-fiction adaptation of the Trojan war!
Ilium, which appears to be the start of another series in multiple parts, has three main storylines that come together neatly at the end. It is unclear in what time Ilium is set, but most parts of it seem to be set against the background of a far future, when part of humanity has evolved into the so-called elusive 'post-humans' and a part of humanity has stayed back on earth, genetically and technologically advanced but very dumb and unquestioning about their own fate. Then there are the so-called Moravecs, intelligent cyborgs that work and live on the Jovian moons and descend from man-made robots planted there long ago.
The story follows two of these Moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu, as they travel to Mars to research disturbing activities from the post-humans with quantum-leaping. The Moravec storyline is by far the most interesting. The two discuss Shakespeare and Proust at great length and are both humorous and credible heroes. The only criticism I have about them is their references to 20th and 21st-century culture, as if no noteworthy cultural events happened after that period. It's like two people today would constantly talk in an 18th-century frame of reference.
The second storyline deals with the actual Trojan wars. A man named Thomas Hockenberry, a Homer scholar, appears to have been zapped across time and space by 'the Gods' to observe as the Trojan war unfolds, along with other so-called "scholics". It becomes appearent quickly that these 'Gods' are actually technologically-superior humanoids that can do about anything with their technology. This is a pretty predictable twist, but it's not my greatest qualm with this storyline. Simmons imports parts of the Iliad, which are great to read within this context, but he brutally alternates these with "what the fuck" or "where the hell" phrases that totally do not fit into the context.
It lasts until the end that Simmons can't decide whether to make fun out of the Greek heroes, or treat them seriously. It's just not very nuanced. Also, Hockenberry (who is another 20th century man) is not a very nuanced character. His thoughts on the war on terror or the sixties are uninteresting and don't make him a credible character. It appears that Simmons's editor took a leave of absence when they went through Ilium. There are too many sentences, words and phrases that ought not to be there at all.
The third storyline, finally, is about humans on Earth, four of them, to be precise, that are being led by a mysterious woman named Savi, who gradually unfolds to them what is wrong with their world, why the humans are what they are now, and so on. This storyline makes for an enjoyable read, and it's interesting to see the evolution of the main character, Daeman, in this from an irritating, self-content snob to a true hero. On the way, they also run into Odysseus, Caliban and Prospero.
However, while the macro-story is once again an ingeniously woven plot that will no doubt only become better in the next installment, the micro-story shows a few holes that are unforgivable. For instance, the uncritical nature of the humans is very questionable, as is the sudden, abrupt demise of Savi at the hands of Caliban. Simmons also puzzles the reader when he lets Caliban speak Shakespearean English but makes Prospero speak standard modern English.
In concluding, if Ilium had gone through more phases of editing and critical in-house review, it would have been a new masterpiece. Simmons definitely knows his Iliad and demonstrates a sharp insight into literature and science. His contemporary cultural criticism should best be left alone, and he doesn't always control his own pen when it comes down to character portrayal or dialogue.
Final verdict: 75/100