Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review of Ilium by Dan Simmons



Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos is a masterpiece of space opera.  Utilizing the dimension of Greek myth inherent to Keats’ poetry in a piece of science fiction like the genre had never seen, the four books were nevertheless unable to drain the author’s tank of classically inspired ideas.  Riffing off Homer’s Iliad and mixing in goodly sized portions of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Simmons returned to epic space opera in 2005 with Ilium.  The first book in the Ilium/Olympos duology, Ilium’s plot is action-packed, the visuals flying fast and furious as Zeus, Achilles, and all the heroes and gods of the Iliad play on Mars.  Lighter and more mainstream in tone, those who disliked the (figurative) weight of Hyperion will find Ilium more adventurous and entertainment-focused.  

Seeming unbelievable given the disparity of their starting points, Ilium consists of three strands of story which Simmons steadily braids into a whole.  Matters begin on far future Mars where Thomas Hockenberry, a scholar resurrected from our age, studies the ongoing development of an Iliad reenactment.  Able to morph in and out of bodies in making his daily observations how the reenactment varies from Homer’s version, he sees for himself the bravery of mighty Hector, the passion of Achilles, and the beauty of Helen.  Hockenberry himself called into battle one day, things threaten to go permanently eschew from the blind poet’s epic after a visit to mighty Olympos.  The second story is of Daeman, a young man living on far future Earth, an Earth that has been permanently altered by an apocalyptic event hundreds of years in the past.  Humanity now fully sponsored, people need do nothing as teams of robots and servitors take care of the details of their lives, leaving Daeman and his friends free to indulge in a life of luxury.  Indolence and ignorance the result, shaking him to life one day is gossip of a mysterious Wandering Jew unregulated by the system.  When one of the friends sets out to locate them, Daeman soon finds himself a more active participant in life in ways he wished he wasn’t.  And the third strand tells of the moravec Mahnmut, a human/droid researcher on Jupiter’s moon, Jovian.  His deep sea submersible called into action, Mahnmut and a team of four other moravecs, including his friend Orphus, are sent to Mars to investigate suspicious quantum activity on the red planet’s surface.  What he’s not sure of, however, is the purpose of the strange object tucked into the hold of his submersible.

Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Lord of Light is a landmark novel that blends science fiction, fantasy, and mythology in an epic tale of man, gods, and technology.  Though vaster in scope, Ilium has very much the same feel as Zelazny’s novel.  A pantheon of Greek gods who may be more (or less) than they claim, weapons cutting beams of violet and neon green across the battlefield, consciousnesses uploaded into overhead rings, and humans revolting against their deific overseers in epic fashion, all render Ilium an equally entertaining tale.  Simmons expanding more the post-humanist side of the story and tossing in doses of adventure, humor, and horror, Ilium is a feast of story that has its roots in Zelazny’s brand of mythically inspired science fantasy.

Thus, for those who read and appreciated either author’s books for their imagination, Ilium will not disappoint.  The scenes packed with gadgets, technology, and all kinds of future marvels, there is no shortage of sci-fi-inality.  As a whole, however, Simmons’ ideas seem less original this time around compared to the Hyperion universe (or at least the names of the ideas do—“Terror Birds” among them).  From quantum transportation to bio-creches, hoods of invisibility to vibra-swords, Ilium treads many paths of sci-fi ideahood that have been trod before—some often, and others only occasionally.  Though wielded with talent, the props of the novel seem to lack the punch and originality of Hyperion’s, lessening their impact to some degree.  

Style likewise seems to have lost something.  Despite the vividness and salience of so many of Simmons’ books, the author proves stylistically mortal in Ilium, the overall narrative lacking bite and sincerity.  The details are all there and the action kept up-tempo, but there are numerous points of authorial laziness, cheesy Scy-Fy channel dialogue, and jokes that hit or miss—and when they miss, they miss. The following quote summarizes a particularly clunky piece of narrative: “Agamemnon dead? Achilles in command?  Holy shit. We’re not in the Iliad anymore, Toto.” Making matters worse (at least in my humble opinion) are these pop-culture references—the NBA, a Ford Pinto, Andre Agassiz, Sharper Image, and U-Haul amongst the many names mentioned in a time and place wholly foreign.  Suffice to say, the lightness of tone deflates the earnestness of the mythic themes on display, i.e. bravery, honor, loyalty, etc.—Zelazny having done a much better job of capturing a narrative with gravitas

Another worrisome aspect of Ilium is its inability to use the selected literary elements to complementary effect, and as such I would hesitate to call it “literary science fiction”.  Perhaps I need to wait to read Olympos to see how the Iliad, The Tempest, In Search of Lost Time, and the other works Simmons uses as source material are tied into the plot. But for the moment they are just toys—ideas to be played with for action’s sake but not integrated into the characters and their stories with any deeper purpose.  But again, I will wait and see and hope that, like the Hyperion Cantos, he is able to link the meta-texts to the actual text.  (For the record, it’s entirely unnecessary to have read any of these other works to understand Ilium, though it will certainly help.)

In the end, Ilium is an action-packed space opera that keeps the excitement level high.  Things moving quickly from the drop of the flag, Simmons crams a lot of plot and drama into 720 pages, extremely few breaks in the swirl of colors and action.  Toying with ideas from the Iliad, The Tempest, and other classics, it remains to be seen whether these are tied into the narrative in any meaningful fashion, but for the moment offer a veritable banquet of possibilities.  Ilium a complete-enough story that closes Act I, at the same time it sets the stage for Act II.  There is thus a sense of satisfaction finishing the novel, but it’s best to have Olympos on hand to learn what becomes of the massive convergence formed at Ilium’s conclusion.  Along with the aforementioned Zelzany-esque feel to the story premise, the other homages I noted are H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, though there are probably more.  Bottom line, if you love big concept space opera, Ilium is for you.  If you’re looking for more Hyperion, the story will satisfy, though it is lighter in tone and less original.

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