Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review of Olympos by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmon’s Ilium ended on a massive convergence standing at an edge.  Olympos, the conclusion to the duology, pushes the story over—and then peers over the edge to make sure it is falling with speed.  Grand reveal following upon grand reveal, unrelated stories becoming intertwined with familiar ones, and the plot filling out its grand scope, if anything can be said of the concluding volume of the duology: it does not short-change the reader on action and entertainment.

Picking up events a few months after the conclusion of Ilium, the war between the mortals and the gods is in full swing at the start of Olympos.  Paris having died in the segue, the setting at Ilium opens with his funeral and the behind-the-scenes scheming of sworn enemies now tenuously comrades in arms.  Holding Zeus by the hand and leading the Mighty One to a rendezvous, Hera has plans of her own for the gods’ involvement in the war, none of which make the circumstances any clearer.  The moravecs, in collusion with Hockenberry, have evaluated the situation on Mars and come to startling new conclusions regarding the state of post-humans on the planet.  Reorienting their sights toward Earth, they take up a mission which, for reasons few understand, requires one human.  Who that will be, is even more in question.  And though their story only picks up in the second section, matters likewise return to Earth where Harman, Ada, and Daeman attempt to deal with the primitive life they suddenly find themselves living after the fall of Prospero’s Isle at the end of Ilium.  The voynix now in attack mode, every bit of technology and knowledge they dredge up helps to keep the mechanical menaces at bay and their safety ensured for another day.  But the horror Daeman discovers in an iced-over Paris just might cause the remaining old-style humans to reconsider where the greatest danger lies.  

Hockenberry having derailed The Iliad being reenacted in Ilium, events in Olympos shift into the mode of The Tempest­—not The Odyssey, as one might think.  Prospero, Ariel, Setebos, Caliban, Sycorax, and others appear to share the spotlight with the Greek gods and mortals.  Eventually the disjointed stories are woven together into a singular whole—both in the text and to some extent, the sub-text.  From a character perspective, Simmons now switches between viewpoints at will; Achilles, Harman, Helen, and others are added, widening the scope of the story to ensure the breadth of the space opera he envisions is presented (just don’t expect the characters to be more than the thin representations of Ilium).  Thus from a story point of view, it is seemingly impossible for the book to disappoint: the universe’s history is intriguingly revealed one major piece at a time from a variety of viewpoints and events pile up to another conclusion of convergent proportions—and this time a real conclusion.

But where the integrity of Ilium was threatened by the classics having been used as mere toys, Olympos entirely caves in.  The works of Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, and other historically important writers are juggled for no purpose other than to dazzle the eyes. I’m not stating that Simmons has failed to parallel his storylines with Shakespeare or Homer’s, rather that the manner in which Simmons manifests the classics serves purely entertainment rather than thematic aims.  The comic book elements, stabs at humor, weak characterization, and random quotes from said writers of old fail to imbue the text with any sense of seriousness.  There is no doubt Simmons appreciates and understands these classic texts, I merely doubt their usage in a space opera with commercial/entertainment goals. 

The quantity of story is significant enough that themes can be wrung from anywhere in the text.   For every example, unfortunately, there remains a counter example that throws the whole off-balance.  Quotes from Shakespeare, Keats and others are offset by such lines from Orphu the moravec as: “I don’t have enough programming knowledge to hack into my sister’s diary… if I had a sister or if she had a diary.”  That Simmons has not sharpened his style and continues to write lazy and tired text, doesn’t help.  For example the following description of Tartarus: “…Titans crashing and bellowing through the gloom, and a sky filled with orange-limned clouds, wild lightning, and other electrical displays.”  And another line reads: “…columns of water shooting up like Corinthian columns”.  There is in fact one moment where a couple of sonnets are quoted, followed two pages later with the description of an Olympian god breaking wind. The poetry and classicism simply don’t fit the fluffy narrative.  (And the “adult” Snow White scenario wherein a man must have sex with a woman to wake her from a long sleep is just plain sensationalism.)

Suffice to say, Olympos, like Ilium, is undecided stylistically.  It never settles itself into a groove: is it mainstream fiction or a cunning usage of the classics in a sci-fi setting?  This lack of focus hurts the duology.  Virgil, Seneca, Tennyson and others were never intended to have their ideas roasted over a fire of cheesy humor, cartoonish action sequences, and pop culture references (James Mason, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, Star Trek, and J. Edgar Hoover are just some used this time around).  Hyperion utilized Keats’ poetry but never stooped so low as Krang brains (a la Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), mindless-droid wars, or under-handed cuts at Muslim fundamentalism (but perhaps now I need a re-read?)

In the end, Olympos is a clever conclusion to the Ilium/Olympos duology from a plot and spectacle standpoint.  But overall it is a story which prevents itself from being taken seriously by the mainstream tropes and the superficial rather than at-depth usage of classic literature.  When asked whether it was necessary to have read The Iliad, The Tempest, etc. to appreciate Ilium/Olympos, Simmons answered an emphatic ‘No.’ in an interview, and it’s the truth.  A vehicle for a wild milieu of sci-fi tropes and motifs, the books are light entertainment that can be fully appreciated for the scope of its space opera qualities, but lack substance beyond.  The overall Zelazny-esque feel to the story remains, while likewise the homages continue—Jack Vance (the eiffelbahn) and Alfred Bester (freefaxing) among them.  Bottom line: those who loved Ilium will find little wrong with Olympos, while those on the fence about the former will at least find Simmons consistent in his shortcomings.

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