Review of ILIUM and OLYMPOS by Dan Simmons

Once upon a time there was a vibrant and eclectic field of genre fiction known as science fiction.  Here the giants played: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, PK Dick, and many, many others.  But alas, over time the field dwindled.  Oh, there were some new voices, writers like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card, Robert Sawyer, and James Hogan turned out many interesting stories in the field.  And now, the field is experiencing something of a rebound as self-publishers skip the Big 5’s filters and publish the stories they want to tell without being told that “it can’t sell.”

Occasionally a writer transcends genre, finds that he or she is able to write in more than one style, tell more than one type of tale, with power and passion.  I believe that writer, in this time period, is DAN SIMMONS.

Dan Simmons has written a lot of excellent fiction, crossing genres with works such as CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT and CARRION COMFORT in the horror genre, HARDCASE and DARWIN’S BLADE in the mystery genre, and THE CROOK FACTORY, a spy thriller starring Ernest Hemingway.  But some of his most ambitious fiction has been done in the science/speculative fiction field.  He wrote the excellent four book series featuring HYPERION, THE FALL OF HYPERION, ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION.  And now, he works again in the SF field with  his latest two volume tale, ILIUM and OLYMPOS.

ILIUM, as the title suggests, starts off as a story based on the Trojan War and Homer’s ILIAD.  The familiar heroes of that saga, Achilles and Hector, Agamemnon, Paris, Ajax, King Priam, and of course, Odysseus, are present as they fight the war according to Homer’s ILIAD.  There is a notable exception, however.  Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., a classical literature professor from Indiana University, is on hand to watch events unfold.  Hockenberry has been “reanimated” to report the unfolding events to his Muse, and in turn to all of the Greek gods.  Yes, the gods themselves are on hand, in person, to watch these battles be fought, and to interfere anywhere they might.  Hockenberry’s job is to report to the gods if the battle deviates from the history he knows so well.  He isn’t alone – the gods have other resurrected “scholics” to also report on the war.  Hockenberry is the senior scholic present;  the gods do not have any compunction against eliminating scholics as they see fit, and most end up being destroyed when they anger the gods in any way shape or form.   Somehow Hockenberry has so far escaped their wrath.

Hockenberry, however, has another secret.  He’s been ordered by Aphrodite to spy on and ultimately kill Athena.  And since he knows that it will be his demise either way he acts in this situation, he looks for a way to change the course of the war.  And finds it.

Two other threads of story are progressing at the same time.  First, the sentient machines of the Jovian moons, known as “moravecs”, have detected unusual quantum activity on the planet Mars, which has been “terraformed” in less than 200 years, a feat that should be impossible.  The moravecs decide to send a delegation to investigate.  With this group go Mahnmet, a deep sea explorer moravec who is also very interested in Shakespeare’s works, especially currently the Sonnets, and Orphu, a huge crab-like moravec who is interested in the works of Proust.

The second thread is of a group of old style humans living on the surface of Earth.  They live an idyllic existence, free of stress and worry.  But they are limited in their lifespan to 100 years, at which time they “fax” up to the ring cities circling the planet at the equator and around the poles and join the “post humans”, the next step of human evolution.  But for 100 years, they live a very nice life, protected by strange creatures called the “voynix” and taken care of by robotic “servitors”.  Every 20 years they fax up to the firmary to get a sort of tune-up to rejuvenate them before faxing back to their Earth.

The story threads seem to be independent of one another until the moravec delegation is attacked, and their ship basically destroyed, when they reach Mars, by a very tall humanoid on what appears to be a chariot.  Greek god?  Olympos?  Aha.  Things are more related than they seem.

In OLYMPOS, we find out more about who these gods are, how they terraformed Mars in just 150 years, and what the source of the excessive quantum activity is on Mars.  We also meet zeks, also referred to as little green men, chlorophyll-based beings on Mars who have no mouths or ears and who communicate by physical touch.  Our friend Hockenberry has succeeded in changing the course of the war, thanks in part to the timely arrival of the moravecs who seem to always be there to save him.  The heroes of Troy and Greece have declared war on the gods themselves, and have taken the battle to Mt. Olympos through a rip in space-time called a “brane hole”.  Back on Earth, the power has been shut down and the humans, so used to being taken care of, have to act to save their lives, as the mysterious voynix have taken to hunting them down.  And one of them, Harman, has been shanghaied into a voyage where the answers become clearer.

I loved this story as it unfolded.  Simmons has a vision of the future that is actually quite beautiful and quite frightening at the same time.  The technology that he envisions, and the story that he tells, does not depend on traveling faster than light.  It uses the theories and speculations of today’s physicists and scientists and extrapolates forward to a future where some of the theoretical possibilities of quantum physics become useful realities, and even the Star Trek transporter technology becomes doable.

And who would have thought about using the Trojan War in a work of science fiction?  THE ILIAD was written as a sort of accurate history, poetic as it may be, and the idea that perhaps the “gods” are actually present and their magic is actually very advanced science ala Clarke’s rule is a neat premise for a novel.  I would have been happy with just that.

But the rest of the story weaves in nicely and finally it starts to become evident just how these divergent plot lines are going to converge.  If it wasn’t almost 700 pages long, I’d probably read it again right now.  I almost certainly will revisit the tale some day.

If you enjoy speculative fiction, this is a winner, albeit a long one.

*****

(I wrote this review several years ago, before self-publishing became a real option — I had to add in the part about the rebirth of the field of SF…)

*****

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