Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Literary Science Fiction
Rating: 3/5 Stars
I like reviewing good books. Spreading my love and appreciation for an excellent novel just gives me warm fuzzies. I’m not a huge fan of reviewing bad books, simply because I know how difficult it is to write, and I dislike coloring an author’s success with lots of negativity. (Unless it’s Twilight, and then I just don’t care.) On the other had, I feel it’s a sort of duty to warn fellow readers that this book is perhaps not worth their time and effort when there are so many other amazing books out there, so I still feel like a less-than-positive review is worthwhile.
But it’s been a long, LONG time since I’ve finished a book and honestly not known whether it was good or bad. Ilium by Dan Simmons is such a book.
The novel’s description intrigued me from the moment I spied it on the shelves. A futuristic society has re-created the events of Homer’s Iliad on Mars, complete with enhanced “post-humans” buffed up with special technology to become gods. They’ve also resurrected historians from the late 20th and early 21st centuries who studied the original Iliad, their jobs being to report to one of the muses on whether or not this version follows the story’s path. Greek mythology and science fiction? Sign me up! Unfortunately, that’s only one of three concurrent plotlines, and trying to understand them all – much less put them together – is almost enough to drive one mad.
There are two things you need to know before going into this novel. The first is that Simmons explains nothing. NO-THING! As the book progresses, you start to be able to fill in some bits and pieces, but you won’t ever get all the answers (or even understand all the questions.) My husband read a few books from his most famous series, Hyperion, and this is apparently a common trait for his works. You’ve been warned.
The second thing you need to know is that this book is categorized as “literary science fiction” for a very good reason. If you want to have a fighting chance of keeping up with the plot, you need to have at least some basic knowledge of the following:
– Greek mythology
– Homer’s Iliad and, to a lesser extent, Odyssey
– Shakespeare’s The Tempest (and even better if you’ve read some of the literary commentary)
– Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially those that pertain to the Dark Lady and Young Man
– Marcel Proust (This isn’t as necessary, but it’s helpful in keeping up with banter between two of the characters)
There are smaller references, such as a group of “old style humans” being called eloi in honor of H.G. Wells, but those are the main ones.
Having an interest in science fiction is also a must, but don’t be too worried about whether or not you’re scientifically inclined. Since hardly any of the techno-babble is explained, it’s not like you’re missing anything!
If all of that sounds good to you, you’re ready to start the novel. I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but some of it is so convoluted that it’s almost questionable what’s too much information and what’s simply inexplicable!
As I mentioned before, the book follows three storylines. What I consider the “main” one deals with the re-created battle between the Greeks and Trojans from Homer’s Iliad. The major character is Thomas Hockenberry, an historian who as been brought back to life as a “scholic” to observe the war. He compares current events with those from the story, and he reports any differences to his Muse. Unfortunately, things get complicated when Aphrodite pulls him aside and gives him a new task: Kill Pallas Athena. Armed with the Hades Helmet of Invisibility and a quantum transporter device, Hockenberry spies on the gods long enough to realize his is a suicide mission, and decides to take matters into his own hands…even if that means changing one of the most famous wars in literary history.
The second plot focuses on “old style humans” in the distant future, I’m guessing somewhere around the 30th Century or so. This Earth is carefully controlled by enhanced or “post-humans” who limit the population to an even million. Everyone lives for Five Twenties (or 100 years) and then ascends to a higher plane to join the post-humans. When that happens, another child is allowed to be born to replace the missing person. These humans lead extremely simply lives, do not know how to read or write, and spend most of their time transporting or “faxing” to one another’s homes for parties. Their every need is taken care of by robotic servants, and if they die unexpectedly, they are reconstructed and returned home. But Harmon, a man one year away from his last Twenty, longs for something more, and he and two companions come across the mysterious Savi, a woman who survived the destruction of the rest of the human race 1400 years prior. Together, they embark on a search to discover what became of those humans, and what they discover leads to a radical restructuring of their identity, to say nothing of their lives.
The final plot deals centers on two sentient automatons called moravecs – basically super intelligent robots with human-like thoughts and feelings. The two main moravecs, Mahnmut and Orpho, are particularly interested in human literature and spend a lot of time bantering back and forth about the merits of Shakespeare and Proust. They are ordered to embark on a mission to Mars, where excess quantum teleporation has been disrupting the fabric of time and space, and while there they encounter a slew of gods who want them killed, a scholar trying to alter the destiny of the entire Greek and Trojan armies, and a host of statues that somehow resemble Shakespeare’s character Prospero.
The plot sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so. But Simmons seems to almost take pride in his lack of explanations. Perhaps he’s just a huge fan of Clarke’s Law, but some background would be nice! I’m fine with being thrown into a world as long as something about it begins to eventually make sense, but that’s really not the case here. It’s been a really, really long time since a book has confused me so much. Half the time I don’t even know what planet the characters are on, thanks to all the teleporting!
Strangely enough, however, I already want to read the second book, which concludes the series. Based on reviews I’ve read, I don’t expect to find too many answers, which is unfortunate. But the book ended right on the cusp of a new war, with the entire plot of the Iliad suddenly thrown out the window, and I’m too much of a lover of Greek mythology not to want to know how it turns out. It’s just hard to slog through 700 pages when you don’t understand three-quarters of what’s going on 😄 Part of the appeal might simply be its uniqueness. I’ve certainly never read a book even remotely like it before. And a few of the characters do grow on you after a while. I found Hockenberry in particular to be endearing, and his dry wit and sarcasm is rather infectious.
I honestly don’t know if I’d recommend this or not. I suppose fellow lovers of Greek mythology would probably enjoy it, but I just can’t make any promises.
If you’ve made it this far, I thank you! Hopefully all future reviews will be much more coherent!