Dan Simmons: “Ilium”

Ilium  Ilium

Tonight is the assembly at Agamemnon’s tent and the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles. This is where the Iliad begins, and it should be the focus of all my energies and professional skills, but the truth is that I don’t really give a shit.

Sci-Fi Novel
Pages: 570
First Published: 2003

Synopsis: From the multiple award-winning author of the Hyperion Cantos – one of the most acclaimed and popular series in contemporary science fiction – comes a huge and powerful epic of high-tech gods, human heroes, total war, and the extraordinary transcendence of ordinary beings.

From the towering heights of Olympos Mons on Mars, the mighty Zeus and his immortal family of gods, goddesses, and demigods look down upon a momentous battle, observing – and often influencing – the legendary exploits of Paris, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, and the clashing armies of Greece and Troy.

Thomas Hockenberry, former twenty-first-century professor and Iliad scholar, watches as well. It is Hockenberry’s duty to observe and report on the Trojan War’s progress to the so-called deities who saw fit to return him from the dead. But the muse he serves has a new assignment for the wary scholic, one dictated by Aphrodite herself. With the help of fortieth-century technology, Hockenberry is to infiltrate Olympos, spy on its divine inhabitants . . . and ultimately destroy Aphrodite’s sister and rival, the goddess Pallas Athena.

On an Earth profoundly changed since the departure of the Post-Humans centuries earlier, the great events on the bloody plains of Ilium serve as mere entertainment. Its scenes of unrivaled heroics and unequaled carnage add excitement to human lives devoid of courage, strife, labor, and purpose. But this eloi-like existence is not enough for Harman, a man in the last year of his last Twenty. That rarest of post-postmodern men – an “adventurer” – he intends to explore far beyond the boundaries of his world before his allotted time expires, in search of a lost past, a devastating truth, and an escape from his own inevitable “final fax.”

Meanwhile, from the radiation-swept reaches of Jovian space, four sentient machines race to investigate – and, perhaps, terminate – the potentially catastrophic emissions of unexplained quantum-flux emanating from a mountaintop miles above the terraformed surface of Mars. . . .

The first book in a remarkable two-part epic to be concluded in the upcoming Olympos, Dan Simmons’s Ilium is a breathtaking adventure, enormous in scope and imagination, sweeping across time and space to connect three seemingly disparate stories in fresh, thrilling, and totally unexpected ways. A truly masterful work of speculative fiction, it is quite possibly Simmons’s finest achievement to date in an already storied literary career.

“I wasn’t on the field yesterday evening. Anything interesting happen?”
“Nothing much. Just Hector’s big duel with Ajax. Just the showdown we’ve been waiting for since the Achaean ships first touched their bows to shore down there. Just
all of Book Seven.”
“Oh, that,” I said.

My Thoughts: Once upon a time I thought that S.P. Somtow’s The Shattered Horse was the crackiest and science fictioniest Trojan War novel I would ever read. I now know that that belief was completely wrong. Among my many awesome habits is the habit of talking to myself when I read (hence why I prefer to read when no one else is at home!), and I kind of wish I’d counted the number of times I looked up from this book in order to exclaim, “This book is on crack!” I realize that saying that a book is “on crack” doesn’t make for a very professional review, but that is honestly the best way I can think of to describe this book. It is a Trojan War novel that has robots and aliens and Proust and Shakespeare and Machu Picchu and dinosaurs and atomic bombs and zombies, and that is just the tip of the iceberg – icebergs being another thing that this book has. For a taste of how all this sci-fi mixes with the war itself, here’s a snippet from the beginning of Diomedes’ aristeia:

I can see Athena across the milling no-man’s-land of lances, preparing Tydeus’ son, Diomedes, as a killing machine. … Like the gods themselves, and like me, Diomedes the man will now be part machine, his eyes and skin and very blood enhanced by nanotechnologies from some future age far beyond my short life span. In frozen time, Athena sets contact lenses similar to mine in the Achaean’s eyes, allowing him to see both the gods and, somehow, to slow time a bit when he concentrates in the thick of the action, thus – to the unenhanced onlooker’s view – increasing his reaction time threefold.

It definitely makes for a very fresh and unique look at the Trojan War, although once again I feel almost like a liar labelling this a Trojan War novel when by the end of the book the war has veered completely offcourse. Not that I’m complaining, because I can’t wait to go to the library tomorrow and pick up the sequel! I confess it took me almost two hundred pages before reading this book became really enjoyable (before that point I was mostly just confused and annoyed by the plotlines that at the time didn’t have anything to do with the war), but now I am definitely into it.

One criticism I have of this novel is one that has hopefully been corrected in more recent editions: there were so many typos! And not even just typos, but sentences where “Olympos” was spelled “Olympus” or Theano was called “Leano” and even an instance where “Harman” was surely supposed to be “Daeman.” Plus a scene that changed tense halfway through for no reason! This book definitely could have used one more read through before it went to print. And if Olympos even once dares to mention that Scamandrius was also called Astyanax which means “Lord of the City,” I am going to scream. I swear Ilium mentioned that unnecessary tidbit a good five different times for no apparent reason, sometimes twice within the same scene. Calm down, Dan! If your readers are intelligent enough to understand your crazy twisting storylines, I’m sure they’re intelligent enough to understand the idea of a nickname the first time it’s presented to them. (Watch this become a major plot point now that I’ve whined about it!)

So to sum up, this book is on crack and occasionally frustrating but once it gets going it’s awesome! A few random notes before I’m out:

· Remember in my Goddess of Yesterday review when I was complaining about the lack of variety in Andromaches? Ilium‘s Andromache is definitely a new take on the character, and I can’t lie, she’s a little terrifying. But awesome.

· If in Olympos Simmons discovers that it’s possible to introduce a female character without devoting a paragraph to a description of her breasts, I would be down with that. I am trying to be forgiving here but lately I am just so tired of the male gaze.

· I loved the scenes where the scholics were observing the Trojan War and commenting on how the actual war compared to the war as described in the Iliad. I can’t lie, as a Trojan War fangirl I think this would be the most fascinating job. Except for the fact where it apparently ends in sudden death??

· One more criticism: Simmons’ narrative voice is great, but the problem is a lot of his dialogue reads exactly like his narration. I realize I’m pickier than most people when it comes to how dialogue is written, and I admit that eventually I got used to this quirk of the book and it stopped bothering me so much, but there were definitely times where the characters could’ve been much less verbose. (On the flip side of this, there are also scenes in which Homeric characters are given rather modern curse words to say, and I admit that rather amused me.)

· One huge compliment: Simmons takes one of the Iliad‘s continuity errors and builds an entire plotline around it. This was hands down my favourite part of the entire novel and I don’t care how nerdy it is to admit that, because it was so. awesome.

· Two little SPOILERS: 1) Achilles has his famous shield even though Patroclus is still alive. This is a really odd error in a book that otherwise is very careful about getting every Iliad-related detail right. 2) The possibility of Patroclus swimming across the Atlantic to get back to Troy has already been mentioned twice, so now if it doesn’t happen I will be deeply disappointed!!

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

“Where’s home?” asked Daeman. “And how long will it take for you to get there, Odysseus Uhr?”
Odysseus smiled at that, but there was great sadness in his eyes. “If you only knew,” he said softly. “If you only knew.”

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