infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z


Ilium

by Dan Simmons

(Gollancz, £10.99, xi + 574 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £17.99, published 21 August 2003; ISBN: 0380978938.)

There are three strands to Simmons' new cover scannarrative. In one, humans zap by 'faxnode' (teleportation portals) from place to place on a far future earth. These folk, however, are foppish 'eloi' types, dedicated to pleasure and hobbies but blissfully ignorant of their world and lacking, most of them, even the ability to read. They are tended by strange bipedal cyborg creatures called voynix who are not, it seems, of our world, and whose job may actually be to keep humanity in ignorance. These pleasure-seeking 'old style humans' were, it seems, created by post-humans to occupy the Earth after the post-humans went off to live somewhere else. This narrative strand sees a group of old style humans straying from the paths dictated by their blinkered lifestyles, exploring the earth away from their faxnodes, and starting to uncover the truth behind the post-human disapora, the voynix, and many other things.

A second strand concerns another remnant of earlier human civilisation: Moravecs, or intelligent exploring machines seeded through the outer solar systems, that after thousands of years have developed their own culture and society. The key Moravec in Ilium is Mahnmut, who works (as it were) as an explorer under the ice-capped seas of Jupiter's moon Europa, and who in his spare time is quaintly obsessed with Shakespeare's sonnets. His friend, a gigantic armoured crab-shaped robot called Orphu of Io, has his own literary obsession with Proust, and the two swap literary criticism and analysis. They are sent by Moravec society, with others, on a dangerous expedition to the inner solar system to find out what has happened to the post-humans and why there are such dangerous levels of quantum fluctuation on Mars.

But it is the third narrative strand that is the most powerful portion of the novel, and the one from which it takes its name. This is narrated by a twentieth-century academic scholar called Thomas Hockenberry, who has been resurrected in a far future world to work as a 'scholic', observing and reporting on a massive recreation of the Trojan war. But 'recreation' hardly does it justice: this is Homer's epic poem The Iliad made real, with Greek and Trojan heroes fighting at the site of many-towered Ilium, and gods and goddesses (are these the post-humans? It's not clear) flitting back and forth from Olympos, involving themselves in the action, taking sides, bickering amongst themselves, just as in Homer. Scholics are given the ability to adopt the shape of Trojans or Greeks in order to get close to the action; but the Muse they serve is ruthless in killing them if they break the rules.

Over the course of this excellent, slow-unfurling but gripping novel these three strands start to come together (a promised sequel, to be called Olympos, will tie the story up more completely). Simmons crams his worlds with wonders, and his career-long fascination with the sheer power of stories (especially of stories embedded within stories) is better displayed in this novel than in any work since his reputation-establishing Hyperion. In that respect, as in the range and ambition of his imaginative vision, Simmons has been compared to Gene Wolfe, and it's a comparison not wholly unjustified.

The comparison also pinpoints some of Simmons' weaker aspects. In saying this I am not suggesting that as a writer Simmons is 'insufficiently like Gene Wolfe' (which would be a fatuous criticism: he is, as a writer, sufficiently like Dan Simmons, and that is sufficient enough). I'm wondering instead about the way he handles the world he is describing, and by extension the way most SF authors treat this aspect of their art. So Wolfe's Long Sun books describe a culture living in the midst of technology it no longer understands (a huge generational starship filled with technology), and one of the things that makes Wolfe's quartet so powerful is precisely the mixture of mystification and taking-for-granting that his characters demonstrate towards the apparently magical abilities of their world. But Simmons' illiterate, hedonistic old-style humans relate to their technology in a suspiciously tech-literate manner. One character, Hannah, wonders about the voynix:

What are you? she had wondered just that evening as they had stepped out of their barouche in Paris Crater and left the voynix standing there, apparently eyeless, rusted carapace and leathery hood wet from the rain, its killing blades retracted but manipulator pads extended and curled. [Ilium, 83-4]

There's nothing wrong with this as such: the mystery of the voynix is compelling, and compellingly developed, as the novel progresses. Yet I couldn't shake the sense that this idiom, aligned with Hannah's point of view and therefore with her mode of understanding her world, is too technical, too precise and instrumental ('carapace', 'killing blades retracted but manipulator pads extended'). Would Hannah actually see the, to-her, ubiquitous cyborgs in this way? Does this vocabulary express the appropriate flavour of Hannah's culture? If the first narrator in Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerberus referred to his robot tutor 'Mr Million' in this instruction-manual idiom from the get-go then that book wouldn't work nearly as well as it does. One of the glories of that novel is the way Wolfe writes his machine via the perceptions of the boy rather than via the perceptions of a notional physics or engneering graduate. He humanises and to an extent obscures its true nature until we slowly come to the same understandings about the technology as the book's characters themselves.

This is one example of a larger point: Simmons' old-style humans all relate to their fantastical world in this way ('they leaned their weight against the elastic but ultimately unyielding energy shield. It wasn't semipermeable after all', Ilium, 117). Surely when we take technology for granted (as we do nowadays with hundreds of technological items) we rarely if ever think of it with this sort of precision of terminology. On the other hand, perhaps this is merely to say that Simmons places his prose at the service of the readers rather than his characters (and it is an often repeated criticism of Wolfe that his prose makes too few concessions to his readers).

In another sense, however, this sort of tech-speak prose is appropriate to the book: it draws a sharper contrast between the far-future of the old-style humans and the Moravecs, and the very vividly realised scenes in the archaic world of Homer's Iliad. Despite the many pleasures and wonders of the other two strands, it is Hockenberry's narrative of the Trojan war that is the novel's great triumph.

Hockenberry, in his previous incarnation, was an expert on the Iliad, which is presumably why he has been chosen by the 'gods' to monitor the unfolding of the recreation. But one of the larger questions of the book is whether the recreated version of the war will indeed simply follow the contours mapped out by Homer's poem, or whether it will -- whether it can -- follow a new path. In the poem Hector dies, Troy is doomed to fall: will it be so in the recreation?

Large sections of Simmons' books are given over to powerful retellings of the blood-spattering battles, much as they are described in Homer's own work; he relies quite heavily on Robert Fagles' superb modern translation of the ancient Greek, but augments -- a superb touch -- with a more contemporary jargon. The Trojan hero Hector rebukes Paris, mixing street-talk with lines lifted straight from Homer's Greek (via Fagles):

"What the fuck are you doing?" Hector snarled at the smaller man. "Sitting here like a woman, like a mewling infant, playing with your armor while the real men of Ilium die by the hundred, while the enemy surges around the citadel and fills our ears with his foreign battle cries? Get up, you son of a bitch. Get up before Troy is burned to cinders around your cowardly ass!' [Ilium, 177]

Indeed, some of the passages that sound like jazzed-up modern Homer are actually direct translations from the Homeric Greek (as when Helen of Troy berates herself, 'bitch that I am, vicious scheming cunt that I am, a female horror to freeze the blood', Ilium, 178). That's exactly the idiom Homer uses himself; go check for yourself if you don't believe me.

What Simmons manages (and it's no small achievement) is to capture the sheer vigour, the imaginative power and brutal vividness, of Homer's original. If he can convince even a small fraction of the 'I only read SF' brigade that the Iliad is not some musty tired old classic but a work of continually astonishing relevance and power, and worth a read, then he will have done a great thing.

Indeed, I finished the book wondering if this was where we might find the true theme of Ilium. We SF writers and fans often talk about our beloved genre as a ghetto, frozen out by the denizens of 'high literature', despised as popular culture 'entertainment', where Shakespeare and Dickens et al are elite culture. Simmons is too canny to fall for this caricature. He knows his literature. He knows that Shakespeare and Dickens were both, in their own day, popular entertainers first and foremost; and, more, that both were denigrated by their contemporary critics as such.

We can take Ilium as part of a larger Simmons project to meld SF and 'Literature' in practice as well as theory. Simmons' appealing imaginative world in Ilium reveals itself, as we read, to iterate at a basic level not only Homer but Shakespeare, Robert Browning (especially 'Caliban Upon Setebos'), Proust amongst others. It is as if the book is saying: the far future of SF is Homer and Browning rather than EE Doc Smith -- indeed, it is literally Homer and Browning, recreated in palpable and liveable forms. For what will survive of us, when we mutate into post-humans and buzz away, is art. Art is imagination, formed and made beautiful: SF is today's most imaginative mode of art, and when it is done well it is beauty (are there more beautiful films out at the moment than Matrix Reloaded or The Two Towers? I mean as a visual artefact, as ballet and composition? Are there more beautiful prose stylists working today than Gene Wolfe, M John Harrison, Ian McDonald?).

Simmons has done his art well: his book is magnificently imaginative, perfectly formed and often beautiful. I'm very much looking forward to Olympos, and that's the most significant praise a novel can enjoy.


Review by Adam Roberts.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror
amazon.com (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)