(Gollancz, £10.99, xi + 574 pages, trade paperback, also available
in hardback priced £17.99, published 21 August 2003; ISBN: 0380978938/057572601.)
I think we all know who Dan Simmons is: the author of the Hyperion
Cantos from over 10 years back -- a stunning and
deservedly well-received re-examination of some well-worn sf tropes
casually interspersed with allusions and direct references to canonical
authors and texts, both structural (e.g. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales)
and lyrical (e.g. John Keats). The Cantos duly won the Hugo in
1990 and some people assumed Simmons had done his bit for sf and that,
like a white dwarf star after a nova, might settle down to a distinguished
but rather less florid career ...
'Some people' is a fool.
Somewhat contrary to my expectations Ilium is a fine return
to form by Simmons that I wouldn't be in the least bit embarrassed to
give to the non-sf reader in my life to look at. On the contrary, I
would thoroughly expect them to thank me for it. Here's why.
Ilium consists of three entirely separate storylines; so separate,
in fact, that you may wonder what they're all doing together in the
same novel. Their relevance to each other is a well-concealed and equally
well-executed piece of plotting on Simmons' part.
The first strand is set during the Trojan War, circa 3,000BC. This
time, though, Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Helen, etc, are all being
carefully observed by reconstituted Homeric scholars (or 'scholics')
from the future, employed by the Greek gods (the actual gods
-- fickle, scary and bad-tempered) and each given some nifty future
gadgets (our future that is, not just the future of the Ancient
Greeks and Trojans) to help them observe and yet be unobserved. Our
specific scholic is one Thomas Hockenberry, originally a university
professor from the late 20th century USA.
The second strand is set after the Rubicon virus has killed nearly
every human being and the surviving post-humans have migrated to two
orbital rings around the Earth. You wouldn't know about this yet because,
as with Hockenberry and the Ancient Greeks, his past is still in their
future. The one million-odd survivors of humanity live in blissful,
decadent luxury, rather like Logan's Run. They have lived in
this manner for millennia, fed, carried, healed and entertained by the
android 'voynix' and servitor robots from birth until death exactly
one century after they are born. That is until one of them manages to
teach himself how to read.
The third strand begins on Jupiter's moon, Europa, where a thriving
community of 'moravecs' -- sentient cyborgs who have evolved from early
models sent from Earth in centuries past -- have discovered a problem
with quantum activity around a newly (and quite inexplicably) terraformed
Mars. Four rather unhappy moravecs are sent to take a look -- unhappy
because they would mostly rather stay at home and continue their studies
of ancient human literature (specifically the works of Proust and of
the Bard himself, Bill Shakespeare).
All of this takes place in roughly the first quarter of the book. I
can't bring myself to reveal any more in this review because the voyage
of discovery that Simmons takes us on through Ilium is a joy
in itself. His is a complicated universe partaking of ancient and modern
literature (modern for you and I, that is), of sf, some heavy theoretical
science and some equally heavy historical reconstruction.
Perhaps oddly for an sf novel, it is the Trojan War sequences that
work best in terms of spectacle, at least to begin with. Simmons has
done a fantastic job of bringing events in The Iliad to gleaming,
crashing, revolting life (so much so that I've had to go out and buy
a copy to read myself). Perhaps equally oddly, it is the non-human moravecs
who seem the most immediately likeable characters. Otherworldy academics
(literally), their discussions of the relative merits of Proust's and
Shakespeare's treatment of the human condition whilst traversing the
icy seas of Europa and inter-Jovian space in, respectively, a submarine
and a space-crab-like body are a joy to read.
This is not to say that the strand about our blatantly Eloi-like distant
descendants is not a ripping yarn too; it's a fascinating and often
slightly sinister recycling of the old decadent-and-fallen-future-humanity-rediscovers-truth-about-its-past
story. Although this particular strand does flag a little in the
middle (too much chasing after enigmatic wise women to strange places,
I thought), the competition from the other two story strands is very
stiff, and towards the end of the book this story really picks up the
baton and runs with it.
I loved this book, it's got just about everything: high-flying big
ideas tightly wrapped in a gripping narrative (towards the end every
chapter closes on a nail-biting cliff-hanger!), but beautifully grounded
by an intelligent and very, very human story that isn't afraid
to expect -- encourage even -- a little bit of willing erudition from
its readers. If you're stupid you'll probably enjoy reading Ilium,
but if you're not stupid then you'll enjoy it even more.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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