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Ilium

by Dan Simmons

(Gollancz, £10.99, 576 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £17.99, published 21 August 2003; ISBN: 0380978938/057572601.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanOn the dark plain of Ilium Greeks and Trojans are locked in combat for the ninth year of their brutal war. On each side the great heroes wreak havoc. Arms and legs are lopped off, heads go spinning away as blood gouts out in crimson fans, arrows plunge into men's guts and end up protruding from their anuses...

While the heroes battle it out, the Gods cavort on Mount Olympos. Zeus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo, scheme, aid and abet their favourites, playing cruel and brutal games of manipulation. Scuttling here and there to assist them are the lesser deities, such as Melete, the Muse, who musters a small band of Scholics to monitor the fighting around Troy.

What, you wonder, are Scholics? Well, Scholics are Homer specialists, men like Professor Thomas Hockenberry, a teacher of classics at the University of Indiana in the 1990s, who has been reconstituted from fragments of DNA in order to serve the Gods and ensure that the ongoing war does not deviate significantly from Homer's epic poem.

Is this beginning to seem a bit strange to you?

Well, it gets stranger. While the action of the seige of Troy is (so far as one can tell) being played out on Earth in the appropriate year 1,200 BC, Olympos, where the Gods dwell, is in fact Olympos Mons, the great Uber-Volcano of Mars, and the year in which the Gods are dwelling there, though undisclosed, is probably something like 4,000 AD.

Gods and Scholics pass to and fro through time and space by Quantum Telepathy, a dangerous technology that greatly worries the sentient robots, known as Moravecs, who inhabit the outer Solar System at this time. So much so that they send an intervention team to deal with the situation. Prominent among the team is the Europan, Mahnmut (a dedicated Shakespeare afficionado), and Orphu the Ionian (who is an absolute nut for Proust).

Is this beginning to seem very strange to you?

Contemporary with the Moravec plot-line, we also have a cast of characters living on Earth in a state of comfortable, ignorant, pleasure-seeking bliss, until their lives are disrupted by the interference of Savi, a 1,400 year old Jewess, who breaks the unpleasant news that their lotus-eating existence is a fool's paradise ending in untimely and brutal death.

If that were not enough we have to deal with the previous existence and mysterious disappearance of a whole sub-species of humanity, known as Post-Humans, and the development of various very unpleasant entities, or possibly deities, drawn apparently from Shakespeare's bitter play, The Tempest.

Is this beginning to seem EXTREMELY strange to you?

Well strange it certainly is, but it is also a very coherent, tautly written, colourful, compelling piece of fiction, which displays Simmons' very considerable narrative talents at their best. Simmons is one of the most intelligent, and deliberately literary writers in the science fiction genre. Ever since he wrote Hyperion, in 1989, he's been building worlds with a tangible connection to the great novels, poems and plays of the classical canon. In that instance he took the central device of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- a group of pilgrims each telling each other a story as they proceed on their pilgrimage -- and applied it to a brilliant far-future quest.

In Ilium he has used the greatest poem of classical civilisation, blending it with key motifs from Shakespeare. The whole is played out through the struggles of a memorable cast of characters, and the four-ply plotline comes together in a fully satisfying unity, though there are still mysteries to be resolved (for which one must await the sequel).

In short, a story full of striking world-building; challenging and intriguing by turns, very fast paced, and often horribly violent. First rate.

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