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Olympos

by Dan Simmons

(Gollancz, 10.99, 690 pages, trade paperback, published 30 June 2005.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanAt the end of Ilium (reviewed elsewhere on this site), the Ancient Greek and Trojan heroes had made common cause with the Moravec Robots in order to wage war against the Gods of Mount Olympos (the great Uber-Volcano of Mars). At the same time, on Earth, the 'natural' Humans were shocked out of their centuries of indolent hedonism when their mechanoid servants, the Voynix, went feral and turned murderously on their erstwhile masters.

As Olympos begins, the two conflicts are moving in different directions. The war on Mars is a stalemate; Achilles continues to kill Gods, whom Zeus then systematically resurrects. The war on Earth, however, is steadily turning against the Humans, who are fighting a losing battle against steadily more brutal and determined Voynix attacks.

To complicate matters, diverse mysterious forces are at work. Prospero, a figment of information technology incarnated as the Magus from Shakespeare's play The Tempest, is conducting an inscrutable scheme that may or may not be intended to save Humanity from destruction, while his rebellious servant, the bestial Caliban, and the demonic Setebos, a soul-consuming monster from an alternate universe, are set on their own particular path to world-wide annihilation.

Mixed into this stew of struggling forces, are some fairly heavy metaphysics. In 1992 Simmons wrote a novel called The Hollow Man, a dense, character-driven study of the struggles of a lonely telepath. One of the central conceits of the story was that each individual human consciousness was in fact a wave of free-form Quantum probability, which could, under the right circumstances, impose its reality on the entire world, or even the universe. This idea is at the forefront of Olympos, pushed with sometimes bewildering insistence (and an absence of convenient, reader-friendly metaphor, to help get a rather abstruse concept across).

If it isn't plain yet, it should be said clearly; Olympos is a very complex book. Aside from a looping, multi-stranded plot, carrying over a dozen protagonists along frequently divergent paths, and some very sharp, barely concealed social/political/religious critique, there are dense passages of high-powered astro-physical vocabulary, and heavy layers of literary allusion (Proust, Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, all jostling for position).

Somewhere in all that, the plot gets lost. Well, it was already in trouble, with abrupt switches of direction, deviations from expected outcomes, unforeshadowed menaces, not-so-credible lucky coincidences, and inexplicable changes-of-heart. The slow and halting revelation of the back-story was also no help. Only very gradually does Simmons deign to lead the reader through the past history of the Solar System, and in doing so he makes no concession to the readers' need for an orderly exposition. The past is an awkward jigsaw puzzle, pieced together by offhand remarks, fragments of recovered events, and often abrupt explanations.

Worse than this, however, is the fact that the various strands of the plot never gel into a satisfying whole. In Ilium what kept the story pounding along was the siege of Troy, the titanic struggles (and bloody deaths) of the heroes of Homer's great epic, while the intrigues and betrayals of the Gods added an extra element and seemed to promise satisfying revelations. In Olympos that feeling of a central, direct struggle about which everything else orbits is gone.

The various portions of the plot are too evenly weighted, and the relations between them seem too distant, or far-fetched. Sure, some elements and characters do come together, but they do so with large portions of the past still shrouded in mystery, a sense that the threats and challenges of the story have not so much been overcome or understood as simply melted away. Of course, there are passages of good writing, and characters who become compelling, but overall there is no single, compelling, central problem into which all the others flow.

To be charitable, one might conclude that this book is the middle-passage in an ongoing story (though no third novel is promised and it comes to a firm ending) and that the apparent confusions will be resolved in the next installment, but that's no excuse for the tangled narrative. Regrettably Simmons seems to have stumbled with this novel.

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