Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Ilium, by Dan Simmons

The gods continue to play games with human lives in the 40th century.


Voyager, 2003, 576 pages

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 21st-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 40th-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 20. 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.

Dan Simmons clearly knows his classics. In the Hyperion Cantos, he showed off his knowledge of Chaucer, Yeats, and Joyce, as well as a complex futuristic incarnation of the Catholic Church. In Ilium, he demonstrates his knowledge of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Proust, and proves he knows Greek mythology inside and out. I was shamed by this book into resolving to finally read the Iliad and the Odyssey myself.

Set in the 40th century, Ilium starts off as a literal recreation of the Iliad. The gods have terraformed Mars, and somehow resurrected the entire cast of Homer's epic to refight the Trojan War while the gods watch from Olympus Mons. The "gods" turn out to be super-advanced beings using quantum and nanotechnology, but they are at the "indistinguishable-from-magic" level of technology, and have assumed the roles and attributes of the classical Greek deities, for reasons not yet explained.

Thomas Hockenberry is one of the "scholics" the gods have also resurrected to observe and report on the war. Originally a 20th century classics professor, Hockenberry is now in service to one of the Muses. The scholics are in a precarious position — all the gods know about the Iliad, and that the war, for the past nine years, has been going pretty much as Homer described it. But the scholics are forbidden by Zeus to tell, and the gods forbidden to ask, what happens next. So the gods are playing their divine games, choosing favorites and interfering with the war just as they did in myth, with the role of fate being an open question.

Also, just like in the myths, the gods are real assholes, treating humans as pawns on their chessboard, and casually annihilating anyone who sasses them.

Hockenberry is suddenly drafted by Aphrodite for a clandestine mission to kill Athena. He figures this is clearly a suicide mission, even if he has been given a quantum teleportation medallion, the Helmet of Hades, and a bunch of other artifacts. So he goes rogue. Then he changes a key event, bangs Helen of Troy, and suddenly we're not in the Iliad anymore.

This AU Trojan War is only part of the novel. There are two other (eventually) connecting storylines. The first involves a pair of sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter. The "Moravecs" Mahnmut and Orphu were investigating strange phenomena on Mars when a bearded man in a chariot hit their ship in orbit with a lightning bolt. They crash, but are able to escape the gods and undertake a journey across Mars, engaging in witty banter like R2D2 and C3PO, if C3PO were a Shakespeare scholar and R2D2 were a fan of Proust.

The second involves the last surviving humans on Earth, a tiny population of indolent Eloi who know nothing about the world they live on or its history, and take their teleportation and rejuvenation technology for granted. However, as Eloi-like as they may be (they are actually called "Eloi" by one of the old-time humans they later meet), a few of them still have a spark of curiosity, and one small group sets off on an unplanned adventure, in which they meet Odysseus and later Caliban and Aerial, in the orbital space stations left behind by the post-humans who long ago abandoned Earth.

Ilium is a rich and complex novel, with so much world-building and so many literary references I'm sure I missed some. It's also an awesome adventure, with Achilles joining forces with Paris and leading an army of Acheans, Trojans, Jovian robots, and Little Green Men from Mars in a war against the gods.

Verdict: Vast, deep, and epic, I wasn't sure what to expect from the author of the Hyperion Cantos, but Ilium pays off. It is the kind of novel that elevates the sci-fi genre. Whether it too becomes diminished in the follow-up book I look forward to finding out. 9/10.

Also by Dan Simmons: My reviews of Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, dan simmons, reviews, science fiction

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