Dan Simmons


"Ilium"

(reviewed by Greg West MAY 15, 2004)

Dan Simmons is a writer who seems unable to limit himself to a particular niche or genre. Even after a career that spans 19 years, 23 novels and collections, and about a zillion short stories and articles, his gift for invention is unpredictable, seemingly superhuman and limitless. And if that isn't intimidation enough, he's a handsome devil too. His salt and pepper beard and prophetic squint makes you think of Hemingway had that salty old dog stayed home from Africa and become a professor of English. In fact, Simmons' novel called The Crook Factory features Hemingway as a character. Simmons also wrote one of my all-time favorite short stories called “Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams” which he later expanded into the novel The Hollow Man. His output is so prodigious one imagines him married to his word processor a la Asimov; yet unlike Asimov he finds time to raise children and travel the world. Go figure.

Now Dan Simmons has come through again, returning from his intellectual and corporeal wanderings to his science-fictional roots with the novel Ilium. His love of literature and literary figures is by now well established, yet here he incorporates one of the grandest literary themes in the western cannon — the battle for Troy, complete with flesh and blood gods and all the Greek heroes, both major and minor. We know this is science fiction because the narrator is a scholar by the name of Thomas Hockenberry, resurrected against his will from scraps of ancient DNA. His only function is to chronicle the war and the dreary posturing of men and gods. Hockenberry is not a happy camper.

This is but one of three narratives which seem to run parallel at first and then converge slowly as this sprawling novel progresses. The second strand entails “old style” humans who inhabit an underpopulated, Edenic planet Earth. Deaman and his fellow travelers come across as fully human characters, yet with strange deficiencies. They made me think of modern teenagers living in a planetwide mall, unaware of the history or even the geography of their own planet. Their lives have no apparent purpose as they teleport from soiree to party by way of faxnodes. They have hobbies but no jobs. Their every need is provided for by a network of technologies they don't understand and take as much for granted as the air they breathe. This meaningless, idyllic existence is altered when Odysseus appears from out of nowhere, out of place and time. A mystery.

The third strand of the plot introduces the Moravecs, beings who entail an indivisible wedding of man and machine, the organic and the mechanical. They live quite contentedly amid the moons of Jupiter. Mahnmut the Europan and Orphu of Io, who share an affinity for Proust and Shakespeare, are asked to investigate quantum-shift activities detected on and around Mons Olympos, the great volcano on Mars. What's more, Mars appears to have been terraformed within the last two hundred years — an impossibility. It has been centuries since the Five Moons Consortium sent a spacecraft “toward the campfire,” yet now they must send someone to investigate the mystery and the potential threat. Mahnmut, Orphu, and two others survive the three thousand gravity send off, but only two survive (barely) the landing on Mars.

Dan Simmons is not timid about taking risks. One reads the tale with the same dread fascination of watching a high wire act. Will he teeter and fall? Can he pull this off? Can he weave these three disparate narrative threads into a coherent tapestry without the whole thing sagging under its own weight?

Of course he can. He's Dan Simmons, the guy who gave us Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. By now he must think he's some kind of writerly Ubermunsch. And the most remarkable thing of all is that he does it without spoon-feeding us information, without the “infodumps” that mar the efforts of mere mortal sf writers. Instead he weaves it into the story seamlessly and trusts the reader to keep up. For instance, we're told: “Twenty feet beyond the pad circle stood an ancient two-person, one-wheeled, open carriole, with an equally ancient servitor floating above the driver's nook and a single voynix standing between the wooden tongues.” So you wonder: what's a voynix? What's a servitor? But
he doesn't explain it, he simply shows you. The same is true when we first meet the Moravecs. Where the hell is this? What are these things? The reader sinks or swims.

Swimming through the grandeur of Simmons’ imagination can be a heady experience. The audacious intelligence of the tale is equaled by the unassuming authority of the prose; or, to put it another way, only the easy competence of the prose could support the audacious ideas at play here. In the hands of a less mature author Ilium might have come across as merely bizarre, or baroque, or space opera gone mad and top-heavy with literary ostentation. Yet Simmons doesn't let that happen. Though there is little here in the way of penetrating psychological profiles, Simmons’ characters steer clear of the clichés of epic space opera. Each character, no matter how non-human, is a unique individual; it's impossible confuse one with another. Even the Borg-like Moravecs have recognizably human souls. In fact, they may be the most human (and humane) of all the characters, especially compared to the strutting egomania of the Greek heroes and gods.

No review can prepare the reader for what happens when the three narrative strands of Ilium collide, not without giving everything away. But collide they do, and with unpredictable consequences. And when we find ourselves right in the middle of the resulting train wreck, this 570 page novel comes to an end. For like his novel Endymion, this is only the first volume of a diptych, the second volume of which is due out some time in 2005. I intend to snatch it up and read it.

  • Amazon.com reader rating: from 199 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hyperion Cantos:

Illiad Series:

Other Novels:

Joe Kurtz Series:

 

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Book Marks:

More on Dan Simmons at MostlyFiction.com:

 

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About the Author:

Dan SimmonsDan Simmons was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1948 and grew up in various cities and small towns in the Midwest. Dan received a B.A. in English from Wabash College in 1970, winning a national Phi Beta Kappa Award during his senior year for excellence in fiction, journalism and art. Dan received his Masters in Education from Washington University in St. Louis in 1971. He then worked in elementary education for 18 years, the last 14 of which were in Colorado.

Dan has been a full-time writer since 1987. He is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction . His books are published in 27 foreign counties as well as the U.S. and Canada. Research for his books has taken him to India, Transylvania, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Hawaii and Peoria, Illinois. Hyperion won the Hugo award in 1990. The Rise of Endymion was nominated for the 1998 Hugo.

He lives in Colorado along the front range of the Rockies. When he's not at work writing, he enjoys camping, hiking, reading, art and music.

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