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July 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Ilium by Dan Simmons
Avon/Eos Galley: ISBN 0380978938 PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien
592 pgs. List price $26
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photo courtesy of Dan Simmons

Interview with the author: Dan Simmons (with Ernest Lilley)

This is a book impossible to not like, and hard to not love. Dan Simmons, who first thumped the world of SF upside the head with Hyperion more than ten years ago (has it been so long?) is banging away again with Ilium. Who else would dare stick his fingers so deep into The Iliad you won’t ever think of that classic in quite the same way again? Who else would appropriate Shakespeare’s The Tempest so adroitly that the strangeness of doing so passes in but a page or two, leaving the reader with a deep sense of rightness about the symbols being put into play?

Is it space opera? Is it philosophical SF? Is it philosophical space opera? I’ll put the end of my review here: fans of the SF romp, of the kind of story that knows no bounds, of characters who shrink at no impossibility must read Ilium. It is that simple.

Readers who proceed past this point, beware. Much of the charm of this novel comes from the thigh-slapping bark of a laugh it provokes when it reveals certain surprises. Some of these surprises can’t be avoided in any significant review. If you want the most out of Ilium, I refer you to the end of my review, above. Stop now.

For those of you still reading, you have my sympathy.

In the classical vein, Ilium opens with an acknowledgement of its narrator, a “scholic” named Hockenberry, “poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Hockenbush to his friends.” Yes, dead. Alive again (or perhaps never dead, who can say?) to serve the strange interests of—brace yourselves—Greek Gods. Zeus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, various Muses, thousands in all.

And what does scholic Hockenberry do for his employers? He watches and records a war, a little affair outside a town called Troy (or is it Ilium?) defended by guys like Hector, besieged by sundry heroes of yore such as Achilles and Odysseus. He has decidedly unGodlike toys to help him with this task, and so the mystery begins—is this really the Trojan war of history? Are these gods really Gods?

Simmons postpones lengthy thought on such questions by posing a whole new set of wonders, a future age of high-tech wonder populated by humans who live in endless luxury and who have forgotten many things about the technology that supports them, not least of which is the ability to read. Humans of this age flit about the globe effortlessly, “faxing” from place to place in the blink of an eye. Here, too, are individuals of heroic cast, one who has taught himself the art of reading through decades of effort, another who is, literally, a wandering Jew, a secretive survivor of some earlier age when some half-described disaster overtook the Earth.

If perchance a reader of Ilium imagines he or she has a grasp of the matters at hand, Simmons leaps again, this time to the Jovian moon of Europa where a biological/machine entity has been summoned to a gathering of similar beings, morovecs, who discuss a mission to Mars, where odd things have been happening during recent centuries.
If it is with a sigh of relief one assumes the venues are finished being visited by this helter-skelter narrative, one sighs too soon. Where there are Greek Gods there must perforce be an Olympos, It is here we are thankful Hockenberry used to teach the classics and can fill the reader in on the many Gods strolling around (he’s a handy observer of the Trojan war, too, invariably pointing out the many minor differences between Homer’s account and what is actually transpiring).

These four venues are populated with people who move through a complicated dance of a plot, always teasing the reader forward for a step before unlinking arms so that another element of the plot can capture the reader for another step. That Simmons is able to keep this dance moving is remarkable; that the dance so complex is compelling and demanding of the reader seems impossible—but it is true. Open this book late at night at your peril.
Ilium demands a certain kind of background from its reader, but if you are not well versed in The Iliad And The Tempest, have no fear. Simmons is careful to provide all the cues one needs to follow along. Don’t know who Odysseus was, or what he was famed for? You’ll learn. Forget exactly where Zeus came from, and how he came to hold the throne of the Gods in Olympos? No sweat. The tale is reviewed, sweetly and adroitly.

In any endeavor so grand, so huge, so dramatic, every reader will find a few false notes. I appreciated the morovec’s hobby—studying Shakespeare’s sonnets—and I was tremendously amused to see Helen Vendler’s name used (if you feel you should understand the sonnets but don’t, look up Vendler’s book on the subject). I found a reference to the horror movie The Fly to be hopelessly cute and out of place. The future humans are scorned as “Eloi” by the wandering Jew character—the reference is appropriate, as these people have forgotten many useful things about technology they carry in their own bodies—yet this character makes many other comments that seem jarring and out of place.

These are minor notes, however, and did not materially interfere with my enjoyment. For every frown brought on by things like The Fly there were a hundred Laugh Out Loud moments. What would you do if, having decided to fight the Gods, you could take the form of Paris and visit the famed Helen of Troy’s bedchamber? Hockenbberry is as human as any of us.

“But wait,” I hear some readers wail, “do you mean to say the women of the story are but soft creatures placed amidst the pages for the pleasure of men?” Hardly. Simmons carries on his tradition of strong female characters here. The women of Troy in particular take a leading—and startling—role in the story. Do not take them for granted.

Ilium progresses to a finale so vast it makes one wonder what Simmons could have in mind for the sequel, Olympos. There are hints that one has not met all the players in the drama come the end of this book, and Simmons’ appropriation of Prospero from The Tempest should provide a sense of unease if nothing else.
For those of you who might have forgotten, I’ll repeat the end of my review here: fans of the SF romp, of the kind of story that knows no bounds, of characters who shrink at no impossibility must read Ilium. It is that simple.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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