Ilium – Dan Simmons

From Publishers Weekly:

Many centuries in the future, Earth’s small, more or less human population lives an enjoyable, if drone-like existence. Elsewhere, on some alternate Earth, or perhaps it’s the distant past, the battle for Troy is in its ninth year. Oddly, its combatants, Hector, Achilles and the rest, seem to be following a script, speaking their lines exactly as Homer reported them in The Iliad. The Gods, who live on Olympus Mons on the planet Mars, may be post-humans, or aliens, or, well, Gods; it isn’t entirely clear. Thomas Hockenberry, a late-20th-century professor of the classics from De Pauw University in Indiana, has, along with other scholars from his era, apparently been resurrected by the Gods. His job is to take notes on the war and compare its progress to Homer’s tale, noting even the smallest deviations. Meanwhile, the “moravecs,” a civilization of diverse, partially organic AIs clustered on the moons of Jupiter, have been disturbed by the quantum activity they’ve registered from the inner solar system and have sent an expedition to Mars to investigate. It will come as no surprise to the author’s fans that the expedition’s members include specialists in Shakespeare and Proust. Beautifully written, chock full of literary references, grand scenery and fascinating characters, this book represents Simmons at his best.

What would happen if Science Fiction and Historical Fiction got together and made a baby? Well, my dear friend, Ilium is your answer. This book seems to defy normal genre restrictions in a most refreshing way. Simmons has brilliantly managed to turn one of the world’s most known epic tales (Homer’s Iliad) into a Science Fiction novel.

The sheer amount of research that must have gone into writing this book is nothing short of breathtaking. Simmons manages to effortlessly include the Iliad, Shakespeare and Proust into his novel while switching from ancient history to his science fiction world. Though sometimes I felt that the Proust and Shakespeare references did bog down his narrative, it is impressively done and adds a new depth and unique quality to the book.

Simmons’ writing is, well, amazing. His dialogue is believable; his descriptions make his tale come to life. I felt that Simmons had managed to transport me into his world, share his vision with me and make me care about the characters he had created.

I was incredibly impressed with Simmons world building. I am not an avid SciFi reader, so I don’t have much to compare this to, but Simmons vision of the future was astounding, much more believable and understandable than other works of SciFi I’ve read. Not only was it completely unique, but the sheer complexity of his vision and the scope of it amazed me and made me think about the relevance between his vision and our current day culture(s).

I started this whole book reviewing process as a personal experiment to kind of track the kinds of books I enjoy and reading and why. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I like book that are filled with depth, books that have layers of meaning, where the characters are believable with flaws and strengths, goals and aims of their own. I get disappointed when I read a book that isn’t filled with these qualities. Simmons book delivers. I found Ilium to be a refreshing step away from genre restrictions and predictable plots.

He follows multiple perspectives in this book, but it’s not scattered. He doesn’t add or subtract perspectives as the book continues, keeping things neat, tidy and easy to follow. His characters are not beautiful with stunning qualities and predictably fantastic personality traits. They are average, a middle aged scholar, an older man on the cusp of death, a self-centered pudgy man who is in it to get laid, robots (morvecs, as they are called) who are obsessed with “lost age humans” and Shakespeare and Proust. With this hodgepodge of characters, how could the book be anything but interesting?

Two lines of the story don’t come together until the very end of the book and the third never seems to interact with the other two, but they all affect each other (does that even make sense?). It doesn’t become evident until the end that all perspectives are being affected by the same general events both current and historical. Even in the end of Ilium, enough questions are left unanswered that, while I have theories as to some of the dangling ends, I’ll have to read the following book Olympos to see if I am right or not.

There is a little of everything in this book, from characters growing and developing, figuring out who they are and where they fit into things, war, some graphic death scenes, sex, and even a bit of romance. Romance, in my opinion, seems to be a sticking point for me. If it’s well done, then I enjoy it but romance can tend to turn from believable to sappy in a flash, often dragging down the book with it. This book does not suffer from that problem. The romance is believable, not overbearing, it doesn’t drag down the plot, or even slow it down at all. It adds another level of believability to the characters and the world that Simmons has created. It is so rare that I think anything positive about romance added to plots that I shocked myself when I read the romance in this book and wasn’t reduced to fits of groaning.

The book ends at what seems to be the start of a major climax of action involving Greek gods, humans, morvecs and asteroids. It promises to usher in an exciting start to the second book in the series,
Olympos. With as tightly a woven plot, as complex a world with such believable characters as Ilium, I fail to see how Olympos couldn’t deliver the same epic punch of its predecessor.

Ilium was a page-turner. The plot never ceased its relentless surge forward nor did his artistic, stunning prose ever falter. The believability of the characters, the vision, complexity and thought provoking quality of Simmons’ world coupled with an amazing leap away from common genre restrictions all put Ilium on my “re-read” shelf.

5/5 stars

One Responses

  • Carin B.

    I will have to check this out! I really enjoyed the Hyperion/Endymion series and I do think Simmons is a gifted writer (although sometimes he gets a little too verbose for my tastes). I'm glad I've found your blog!

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