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by Allan Vorda
Dan Simmons's first foray into science fiction since his epic Hyperion saga, Ilium stretches across over four thousand years in yet another astounding display of writing and ideas, not only about the potential future, but the potential past. As with Hyperion, the reader must await the sequel for the story's conclusion, but there is plenty to digest until the sequel, to be titled Olympos, is published.
Ilium—the title comes from the Latin name for the ancient city of Troy—entails three seemingly disparate stories that eventually intertwine. The first story, a re-telling of Homer's epic poem the Iliad, is narrated by one Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., an English teacher from the late 20th century who has died, but has been brought back to life by the Greek gods to witness and help interpret the war between the Achaeans (Greeks) and Trojans.
Hockenberry is typical of Simmons's wonderful characters. He is no super-hero, and not particularly handsome or athletic. Because the gods are scheming (Aphrodite, for example, wants Hockenberry to spy on the gods and to kill Athena), Hockenberry knows that if he makes a mistake, his resurrected life will end. When Hockenberry displeases Aphrodite, the goddess of love threatens to split him open and use his "guts for my garters."
Yet Hockenberry has the guts to take matters into his own hands. Far from being a conscientious recorder of events, Hockenberry aspires to challenge the gods and change history. He has been given devices by Aphrodite to help him spy on others. The items include a quantum teleporter, a Hades helmet (which makes him invisible), and the ability to morph into other people. One wonderful scheme is when Hockenberry morphs into Paris and makes love to Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.
Later on, Hockenberry muses to himself: "If I'm not allowed to speak, the events of this night will diverge from the Iliad. But I realize they already have diverged. What's going on here?" One thing going on here is a revisionist interpretation of history and the Iliad by Simmons. Not only does Simmons inject new dialogue and scenes, he even incorporates a science-fictional explanation as to why such warriors as Achilles, Diomedes, and Hector are so powerful: it's because the gods of Olympos have injected a modicum of nanotechnology into the most powerful warriors in order to influence the ongoing battle.
While the Trojan war is going on somewhere around 1200 B.C., events are taking place on Earth, in a place called Ardis Hall, in the year 3001 A.D. Here the story is set on the smaller scale of a love triangle: Daeman, an out-of-shape middle-aged man with Nabokovian tendencies, wants to seduce Ada, a physically beautiful young woman who sees the inner beauty of Harman, a ninety-nine year old man who prefers learning and dying to being waited on by strange creatures and the hope of immortality. The reader cannot help liking these characters—even Daeman, who thinks he is intelligent and a man who knows butterflies, though he is no more intelligent than he is a lepidopterist. Daeman's thought about Harman's desire to read "made no more sense than celebrating one's ninety-ninth year." Yet to Simmons's credit, it is Daeman who learns something about himself and becomes a better human being by the end of the novel.
Simmons also introduces some strange creatures in the future as well. There are the zeks or Little Green Men (chlorophyll-based workers) who erect thousands of Great Stone Heads on the planet Mars. There are also the mysterious bipedal creatures called the Voynix, who are assumed to be simple servants for the people of Ardis Hall, but are as indecipherable and esoteric as their namesake (taken from the Voynich manuscript). Yet the most interesting of Simmons's creatures are the Moravecs, biomechanical robots with human traits who work under the extreme gravitational moons of Jupiter.
This brings us to the third on-going story that takes place in Ilium. The two central Moravecs are the tiny Mahnmut and the larger and more powerful Orphu. At first glance, they appear simply to be like the good-natured robots from Star Wars, but they become perhaps the most complex of all the characters in Ilium. Mahnmut is first seen exploring the seas of Europa while Orphu is mining on Io. Before long, these two robots become pivotal characters in the struggle on Mars, but they also argue at every opportunity over the merits of Shakespeare and Proust. In Simmons's universe, literary arguments are debated by robots whereas the human race cannot even read; it is a scary thought (or is it?) that those who will keep literature alive are machines.
What is also frightening is that Simmons has projected the apparent demise of humanity by robotic creatures around the year 3001 A.D. Yet writers like Hans Moravec in his book Robot or Raymond Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines predict substantial robotic takeover by 2050 (Moravec) or as early as 2029 (Kurzweil). These writers see it not only as inevitable, but as a good development.
To sum up Ilium is virtually impossible. Suffice it to say that by the end of the novel—with a cataclysmic battle looming between the Greek gods and a coalition of forces that include the Achaens, Trojans, Zeks, and the Moravec army—the stage is set for a sequel that will have readers waiting in anticipation. Having already written the magnificent Hyperion (and the subsequent Hyperion tetralogy, possibly the greatest SF saga ever), a brilliant novel about Hemingway set in 1942 Cuba (The Crook Factory), a superb suspense novel (Darwin's Blade) and a gothic horror novel (A Winter Haunting), the genre-defying Simmons here adds another startling epic to his already impressive oeuvre.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004