on March 18, 2004
Writing about anachronistic characters is, at least for me, a cardinal sin in the sf/fantasy world, especially since so few can manage to pull it off convincingly. Illium, therefore, presented more than a few problems for me at the outset: a modern classicist, who's consciousness is hurled into the future to document a restaging of the Trojan War, with all the "real" gods and heroes intact. Of course, in true Einsteinian fashion, observing the war results in changes to the Homeric model, and events gradually spin out of control. The first few chapters annoyed me. It's a long book, and I wasn't really excited about spending a week or so with a book that seemed to be developing into something truly hokey.
Well, it is hokey, almost completely so, but it's to Simmons' credit that he pulls such a ridiculous plot off with a minimum of groans. The prose is competent, often rising to very good, and he pays a decent amount of time (by sf standards) to developing the main character, the unfortunately named, "Hockenberry." Most other characters get very little, the exception being two artificially intelligent life forms from one of the moons of Jupiter, who reveal much about themselves in their conversations about historical Earth literature.
The other sticking point is that this is the first book of two, thought the second book will not be so much a sequel as simply the second portion of the novel. Don't expect a satisfying conclusion to this book, as it ends very awkwardly.
All in all, Illium is decent. It's a cut above most sf/fantasy, with some interesting big ideas. It's mostly set-up for a bigger conflict, though, to be seen in the subsequent volume.
on December 28, 2003
Ilium, like previous reviewers have stated, is a sci-fi reimagining of Homer's Illiad in a grand and futuristic scale. Dan Simmons mixes in philosophy with literature and excitement all in one package. That said, there were some things about it that peeved me:
1. Much like the Illiad, Dan Simmons has so incorporated Homer's style that he includes nitty gritty details that I couldn't care less about. He tells you that this person is a minor character and will die in about five minutes, but then goes on to give you his life story! (Inlcuding that he is the son of so-and-so and he will die in this manner.) Like the Illiad, I was desperate to read the Cliff Notes version.
2. Like Hyperion, this novel basically plops you into a wonderful world without giving you much explaination. Perhaps I am just slow, but it took me a couple chapters to realize what a moravec was.(I finally discovered the much needed glossary and explanation of characters at the end of the book.)
3. His science is a bit fishy and I didn't buy most of it. Granted, the story takes place thousands and thousands of years in the future, however, there were places in the book that I just thought to myself, "Nah, that can NEVER" happen.
4. The characters in this book change and grow, however, one of them changes so exteremely that I'm not sure it's believable. I am all for people changing and learning their lesson and whatnot, however, I don't believe that people can have a TOTAL change. I feel that there should be at least some vestige of the former self when someone changes and grows. In this case, a character changes and I feel like he is a totally different person with not a single iota of the former self and I found that really hard to buy. It's like Pippin transforming into Gandalf. Just kinda makes you giggle.
All in all, I'm glad to have read it and thought it was cool, however, I'm not sure if I would read the sequel when it comes out.
on December 21, 2003
Let's say that you are a genius. You must be, you've read the
Iliad in the original Greek, plus you've cranked out a bunch
of well-written potboilers that got great reviews. Never mind
that the conclusions of some of your books or series, like the
Hyperion series, are truly dumb. They sold a bunch of copies
and that's what counts, because you are a genius and the rest
of the unwashed masses are, well, unwashed.
Given that, you figure you could write a couple of books that
mix the Iliad and Sci-Fi that will sell *millions*. So off you
go. You know the elements of novel writing, like pacing, and
mixing various threads into a coherent whole, and having a
cute robot in the story. You come up with a great plot idea
that sort of works if you stick some nonsense about quantum
stuff into it at appropriate spots - but you're a genius and
you can write mumbo jumbo with the best of them. And it all
goes swimmingly well. You're going to hook the unwashed sci-fi
fans good this time and since there's millions of them, you're
going to make a whack o' cash. You pile on all the great sci-fi
themes of the past century for good measure. Some humor, some
pathos, and you're done.
But still, there's a problem. It's just not *exciting* enough,
you know? The mundanes out there want, indeed they need, some
excitement in their lives. What to do, what to do? Well, how
about reaching into the bag of tricks of the great purveyor of
action and pacing - Hollywood! That old staple where the hero,
mortally wounded, just barely manages to switch off the atomic
bomb by cutting the red wire (no, the blue wire!) just at the
*very last second* works every single time and makes Hollywood
billions. But let's go one better. How about we do it
And there you have Ilium and, I expect, the eagerly-anticipated
Olympos in a nutshell. Lots of absolutely last second
breathtaking hero-saves-the-universe action. I can't remember
the number of times it happened - 4? 5? 6? Plus, and here's
the great part, you've actually got the unwashed interested in
Homer, the Iliad, and all that stuff, which can't be bad,
right? Google searches for "Iliad" will go through the roof.
I expect it'll continue to get great reviews, win multiple
sci-fi awards and most important, earn a ton of cash. That's
on November 5, 2003
In the far, far distant future, a lot of things are happening all at once. (Actually, part of the point of this book is that everything is always happening all at once in some respect, but never mind.) The gods of ancient Greece--or beings so like them as to make little difference--are hovering over the Trojan War, using reconstituted 20th century professors as their agents. Jupiter and Jovian space are populated by sentient semi-organic robots, who are on a seemingly kamikaze mission to Mars. Earth is a much different place than we know it now, with "old-style" humans enjoying a certain level of technology that no one understands yet having no artistic culture. By the end of the book all these stories will have come together--somewhat--to prepare the way for the NEXT book. So that makes _Ilium_ essentially a great big 500-odd page introduction.
It's a fairly interesting introduction, particularly as far as character development. These characters--except, perhaps, the eternal gods--live and grow in ways both drastic and believable. The process is aided by that age-old classical theme of Man's struggle against Fate; everyone here is raging against stricture and convention, whether he knows it or not. Also appropriate, since a major theme of _The Iliad_ is the devastating and world-changing effect of rage. As a backdrop and mirror of the action, Simmons uses Homer exceptionally well most of the time, although I don't personally agree with some of his interpretation; in my opinion he doesn't take a wide enough view or veer enough from rather straight-laced academia in his interpretation of the Ancient Greeks, with the notable exception of Odysseus and perhaps Helen. Of course Hector is the true hero of _The Iliad_ and it isn't at all merely the modern "politically correct" view that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Ancient Greece, hello??
But anyway for all the enjoyable stuff, I found the story itself remarkably cluttered. For one thing, Simmons did that thing he does where he talks at length about societies and technology using a lot of big words, some of which he may have made up, without really explaining anything, so it takes a long time before you get a decent feel for what is going on. I don't generally mind this technique, but in this case it seemed like I was halfway through the book before I really felt I had a handle on things. Some of the questions--like, who are the post humans and why should I care?-- don't even begin to be answered, and that really bothered me.
For another, it seemed to me that there was too much diverse thematic content. There's meat enough in _the Iliad_ without bringing in Prospero's Island and all its inhabitants and the Wandering Jew legend too! All those disparate elements clashed in my head. I completely didn't appreciate the lengthy discussions of Shakespeare and Proust between the robots; it added nothing to the story and I found the literary criticism sophmoric.
The first 150 pages of this book were a real struggle to get through and I almost didn't bother going on. After that things picked up. I would have appreciated more resolution in this volume--some hint as to why all those elements were necessary would have raised my opinion a great deal. The sequel will show whether Simmons can ultimately pull off what he's attemtpting, but I'm afraid a lot of readers won't bother.
on October 18, 2003
Prior to his foray into hackish mystery novels, Dan Simmons was one of those authors whose every novel and short story and collection was on my shelf. He put something out, I bought it and loved it. Then came the disappointing "Crook Factory" next the dismal "Darwins Blade" and it was all downhill from there. I had hope for the update on "Summer of Night" - "A Winter's Haunting" but that was boring and tired. Now comes Ilium -- any good? Well, compared to Darwin's Blade it is a freakin' masterpiece; compared to Hyperion - it's okay. Especially since it is so reminiscent in tone and style and theme to Hyperion. It's every page forces you to think "what does this remind me of? oh yeah the shrike, or, oh yeah those cruciform guys" Are their original ideas here - yes, many to be sure. But if someone other than Dan Simmons had written this, the howls of Hyperion rip-off would be ringing through the land. Is it worth reading this Iliad on Mars, this multiverse tale that has Odysseus flying spacecraft to do war with mysterious androidesque/organic servitors to the Eloi-like human remnant? Yes -- but wait for the paperback or buy it used and cheap. Actually, since the last 75 pages or so make up for the boredom of the first 100 I would wait until Olympus is out (and perhaps even that in paperback) and read them both in sequence. Will I read the next? Yes. Will I buy the next one quickly as soon as it comes out, like I did with the Dan Simmons of old? No way.
Given that there are at least two Odysseus' (Odysseii?) in this tale I think that we will have another two books set in this universe dealing with their/his journey after Olympus - Hyperion-Endymion and the Iliad and Odyssey. (Endymion Revolutions anyone?) This book either signals a welcome upswing for Dan Simmons or a brief spark in the discouraging flameout. I hope for the former and look forward, begrudgingly, to the next work.
on October 7, 2003
A number of people have observed that the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s was, at its core, optimistic. Although nuclear war lurked in the background, there was an optimism in the work of writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon. Mankind was evolving toward something better. Our current stage of aggression and war was a childhood that, if we survived, we would outgrow. In the 1980s science fiction started to turn inward. William Gibson's Neuromancer was set is a distopian future, the work of an angry young man (according to Gibson's description). Dan Simmons became famous with his book Hyperion, in which millions of humans were enslaved in a distant future, while in the current time of the plot people were hunted by a killing machine called the Shrike.
Dark futures could be seen as a hallmark of Dan Simmons work. Literary allusion is another theme. In Hyperion there are allusions to the work of the romantic poet Keats. Dan Simmons book Ilium is heavily based on Homer's Iliad, the story of the Trojan war. The Iliad is itself a dark tale. Troy is destroyed, many of its men killed, its women raped and sold into slavery. The war did not turn out well in the end for many of the Greeks. Agamemnon, the Greek king who defeats Troy, returns home, fated to be murdered by his wife, Clymenestra (although this is not part of Homer's tale).
Ilium is beautifully written and Simmons' story is compelling. In Ilium the Greek Gods watch (and sometimes meddle) as the Trojan war unfolds. The Gods have resurrected various classic scholars from the twentieth and early twenty-first century whose job it is to record the Trojan war. The war as it plays out on the plains of Troy largely follows the story Homer related, but the scholars are forbidden to tell anyone, even the Gods, of Homers account before the events have come to pass. The book weaves together three plots lines. The story of the Trojan war is told by an early twenty-first century classics scholar named Hockenberry. In Ilium much of humanity has been wiped out by the "Rubicon virus" while other humans have evolved through technology into post-humans. "Old-style" humans remain on earth and one plot line in Ilium relates to them. The final plot line involves Moravecs (biomechanical sentient beings, named after Hans Moravec). The Moravecs have been "seeded" throughout the Jupiter system and the asteroid belt. A group of Moravecs has been sent on a mission to Mars by their government, which is concerned that massive quantum disturbances on Mars imperil the solar system.
Ilium is set in the same "universe" as Simmons short story The Ninth of Av which was published in his story collection Worlds Enough and Time. One of the characters in this story, a woman named Savi, plays an important part in Ilium.
Ilium is a book for the patient reader. The constant switching back and forth between the three story lines can take concentration and at times I found that I had to flip back to a previous section to find a detail I had forgotten. The structure and reasons behind the story line are revealed slowly as well. The Greek Gods reside on Olympus Mons, on Mars. At first I thought that Troy and the Greeks were somehow also on Mars. It was not until the end of the book that I understood the spatial and temporal relationship between the Gods and the Trojan war. Ironically, some of the later arriving characters in the story were confused as well ("How did we end up on Earth?").
In reading Simmons' work I have sometimes wondered if he knew in advance how the story would unfold. In reading the Hyperion books I wondered if Simmons knew, even in broad outline, how this long complex story would evolve when he wrote the first book.
Ilium is the first book of a two part story, which is supposed to be finished in Olympos, so the complete story cannot be judged at this point. As with most Dan Simmons books the story is compelling, but there have been cases were the plot of a compelling Dan Simmons story fell apart at the end (for example, his book Summer of Night). If Olympos is as good as Ilium and Simmons manages to pull all the plot lines into a profound whole these books will be some of Simmons best work.
on October 6, 2003
This book had me absolutely riveted. OK, the discussions about Proust and Shakespeare at the beginning were dull and I'm still not entirely sure why we were treated to them, but the book postulates a fascinating universe with post-humanity, moravecs and, yes, gods and the Trojan War. Put all of this into one book and I was enthralled with it.
Enthralled, that is, until I got to the ending and realized that this was not a stand alone novel but was in fact the first volume of a much larger work.
I probably should have expected it, particularly from Simmons (the mind behind the hodgepodge that was Hyperion/Endymion), but it was a tremendous disappointment. I wanted a self-contained story and found instead that I had just read a bloated prelude to a bigger story and, quite frankly, that turns me off completely from whatever comes next.
Which leaves me a bit of a conundrum since I really did enjoy Ilium tremendously up until the cliffhanger and thus can't simply dismiss the book. By the same token, however, I can't justify purchasing it either. If you like Simmons, no doubt you've already read it and probably loved it. If you're looking for a fascinating story that begins and ends in the covers of one book, you might be better served elsewhere.
on August 24, 2003
I loved the Hyperion cantos, and couldn't wait to dive into Dan Simmons' most recent foray into sci-fi. Thankfully, I'm not too disappointed--the concept is interesting, and the plot itself is executed fairly well--but the novel leaves plenty to be desired in writing style, characterization, and basic writing skills.
My biggest caveat with Ilium is the weak characters. Something about the narrative style in this book just doesn't grab me like it did in Simmons' other books, and as a result the characters seem to be ill-defined sketches, only minimally fleshed out when it's convenient to the story. Even the protagonist Hockenberry, a scholar from our time who the reader is clearly supposed to most strongly identify with, is just a set of eyes and ears on the Trojan plains, with no personality to speak of. I found myself not really caring what happened to the characters, something I didn't expect after the rich stories of Paul Dure and company in the Hyperion novels.
What makes this so annoying is that there were also a few spots where Simmons tries TOO hard, and unsuccessfully, to get the reader to identify with the characters and story. There were a few references to 9/11 that weren't really necessary (particularly when one character refers to a murderous entity as "a September eleven god," an analogy unlikely to be used 3,000 years from now), and a quick reference near the end to grisly news coverage of the second war against Iraq. At one point, a slew of creatures are mobilized to attack by recordings of Muslim calls to jihad. It's difficult to make such references without appearing to stretch for connections to the reader's world, so it's no surprise when Simmons ultimately fails in this regard.
The final weakness isn't the worst, but it grated my nerves the most--it appears that there was simply no proofreading done before sending this novel to press! There are words repeated erroneously ("and and hand" early in the book), punctuation symbols left out, and quite a few inconsistencies in character and storyline. In the third to last paragraph of the book, one character's name is substituted for another's in a clearly erroneous manner, forcing the reader to leave the book focusing on just one example of the countless such errors. Hopefully later editions will have fixed these problems.
The story itself isn't so bad, although the writing pace seems a bit rushed--some of the 60-odd chapters are so short and unnecessary to the story flow that one wonders why they weren't just combined into following chapters. I do, however, like how Simmons joined two of the three plots together near the end, and the hints joining the last storyline to them are evident and satisfying.
on October 2, 2003
Ilium has a fantastic premise. It is a good story and I am a fan of Dan Simmons. However, this book should have been trimmed A LOT. Some authors can conjure subtle feelings of mystery when on the side of the verbose-as in Gene Wolfe- but, Dan does not accomplish this enough. Perhaps, he got lazy. This is the kind of work that could have been truly amazing. Please, Dan, don't settle for mediocre work. The world is already full of it.
on August 18, 2003
Not nearly as imaginative as the Hyperion series and not worthy of a Hugo, although the Moravecs are cool. Wish Simmons had spent more time on them.
Greek Gods as aliens or post-humans with advanced technology? Well, OK, but it feels like that's been done.
The ending is unsatisfying. There is no attempt to tie up any loose ends. Wait for the paperback.