"μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ' ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν"1
- Homer The Illiad
by Dan Simmons
Eos, 570 pages
Ilium. Troy. Scene of the greatest love and war story ever told. Heroes battling heroes. Fickle gods and goddesses tilting the scales in their favored direction. Homer wrote about it. Virgil wrote about it. It has been in the Western consciousness for nearly 3000 years. But what was it like to acually be there?
Enter a dark and unpleasant future. A dystopian, ruined earth with a mere handful of inhabitants to whom reading is a forgotten concept and skills are fed to them through some sort of ubiquitous computer system.
Do I have your attention yet? You may be asking yourself what these two completely incongruous subjects have to do with each other. Read on.
Like Simmons' other epic sci-fi stories, Ilium is like a tangled up bunch of threads which he slowly and methodically untangles as the story progresses. This means the beginning is really hard to follow the first time you read it and you will likely loathe a couple of the characters at the start. If you've read his Hyperion or Endymion books, the method of unveiling is like that only moreso.
I spent the first one hundred pages or so periodically setting down the book and going "What the hell is going on?" certain that I had missed some critical paragraph that glued the early story together. The threads are much farther apart in this book than in his previous works, but in truth it only makes it more satisfying in the end when all the pieces fall into place. This style is where Simmons really shines as an author, and this book is an excellent example of that.
There are multiple stories going on, obviously, one of which involves the Hellenic Gods overseeing the Trojan War. A 20th Century scholar has been somehow brought to the scene to study it, and he is guarded fiercely by one of the Muses. How he got there and what's going on unfolds like a banana peel, and the center--like the banana--is delicious.
The other main thread begins by showing us the lives of strangely decadent cattle-like future humans, not entirely unlike the Eloi of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. These people have forgotten almost all of the concepts of critical thought. While there are still a few thinkers, they have lost the ability to read, and so have sadly little concept of the past or really even about the present.
Since we've already seen that Simmons' love for great literature has been a heavy influence on his writing in the past, nobody should be surprised to see this bizarre pseudo-interpretation of The Illiad. The part that gets annoying, though, is that later it is shoved down your throat. This is the only real drawback to this novel. There are two scholars in this story who argue back and forth about Proust and Shakespeare in a way that may make you want to tear your hair out. It is thankfully brief enough that it doesn't ruin an otherwise excellent book, but it's long enough that you won't forget it.
If you enjoy intelligent science fiction, I think you will enjoy this book. If you have a thorough knowledge of Homer's telling of the war at Troy, you will love it. The storytelling is masterful, the characters rich and complex, and the suspense delicious. The only problem is a minor flurry of pedantry on the part of the author through two of his characters, but if he thinks this will get people to read classic literature, I'll even back him up on that.
The story begun in Ilium will conclude in Olympos, due out in Spring 2005.
1 O goddess sing of the rage of Achilles son of Peleus that brought countless woes upon the Achaeans and sent many valiant souls to Hades. (Book 1, lines 1-3)