Dan Simmons’ Olympos completes the story started in Ilium. It should not be read as a sequel; each novel tells half of the same tale.
It’s a complicated tale, but Simmons has fun with the telling. Posthuman flakes modified to become Greek gods oversee a Trojan War that has gone hopelessly awry. A Lovecraftian alien, meanwhile (strictly speaking, an alien inspired by Browning’s reflections on Shakespeare in "Caliban Upon Setebos" as filtered through Lovecraft), characters from The Tempest, and some leftover self-directed weapons battle with the remnants of humanity back on earth. All of this threatens the fabric of universe. The moravecs—-sentient constructions1 who dwell on the moons of Jupiter-- aided by a reconstructed professor from our era, a comatose woman from a war-torn time, and some heroes from classical mythology, decide they must set things right.
I applaud Simmons to the very echo for constructing a coherent and highly readable novel from these elements. He has produced a bizarre world, filled with mysteries and terror. Ilium frustrated many readers because it explained so little about its strange reality. Olympos leaves some minor matters open, but it clears most of the confusion. The mysteries and plot twists of Ilium and Olympos develop from millennia of imaginary history, of future cultural and scientific developments that have reshaped the world and humanity. Simmons manages to track more speculative elements than some SF writers conceive of in a lifetime.
Along the way, he recapitulates the history of SF conventions and plays with the characters and ideas from some great works of western literature. Play is the correct word; at one point, an angry and oversized Zeus strides across a battlefield, and it's not difficult to imagine a child crossing a yard where plastic toys wage war. Simmons, the author, has fun with a number of characters and conceits, original and borrowed, and ambitious readers will find much to enjoy in these books. You are advised to read the two novels together, however. It also wouldn’t hurt to have read some Classical mythology, the works of William Shakespeare, and have some passing familiarity with quantum physics.
Numerous other references riddle this story, but the aforementioned strike me as the most important. Some readers might prefer fewer specifically fannish allusions, but he keeps these relatively unobtrusive. Nothing in Olympos sinks quite so low as the moment in Ilium the moravec Orphu reveals his hitherto undisclosed familiarity with 1950s sci-fi films in order to justify an unnecessary bad joke.
We see less of the moravecs in this second half, though they remain important. They're less interesting in this novel; although they grow closer to humanity, they don't really develop as characters. More character development occurs with the old-style humans, who must cope with the loss of their comfortable, shallow existence. They gain a nobility in this second book, and I found myself interested in the fate of the closest this novel has to human heroes, Harman and Ada. I could sympathize with their struggles, though I did not find most of the humans themselves overly likeable.
Simmons does more, conceptually, with the famous characters he has appropriated. Granted some, such as Sebetos and even Caliban, function more as creepy plot devices than actual characters. Others he develops in interesting and often ironic ways, which yet remain true to the source material. The Classical gods often behave like children in the original mythos; we see a good deal more of this behaviour here, but in a context very different from Homer or Hesiod's. Simmons' gods are modified humans, and the pettiest of human motivations continue to drive them. They have access to great power but little wisdom, and they see humans as little more than chess pieces. The Greeks and Trojans often prove no better than the deities they (initially) serve. Helen can be both treacherous and yielding. Achilles shows us the noble and the dark sides of heroism; he is in turns courageous, bloodthirsty, and compulsive. His obsession with Penthesilea, brought about by a pheromone-laden elixir, turns him into a parody of a kind of lover celebrated by romantic epics. Most of us have felt that exaggerated passion, and know how short-lived and personally disastrous it can be.
Olympos features a handful of sexual encounters, which Simmons generally handles effectively. The drive-in apocalyptic make-out scene which occurs towards the end of the book proves both evocative and funny. However, the Olympian coupling between Zeus and Hera, rendered with decidedly purple prose, falls flat, even as parody.
I enjoyed reading Simmons. The story that entertains but lacks explanation in Ilium resolves in this second volume (though some of the readers may not find the explanations satisfying, or equal to the first novel's mysteries). I liked the society established in the final chapters; it would be a good place to live. Still, given how much his characters suffer, it seems a very easy conclusion.
The Cranky Campus Critic
This novel is for Harold Bloom who—- in his refusal to collaborate in this Age of Resentment—- has given me great pleasure.
Simmons has written a far-ranging SF adventure, but along the way he (irony aside) unabashedly celebrates western literature and culture. His future society, when it works for the best, borrows more than a little from western civilization. While he references popular culture and various kinds of science fiction, he fills his novel with characters and ideas from the traditional canon of western literature. I take no exception; Olympos is his book and he argues persuasively for the importance of knowing the history and cultures that have shaped one’s society. (At the same time, he suggests that we must kill our gods, but this idea has loomed large in the western mind since the Enlightenment)
He dedicates Olympos to Harold Bloom, best known to the general public as a champion of aesthetics in literature, and an opponent of narrowly politicized literary criticism. One wonders, however, about Simmons' own political angle in his novel and, in the interest of provoking discussion-- and in the spirit of Simmons' often ironic work--, I examine some possible readings of this text.
Another Bloom—-Allan—-, a man also rather fond of the western literary tradition, argues that contemporary western civilization may be the first to breed its own barbarians. Neither Dan Simmons nor Harold Bloom necessarily share Allan Bloom's extreme conservatism, but in Ilium's hedonistic, post-literate old-style humans, lost in parties, culturally clueless, amd finally forced in Olympos to understand their own humanity, one sees a satiric portrait of contemporary culture, especially youth culture.
Tolerance and multiculturalism? Simmons makes heroes of the otherworldly moravecs, but they share the same literary and cultural fascinations as their human designers. Two of the greatest, most insidious threats stalking the future earth (and one significant past threat) are the creation of an Islamic dictatorship, and I suspect someone will read this as a nod to those conservatives who consider Islam the greatest threat to western civilization (beyond those keg-toting, post-literate barbarians, of course). I think I would tread carefully here; both the Sword of Allah and the Voynix had to be created by extremists of the sort religion can breed. In any case, Simmons spreads the responsibility for the world's circumstances on the short-sightedness of many different cultures-- though the Islamist contributions do seem conspicuous.
Feminism? Some traditionalists have viewed the women's movements as the enemy, and this novel does feature a disastrous, incompetent uprising by several women during the Trojan War. Their motives make a kind of sense, however, and any uprising by untrained, poorly armed citizens would lose as disastrously to battle-hardened soldiers. Anyone suggesting this incident is misogynistic would surely be missing the broad context of Olympos, which features many strong female characters.
Something there may be to these hypothetical readings. However, Simmons' novel should not be read as a novel-with-a-thesis, and certainly not as allegory. He has produced a work that plays with familiar ideas, and it relates a remarkable, thought-provoking tale.
1.The true nature of the moravecs remains unclear. They contain both biological and mechanical elements. Hans Moravec, for whom they are named, has discussed the advantages of human cyborgs, suggesting that these are significantly modified humans. However, they also speak of humans as their creators, suggesting they may be something more akin to androids.
Portions of this review appeared first in one I wrote for Bureau42.