Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 07, 2007


When I first read that Dan Simmons was returning to far future science fiction--after concentrating on bestselling horror and mysteries for most of the past decade--with a pair of novels about the Trojan War, I immediately assumed it would be a novel based on the Trojan War. Imagine my surprise when I began reading Ilium and saw that it was about the historical Trojan War, complete with ancient heroes and Greek gods. Surely this must be a fantasy novel, no?

No, Ilium is pure science fiction, and fairly successful science fiction at that. The novel begins with three alternating storylines:

• The Trojan War itself, populated by characters from The Iliad; early in the novel the Greek gods are revealed to be superhumans enhanced by futuristic technology reminiscent of Lord of Light; this portion is narrated by Thomas Hockenberry, a “scholic” resurrected from the 21st century seemingly by the gods to observe the Trojan War and make sure it follows the “traditional” pattern as observed by Homer;

• a far-future Earth in which the inhabitants are bored humans reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat trilogy or Damon Knight’s “Dio”; the author’s concern is centered on four of these humans: Harmon who is 99 years old and thus has only 1 year to live until he reaches his “fifth Twenty,” after which he is spirited away to the afterlife, two younger women Hannah and Ada, and young cynic Daemon whose main concern in life is seducing as many women as possible, in this case, Ada; this portion is mainly concerned with a travelogue taken by the four innocents which seems illogical based on their shallow lifestyles, but serves the needs of the author; on their way they encounter Savi, the legendary “Wandering Jew,” and Odysseus, who was somehow transported from the historical Iliad to the far-future;

• a group of moravecs, cyborg-like beings traveling to Mars for some clandestine mission whose purpose they do not know, and which seems more thriller-like than sfnal.

The three storylines seem totally unrelated at first, being separated by both distance and time, but gradually they merge into a single story, aided by some stunningly unexpected scenes. The novel improves as the storylines weave together, since initially the far-future Earth travelogue seems little more than a recreation of such end-of-time stories without much purpose, while the Trojan War scenes are mostly violent recreations of The Iliad with seemingly nowhere to go but the pre-ordained climax of the epic. The novel’s pivotal scene is when Hockenberry seduces Helen of Troy, changing from a mere observer of the Trojan War to an active participant in its progress.

As he tends to do, Simmons gradually morphs the novel from a wide-ranging examination of literary history to a fast-paced thriller. At times he succumbs to the weaknesses of thrillers, primarily during the far-future Earth sequence when the bored humans encounter deadly voynix and the evil Caliban (whose presence in the novel is one of many unexplained occurrences) and rise to the occasion by resisting them more rigorously than seemed possible earlier in the novel.

Simmons excels at springing surprises at the reader which keep the novel interesting and also serve to forward its plot while weaving the various threads together. The arrival of the historical Odysseus on the far-future Earth is an effective device. Even moreso is the sudden appearance of the Greek gods in the Martian portion of the novel. When these moments occur, the novel begins building steadily to two rousing climaxes which, while they stretch credibility, never go totally over-the-top and remain satisfying overall.

The novel does raise numerous questions which are never answered: why are the scholics observing the Trojan War, seemingly at the behest of the gods? Why does Hockenberry survive nine years observing the war while all the other scholics eventually annoy the gods enough to be killed? Why does Aphrodite choose him for a mission more suited to one of the gods? And Savi is a cheat, since she knows most of the history of the future Earth related to the novel’s events, but when asked, she keeps putting her questioners off, never providing any information which we, the readers, need to know. And how and why is the historic Odysseus–if indeed he is a real person and not just a literary creation–on the far-future Earth at all?

Knowing Ilium is the first novel of a pair, these unanswered questions require patience, although they remain a bit frustrating. Overall, Simmons is a strong storyteller able to combine wondrous ideas with futuristic color, and he writes a fast-paced novel which does not strain credibility beyond the point of believability. The main problem though is just when it seems as if the novel is nearing its ultimate conclusion, with all the strands about to be answered, it crashes to a halt, leaving 700+ pages remaining in its sequel Olympos. To be continued...


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