ilium, a book review

Book finished last week: Ilium, by Dan Simmons.

I’m not a big fan of traditional science fiction novels (Laura, turn in your geek card now). I read a bunch of the classics of the genre (Foundation, Dune, Martian Chronicles etc) when I was much younger but kind of grew out of it. There’s a bunch of reasons for that, but the main one is that sweeping interstellar epics with lots of physics or what-would-happen-in-2050-if-the-nazis-won-WWII scenarios just don’t excite me. I’ve read some other SF over the years (I do like the new modern techie SF, and near-future apocalyptic SF is always good), but most of the time my genre fiction interest lies on the other side of the aisle, in the horror and fantasy sections.

But my SF friends kept telling me about this book called Ilium and how good it was. A traditional sweeping interstellar SF epic…based on Homer’s Iliad. And Hugo-nominated, with a bullet. OK, I thought. I’ll try that.

This is a very complex book. It takes place in the far future (3000 sometime? I think its mentioned, but I can’t remember exactly), and there are three seemingly unrelated (but eventually interweaving) plots:

In the first and most dominant plot, Thomas Hockenberry is an Iliad scholar from the 20th century who has been resurrected by the gods — as in the Greek gods: Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite. In Hockenberry’s part of the story, the Trojan War is ongoing (in the past? in the current day? on earth? on mars? its not clear), and it is Hockenberry’s job as a “scholic” to observe the war and report on its progress and how closely it matches Homer’s original account.

On earth, most of the human population has been wiped out by a virus, and the remaining humans live in luxury, waited on and protected from harm by mysterious “servitor” and “voynix” robots and spending most of their time at parties. In the past some of the humans had also evolved into post-humans, who were responsible for the incredible technology that supports the humans now, including the ability to teleport (“fax”) from place to place and regenerate intact after accidental death. At some point, however, the post-humans all abandoned the earth and ascended to the orbital rings where they now, supposedly, oversee the goings on below kind of like, well, gods.

In the third plot a group of sentient robots from Jupiter’s moons, called moravecs, have been sent to Mars because something strange is going on: Mars has been terraformed and there is a very unusual amount of quantum activity. The powers that be on Jupiter are nervous and they send the moravecs to investigate. Our two moravac protagonists, Manhmut and Orfu, are fans of earth literature and spend a good portion of their third of the book discussing Shakespeare and Proust.

To give away more of the plot would give away the surprises. There’s a ton of stuff in this book and it moves along at a fast pace. Things I liked about this book:

  • Simmons does not spend a lot of time explaining his technology. Jargon is just used as it would be by the people using it, and you have to infer what he’s talking about. The plot just moves on around the stuff. I like that. It can be initially confusing (and actually continues to be confusing — the book ends without a lot of stuff explained), but its so less boring than stopping the action to explain what every futuristic cool toy is all about.
  • The three plots are really skillfully woven together. Initially I had no idea what the three plots had in common and I admit I preferred the Trojan War plot to the other two (Simmons really draws on Homer for his description of the war; it is just as bloody and detailed as Homer and very well written). But as the book progressed there were hints as to how the three plots were related, and they (mostly) come together toward the end. Its really well done from a craft standpoint. (this is kind of strange, I read other reviews of this book and bunches of other people said they HATED the three plots, that they couldn’t understand how they related, that the jumping around bothered them, that this was the worst part of the book. This mystifies me. I feel kind like I did when I talked to people who hated the Matrix because they didn’t pick up the one core idea: “wait, you mean reality isn’t real?” )

Things I didn’t like so much:

  • The first third of the book is just tremendous, setting up this incredible premise and telling all these stories that would have made interesting books all in their own. The first third of the book really sucked me in. But the second third kind of drags and there’s a lot of meandering about, both literally by the characters and textually. And then the last third turns into Aliens meets Lord of the Rings; suddenly its an action movie complete with big explosions and a stalking beastie in the dark who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gollum. Which is fine, and fun, but not exactly what I thought I had signed up for after 400 out of 600 pages. Plus: it doesn’t really end; Ilium is the first of two books and it ends in a cliffhanger. Argh!
  • Midway through the writing of the book, 9/11 happened. This is obvious because suddenly there are references to it. It feels intrusive and strange in a book that is otherwise outside time and current events.
  • Flat, vague, and inconsistently drawn female characters. I’ve grown used to this from SF authors, alas; it seems to be an almost universal failing. But here it seems particularly obvious given that the male characters are really rich, with strong histories and motivations and personalities that change over the course of the book. Its a big contrast. Actually to be fair: the men, even the ones that aren’t actually human, do seem to fall either into the Thoughtful Nerdly Bookish or Strong Heroic Manly Man classes, so its not like the author is exactly expert at male characters, either. But I’d give him an 8 for the men and a 3 for the women.

Overall, however: this is a terrific, complex book, and it is well worth reading. I can’t wait for the sequel so I can find out how it all turns out.