Book Review: Ilium

This summer, I tackled Dan Simmons’ science fiction novel Ilium. It is one of the most recent stories to reuse elements of Greek mythology, especially Homer’s Iliad, for its own purposes, and I wanted to see exactly how this reworking of the ancient material would turn out. Ultimately, I found Ilium somewhat of a difficult puzzle to evaluate.

Let us begin with a summary of the plot, brief if possible, but the complexities of Ilium might make that a  a challenge. There are three plot threads, which intertwine with each other.

In one thread, Classics professor Thomas Hockenberry of 21th century Earth is mysteriously resurrected and forced to bear witness to a recreation of the Trojan War on a terraformed Mars. Greeks and Trojans fight for their lives as the gods, from their home on Olympus Mons, watch, interfere, and pick favorites, and Hockenberry must report to the Muse on the accuracy of Homer’s Iliad, the poem which he has spent years studying. But as he is pulled into the gods’ manipulations and politicking, he makes a choice that sends the war careening from the “fated” path set forth by Homer.

Meanwhile, the moravecs, the race of sentient robots living on the moons of Jupiter, have detected strange quantum fluctuations on Mars, and send a small team to put a stop to them, before something potentially catastrophic occurs. We see this from the perspective of Mahnmut, a submarine pilot from Europa, who in his spare time chats with his friend Orphu about Shakespeare, Proust, and other great authors.

Finally, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, humanity lives in an idyllic and ignorant state, constantly kept happy by the support of robotic servants. But a small group of humans begin to seek knowledge about who they are and what happened to the godlike race of post-humans who preceded them, and they find that all is not what it seems. They are soon plunged into a strange world filled with references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Of course, Odysseus soon becomes involved as well.

As you can see, this is definitely a weird book. On one hand, Simmons succeeds in creating a fantastic universe, filled to the brim with ideas that are as intriguing and mind-boggling as they are bizarre.

In the Iliad, the Olympian gods have all kinds of magical, divine abilities. They are able to travel almost instantaneously down from Olympus to the fields of Troy, to appear visible only to specific heroes, to take on the form and appearance of mortals, or to empower their favored warriors with extra strength, just to name a few. In Ilium, it is revealed that the gods possess these powers through the use of advanced quantum science and nanotechnology. All at once, the gods become less mystical and more real, as we are now able to explain them via science and rationality.

Another interesting idea handled by Simmons has to do with the moravecs and their love of human culture. Although their human creators are gone, the moravecs still maintain an intense interest in the humanities and seek to preserve the literature and history of the ancient humans. Mahnmut and Orphu take advantage of the processing power of their computerized brains and the lifespans of their robotic bodies in order to spend years investigating the humanities and learning about what it means to be human, despite not being humans themselves. It is fascinating to think of who might be the custodians of our culture after we are gone.

In the final plot thread, we are introduced into a world filled with Tempest-references, which are tied into the realm of artificial intelligence, genetic modification, wormholes, and quantum manipulation. The use of these technologies were what brought about the end of the mysterious post-human civilization, but what is intriguing is that this entire backstory is defined based on the power of literature. This is a weird universe, in which literary creations have real power in the real world, due to the influence of quantum mechanics.

So, it is on the level of concepts and intellectual ideas of literature, culture, and science that make Ilium unique, as it carves out the genre of “literary science fiction.”

On the other hand, it is often hard to connect personally to what is happening, on two levels:

First, Ilium‘s continually pushes us into strangeness and a world that becomes weirder and more different by the minute. This may become hard to grasp for the reader. Things in this universe at times become too fantastic for us to really understand. Part of this has to do with Simmons’ tendency to hide information from us and the characters for as long as possible in order to preserve a sense of mystery about his fantastic universe.

This fascination with mystery keeps us reading, but there were moments when I sensed that Simmons was attempting to reveal some significant information to us, but was holding back, keeping things confusing and unclear, so that he could maintain a facade of “wonder,” “strangeness,” or “mystery” within his novel. This is problematic. Towards the end of the novel, I often did not know what was going on anymore, simply in terms of plot. Perhaps my questions will be resolved in the sequel, Olympos.

Second, though there is a large cast of characters, it is only possible to relate to some of them. I found it almost impossible to feel connected to any of the humans of the far-future Earth because they had nothing to offer me. Perhaps it is because they are from a society different than ours, but few of them had motivations, qualities, or backstories that were of interest to me. One character, Daeman, seemed so shallow–his main interests are parties, women, and sex–that I did not feel comfortable reading chapters from his perspective. Others simply seemed flat and uninteresting.

Of course, Hockenberry, as a human of our society, is a character with whom we can sympathize, but he is placed into a weird situation that increasingly becomes too wild for us as ordinary people to really relate to. Surprisingly, I found myself most connected to the moravecs, who seemed more like normal people trying to do their jobs and complete their mission. Perhaps it was their fascination with human culture that appealed the most to me.

I suppose this is my final evaluation of the novel: Ilium is fascinating intellectually and conceptually, but its weakness lies in its inability to connect personally to the reader, who does not have enough of an emotional anchor in any of the characters. Further, Ilium constantly tries to maintain an air of mystery about its own universe that often remains unresolved, leaving the reader puzzled and uncertain if he has understood Simmons’ intentions. At least, that is what happened to me: I had a general understanding of the backstory, but the whole picture was never clear.

That’s my view of Ilium, in terms of whether it is a good novel. But, what about for fans of classical, ancient literature, like the Homeric epics? For a student, like me, who has read the Odyssey and Iliad many times, is this a story worth looking at? It’s unclear. The Iliad-based portions are interesting, to be sure, but I had to wade through a lot of other, less interesting material just to reach those parts. It may be worth it for a scholar, if you want to observe as Simmons uses Hockenberry to play around with Homeric material. Ilium is no doubt a very self-aware work, since it deals with Hockenberry’s privileged knowledge of the Iliad as a text as the events of Simmons’ own novel unfold around him.

Check out Ilium for a modern take on Homeric material, filled with fantastic, fascinating ideas that are of great intellectual interest, but be warned: you may be in for a long commitment that does not always pay off, especially in matters of personal connection, character development, emotional attachment, and plot resolution.

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