Wednesday, 11 August 2004

Dan Simmons: Ilium (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1258

To science fiction fans, Dan Simmons is best known for his award winning novel Hyperion, which uses the poetry of John Keats as its inspiration. In Ilium, his most recent novel and a return to the genre (in which he writes occasionally), the literary references are there again. Here, though, they are made more central (being far more frequently referred to directly), and are more varied. Homer is naturally the most obvious, but there are also direct references to Shakespeare (the Sonnets and the Tempest), H.G. Wells The Time Machine, and Proust as well as indirect ones to other sources.

In The Rolling Stones, Robert Heinlein satirises the flagrant plagiarism of some pulp science fiction authors, a character who is a writer blatantly reuses plots from the Odyssey, Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors. Here, Dan Simmons has done something which is even more clearly reuse, but he does this in a much more interesting way; his retelling of Greek myth is a springboard for a fascinating piece of science fiction.

There are three storylines in Ilium: one a retelling of Homer's Iliad, in which the Greek gods influencing the action are beings from the future; a story from the other end of history, where pampered humans have lost a great deal of knowledge but live in a world run for them by robot "servitors"; and a mission by a group of artificial beings engineered to live on the satellites of Jupiter to discover what is behind some strange quantum effects observed on Mars.

One thing that is interesting to me about Ilium is how Simmons places each story in a different part of the science fiction genre. The Iliad bits are part fantasy, part something like Lord of Light; the last humans on a depleted Earth are like a number of far future scenarios originally derived from the Eloi in The Time Machine; the outer solar system artificial beings hard science fiction rather like Kim Stanley Robinson. Even with all this complexity, Ilium does not come across as having a split personality; Simmons holds it together magnificently for over six hundred pages - which means that each strand is long enough to form a novel in its own right.

The reader of Ilium will get a lot more out of it if they have read the various literary sources it alludes to, and an acquaintance with the Iliad is even more useful. Neither is absolutely essential, as the important points are explained as the story develops. (The device of having the point of view character in the Iliad sections a Greek scholar re-animated at the scene to provide the "gods" with a commentary on how well what happens matches Homer's poem is useful in this respect.) Even without the clever folding of the literary themes, the little references to delight the knowledgeable, Ilium is an extremely well written, if slightly over long, novel. Entertaining and intelligent, definitely one of the best books I have read this year.

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