Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Dan Simmons: Olympos (2005)

Published: Gollancz 2005

Like The House of Storms just reviewed, Olympos is the sequel to a favourite science fiction/fantasy novel of mine from the last few years; in this case, to Ilium. Unlike The House of Storms, Olympos is a continuation of the earlier novel: very much a traditional sequel. From the start it is clearly going to wrap up the many loose ends of the earlier novel. (This wrapping up extends to the last paragraph of Olympos, which is virtually identical to the last paragraph of Ilium; both are translations of the opening of Homer's Iliad, though from slightly different points of view.)

Since Olympos follow on directly from Ilium, the plot is hard to describe without revealing details which might spoil Ilium for those who have not yet read it. (Though like much science fiction and fantasy, there are many other pleasures in the novel other than the plot.) War continues in the recreated Troy, where post-humans take the place of the gods of Greek mythology and run a simulation of the events described in the Iliad.

This is the main point of both novels. The theory that post-humans will get the most fun out of running simulations so perfect that to the participants it will be like resurrection in heaven is not very convincing and has struck me ever since I first heard it as wishful thinking, a desire by somewhat sentimental atheists to replace Christian ideas of heaven. There should be so many more interesting things to do than pandering to an obsession with the history of far more limited individuals. Personal interactions with other post-humans, investigation of the universe, simulations which are entirely new and alien: these seem to me to be three obvious possibilities. Simmons paints a more believable post-human, a race that has retained many of the less pleasant facets of humanity, with the desire to play cruel and capricious deities the reason for running a simulation. (Imagine what it would be like to be a simulated character in many of today's computer games.) All the post-humans in these two novels are unpleasant, mad or alien; it is only the resurrected humans and the descendants of human beings genetically engineered to live in the outer solar system that are anything approaching sympathetic. Like the idea of entirely benevolent beings, this is surely an over-simplification. If post-humans ever come to exist, they may be in some part incomprehensible to us, but they will surely be at least as varied as personalities. There may be some backing for Simmons' scenario in the idea that power corrupts, but the lack of nice, stable post-humans is for me a weakness in his vision.

Ilium made an impact - being hailed as "a landmark in modern SF" on the cover of this edition of Olympos - by being different and innovative. Since its sequel cannot match these qualities of the original by definition, it is hard to feel that Olympos is as good. It is well written and, of course, fans of Ilium will be keen to see how things turn out.

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