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A book review by Steven Wu
January 09, 2004
|Rating: 9 (of 10)|
The narrator of the story--or one of them, at least, is Thomas Hockenberry, a former 20th-century academic who dies and then is surprised to find himself resurrected by omnipotent entities modeled after the Greek gods. It seems that these gods--who may not be gods at all, who knows?--are amusing themselves by recreating the Trojan War. Toward that end they have resurrected or simply reconstituted the entire host of both armies and set them in motion. The gods themselves occasionally show up on the battlefield when appropriate, pursuant to Homer's script. And Hockenberry's role is to observe the battle, ensure that it stays on the course of Homer's classic story, and report to the gods whenever he is summoned. In the meantime, sentient robots orbiting Jupiter (don't laugh, it all makes sense) have realized that there is something going on near Earth, and they send a mission inward bound to find out what's happening.
First things first: the universe of Ilium is incredibly interesting. It's true that there's a lot of weak pseudoscience, but regardless, Simmons is a master at straight-faced exposition, and the universe he has created effectively evokes a sense of wonder at almost every turn. Whether you like action or explanation, Simmons seamlessly integrates both into every chapter, despite the fact that his chapters veer between several different viewpoints. Who are the gods? What is the purpose of this recreation? Who are the humans who seem to be living Eloi-like lives in an earthly paradise? What will the robots discover when they land on Earth? And so on.
The plot is also a humdinger. Hockenberry begins the novel pissed. (The novel begins: "Rage. [Some inconsequential bits. And then:] On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.") And he only gets angrier as the book goes along--so much so, in fact, that he soon hatches a plan to battle the gods. Yes, Thomas Hockenberry--the paunchy, middle-aged classicist--decides to kick Zeus's ass off Olympus Mons. Needless to say, the story is a real thrill ride, leading to one of the most stunning (and triumphant) armed invasions in science fiction.
Ilium is, of course, flawed. One of the more tiresome parts of the book is Simmons's attempt at culture: two of the Jupiter robots (known as moravecs) have a thing about literature, and so a significant proportion of their conversations consist of lengthy dialogues concerning Shakespeare and Proust (!). Simmons also, as I mentioned earlier, has a thing about pseudoscience: his books require a real suspension of disbelief as he starts blabbering on about quantum mechanics and black holes and space-time and alternate worlds ripping apart.
But the biggest problem with Ilium is that it's just the first in a two-part series. That's right: despite its length, the book cuts out right as the most exciting portion of the story is about to begin. If the book weren't so good, its abrupt ending wouldn't be so frustrating. But at least now I have something to look forward to in 2005.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews