Ilium is a work of such brain-boggling scope that it's difficult to figure out how to contain a discussion of all its different facets in a review that anyone will bother to finish reading. Does one go the self-indulgent route and dive into the glorious weirdness of its extravagant and convoluted plot, or focus instead upon its subtextual themes? Or do you simply offer your recommendations with the proviso that "Don't worry, you'll be lost as hell for the first 50 or 60 pages but fer chrissakes stick with it," and then shut up? If that's all you need to hear, then consider yourself informed; enjoy the rest of your day. If you enjoy burrowing into a book's depths, hang around for a few minutes.
Ilium is the kind of book we see all too rarely in SF, a state of the art adventure-plus-ideas novel that evokes that coveted old-fashioned sense of wonder while establishing itself as a true original on the order of Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness. Dan Simmons (and I admit I'm much more familiar with his thrillers and horror than his SF as of this writing) exercises literally no restraints on his imagination; there are enough ideas here for a whole slew of novels. What is impressive is that all of these ideas are patently crazy, and all of them work. The last time I remember an epic delivering on its promises this well was in Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction. That was a book that boldly chose as its narrative sparring partner nothing less than all of existence, and came out at the end of round one having worked up a healthy sweat but with no bruises or broken bones to mar its pretty mug. Ilium might not be quite that ambitious, but in choosing its ideas, Simmons tackles the dreaded Q-word (that's "quantum," people) with the courage of one of his heroic Achaean warriors. And he explores the possibilties of a posthuman future in a fresh way, taking his story in directions not yet explored by other hard SF stars like Stross, Egan, Baxter, and others.
The setting is a little more than two thousand years in the future. Humanity as we know it is gone. Following a series of spooky sounding disasters, the nature of which we only hear in hints and offhand remarks, some members of the human race have evolved into posthumans, taking up residence in artificial rings around the Earth. Some "old-style" humans remain on the surface, but in drastically reduced numbers, with lifespans strictly regulated to 100 years, at the end of which they expect to ascend to the rings and become posthuman themselves. Meanwhile, Jupiter and its moons are home to a bevy of cyborgs of different varieties, while Mars seems to be the really happening place in the solar system. This is where the Olympian gods live, at the summit of Olympus Mons.
Thomas Hockenberry is a "scholic" from the early 21st century, one of several such men resurrected by the gods to observe and comment upon the Trojan War, which they are watching live as if it were a football game, and interacting with as they see fit based on the scholics' observations as to how closely the actual war is panning out according to Homer's Iliad. Immediately Simmons is playing with readers' sense of time and place. Ordinarily in any novel you like to have the setting firmly established, but Simmons teases you by steadfastly refusing to do this, thus forcing you to engage yourself in the story at a level normally reserved for, say, Phil Dick. Is this the real Trojan War, that we are accessing via some amazing quantum wormhole through time itself? (The gods have apparently mastered quantum physics; they teleport all over the place, among many other dazzling feats.) Is it an all-new version of the Trojan War, being fought out in a parallel universe created via quantum fluctuation? Or is it a re-enactment in some virtual reality? We can't tell for the longest time, and whereas with a lesser author that would be frustrating to a "throw the book across the room" degree, coming from Simmons it's an incredible storytelling hook.
The above would be enough of a jaw-dropping premise for a story all its own, but Simmons tirelessly weaves two other threads into his narrative. Out among Jupiter's moons live (if that's the word) a number of highly advanced robots called moravecs. Concerned that the increasing quantum activity on Mars is so disrupting the fabric of space-time that it could endanger the entire solar system, four moravecs mount a mission to the formerly-red planet to see what's going on and put a stop to it if they can. Meanwhile, on Earth, a man named Harman, nearing the end of his allotted 100-year span, decides to learn all he can about the posthumans in their orbital rings before joining them. He and three friends unexpectedly find themselves on a global adventure that reveals more than any of them ever imagined about the world they've been living in and taking for granted.
The first part of a two-volume epic, in Ilium Simmons milks the "unresolved questions" thing for all he's worth. Are the Olympian gods on Mars actually the posthumans from Earth, who have taken hubris literally as far as it can go? (Simmons drops loud hints that direction, but you can be pretty sure those are red herrings.) But then what of the claim made by another character that she's met the posthumans, that they're still on the rings, and that they're all female? And what the hell are the voynix, the strange bipeds who dutifully serve and protect the humans on Earth, though no one seems to know where they came from or why?
Simmons throws all this stuff at you at a breathtaking pace, until it seems the most perfectly normal thing in the world to be reading a novel with Achilles and Odysseus in one chapter, followed immediately by one in which robots are crash-landing in a Martian ocean and being rescued by little green men who can’t communicate unless you plunge your hand into their chests and squeeze their hearts. If it goes a little over the top at times, it’s hard to find fault. In a story like this, you can easily imagine how hard it would be to not have it go over the top and whip all the way back around to the other side. As original as it all is, Simmons commendably manages to skirt cliché; one notable slip involves the idea of the sentient godlike global computer network, which will doubtless remind many of you of a certain Keanu Reeves movie trilogy. But for the most part, the nonstop barrage of ideas, married to pulse-pounding action packed storytelling, will more than make up for any of the book’s shortcomings.
I found the real pleasure of Ilium was in its theme that at the heart of every great civilization is its art and literature, and that, lacking those things, all the technology in the world doesn’t mean you have a real culture. Throughout the book, we see instances of the most advanced life forms obsessing over the legends, stories, and creative genius of the primitive past. Even being posthuman (or nonhuman) wouldn’t take away one’s desire to connect with the human, Simmons confidently asserts. The gods on Mars center their very existences on an extended exegesis of Homer. Among the moravecs, Mahnmut of Europa is absorbed in Shakespeare’s sonnets, while his companion, Orphu of Io, prefers Proust. Their genial who’s-better arguments are delightful to read (and actually made me think seriously about tackling In Search of Lost Time someday). These characters’ experiences of life are contrasted sharply with those of the humans on Earth, among whom only Harman can read. They have no books, no history, no perspective, not even a concept of the size and geography of the Earth itself (using teleportation machines to travel means every point on the planet is a blink away). Life minus art equals pointlessness.
Simmons ends the book with a rather smug little tease, if you ask me, but damned if the son of a gun can’t do so with complete confidence. It will be interesting as hell to see what happens next, and while it might be difficult to imagine — given some of the pivotal events at Ilium’s climax — exactly what more (and especially what bigger) could possibly take place, I can assure you I’ll be first in line to find out.
Followed by Olympos.