If Ilium left you wondering whether it were possible for Dan Simmons to make this gargantuan far-future saga of crosstime war and posthuman hubris any bigger, any stranger, and any more spectacular — with Olympos you have your answer. As a testament to SF's capacity to allow authors to think big in a way that hasn't been seen in literature since, well, Homer, it's hard to imagine any stronger qualifier than Olympos. At the same time, the sheer heft of this story can be exhausting — always a problem with epics. But usually it's a problem for the wrong reasons; i.e., the classic case of talent failing ambition, an author's chops not being quite up to the task of pulling off what he or she is attempting. Olympos is precisely the opposite: a book that delivers so much so effectively, you might find yourself running to keep up. But it's worth the effort, even as you're running out of breath.
It is impossible to give a brief and pithy synopsis of a book like this; its ideas can't be contained so easily. But the gist of the saga is that someone is playing with universes in a potentially destructive way. In the far future, a group of godlike posthumans have taken up residence on a terraformed Mars, where they have set up shop atop Mons Olympos and taken on the roles of the Olympian gods. Opening up a wormhole into a parallel universe, they have meddled directly in the Trojan War as it was being fought on that universe's alternate Earth, and have resurrected several academics from their own Earth's past — "scholics" — for advice based on the scholics' expertise on all things Homeric. One of these is the hapless John Hockenberry, who, as we saw in Ilium, has found himself in the midst of an insane power play between these posthuman self-made deities (in particular an attempt by Hera to overthrow Zeus) even more ferocious than anything the Greeks themselves imagined.
But all of the tinkering with the fabric of time and space that this godly activity requires has drawn the attention of the moravecs, cyborg beings who have lived for several centuries amongst the Jovian moons. Monitoring all the quantum activity bubbling around Earth and Mars, they have worked out that the entire solar system — if not the entire freaking universe — could be threatened if all this casual tearing apart of the fabric of reality goes on. Now that two moravecs have hooked up with Hockenberry on Mars and seen firsthand what is going on on Olympos, an invasion of Earth — where the moravecs sense the real source of the trouble is to be found — is mounted.
All this is enough for your garden variety epic, I suppose, but it isn't enough for Simmons. In Olympos, Simmons, having maxed out the revisionist mythic possibilities afforded him by The Iliad, reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out Shakespeare's The Tempest. And a pastiche of The Tempest is what Olympos' earthbound story thread morphs into. At the end of Ilium, several of the story's human heroes — Earth's human population has been kept at a set level, monitored closely by the systems in the planet's artificial orbiting rings — encountered the mage Prospero on his orbital "island," and battled the mad Caliban. In Olympos, Simmons has oodles of fun warping The Tempest to his own ends. If the appearance of these characters in Ilium came as a bizarre surprise, in Olympos we get the tip that underneath everything lies an unfolding war between Prospero and the monstrous being Setebos. How will it all unfold?
How indeed? That's the beauty of what must be one of SF's most un-putdownable, unpredictable adventures in recent memory. I haven't encountered this glorious a burst of unfettered imagination since Miéville's Perdido Street Station. A book in which Achilles wanders the surface of Mars bent on killing gods while Jovian robots invade Earth seeking to put an end to quantum fluctuations that threaten everything, unaware that a mage and a god from Shakespeare are prepped for their final battle, is not a book that can be considered a formulaic bore. Yes, at nearly 700 densely packed pages in hardcover, it's long. But it flies. Simmons employs a steady hand at preventing the whole thing from spiraling out of control, mostly through his judiciously timed use of humor and his real sense of wonder and respect for the classic tales he's cribbing.
I think the latter is at the thematic heart of this duology. On the surface a rousing bit of escapist adventure taken to the nth degree, Simmons, at a deeper level, offers this saga as his love letter to the purely human art of storytelling, and the way that our heroic myths and romances and tragedies have shaped and continue to shape civilization. Whether through his own revising of Homer's and Shakespeare's characters and sagas, or the obsession his cyborg moravecs have with ancient human literature (as you will recall, one is a Proust fan, the other a lover of the Bard's sonnets), or through his depiction of the vacuity of the lives of his human characters (who lack all knowledge of humanity's past), Simmons drives home the theme that art is as important to who we are, if not moreso, as anything else in history. Prospero himself tells one of Olympos' human heroes that his species simply will not survive if they continue in ignorance of their past, for in their ignorance they lack an identity to fight for.
One of the ways our past informs our present is through the mythic narratives that are passed down from generation to generation. Just as humanity evolves, so too do our myths, and Olympos itself is offered as an example of this. In revising and recontextualizing the epics of Homer and Shakespeare, Simmons seems keenly aware that in future generations, we may see such revisions of the epics of our own time. Is this prententious? It could be, on general principles, I suppose. But I don't think it is in Simmons' handling of it. To him, the telling and retelling of great stories is at the core of who we are; we can no sooner stop being storytellers than we can stop eating, sleeping, and having sex. It is as a tribute to that storytelling process that Olympos qualifies as a masterpiece.