by Dan Simmons
Published by Gollancz
576 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
If, when approaching Dan Simmons' new epic, you're expecting a novel about the Trojan War, you'll be only partly right. Ilium has elements of space opera, H.G. Wells, Shakespeare, fantasy and hard science fiction, a page-turning plot and several story strands that seem unrelated at first, but gradually come together in a huge climax towards the end. And be warned, it is set up for a sequel, something you won't find out from the cover. It was a shock to me when I was reading the last few chapters and suddenly realized there were a lot of loose ends and the author wasn't going to tie them up till the next novel -- whenever that comes out. Let's hope it isn't too far in the future.
I confess to having only read three other Dan Simmons novels and some of his short stories. I've loved them all because, dark as they were, they fulfilled my main criteria for enjoyment of any fiction: an exciting plot that made me want to keep turning pages and regret coming to the end of the journey, and characters I could care about. If you like Stephen King, you will probably enjoy Dan Simmons, though he has his own distinctive style. It is too easy, especially in genre fiction, to throw all your energies into the story and not enough into the characters. There are some very popular novelists who do just that, having their characters chased around the countryside by monsters, shooting and blowing each other up, but never developing. Not Dan Simmons. Not only do his characters continue to develop, you always want to cheer them on in their quests.
The novel opens with the Trojan War in its tenth year, the period of the Iliad. This strand of the story is narrated by Thomas Hockenberry, a classical scholar who has been reconstructed from DNA by the Greek gods who need humans like himself to observe the war and report back. The gods don't know how the Iliad ends and are not allowed to be told. Hockenberry is starting to remember his past, to resent being used and want to change the course of the war.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, there is a society not unlike that of the Eloi -- perhaps a little more sophisticated, since the few thousand humans left live like millionaires, to the age of a hundred, going from party to party, attended by mechanical "servitors" and mysterious beings known as the voynix.
After each "Twenty" (years), they are taken to "the firmary" to be repaired so that they can live healthy lives right till the end. Then supposedly they go to join the "post-humans" in their orbiting city. They have no culture, however: they don't read or create. A group of these innocents go on a quest to find out what's going on in orbit, and learn rather more than they expected or wanted. On the moons of Jupiter, a society of "moravecs" -- biomechanical beings left there long ago by the "post-humans" -- has noticed something very strange happening on Mars, something that could wipe out all life, and sends a group to investigate. All different strands of story, but well before the end, their connection is clear.
There's no actual protagonist, but Simmons takes care to craft each character lovingly, from the young man who likes his parties and creature comforts who ends up saving the day to the two moravecs who have a passion for Terran literature, especially Shakespeare and Proust (imagine a Proust-loving giant crab...), left alone on Mars and trying to carry out their mission despite horrific injuries and the impossibility of getting home. Simmons has also given an interesting and believable portrayal of the Trojan women of the Iliad -- Helen, Andromache, Hecuba, Theano and Cassandra are all shown as gutsy ladies.
Ilium isn't anywhere near as dark as the other Simmons novels I've read, which doesn't mean there aren't any scary scenes. And characters you like die. But there is hope at the end and the story is a real roller-coaster ride from beginning to end. Highly recommended. | November 2003
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.