Dan Simmons' "Ilium" is an impressive, complicated epic of a science fiction novel. I didn't know what to think when I first heard about "Ilium". The way it was described to me was that "Ilium" is a science fiction telling of Homer's "The Iliad" and it had something to do with Mars. That was really all I knew and to be honest, that description still doesn't do much for me. That description is true, but it doesn't quite convey what "Ilium" is. More than just giving the read "The Iliad" in space, Dan Simmons has created the first part of an epic masterpiece which is nothing like what I expected. I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly.
"Ilium" tells three different stories that are at first completely unrelated. The first is that of the Iliad. The ancient Greeks are waging their epic war against the Trojans and this war was all started when Helen of Sparta left her husband Menelaus to join with Paris of Troy. That was the face which launched a thousand ships. Since we are talking about a Greek epic here, there are gods a plenty showing up and getting involved the war. But "Ilium" isn't a simple retelling of Homer. "Ilium" is something completely different. Thomas Hockenberry is a late 20th Century/Early 21st Century scholar (here called a scholic) who has been revived thousands of years after his death to observe this Trojan War and see how closely the events match with Homer's "Iliad".
I have to admit, that is quite an idea for a book. But that is only a third of the story here. Next we have a setting which is definitely on the planet Earth, our Earth, but is thousands and thousands and perhaps even thousands of years in the future. Taking a cue from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" the remaining humans have such advanced technology and society that there is no work, no manual or physical labor. Instead humans live only for their own personal pleasure. Think of these humans as the Eloi from the mind of Wells. But if there are eloi, there must also be morlocks. Here the analogy breaks down a bit as the servants of these humans are robots. Into the lives of Daeman, a human male, and Ada, a human woman comes Harman. Harman is a man who is in the final year of his Final Twenty. What this means is that he only has one year left to live before he is allowed to spent an eternity with the "Post Humans", a race of superhumans who created all of this technology and luxury but who have since left the planet. Harman is eager to learn about the past and what the truth might be since nobody living has any idea of the past or can even read.
The third part of the story of "Ilium" is completely different. Still in some distant future and seemingly unconnected to the other two storylines (which are also seemingly unconnected), this storyline concerns a quartet (initially) of mechanical creatures called moravecs which are set on a mission to explore Mars and see why exactly the planet has been Terraformed to have an atmosphere and possibly some sort of life and dare I say civilization. I call the moravecs a mechanical creature rather than robot because even though they are robotic, they seem to also require some sort of oxygen to function. I can't explain it. Have I mentioned that two of these moravecs also have a running conversation about the sonnets and Shakespeare and end up discussion Proust?
Somehow, and I couldn't quite imagine how at first, Dan Simmons manages to tie all three storylines together in a way that feels far more natural than it possibly should. Even more amazing, Simmons manages to make all of this interesting and intelligent. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would have been a big mess. Then again, a lesser author might not have attempted this. As Simmons reveals more and more of each storyline, it becomes more and more gripping. This epic story is only the first part of a two book series. The second book, "Olympos", will be published in the summer of 2005.
Describing "Ilium" is difficult because to go too far in depth with the various plot threads would likely take thousands of words. Suffice it to say that after Simmons gives the reader an adequate introduction to each storyline, he takes it in a direction the reader will likely not expect. That this sprawling, nearly 600 pages novel is very readable and accessible to even somebody who doesn't know a thing about the Iliad (me), "The Time Machine", or science fiction, is remarkable. But "Ilium" succeeds at all of this and by the end of the book I was disappointed that "Olympos" wasn't already in stores or in my local library.