Ilium

by Dan Simmons

Cover image

Series: Ilium #1
Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 0-575-07560-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 642

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Ilium opens with the scholar, Hockenberry, observing the Trojan War, live. He can move among the fighting armies, appearing as one of them when needed, and teleport to different parts of the battle. All this is under the supervision of the Muse and the Greek gods. Their "magic" appears to be highly advanced technology, but they function in the story in the roles that the Greek gods played, and they have the same dominating physical size and appearance. Hockenberry is a scholar, an expert on Homer, and knows how the battle is supposed to play out, but no one other than his fellow scholars and Zeus appears to have that knowledge. His assigned role is to use gifted technology to observe and report on the progress of the battle.

Woven with this story are two other threads. One follows a group of humans in a low-population, garden, post-scarcity Earth with an instantaneous teleportation network. They are the apparent remnants of a post-human exodus to orbital rings many centuries ago, and are maintained in an effortless, danger-free world of parties and idle amusements. Ever-present guardians and automated medical care capable of preventing aging and healing anything up to resurrection remove nearly all of the risk, but they are also largely devoid of curiosity or their own technology. Everyone lives exactly one hundred years, after which they believe they go to join the post-humans who continue to watch over them. Although universally believed, this is not based on any direct interaction; they never see the post-humans, only the trappings of protection and teleportation. The viewpoint character is perfectly content and unquestioning about this world, but is caught up in the search of a man nearing his hundredth year and a group of fellow adventurers, who want to make direct contact with the post-humans.

The remaining thread of this book starts in the moons of Jupiter among biological-machine hybrid intelligences who are exploring those moons (and, in their free time, analyzing Shakespeare's sonnets and arguing about Proust). Named moravecs (presumably after the futurist and roboticist Hans Moravec), they're observing troubling signs of probable post-human activity on Mars after having no contact with the post-humans for many years. This includes a complete terraforming of the world in a startlingly short period of time. (It's at this point that one begins suspecting a connection between their observations and Hockenberry's thread.) This was accompanied by a massive increase in quantum-shift energy that could pose a danger to the rest of the solar system, so a group of moravecs are sent from Jupiter in a fast-acceleration vehicle (with no obvious way to return) to investigate.

Ilium and its sequel Olympos were Dan Simmons's first returns to the world of epic mythology-inspired space opera since the incredibly successful and powerful Hyperion series. It's best known for revolving around the Trojan War, and there's more classic plot inserted directly in the story than with Hyperion, but there's still quite a bit more to this than only Homer. While there are connections to the Trojan War in the other two threads, they're largely independent of that part of the plot and the connections only become active when the war is starting to leave its rails. That said, Hockenberry's thread does follow the Trojan War very closely for much of the book, and while he does a good job of explaining the expected story, caring a little about the characters helps. That part of the story doesn't move quickly, but the analysis of the events of the Trojan War is entertaining if you know the story.

A somewhat slow pace throughout is one of the drawbacks of this book all around. There is a lot of detail and a lot of events, but those events often don't noticably move the overall plot. Ilium often feels like an extended wander through Simmons's world-building. If one finds the world immersive and gets drawn in, this works, and that was the case through most of the book for me. But there were a few times when I was anxious for something to happen, and a few tedious bits where Hockenberry is trying to decide what to do or the other threads are in the middle of long journeys.

The three threads of the story stay mostly separate throughout this book, with two of them meeting only at the very end and the merger of the third left for the sequel. That means Simmons is juggling three distinct stories throughout, which is always a challenge for pacing. The ideal is to keep all three stories interesting simultaneously and give each story segment enough meat to be partly satisfying but enough suspense to make the reader anxious for a return to it. I thought that was uneven, and at various points in the book I had a definite favorite thread and was anxious to return to it.

The thread that caught my attention the most, despite annoying me at the start of the book, was the one following the future Earth residents. Simmons does a wonderful job creating a sense of ruin, stunning visuals, and gradual discovery. This thread takes an unfortunate (but not atypical for Simmons) turn towards horror at the end of the book, and the payoff wasn't quite what I was hoping for, but I loved the slow revelations. I wanted to throttle the lead character for being so incurious and dim, particularly for the first half of the book, but thankfully he's always surrounded by other, more likeable characters. And Simmons's tour through abandoned monuments and mysterious remnants of the previous human civilization creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

Almost all of this book is discovery: Hockenberry watching the Trojan War go off its plot, the moravecs attempting to determine what's happening on Mars, and the Earth dwellers exploring both their own alien and abandoned world and the post-human artifacts. It releases a burst of action at the end, setting up the next book, but most of the book is exploration, theorizing, and description. When writing in this mode, Simmons is one of the most creative large-scale world-builders I've read, and Ilium plays to his strength. If I'm going to take an extended wander through someone's imagination, Simmons is near the top of the list.

This is only half a book, which you should realize going in. It ends in a cliffhanger which is continued in Olympos, and almost none of the questions posed at the start of the book are resolved at the end. We know more information about the post-humans and some competing theories about what might be happening, but the threads are only starting to come together. For the first half of a story, though, it's engrossing and pulled me into the world, even if it's a touch slow in places.

Followed by Olympos.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-07-28

Last modified and spun 2015-07-06