There’s an episode of South Park (“Cartoon Wars Part II”) that reveals that the writers of Family Guy are actually manatees in a tank that are trained to push around idea balls (beach balls with nouns, verbs, and pop culture references written on them) into a random sequence for each of the show’s cutaway gags (Ex. Peter-eats a sandwich-at the World Cup-with Britney Spears’ vagina). Since viewing that episode, I’ve read a few science fiction novels that feel like the product of a similar process, particularly when they combine previously unrelated SF tropes into a story that seems contrived just for the purpose of combining those tropes. Hmm, steampunk Civil War zombies, anyone?
It’s a fine line, to be sure. Some of my favorite novels can be reduced to a similar formula, but what makes them special is what goes on to genuinely link those tropes. Sure, the tropes provide an interesting world to tell a story, but does that world exist simply to mash those concepts together? Or, does the combination of those tropes illustrate a greater meaning, uncover a mystery of the human condition, explore a potential possibility? Does it at least tell a good story?
In this case, Dan Simmons’ Ilium (2003) is problematic. A likewise hodgepodge of popular tropes, but his manatees need a bigger tank for all of his idea balls: Trojan War – Mars – quantum teleportation – cyberbots – Jupiter – Shakespeare – mystery doomsday device – far future Earth – eloi – Wandering Jew – dinosaurs… I’m struggling to think of tropes this story doesn’t use. Time trav- yep. Cryogenic freez- wait, that’s there, too. Artificial Intell- argh, no. Vampir—geez, kind of.
Ah ha. Werewolves. There. Ilium is not about werewolves.
It’s problematic because, amid this collision of SF devices, Simmons does offer a significant point to his story. He wants to illustrate the importance of art, literature, and culture in a world that is simultaneously advanced and eroded by technological means. While humans whither in collective, decadent apathy, the human-designed cyberbots of the Jovian system celebrate Earth’s literary masters, and one of Earth’s greatest literary wars is reenacted on Mars. Simmons future universe is no doubt imaginative and nightmarish, and he is clearly in love with his classical and literary subjects. But I’m not sure that’s enough.
Ilium is the first part of a 2-part epic in Simmons’ Ilium/Olympos cycle. The story is a combination of three unrelated stories that alternate until they converge, hinting at total integration in the sequel. The three stories are:
- Thomas Hockenberry is a classical scholar who died in the 21st-century and is revived by the ancient Greek gods who assign him to view and compare their live battles of the Trojan War with his knowledge of the Iliad.
- Mahnmut of Europa, and Orphu of Io, are distant-future cyberbots who are recruited to join a 4-man mission to Mars, in order to investigate the strange quantum fluxes that seem powerful enough to destroy the entire solar system. Mahnmut and Orphu are both fond of Shakespearean literature, and spend most of their travels comparing the works of Shakespeare and Proust.
- Daemon is a human on Earth, thousands of years in the future, where he spends most of his decadent lifestyle traveling Earth via fax portals in order to attend parties and sleep with women. After a fatal dinosaur attack, Daemon is revived (yes, revived) and decides to join his friends in an adventure to find the Wandering Jew and, hopefully, a spaceship.
I enjoyed this novel until somewhere around 42% complete, when it became clear that the story simply exists as a framework to throw all these worlds together. Each story thread has little to no stakes on which to motivate the simple characters from one square to the other on Simmons’ celestial chessboard. Hell, checkerboard, because movement is only in one direction, and that direction is Mars. That much is obvious.
Speaking of Mars, the Trojan War that Hockenberry must witness takes place on Mars. I knew this from reading the cover blurb before tackling the book. Somehow I missed the fact that Hockenberry doesn’t know this. The whole time he is struggling with his strange reality of viewing the Trojan war and interacting with legendary beings, while it’s all an obvious farce—to me. Perhaps some of the suspense is lost due to this major spoiler. (And now I spoiled it for you, too. Ha ha.)
Although the blurb spills the beans on the Trojan War on Mars, the Jovian cyborgs garner the most interest. When their crew mates die, the erudite space travelers run into obstacle after obstacle while carrying out the mission they know nothing about. In between obstacles, they discussed “the Bard” and other literary references in funny, irreverent detail that does not require an English degree to follow. On the other hand, the thread about Daemon and his adventures with the Wandering Jew seems the most contrived and without tension. Simmons’ future Earth is admittedly interesting, but not particularly original with its eloi and post-humans, and an empty Mediterranean basin. (Although the cannibalistic Caliban might be a first.) But when a character becomes an allosaurus snack and returns to the story in one piece, four days later, it kills the suspense.
I have a steadfast belief that all books deserve a full appraisal, as some of my favorites started out as total duds. Instead of giving up on the latter half of Ilium, I demoted it to straight audio book status, which may be the best format for this story. The narrator is excellent, and the story is long-winded enough to follow, even when my mind wandered. And my mind wandered a lot.
Ilium is imaginative and funny, and the author’s passion for his subject is apparent. But it didn’t hold my interest. It lacks that magical trope glue that holds everything together, making the whole thing feel unwieldy and irrelevant, like a Family Guy cutaway. Maybe things will build to a cohesive solidity in Olympos (2005), but I’m not going to stick around to find out. Instead, I will try Simmons’ higher-rated series, Hyperion (1989), later on.
Best recommended for retired Homeric scholars who fancy a walk-on part in the Iliad, a one-night stand with Helen of Troy, and a glimpse of Aphrodite’s nipples.