Dan Simmons' work is easily some of the most intelligent in science fiction. His 'Hyperion Cantos' became an instant classic, and stands as a landmark work of literature, a masterpiece in any genre. With 'Ilium', Simmons brings a new vision to life, full of fascinating insights and riveting storylines.
Mars has... changed. It no longer resembles the red planet that haunted the skies of Earth throughout human history. Gods rule Mars now, and they have remade it in the image of ancient earth. The father of all gods, Zeus, and hundreds of dieties from the greek Pantheon rule over Mars and the titanic struggle taking place on its changed surfaces. The entire Trojan war is being fought, a quarter of a million humans living and dying in a re-enactment of one of the greatest conflicts of all time.
Thomas Hockenberry was a twentieth century expert on the Trojan War, now resurrected by the awe-inspiring technology of the 'gods' two millenia after his death. His role is to act as a sholar, and document the fidelity of the re-enactment, as well as observing pivotal moments he could only dream about in his former life. Aside from Zeus, the gods themselves do not know the outcome of the great war, and Hockenberry is forbidden to reveal it. The gods cannot help jockeying amongst themselves, each intent on defending their respective worshippers. Hockenberry's role will change from one of observer to active participant, as Aphrodite herself enlists his unwilling aid as she conspires against her immortal sister.
Back on earth, the real earth, a million humans live a tranquil, if sheltered life. The post-humans have departed the surface for their orbital emplacements, to perfect their quantum-manipulation technology and shepherd the old style humans through their extended lives. The majority of the humans on earth are unaware of their history, or the basic workings of technology. The question of 'why' is one they don't bother to ask. A few individuals such as Harman however, have glimpsed the terrifying and lost history of their planet, and they are desperate to learn more - no matter the cost.
Based on the on the moons of Jupiter, the Five Moons Consortium has detected cataclysmic quantum signatures from the heart of the solar system - namely Mars. The magnitude involved is enough to rip the system apart, and they decide to act. The inhabitants of the moons are Moravecs, intelligent machines created by man centuries ago to harvest the resources of the solar system. A diverse group is assembled to approach Mars, including Mahnmut and Orphu - two moravecs intensely curious about their creators and fascinated by human literature.
Simmons weaves these three storylines together perfectly. As the tales converge, we're given glimpses of seductive backstory spanning millenia. Hockenberry's first person narrative on Mars is written beautifully and it provides an enthralling account of the Trojan War. Simmons' brings heroes such as Hector and Achilles to vibrant life, painting a picture of the ancient conflict against a backdrop of almost incomprehensible technology. There's a story within a story here, and the unique perspective on the war is enough for a book itself.
The writing is uniformly intelligent, with Simmons discussing theories of quantum manipulation on one page, and delving into the hidden meanings of Shakespeare and Proust on another. Without exception these passages work wonderfully, and raise questions wholly seperate from the novel's general science fiction thrust. To be honest, this reviewer didn't manage to quite understand them all, but it looked pretty smart on paper! As for the ones that were understood, readers interpretations of the literature in question may differ, but Simmons makes a good case for his arguments.
The storyline is captivating throughout. Sometimes a few of the narratives can feel a bit slow, but in general the book moves at fast pace, always offering the reader incentive to read another chapter. The action sequences are numerous, and Simmons' writes them very well. He manages many diverse scenes, from a fight with a half-mad yet intelligent inhuman monstrosity in orbit around Earth, to titanic clashes between Trojans and Greeks, Simmons never misses a beat.
The very essence of 'Illium' is completely unique. Somehow it works as a perfect blend of hi-tech epic science fiction and an account of a massive war played out thousands of years ago. Simmons' brings this all together with excellent characters (aside from one of the regular humans on Earth, who's irritating throughout, and then undergoes a massive transformation in a few pages). The protagonists, especially the literate Moravecs, are beautifully constructed, and secondary characters are fascinating as well. The descriptions of the gods are excellent, as Simmons paints them as a hybrid of mysticism and technology.
The scope of the story told in 'Illium' is suitably huge, and vastly entertaining. Although the novel doesn't end as well as it might have, it sets up the forthcoming sequel - 'Olypmos' - perfectly. Dan Simmons has embarked on his opus with 'Illium', and it's a monumental testament to his skill as a writer. It's very possible that the 'Hyperion Cantos' is set to be eclipsed.