Readers of science fiction should be familiar with the name Dan Simmons. His Hugo® Award winning novel, Hyperion established his name in Science Fiction. Ilium is being heralded as his “long-awaited” return to Epic SF. A claim that is hard to argue with considering the reputation he has carved for himself in the genre.
Ilium is without a doubt Epic, any novel that has gods as primary characters, thousands of years of history in the pages can rightly be considered epic. What makes this a Good Epic SF novel is Simmons ability to skillfully weave those aspects and the numerous Big Ideas into the novel. Much like Hyperion, Simmons structures the novel on a work of great work of Literature. Whereas Hyperion’s inspiration was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he reaches further back and focuses on themes of Homer’s Iliad. There are further resonations in Ilium with more recent works within the genre. I could not help being reminded of Roger Zelazny’s award-winning, seminal novel Lord of Light. Much like Lord of Light, there are Gods at play in Ilium, but their true nature is highly suspect. Intimations to machinery and healing baths for the Gods are brought into the story, giving the reader a hint at the origins of these Gods. Simmons presentation of the moravecs (advanced cyborgs), gods and other sentient species reminded me a bit of Vernor Vinge’s presentation of alien species in his two award winning novels, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Where Vinge was too obscure in some of the descriptions and presentations, Simmons relays enough information about the species that you are able to discern their differences from humans.
The scope of the novel is quite grand…from our own time to the far future terra-formed Mars presented here, Simmons displays adept skill at illustrating humanity, alien life and artificial life at the precipice of war and discovery. The primary human protagonist, Hockenberry, is quite believable, almost an everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation. While he has a mission as schola, he is ultimately human and fallible before the Gods and the mission they is presented to him. He is a reincarnated professor from the early 21st Century, thrust into the events of the Iliad as they are played out on a terra-formed Mars. He interacts with the heroes of the grand work like Achilles, Hector and Helen of Troy. In one sense he is living out a dream, in another sense he is thrown into the grandest war ever fought. His memory of his earlier life is shoddy at best, but in his role as schola, he is living the events of the great work of Literature which he taught in his earlier life
The only complaint was that at times, however, the novel was a bit confusing. Though with a novel of such an epic scope, not revealing all the information is probably the intention of the author. Ultimately, it is hard not to call this novel a complex success. Simmons firmly replants his presence in the genre, the novel is referential to both great works of Literature and within the genre. Like the best Science Fiction, Simmons gives the reader a sense of wonder, and to that, on many levels. The technology of presented is the stuff of great Science Fiction and Speculation, re-incarnation, instantaneous travel, artificial intelligence, solar system colonization; in essence many of the Big Ideas that SF has been telling stories about for years. What makes the novel so well constructed is Simmons ability in integrating all of these Big Ideas rather seamlessly. The Big Ideas don’t get in the way of the story, they are an integral part of the story that simply are.
It would be no surprise to see Ilium considered for the same genre awards Simmons has already received. While I did enjoy the novel, I look forward to a second reading to further enjoy the complexities Simmons has presented.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford