I first read Dan Simmons earlier this year when I picked up Hyperion. I enjoyed the author’s writing style as he mixed a lot of different genres into the same “medium” Sci Fi narrative while heavily referencing other literary works (most notably the poetry of John Keats and the Canterbury Tales) to shape his story. I knew I wanted to read more of him and the Ilium/Olympos duology seemed like the most interesting next step for me.
Plot Summary: The action in this story takes place a few thousand years in the future and is split across three separate groups. These groups cover a lot of ground in both time and space but converge towards the end.
First we are introduced to a late 20th/early 21st century classics professor named Thomas Hockenberry. Much to his confusion and frustration, he has been reanimated from his DNA in an indeterminate time by beings that appear to be the gods of classical Greece. Their purpose in bringing him back is so he can observe Greek armies laying siege to Troy in a manner seemingly lifted from the pages of Homer’s Iliad. Using advanced technology provided by these gods, Hockenberry, along with a few others, is ordered to hide amongst the warring soldiers and report to a vengeful Muse how the action he observes matches the story he knew in his previous life. As the books opens, Hockenberry is in his ninth year of service and has been summoned to Mount Olympos where he is recruited for a special mission. This assignment, however, quickly leads to many unexpected events that could potentially change the course of the battle and threaten the fates of many Greek and Trojan heroes.
We are then taken to a large social gathering on Earth and through some of the attendees introduced to a planet that has undergone many changes. Most of the population has either been wiped out in a plague many years earlier or evolved into beings called “post-humans” that have left the surface of the planet behind and transferred their consciousness and biological data into structures located within a system of polar and equatorial rings built in Earth’s orbit. Left behind is a small population of “old-style humans” who live in a stagnant society. While they are able to make use of some of the technological advancements made by previous generations, these old-style humans have little desire to further their own advancement or even question their surroundings enough to travel beyond a few hundred fixed stations offering instantaneous transport. Most of the needs of daily life like cooking and cleaning are done by automated service robots leftover from previous ages and taken for granted by the largely complacent population. Also watching over these humans are strange creatures called voynix that appeared sometime in the past from unknown origins and have come to life to protect humans from the dangers of an increasingly untamed planet. The action here follows a small group of friends drawn together by a man named Harman whose radical ideas and knowledge of forgotten arts inspire them to seek answers to some of the mysteries of their world. This journey soon takes them outside the sheltered confines they had known as certain discoveries shake the foundations their existence has been built upon.
The final perspective offered in this story comes from two sentient biomechanical entities named Mahnmut and Orphu. These beings are collectively referred to as Moravecs and are descended from units long ago dispatched from Earth to explore the solar system. Mahnmut and Orphu are stationed on the moons of Jupiter and are part of a large consortium of similar entities scattered across the outer planets. As the story opens they find themselves assigned to a team dispatched to Mars to investigate inexplicable quantum disruptions and signs of a massive and rapid terraforming project. When the mission suffers a major setback they find themselves struggling for survival amongst strange little green men and powerful hostile beings, to say nothing of the war zone they encounter.
My thoughts: I found this book fascinating. I’ll admit that I was somewhat skeptical when reading the premise, but once I got going I didn’t really give it any second thoughts. I like the way in which you are thrown right into the universe, giving you a sense of mystery and exploration that is often shared with the characters.
It must be noted that, like Hyperion, this book very heavily references other works as part of telling the story. In this case Homer’s Iliad, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and William Shakespeare’s Tempest and collected Sonnets get the most explicit and lengthy page time. Of these works, I’m only familiar with the Illiad and the Tempest, but I was still able to get the relevant points because of how the references were brought up and discussed; however, I did appreciate certain parts a bit more when I caught the allusions. A lot of the humor in the story stems from the characters of Hockenberry and Mahnmut, who poke fun at the serious situations in the original works and offer plenty of dry humor that lightens the tone. Bottom line, you don’t need to have read Shakespeare, Proust, or Homer to enjoy the book, but some familiarity with one or more of the sources would make the experience more fulfilling.
Between exploring the near abandoned Earth and following along the war efforts there is a lot here that kept me engaged and reading. Each setting had its own interesting characters and conflicts and none of sections felt unbalanced by being particularly stronger or weaker than the others. By the end of the novel, the different stories all appear to be converging, and I am already happily into the second book. While I realize this story might not be for everyone, I would recommend that any Sci Fi fans interested in Dan Simmons or the premise of this book give it a chance.