It’s a given that the ancient Greek gods are, in their jealous, lustful imperfection and glorious power, reflections of human faults and abilities. What would happen if we recognized their arbitrary use of humanity, purely for their own amusement and pleasure, and did something about it? More specifically, what if the human armies of the Trojan war stopped fighting each other and decided, instead, to fight their common enemy, the capricious, ridiculous, utterly corrupt gods that beleaguer them?
This is the premise of Dan Simmons’ tomb, Ilium, and it works—sort of. His epic retelling of Homer’s more epic poem, the Iliad, is certainly a technical achievement, a masterpiece of plotting and pacing. Spinning the Greek gods as post-humans in our future, living on Mars, who use a technology that allows instantaneous travel in time and space to comport themselves as gods on the Earth of 1200 B.C. is, well, revisionist at the very least, and utterly unique as far as I know. Nevertheless, as I started the novel, I was thinking, “do we really need a retelling of the Iliad?” Surely, it already receives all the notice it needs.
That Simmons then weaves in a highly advanced Jupiter-based society of machines (some of whom just happen to be fascinated by Shakespeare and Proust) with biological parts and a future Earth populated by a small remnant of humans (“old style humans”) tended and pampered by mysterious otherworldly creatures and mechanical servitors doesn’t help matters. Simmons also borrows the characters Prospero and Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest to represent aspects of the Earth itself—logosphere and biosphere, respectively. Caliban, too, makes an appearance as the demon that Prospero and Ariel employ to do their dirty work. If I understood the purpose—aside from showing off—of these story lines, I might be more likely to appreciate them. My hope is that it all makes sense in the sequel, but, since I believe that serialized books should stand on their own, if everything becomes clear in the second novel it does little to save the first book of the series.
Ilium could be seen as a cautionary tale about future (and present) humanity playing with technology we don’t fully understand and getting too far away from our roots as human animals. If so, it’s a pretty fun one, and a bit disappointing. Fun because of its smooth plotting and all the cool references, while still conforming to science fiction’s conventions. Disappointing because it is emotionally empty. I didn’t really care about any of the characters. Even as some of them suffer and die, it is difficult to feel much sympathy or generate much sadness. Ilium is a technical virtuoso performance and a charade of caring.