Mars, Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, dinosaurs, the Holocaust. How does one make a coherent, even compelling narrative out of these things? Leave it to Dan Simmons, a writer who, if anything, is generous. He produces roughly a book a year and generally they are big and well-researched and contain more plot than you can shake a stick at. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and in truth, Simmons’ interests are so far-ranging that I haven’t read all his books, nor do I plan to. But the ones I’ve read I’ve generally enjoyed, despite some shortcomings that this one, ILIUM, suffers from as well.
Reading Dan Simmons, for me, is like eating comfort food. His writing is solid and he knows how to set a plot in motion. Motion, though, is one of the issues that his books tend to suffer from. They start strong and, like many long books, dawdle in the middle. I’ve been trying to imagine how Simmons came up with the idea for ILIUM. There’s the obvious link between Mt. Olympus from Greek mythology and Olympos Mons on Mars. Then as Simmons was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and started researching and developing the idea of a Trojan War set on Mars, the book bloomed into something involving a little robot and a giant crab meeting some mysterious LGM (Little Green Men), and four rich, entitled, fairly obnoxious men and women meeting an ancient Jewish woman who divulges the lost history of the human race. These added plots are fascinating at first, because of their intriguing ties to the main story line – the Trojan War on Mars – but as they progress they get slower and slower in actually explaining, or even utilizing, those ties. Instead, you’re wading through pages and pages of the robot and the crab having philosophical discussions about Shakespeare and Proust, and more pages about the various ships they travel in and the apparent inconvenience of being a giant crab in space (worse, this crab soon loses his eyes, ears, and legs and becomes a burden to the little robot, as well as to the reader), and even more pages about the entitled rich folk wondering what a Jew even is.
What keeps ILIUM engaging is that main story line, which Simmons gets a lot of mileage out of. The Greek gods are seven, twelve, even twenty feet tall because – duh! – gravity on Mars is lower than on Earth. They ride chariots with holographic horses. They can “freeze” time to adjust the fates of normal human beings. They teleport. They regenerate in giant vats attended by lizard-like creatures. The plot of ILIUM goes something like this. A resurrected twentieth-century scholar, Hockenberry, who is tasked to watch how closely the proceedings on Mars follow Homer’s ILIAD, receives secret orders to kill the goddess Athena. He isn’t up to the task and instead sets of a chain of outlandish events that has him sleeping with Helen – the one the Trojans and the Greeks are fighting over – attempting to kill the goddess Aphrodite, and catalyzing a full-blast rebellion against the gods. Engaging stuff indeed. It’s unfortunate Simmons devotes so much attention – especially in the middle section of the book – to the other story lines, because by the time this rebellion gets underway, you just want the book to end. At least, I did. I actually listened to it on audio and set playback to double speed.
My favorite Simmons novels are HYPERION and DROOD. The latter is particularly long, but somehow I found all the digressions in that book compelling. It could have been the setting (Victorian London and its ghoulish underworld) spoke to me more, or the fact that DROOD had a central mystery awaiting some kind of reveal, whereas ILIUM is more event-driven, and I’ve always been less interested in what-happens-next than in why-does-it-happen.
Final rating for ILIUM: four stars for originality, three for execution.