Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I read Ilium

Dan Simmons made a name for himself authoring the Hyperion series. When he combined two of my favourite genres, science fiction and Greek mythology, into his novel, Ilium, I was hooked. Then of course with such a combination, the book indirectly brought about another genre, alternative history for the ancient Greek personalities, both mortals and immortals.

I read it several months ago, thought I would try a commentary on it, prepared this posting but have never got around to publishing it. Well, I might as well kick it out of the way now before it becomes ancient history, especially now that I have obtained its sequel.

Ilium, another name for the better known ancient city of Troy is essentially a science fiction (SF) novel that weaves its plot around the Trojan War. While Homer's Iliad provides the basic Greek personalities and conflict structure for Ilium, the modern SF book narrates a Trojan war re-enacted on a futuristic terra-formed Mars, with the Greek Gods ensconced on the martian volcano Olympus Mons playing … eh … gods.

Ilium forms the first of two books that Simmons has planned for the tale, which involves 5 main groups of beings, namely:

(1) The entire pantheon of Greek gods, though by the end of the book, the reader isn’t too sure whether they are indeed the original Olympic immortals that have somehow being transferred, perhaps through wormholes in space, via three different dimensions altogether, by time (across thousands of years) into the future, by location (across interplanetary space) onto the planet Mars, and by supernaturalism (across beliefs) into existence with mankind again.

The gods can either quantum-teleport (QT) themselves from location to location by just visualising where they want to be, of course by the use of a quantum teleporter disk (remember, it’s a science fiction book, not a supernatural saga), or travel in chariots drawn by holographic steeds. Zeus seems to be the only one with real horses.

(2) The ancient Trojans and Achaeans (the latter had not yet unified with Aeolians and Dorians into the Greek race). Occasionally a hero from one side would be provided with super-strength by the gods to wreck havoc upon the opposition. One such candidate was Diomedes, whose body was injected with nanotech molecules by the Goddess Athena.

Just as an aside, Athena is one of my favourite Greek gods. According to the Greek tales (not Dan Simmons’), Athena was Libyan, having been born in that country, by springing out of Zeus head fully clad in armour. Assuredly she is no relative of modern day Gaddafi.

Readers of course get to witness the lives of the famous Helen, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Odysseus – BTW, I hope you haven’t seen that Brad Pitt movie on ‘Troy’ – let me tell you it’s the pits, and that’s no pun; it just stinks to Mt Olympus with the screenwriter mutilating the original story to wrap it around Pitt. Eric Bana as Hector was the only redeeming feature of a much promised but failed movie.

Back to the book Ilium - I actually like the way Simmons developed his Achaeans as down-to-earth brawling, cursing, lusty, argumentative and petty humans rather than iconic semi-immortals; he has them using the F-word and other human swear words frequently in their conversations like frustrated stevedores. It's quite amusing.

(3) The ‘scholics’ (I presume the word must be derived from ‘scholars’), actual 20th and 21st Century Homeric Iliad scholars from Western universities, reconstituted by futuristic science into living beings again, to act as observers of the new Trojan War and evaluate for the Greek gods whether the conflict is going on as described by Homer. Apart from Zeus, no other Greek gods know how the Trojan War would turn out. Thus the ‘scholics’ are the only ones who know how the conflict would unfold (somewhat like seers), well, at least until one of them decided to ‘play god’ himself.

(4) A future race of humans who live by periods of twenty years, or ‘twenty’, up to a maximum of five ‘twenties’ before they are faxed for the final time into the sky to join the post-humans, whatever/whoever those are? As long as the humans haven’t completed their 5th ‘twenty’ they cannot die, grow old, bear any scars or wounds, fall sick, etc. They don’t work or study or do anything, but just enjoy life, served by an army of servitors (robotic servants who serve their every needs and whims) and protected by strange creatures called voynix.

Once every ‘twenty’ they are renewed by faxing themselves to the ‘firmary’ where they are recharged to ‘as good as new’ and returned to continue their living. When one of the characters was eaten up by a dinosaur (like many weird creatures, developed via recombinant hi-tech stuff - basically a far more advanced and perverted version of the Jurassic park theory) he was reconstructed by the ‘firmary’ back to existence, to live until his final ‘twenty’.

The humans travelled by ‘faxing’ themselves from faxnode to faxnode – as an example, one moment they could be in Kuala Lumpur, and by pressing a fax-code at a faxnode, the next in Canberra or even, God forbid, Baghdad. But in the book, names of cities, nations, and even continents as we know them have been forgotten. They know only faxnode (or fax-portal) codes.

Then, horror of horrors, they discovered the ‘truth’ of faxing. Sorry, not going to tell you – if you’re curious, you know what you have to do!

(5) I suppose Simmons couldn’t resist the R2D2 C3PO stuff, and included in his book, the Moravecs. These are autonomous, sentient, biomechanical organisms seeded throughout the outer solar system by humans in an unexplained past, that have taken on independent existence as a new nation in the outer solar system. The 'outer solar system' refers to planets from Jupiter (the moravecs' principal home) outwards to Pluto.

Concerned about the dire consequences of unexplained and excessive QT activities on Mars (remember – QT means quantum-teleporting) their council send a mission to Mars to investigate and stop the dangerous destabilising meddling of space. In the mission, Simmons included two rather funny moravecs to alleviate, a la Star Wars, the far more serious SF Ilium. The reader reads that one is a Shakespearean sonnet lover while the other, a Proust devotee. The two are probably the other pair in the book who demonstrate true friendship.

Add on a few other interesting characters like additional (non-Greek) gods, demons, monsters, strange beasts, aliens and even a 1400-year old Jewess, and blend all smoothly into a superb cocktail of adventure, war, mystery, love and follies, as only Simmons can, the reader is assured of a wonderful read. Mind you, many stuff have been left unexplained but that’s the beauty – my wait for the 2nd book Olympus has been worthwhile. I am about to read the sequel which was published last year.

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