Monday, January 22, 2007

Ilium by Dan Simmons

(Book Review)

Like Mr. Guam, I seem to be incapable of walking into a bookstore and not buying anything.

So, I was in the bookstore one day, and I was already reading 10 books at the same time and told myself I absolutely was not going to buy another book. And then this one jumped out at me.

As the title indicates, this is a re-telling of the Trojan War. With a twist. Actually with a lot of twists.

The Trojan War is taking place in the distant future. And the Greek Gods have resurrected Thomas Hockenberry, a 20th century classical scholar, who’s job is to watch and see if the events unfold according to the Iliad or not.
Given how much importance the Trojan War and the Iliad had in my adolescence, I felt I absolutely had to buy this book.

Why is the Trojan War happening again in the distant future? Who are these Greek Gods really? Why do they need a 20th century classical scholar? These and many other questions are answered gradually as the novel unfolds. (Actually the novel ends with most of these questions still unanswered. I have to buy and read the sequel “Olympus” to find out what is going on.)

But there’s a lot more going on in this book than just the Iliad: robots from Jupiter, little green men from Mars, post-humans, and the characters from Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” I’m not quite sure what to make of the whole thing. Maybe I’ll have to wait until finishing “Olympus” and see how it all fits together. But for now I’ll just say there is a fine line between “creative genius” and “ridiculous” and Dan Simmons seems to be straddling it.

There has been a lot of praise for this book, mostly on the internet but some print medium as well. Supporters of this book say things like it’s a classic work of literature and mythology revisioned in a post modern collage of different genres.
I’m more cautious however. As with my criticism of anime fans, I think a distinction needs to be made between doing something and doing something well. Throwing a bunch of different classical books into a blender does not automatically great literature make.

But I guess the debate about whether this book is high brow or low brow is irrelevant. The important question is: Is it fun to read?

And the answer is: Mostly.
The best parts of this book are where Dan Simmons is simply re-telling the Iliad. It’s not a new story, but it’s a story that still crackles with excitement 3000 years later. The action on the ground is narrated through the eyes of the scholar Hockenberry, who reports what he is seeing and at the same time compares it to the Iliad and notes the significance of it. It’s like reading the Iliad with a classical professor dropping in every now and again to add an interesting tid bit.
The updated language is fun as well. Occasionally Dan Simmons seems to be trying to hard to modernize the tale, (like Helen’s speech to Hector: “My dear friend, my dear brother, dear to me–bitch that I am, vicious, scheming cunt that I am, a female horror to freeze the blood...”), but mostly I think he pulls it off pretty well.

The problem is that the Iliad related parts are only 1/3 of the book. The rest of the book deals with other various sub-plots, and the original characters Dan Simmons creates are not half as engaging as the characters he borrows from Homer.

Also, despite the fact that wikipedia classifies this book as “soft science fiction”, I thought there was a lot of techno-babble at certain points. But as a former “Star Trek” fan, I guess I’m well used to just sucking it up and reading through the techno-babble parts to get to the rest of the story.

As I mentioned above, not very much is explained in this book. (Hopefully everything will be made clear in the sequel.) Dan Simmons has obviously chosen to increase the drama by keeping the reader in the dark as to why everything is going on.

However there are good ways to do this and bad ways to do this, and at times Dan Simmons just gets ridiculous. For example there is a 1,400 year old character named Savi who knows everything but for some reason she is too grumpy to explain it all to the rest of the characters, so she just utters a bunch of cryptic things as the story goes along, and never fully explains much of anything.
I suppose characters like Savi are almost standard in a story like this. What I thought was more ridiculous were the Little Green Men from Mars. They also appear to know everything that is going on but (get this), the act of communicating kills them. Therefore they can only utter a little bit at a time before one of them drops dead. Now is that a plot device or what? I’ll bet Dan Simmons treated himself to another beer after thinking of that beauty.

As for the accuracy of this book:
It’s been several years since I read the Iliad, but as far as I can remember Dan Simmons gets it mostly right. But there’s still room for nit-picking:

*It’s never exactly clear how much authority the classical poets besides Homer have. At times Simmons references them, at times he ignores them.

* At one point, the rape of Cassandra is attributed to Ajax the greater, instead of Ajax the lesser. But given the similarity in names, I suspect this may just be a result of shoddy proof reading.

* Dan Simmons makes a big deal out of Achilles armor, particularly his famous shield. But Simmons apparently forgot that Achilles only received this new armor after the death of Patroclus. The armor appears out of chronology in “Ilium”.

* A Robot, who is a Shakespeare expert, at one point admits he has no idea about the Trojan War or Odysseus, despite the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play about the Trojan War, and Odysseus was one of his characters.

And that’s all the nit-picking I could catch.

Well, since I already finished this book, I might as well read the sequel “Olympus” next and find out how everything turns out. I’ll keep you posted when I finish it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Al Pratt (Golden Age Version of the Atom from DC Comics) was portrayed as a student of Calvin College in the 1940s comic books. He later became a professor at Calvin College.

[Ed. note--I actually added this one myself. It is my first (and so far only) venture into the editing of Wikipedia. It should be interesting to see what happens with it. Those Wikipedites move fast. It's already been moved from "notable alumni" to "fictional potrayals"]

Link of the Day
Here's a description of the peace vigil in Grand Rapids on January 1, which I was also at. I only check this gentleman's blog occasionally, so I am late in linking to it. You can't see me in any of his pictures, but you can see my sign (Bring Troops Home) in the corner of this picture.

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