Review of Ilium by Dan Simmons
by Dan Simmons
Longtime readers of my reviews will recall I have a tumultuous relationship with Dan Simmons’ books. I didn’t like The Terror or Drood, but I warmed up to Simmons through his epic Hyperion Cantos. In my review for the final book of that cycle, The Rise of Endymion, I commented, “Even if you don’t like the series, it is hard to dispute the scope and style of it.” Simmons lives up to this judgment with Ilium, which does for the Iliad what Hyperion did for Keats and Romantic poetry (although I’d argue it goes further than that). I doubt I’ll ever refer to Simmons as one of my favourite authors, or even as one of my favourite SF authors. Yet I have no doubt he is actually a great SF author, one of the greats of our age, even if he isn’t one of my favourites. Let’s dive into Ilium and see why.
Summarizing Ilium is not an easy task, but I’ll do my best. It’s a couple of thousand years into the future. Humanity experienced a posthumanist singularity, including an event vaguely alluded to as “the rubicon,” and mastered nanotechnology and quantum tunnelling/quantum teleportation. Now, beings claiming to be the Greek gods inhabit a terraformed Mars and have recreated the Iliad in the flesh. They’ve also recreated Thomas Hockenberry, a twenty-first–century scholar of the Iliad, essentially to provide commentary on them? But Hockenberry gets pushed into a situation where he has to go off-book, and things soon prove … revolutionary. Meanwhile, some moravecs (self-evolving AI robots descended from robots sent out by humans) from the moons of Jupiter have arrived on Mars to investigate all this untoward quantum activity. Meanwhile meanwhile, on Earth, some slightly-not-baseline humans are living a peaceful yet empty existence devoid of culture or true learning/introspection, until of course, someone jolts them out of it. The result? By the end of the book, all hell has broken loose of course!
Look, the actual plot of this book is unimportant.
Seriously, the plot is one of the least interesting parts of the book, and I’m going to mostly ignore it. I want to talk about what Simmons is doing with regards to the intersection of classical literature and science fiction and why it’s so goddamned brilliant, and then I will slam him for some dirty male gazey bits. Read on!
For the record, I did read the Iliad (Fagles), but didn’t review it because it was … a difficult book. It’s really not a great book for reading silently to oneself in translation. It is meant to be declaimed, in ancient Greek, but that is not a skill I have. Although debates over its historicity and the extent to which it is an oral tradition abound, one thing is clear: the Iliad is, like so many epic poems from antiquity, a complex work that has been altered by each of the cultures who have translated it, studied it, and reinterpreted it through their own biased lenses. Also note that you don’t need to have read the Iliad to follow Ilium.
Ilium is, fundamentally, a story about literacy. Every relationship, every plot development, every conflict, is a facet of Simmons examining the meaning of literacy in various human societies, the role of literacy and storytelling, and the ways in which our technology might influence those two things.
I have often criticized the posthumanist stories I’ve read of late because of the tendency for the technology to be so advanced it’s basically magic. Simmons lampshades this and employs posthumanist SF to good effect by just leaning into the whole magic angle. Yes, at face value, the idea of recreating the Iliad in “real life” is absurd and impossible—but if you arrange the tech tree of our evolution just so, it becomes just incredibly improbable (and as the book explores, probability is a key underlying element of the story—not that that’s important, as I said). The Greek gods of this story are incredibly powerful, yes—but they are also illiterate. In a society where technology has progressed to the point that you can alter your form at will, communicate information through nanotechnology … what good is writing anymore?
Savi makes a remark at one point about the pre-literate meeting the post-literate when Odysseus meets Harman and Daeman, and it’s a very telling statement. Odysseus and the other Greeks represent humanity prior to the dominance of the written word. Simmons presents them as emphasizing action and embodiment over contemplation. Contrast this with Mahnmut and Orphu, whose human-like intellectual existences within their very non-humanoid bodies revolve around contemplation of Shakespeare and Proust, respectively. There is an irony that the only literate beings in this story are an anachronistic professor and robots from Jupiter’s moons! However, the moravecs have more in common with Harman et al than you might think—both have a dearth of lived experiences when it comes to the struggles of the human condition that we consider de rigeur. The moravecs, by dint of their access to the sum total of human literature, are more aware of the human condition. But as Mahnmut discovers throughout this story, he has led a very sheltered life and has not paid attention to much beyond his myopic niche interests.
Everything in Ilium is wrapped in literary texts—not subtext but actually part of the text. The antagonists, from the Greek gods to Prospero and Caliban and the mysterious Setebos, are all allusions to famous literary characters. Beyond that though, the textual references—the passages of Shakespeare dissected, the interrogation of characters like Falstaff—create the impression of a conversation between these authors and the characters of Ilium. Even Hockenberry marvels at his own role as a kind of ersatz intervener in a drama that was conceived by Homer and is now being re-staged by the enigmatic Zeus: he goes from observer to participant, driving events further away from the text of the Iliad. This makes him uncomfortable not just for the personal risk he accrues as a result but for the fact that it shifts his understanding of the people around him from characters in a farcical recreation of a tragedy to living, breathing humans whose autonomy and agency he must respect rather than ignore or co-opt. This is reinforced numerous times when he underestimates the guile or commitment of the Greeks and Trojans, particularly Helen.
As Mahnmut and Orphu debate the meanings of life explored by their literary crushes and Savi opens the eyes of her new friends to the ideas they never knew they were missing, Simmons invites us all to consider the different options with regards to literacy. Those of you who are able to read this, like me, take our literacy for granted to an extent—I don’t mean to imply that none of you struggled for this. Some of you might have had to struggle to learn to read, or struggled to get access to education in the first place. But we take it for granted that our species, our societies, are literate. Literacy is a technology, not a biological certainty. As Simmons demonstrates here, literacy is one way to add depth to a culture—but it is not the only way, and it introduces its own complications and dead-ends as well.
Whether or not our own technology takes us as far as the posthumans of Ilium get, it behoves us to consider how that technology alters our relationship with literacy. It’s already happening right now. As a teacher, I often ponder how my students (some of whom, because I teach adults in high school, are older than me) look at reading and writing differently because they have cell phones and the Internet. As a millennial, I grew up online. I am, in some ways, more comfortable reading and writing than I am speaking. My younger students, while even more attached to their devices than I am, are not necessarily more literate as a result—because the way we negotiate the digital spaces we’ve created has changed. While that sounds curmudgeonly, it’s more observation than complaint or criticism. It can’t really be either of those until we have a deeper, wider conversation about what’s happening—we need to stop saying “kids can’t read” or “kids don’t read” and instead check our assumptions about why we expect kids to read the same way we read. After all, we didn’t always read the way we do now.
Of course, the complex conversation happening within Ilium would be improved if it didn’t centre 2 dead white guys and a dead Greek poet to whom we attribute the Iliad. Simmons’ emphasis on the Western tradition of literature is an unfortunate limitation that ignores the rich history of both literate and oral traditions in countless other cultures around the world.
On top of that, I wish I could praise this book wholeheartedly, but I almost put it down only a couple of pages in, when Simmons has Daeman meditate all about the hot nude body of the woman he’s trying to seduce. Ew. And then there’s Hockenberry. It should have been redemptive, this flabby middle-aged white guy from our time running around the Age of Heroes and basically being unremarkable … but as much as I admire Simmons for undermining Hockenberry’s brief hero moments via the machinations of Helen, Andromache, and to a lesser extent Hector and Achilles … I can’t get behind Hockenberry’s utter male gaze and objectification of the goddesses and women he meets. The whole scene where he just goes and poses as Paris so he can have sex with Helen? Hello rapey and gratuitous and ew.
So … yeah. Ilium as a work of literature has vast chasms of thought-provoking ideas as deep as Olympus Mons is tall. I was enchanted by the way Simmons teases out the various contradictions around literacy. Simmons is a huge literary nerd and a talented SF author, and I love that combination. But I can’t praise that this book without calling out the intensely uncomfortable male gazey moments that are, unfortunately, all-too-common in books written by otherwise intelligent white guys. Seriously, do better.
Is this book for you? I don’t know! It’s big and convoluted and sprawling but oddly satisfying if you decide you want to put up with the lengthy digressions, the problematic stuff I noted, and the frustrating tendency to digress at length (as mentioned) but never actually reveal the really interesting stuff (what are the voynix? Who is Setebos?). I guess that’s what sequels are for.