Dan Simmons is one of my favorite authors, hands down. He’s one of those few authors that can publish across genres without having a pen name forced upon him. What always amazes me about his science fiction is the epic scope he manages to squeeze into one mere novel (across two books, unfortunately, since Olympos is the follow-on to Ilium). Not only does Ilium dance about our solar system with characters made from humans, post-humans, gods, and artificial intelligence, it also intermingles fortieth century technology with the brutalities of the siege of Troy. Technology that’s indistinguishable from magic, to those of us in the mundane twentieth century, is contrasted with bronze age muscle. Conflict pits mankind against gods, mankind against machines, and eventually, mankind against their own inheritance and history. Besides being breathtaking, it’s believable down to its details.
The initial story line is that the gods and goddesses (I mean Zeus, Hera, Athena…) are performing some sort of experiment on Mars. They’re re-running and documenting the Trojan War with the assistance of resurrected and re-engineered humans such as twenty-first-century history professor Dr. Hockenberry, who gets tangled up in their plots. Where these gods came from, why they’re recreating the Trojan war, and what they’re doing to the fabric of the space-time-continuum (for lack of a quicker description) as a result are central questions of the plot, which has a cast of thousands. I’m not kidding.
At the beginning of the novel, Dr. Hockenberry is coerced by Aphrodite to attempt to assassinate Athena, which will be a suicide mission, at best. If you like the story and characters behind The Iliad, you’ll have fun watching a middle-aged professor derail the sacking of Troy while dodging the wrath of gods and heroes alike. And that’s only one of the stories that runs through Ilium. There’s also plots involving part organic, part mechanized artificial intelligence beings that are heading to Mars to investigate all the anomalies they’ve detected, as well as “old-style” humans on an Earth about 20,000 years in our future having to learn to fight for their lives. A fascinating parallel occurs between the Trojan War heros and the old-style humans as they relearn Bronze Age craft so as to defend themselves. Then there’s the connecting character of Odysius; why does he manage to show up in different timelines and stories?
I hesitate to say that any of these are sub-plots, since all plot lines get masterfully interwoven by Simmons and become integral to the climax that approaches in Olympos…