Oct 19, 2006

The Trojan War was never this good

Read Dan Simmons' Ilium and Olympos a couple of months ago, but haven't gotten round to talking about them till now. First of all, it's true that they're actually one book published as two, probably because if they were published in one piece nobody would buy a book that fat, and sales would be half as much as they were with two books instead of one.

Second, the book is not about the gods and Trojans and Greeks of the recreated Trojan war battlefield of far-future Mars; it's really about the future of humanity and what shape it might take. Simmons draws from a lot of literary sources, primarily Shakespeare (The Tempest) but also Proust (stuff I'm not familiar with) and Vernes (i.e. his Time Machine Eloi and Morlocks ideas).

The thing is, the story starts off with the scholic Thomas Hockenberry telling of the recreated war, and it's immediately gripping, especially to a guy like me who grew up reading his sci-fi on one hand and Greek/Norse/Egyptian mythology on the other. It's gripping for all the reasons the original mythologies are gripping -- the heroes and their stories are larger than life, etc. But the Trojan War storyline intercuts with that of the humans on Earth and the Moravecs on Jupiter, which takes the wind out of it somewhat, because you have all these new characters you didn't know before that you have to deal with, and you just want to get back to reading what Achilles did next.

Achilles by the way is the most interesting character in the story and Simmons lavishes him with detailed description, enough to satisfy any geek. Achilles the man-killer, Achilles the god-killer, Achilles the fleet-footed, Achilles this, and Achilles that. For some reason I kept imagining Brad Pitt as Achilles throughout the story, and it fit, right to the end. (But Eric Bana as Hector didn't -- Hector needs a stronger jawline, and a taller, more muscular figure).

The stories do converge, but they approach convergence from different points, and there's a lot of suspense. I won't bother with a detailed analysis of the thing here, but it's definitely enjoyable. I do want to talk about some of Simmons' ideas for the future of humanity though. Humans ten thousand years in the future are a sad, childlike lot, with every need catered to by robot servants and, who don't know how to read because they don't need to, and spend most of their time partying and pursuing other pleasures. Sounds perfect, but there's no intellectual stuff, no advanced thought. Simmons has a characters in the books disparagingly refer to them as `post-literate'. Ouch.

But these Eloi do have an interesting feature: they have been genetically modified to contain a hundred cybernetic functions, like a map/locator function that projects holographic images of the person being located; body status query functions; and advanced stuff like infonet access, the infonet being a semi-conscious web of information evolved from the internet which now blankets the planet. This infonet is extremely powerful -- it contains a huge amount of data, like information about every molecule in every cell of a tree the infonet user might be looking at. It's described as being totally overwhelming. You see the information, but you don't understand most of the knowledge contained in it. Oh, and you activate these functions by visualising combinations of coloured geometric shapes in your mind's eye. At least, until you can do it without thinking.

The `old-style', Earth-human protagonists introduced have a destiny to fulfill -- to recover the ability to use these advanced functions and recover the technological knowledge lost to the human race. But that's about it. There is some stuff about recovering some ten thousand humans encoded in a tachyon beam orbiting the Earth, but that's just another problem in the myriad collection of problems and mysteries the humans are faced with.

The infonet plays a large part in the book, actually -- combined with some really wild interpretations of quantum theory and post-human technology. It's a good read, but I still think the Trojan War part of the story should have been a different story altogether -- or rather, the story of the old-style humans on Earth should have been a different story, say The Final Fax. The Trojan War parts of the books would have made a kick-ass movie -- especially Achilles' visit to the pit of Tartarus in Hades, in the presence of the original Greek gods, the Titans, imprisoned there by Zeus.

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