I started off not really wanting to like this book. Years ago I liked Hyperion, and on the strength of that read Phases of Gravity, which I found irritatingly disappointing (setting up some interesting questions then sliding into cliché). Illium initially bugged me, with Simmons seeming to me all too keen to preen himself with the display of classical references: “Look at me. *My* characters discuss Proust, and Shakespeare’s sonnets.” It seemed at least as important to him to be known to be aware of these texts as to actually engage with them. It reminded me of Michael J. Straczynski (I tried, man, I tried – pushed my way through two full seasons of wooden acting and appalling dialogue in Babylon Five – with the promise of a series arc, and the vague hope of some deepening of character, but could not bring myself to watch any more after some last straw of stupidity early in series 3), who revealed way too much about his lack of self-awareness in his self-important DVD extra monologues, and, say, in Midnight Nation, wanting us to be bowled over that he can reference Milton, rather than by the inspired echoes/insights reflected in the actual writing. Even Gaiman can sometimes slip into this. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are lots of very well-read writers out there who have no need to seek validation by name-dropping, even though sometimes they may even drop them. Somehow there’s a clear tonal distinction: David Lodge, for example, regularly mentions classics, but there’s no sense of this being a pose, and far more that he’s more genuinely interested in conveying something meaningful and relevant from the text. It parallels my experience as a player: there are those who love music and share it in performance, and those who love the adulation of performance, and music is primarily a means to that end.
Anyway… given that I was already a bit biased against him, this aspect of particularly the opening third of the book was really putting me off. As was that supremely irritating practise of setting up grand, mythic contexts and register for someone, perhaps a god, to ironically break the mood to say, “Oh s*it” instead of, “This fills we with dismay,” or whatever. Sure, that was genuinely effective a few times perhaps when cyberpunk was new, but now it’s so hackneyed if attempted as humour. And Simmons also unashamedly used some crowd-pleasing tropes: have three separate, vaguely linked, narratives – keep jumping between them leaving each in a cliff-hanger; heavens above, what were the chances, that new female character happens to be a moderately voyeuristically described hottie (although I suppose he can be excused for Helen and Aphrodite); countdowns.
So I really have to give grudging praise that despite all this there was enough positive stuff, and then some really positive stuff, to get me past this and enjoying the book. Dammit, there are some pretty cool ideas in here, and novel ways of combining them. Occasionally Simmons even reminded me of Banks in the way he played with scale and action, and for me that’s about as high praise as I can give. At that point about half-way through the story where
Hockenberry – a suitably desperate character – takes that almost unimaginable decision to roll the dice against the gods – the story really kicks in and powers along. Hats off to Simmons for really capturing the idea (cf. Martin’s Tuf Voyaging) that whether it’s through technology or divine birth, if you’ve got enough power you really are a god. Simmons deliciously conveyed that if you link enough power even to vanity and pettiness, it becomes awesome: the early scene where Hockenberry has to interact with as minor a deity as an unnamed muse really captures genuine terrified veneration. That’s also Hockenberry’s personal epiphany: with the weapons he’s given to serve a god’s will, he can actually become a player in the pantheon himself – albeit a skin-of-the-teeth, madly improvising one. Moreover Simmons’ context of larger than life immortals and immortalised heroes is actually pretty impressive. Anyone one could come up with an idea to mix these characters into their story (and often do), but not so many could pull it off as well. At some point he lifts off from his attention-seeking trainspotting to take us along with some seriously badass and terrifying deities. The chaotic element is really well handled: Hockenberry’s wild gambit sets off all sorts of things – and this fits with the equally impetuous Greek gods, who themselves are up for ten different types of crazy (I enjoyed brushing up on some of this stuff with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-o4qTmEad4).
An odd deliberate theme that informs much of the story is that of rediscovering masculinity. Simmons openly acknowledges his time machine influence, but Odysseus’ call to Simmons’ Eloi is largely for the men. Women aren’t called to take up arms so much as to inspire and be prized by their heroes (because they are, of course, hugely sexy). Both Hockenberry and especially Daemon are transformed through combat – they discover themselves, become more human – while Ada and Hannah wait pining to be impregnated and/or rescued. But the role of women is complicated: Hockenberry is utterly overpowered and humiliated by the stone-cold group of Trojan women, who show extraordinary ruthlessness in what they are prepared to do to manipulate their men, and they are ahead of the game in conceiving of a war against the gods.
Oh, and I haven’t even particularly mentioned the other major characters, R2 and C3PO. Hang on. Anyway, you know who I mean, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I finished it, and new names make about as much of an impression on my stupid brain as writing in sand. Cool that Simmons gave them unhuman bodies and a context where humans were incidental, but their personalities were too anthropomorphic for me, particularly in their obsessions with, coincidentally (ahem), the sorts of things of interest to an early 21st C. writer. Once they got away from name-dropping they were likeable enough and even heroic, but felt like humans with accessories more than a different lifeform. I think Simmons even shows awareness of this, having them speculate that their human-ness may have something to do with their original designers. I suppose that’s the problem with having aliens but writing for a human audience: how different can you make them while maintaining interest? At least the LGMs were suitably weird and unexplained.
So, sure, despite some quibbles, this was an undeniably strong book – particularly in the crazy ride, but also the potent characters and intriguing context.