Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Ilium/Olympos Cycle, Dan Simmons (2003 & 2005)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating Ilium: 4.5 Pierogies
Rating Olympos: 2 Pierogies

Review: Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005) comprise a two book science-fiction series, the Ilium/Olympos Cycle, written by one of my favorite authors - Dan Simmons. Ilium won the Locus Award for best science-fiction novel in 2004 and was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2004 as well. Olympos was short-listed for the Locus Award in 2006.

To say I was super excited to read this series would be an understandment. I bought both doorstop books in hardcover and I saved them as a reward for myself for finishing a particularly rough month at work. Dan Simmon's novel Hyperion (1989) is not only my favorite science-fiction book of all time but one of my favorite books of all time period and I was looking forward to reading more of his work in this genre (Dan Simmons writes in numerous genres because he is awesome).

When superficially describing Dan Simmon's books to others I find they always come across wrong. They either sound boring or unserious and totally insane, neither of which are fair or accurate. In this case, the Ilium/Olympos Cycle would fall into the latter cateogory. When I explained to my father that the plot revolved around Greek Gods thousands of years in the future re-playing out the Trojan war on Mars he looked at me with sadness and disappointment and asked what happened to his "intelligent" daughter who used to obsessively read Dostoevsky. I assured him that Dan Simmons is a very intelligent author in my experience although I'm not sure Dad is convinced yet.

The two books are one story which comprise three distinct plotlines that intersect and relate in various ways throughout the books. The cast of characters is enormous. The first plot line follows the anciet battle of Troy. Except it is in the future and the Greek Gods are very real. They live on a martian volcano renamed Mt. Olympos on a terriformed Mars and are re-enacting the Trojan War soley for their own divine entertainment. The story is told, at least inititally, from the perspective of Thomas Hockenberry a 21st century Homer scholar from Indiana who was somehow brought back to life by the Greek Gods to record and report to them on how accurately their Trojan War compares to Homer's Iliad. All the Greek Gods and heros of the Trogan war are accounted for and some are even major characters in the story. Thomas Hockenberry performs his scholar reporting duties faithfully, albeit unhappily, until he is recruited by Aphrodite to murder Athena and in the process potentially finds a way to overthrow Zeus, end the reign of the Gods and stop the war. So are the Greek Gods living on Mars super-evolved and genetically engineered humans? Aliens? True Gods? You'll have to read to find out.

The second plot line follows a group of "old-style" humans living on earth. The human population on earth is strictly controlled by post-humans (evolved humans no longer living on earth) and each old-style human has a 100-year life span. They remain young throughout their 100 years due to rejuvenation technology they neither understand nor control. All their needs are taken care of by robots/machines and they live largely meaningless, immature, illiterate lives with no responsibilities much like the modern American college student. Essentially, they fax (think Star Trek's transporter beam) to various points around the globe to have huge drunken orgies and that's about it. It's alot like Spring Break Cancun 1998. One small group of old-style humans however begin to educate themselves and investigate the mysteries of their existences including the whereabouts of the unseen post-humans. As you might have guessed, this leads to all manner of danger and adventure.

The final plot line involves the loveable moravecs; artifically intelligent beings who left their creators on earth thousands of years ago ala Battlestar Gallactica and live on the moons of Jupiter. The moravecs keep to themselves generally although they are programmed to have an accute interest in human culture and the two main moravec characters happen to be obsessed with Proust and the sonnets of Shakespeare. When they notice that quantum levels on Earth and Mars threaten to destroy the galaxy they go on a mission to find out what is going on and put a stop to the quatum shananigans on Earth and Mars.

Ilium is freaking awesome. I loved it. Total vintage Dan Simmons. He comes up with a premise so interesting and creative that it leaves you shaking your head in awe. Once again I was blown away by the sheer scope of his imagination and his guts in setting out such an expansive and detailed premise. How was Olympos you ask? Eh - not so good sadly. Granted Olympos had the thankless task of bringing together the countless characters, and plot lines, and plot points, and random occurances which seemed impossible in light of the massive scope of the story. Turns out it very well was impossible because Olympos didn't deliver in the end [unlike Fall of Hyperion (1990) which totally DID deliver].

Olympos is a huge book and the first part continues to evolve the premise and scope of Ilium but not in a manner that was equally interesting. It also expands an already unwieldy set of premises and not to the story's advantage. The end of the Olympos felt very much like a rush job. Large plot lines are left unresolved, others are only partially resolved, other are resolved too quickly and sloppily, various mysteries aren't explained, the underlying science felt shaky and unclear, characters do things that don't make sense in light of their development through the story etc. It was basically all around an unsatisfying conclusion to a greatly imaginative story and world Simmons created. Additionally, there were several completely gratuitous and ridiculous sex scenes in Olympos. They wouldn't have been so bad if they didn't come across...well...kind of juevenille. For example, imagine if "Sleeping Beauty" were instead called "Sleepy Booty" and aired on Cinemax after 11PM. How would the porno prince wake the comotosed maiden? Well, read Olympos to find out. There is also a comletely pornographic sex scene between Zeus and Hera. That one, complete with graphic descriptions of Zeus's divine phallus was so ridiculous that it was just hilarious for all the wrong reasons. I read it outloud to Fiance because I knew it would embarrass him and he literally begged me to stop.

Most of the reviews I have read about the Ilium/Olympos Cycle are very favorable towards Ilium and very critical towards Olympos. Turns out I agree generally for the reasons discussed above. That said, some of the criticisms of Olympos I have come across I am not particularly receptive to. I have read several reviews claiming Olympos is anti-Islamic and even misogynistic. To this I respond with an exaggerated eyeroll. First of all, there is literally nothing more precious than self-righteous individuals claiming to care about women's rights while simultaneously refusing to allow any critical analysis of Islam out of a trendy enslavement to political correctness. But that is a side issue and I digress... I didn't see misogyny in these books.

These same people also seem to have their skinny jeans in a bunch because they think Olympos is anti-Islamic. Part of the story references a crazy time in the 21st Century where muslim extremists existed. They were violent, suicidal, anti-western and wanted to eliminate Jews from the planet. Hmmmm, gee I wonder where Simmons came up with that?? He must be prejudiced obviously, or maybe he's just watched the news at some point in the last 20 years.

What was the point of this post again? Oh yeah. Well, in closing I would recommend this series because Ilium is absolutely wonderful and the whole series is very entertaining. Just prepare yourself emotionally ahead of time for the inevitable disappointment at the end of Olympos. I did this in November regarding the 2009 Steelers season and it worked out well.


  1. Lol yeah I agree, Ilium was indeed the best. In fact I'm taking it out of my local library in a few days to have a read of it again. Haven't read Olympos but I don't think I should waste my time since there's been quite a criticism surrounding it.
    P.S. It's not 'muslim extremists' - it's just 'extremists' - let's not bunch both of them together eh ^.^' (you can't call the KKK Christian fundamentalists now right? see what I mean?) Plus, news tends to be anti-Islamic these days anyway, it's genocide. It's harder for muslims to live in this world now than it is for Jews or any other religions due to the prejudice that surrounds them and the (fake) news that comes out.

  2. I'm comfortable with use of the term "muslim extremist" and believe it to be completely accurate so I will continue to use it. There are many types of extremists capable of evil in the world but the ones I was specifically referencing (hijacking planes and calling for the extermination of jews in recent history) all have one thing in common. Plus that thing they have in common is the justification for their terroristic behavior. I realize political correctness makes it painful to acknowledge certain realities but as I've made it clear on this blog, I am not a fan of political correctness as I see it simply as a form of self-righteousness - a way to feel good about oneself without actually doing anything. If it makes you feel better I will happily refer to KKK members (to the extent they still exist and terrorize people) as Christian extremists although I do not think they use Christianity as the justification/catalyst for their actions to the extent muslim terrorists use Islam so it is not really an accurate comparison. The KKK is fueld by straight up racism. Muslim extremists are fueled by Jihad - a decidedly Muslim tenant.

    That said, I am down to criticize extremists of all religions and cultures.

    I appreciate your comment and thanks for reading. ~Elle

  3. I'm not a big fan of the science-fiction/fantasy genres. What I am a fan of, actually, is Dan Simmons. He is the only author who can constantly hop genres all the while remaining fresh and appealing to all of his fans.