Absolutely ages ago I picked up a copy of Dan Simmonds’ Illium and I’ve finally actually read the thing.
I’ve previously read two other books by the same author, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion so by this point I’ve rather thoroughly clocked the tics that he, like all writers, possesses.
For instance, it’s likely that Charlie Brooker will swear his way through a Guardian article, or Arthur C. Clarke is going to have plausible science, or Richard Dawkins will probably decry the evils of religion while simultaneously demonstrating the intellectual advantages of evolution. They’ve all got their thing.
For Simmonds, his peculiar tic is to be absolutely obsessed with other writers. The Hyperion books were basically one massive hard-on for the works of Keats, and for poetry in general, to the point at which it started to get ridiculous. One character was, indeed, essentially a cyborg reincarnation of Keats himself; I shit you not. This didn’t sit terribly well with me in general, because personally I think Keats is kind of a twat; saying Newton had destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it is one of the most utterly backward things I can imagine. The structure of the first book also liberally borrowed from The Canterbury Tales. At times it feels less than science fiction and more like a literary love-in.
I digress somewhat. The point is that these same tics form almost the very structure of Illium. The plot falls into multiple threads; one the story of a “scholic” observer, in service to the Muse, of what appears to be the Trojan war at the time of the Illiad. Another has a group of sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter sent on a mission to Mars, and another has a group of far-future humans on a quest for truth in their strangely altered Earth society.
The tics reappear fairly immediately; the “scholic” thread consists of a hi-tech twist on scenes from the Iliad, with the gods explained as beings equipped with high technology. Scene after scene of this is incredibly reminiscent of what it’s like to read the Illiad, a thousand different ways of saying “X killed Y with spear”. The sentient robots (called “moravecs” after Hans Moravec) fill their time on the way to Mars engaged in discussions of literary criticism, comparing and contrasting the works of Shakespeare (especially his sonnets) and the work of Marcel Proust, including quotations from À la recherche du temps perdu. This is before it’s then implied, in another classic trick, that Internet became self-aware and decided to call itself Prospero. It’s all really very silly, but it’s taken very seriously.
The other major fault he has is that despite Illium being a really very thick book, it is very consciously only half the story. I mean half in a very literal sense, all the plot threads are left dangling, and there is hardly any proper resolution. This is a fault it shares very strongly with Hyperion.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad book, necessarily. It’s well written, and it’s curiously imaginative, and you keep on reading and reading. Well, maybe I do, but then I even persevered to finish the Dan Brown abortion Angels & Demons, so maybe I can bring myself to finish anything. I’m just not sure that Dan Simmonds’ brand of literary space opera is really worth committing one’s time to a book of such length, especially when you’re lucky if the plot makes even a lick of sense, even before it’s arbitrarily truncated. This is a book in which it would make barely any difference if the explanations used the word “magic” instead of “quantum” or “nano” because they’re stripped of their ordinary meanings by being associated with nonsense.
It stands as a striking contrast to a book like The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, which manages to pull lovely human stories of love and loss and jealousy out of a plausible scientific scenario; a single, clear idea, beautifully elucidated. It’s also a much thinner book, but I managed to draw a lot more enjoyment and refreshment from it than from Illium.
In a couple of days (hopefully) I aim to return with Part 2 – Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian and then, if I’m really lucky and the wind is blowing the right way, Part 3 – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which I actually haven’t read yet.