Simmons, Dan: Ilium (as part of the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel)

[Originally part of one post discussing the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel, broken up for MT import; see that post for comments]

I’m going to start with the books I’m voting below “No Award”:

When the nominations first came out, I decided to read all of the fiction ones—it’s my first Worldcon and I was feeling conscientious. I didn’t want to read Dan Simmons’ Ilium until its sequel was out, but it was nominated, so I sighed and got it out of the library.

I loved it. It was just fun. As various other people have said before me, it’s a post-Singularity novel told in three initial strands: an apparently-resurrected twentieth-century scholar chronicling the Trojan War at the command of Zeus; an expedition to Mars by moravecs (sentient robots) of the Jovian moons prompted by worrying quantum activity there; and old-style humans on an Earth greatly changed by the post-humans. Two of these three strands are more interesting to me, the Trojan War one, which gives the book its brilliant opening:


Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry—poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage may be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.

[Italics restored 7/27/04; sorry about that.]

I also really like the moravecs, both as people and as comic relief:

“I’m sorry I didn’t see this guy in the chariot coming sooner and take some evasive action,” Mahnmut said to Orphu in the last seconds before he had to shut down comm for landing.

“It’s not your fault,” said Orphu. “These deus ex machinas have a way of sneaking up on us literary types.”

The third strand gets better over the book as its main viewpoint character improves, but it’s still not quite as interesting.

Ilium is packed with ideas, allusions, exciting moments, interesting characters, and just plain fun. However, while a lot of the backstory can be worked out from what we’ve got in this book, it’s not at all a complete story. So I was in a bit of a quandary over where to put it on my ballot, and eventually decided to set the problem aside while I read the other nominees.

Then I found out that another nominee, Robert J. Sawyer’s Humans, was the middle book of a trilogy. (Sawyer’s books hadn’t really been on my radar, so I’d had no idea until I picked it up in the store.) Well, if I had doubts about voting for the first half of a work, I very definitely objected on principle to giving an award to the middle book of a trilogy. As I wasn’t that interested in reading the book to begin with, I decided I would just vote both Ilium and Humans last. I realized this sounds rather backwards, since I did like Ilium so much, but there’s still the chance that the continuation of the story, Olympos, will be bad enough to retroactively drag Ilium down with it. Should Olympos not suck, it will certainly be high on my list when eligible.

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