I started these books quite a while ago, right around the time I got into the game Civilization V. It was part of a confluence of historical fiction and pop culture that planted strange ideas in my head, some of which are still simmering away and not ready for me to write about.
But this weekend I spent at least 12 hours applying sealant to a new fence - a very boring bit of manual labor - and I listened to some of Olympos to entertain myself. Afterwards I realized I'd never written any critique of these books at all. Not even as a brain-dump. So, when it got too dark to see the fence, I cracked open the laptop and started dumping. Spoilers ahead, and stuff.
The novel really can be boiled down to one word: Solipsism. The central idea here is that a work of genius in the arts can actually create and/or give access to an alternate universe based on that artistic work. In this case it's taken further because the fictional creations have their own agency -- for example, Cetebus busting in through the walls of an adjacent universe uninvited and unexpected.
The writer is clearly using Hockenberry as a surrogate not just for the audience, but for himself, as an aging, over-educated, but distinguished academic, thrust into a total wish-fulfillment situation where he gets to observe legendary historical events in close detail, describe and analyze them, and eventually interfere with them to suit his tastes, and engage in political intrigue - or just have sex with - the most prominent figures involved.
I wonder how much of that role was Dan Simmons just going, "wow, I'm in Troy, what would I do next? I know! I'd totally seduce Helen Of Troy! Time to arrange some wackadoo series of events to make that plausible..."
The second book - Olympos - was much more difficult reading than the first, for a number of reasons:
1. The critics are right: There aren't very many answers given for important questions, especially in the realm of science. The answers that are given, to explain central parts of the plot and the mechanics of the universe, are often dropped without comment into a single sentence, surrounded by acres of less informative or unrelated narration. If you stop the novel cold and chew on these little tidbits for a while, you can actually unravel a lot of the plot and history. If you don't catch them ... you're screwed.
2. An enormous plot point involving a far-future weapon of war - a post-nuclear submarine - poofs into existence at about the 85% mark. There is zero foreshadowing of it, and it gets only a few pages of context, but it turns out to be central in the motivations and destinies of at least seven of the major characters. It suddenly explains, in retrospect, about half of this entire very very long novel. Also, our friends the Moravecs spend 4/5 of the novel pursuing their own investigations on a trip to Earth, and then as soon as they blunder across this wrecked ship - by accident no less - they instantly abandon their business, without any discussion, and start dealing with the ship. While this happens, we are treated to page after page of dithering from Harman about the past and fate of humanity, straight from the sheep-shearing barn in Dan Simmons' head. What the hell?
3. The critics are right: Most of the action takes place in the last quarter of the novel. It's still fun getting there, but after spending so much time wondering "what the hell is going on?", suddenly everything is going on at once, and you have to just give up asking questions and roll with it.
4. The Moravecs provide great discussion, and by far the most color and humor in the novel, but they are ill-used. Their purpose in both Ilium and Olympos is to swoop in like robotic janitors and clean up whatever mess the humans get themselves into. They are Machina ex Deus acting as Deus ex Machina, whenever the plot gets too thick. After a while it creates the impression that they are crowbarred in from another novel - possibly a superior one - like The Fonz crashing into a Laverne And Shirley episode, jazzing things up, sucking all the attention out of the scene, collecting some applause, and then buggering off. The effect is that you want to follow them out the door and leave these stupid humans to flounder in the mud. I could listen to Mahnmut And Orphu Discuss The Classics for a thousand pages and not get bored. Pity it had to come woven into a turgid drama about some pathetic, clueless, almost entirely humorless teenagers slowly learning that there is more to life than dinner parties and breeding.
Setting aside things that are left totally unexplained, there are still lingering questions of plot. For such a long, long novel it's rather irritating that Simmons couldn't just toss us a single-sentence bone or two at the end. I can only conclude he meant to leave these questions unanswered. Where did Cetebus go? One moment he was there blasting thunderbolts at spaceships, the next moment he was gone. Did the beam at Delphi contain three million Earthlings - or not? Where the hell is Caliban? What happened to all the post-human gods, once Hephaestus took over? And what the hell is up with Odysseus and Circe?
Like I said, the keys to understanding huge parts of this novel are often tiny and scattered indifferently in acres of prose. I gathered what felt like many of them, but perhaps I missed even more, because I still have way too many unanswered questions.
If Caliban can free-fax (teleport anywhere at will) then how exactly was he "trapped" in orbit for so long? Wasn't there a better - and less grisly - way to feed him than moving all the medical pods there? (I can think of five better ways in less than a minute.)
There is one single instance where a character uses the Turin Cloth to actually interact with the Trojan war, not just observe it. Why mention that once, then never again? Why have the feature at all, given how easily one could disrupt the course of the war?
Why would Circe put the submarine into suspension, rather than just lifting it into space and chucking it into the sun? She clearly has the tools to do so. How in the bloody hell did Prospero know that Harman would enter the submarine? For that matter, why did he send him there in the first place? To teach him a lesson about Post-Human stupidity? Why the hell was the Atlantic Breach even there? Why would radiation poisoning slowly destroy all the proteins in Harman's body but miraculously leave his stores of vat-absorbed protein knowledge completely intact, for later transmission? That's just sloppy, Mr. Simmons. You talk up the storage capacity of DNA, then totally disregard the fact that it is incredibly sensitive to radiation.
Why were the Moravecs cruising through space in a pointlessly "steampunk"-derived spaceship, when they had far better technology just sitting around? Why would they turn their whole expedition around just to rescue one dying man in a fit of compassion, but rain fire down all around the Trojans and Greeks in their war with the gods?
Cetebus crawled through a huge doorway to get to Earth -- and since he/it can make those doorways at will, why didn't he consume the Earth thousands of years ago already? Is it because he was trapped on Mars by Prospero? If so, ... how? By big stone statues? How the hell did that work?
Also, why just Prospero and Cetebus? That's awfully arbitrary. Why isn't the universe crawling with other Shakespearean characters? Why isn't Loki running around, or Gandalf, or Sherlock Holmes, or Moses? There is some sense in the idea that Ariel and Prospero are emergent phenomenon, formed from the complexity of the engineered Earth the Post-Humans left behind. And okay, all the Greek gods flying around have a semi-comprehensible origin story, being Post-Humans who got a wild hare up their butts and decided to reform themselves into a pantheon and play in a sandbox. But ... Cetebus? Where the crap did Cetebus come from? Just ripped a hole in creation and came tumbling through? If you're gonna introduce a straight-up evil entity and declare it the villain, only to explain nothing about it, then yank it mysteriously away at the end of the novel without a fight or even an ending monologue like "I'll get you next time, Gadget, next time..." then why introduce it at all? No, seriously, just edit Cetebus right out of the novel. Hundreds of pages saved, and almost nothing lost.
Hey, don't get the wrong impression. Ilium and Olympos are still fine novels. For long stretches they are an absolute delight to read, and the weird veneer of semi-serious science over the fiction works better than you'd expect. Later on I'm sure I'll have more to say about the mental conflagration it was part of last year, but for now I guess the take-home is this: Greek mythology is a lot more interesting and influential than I thought. And: This could make a pretty good series of movies, if you cut out a whole lot of the boring Old-Style Human dithering.
Oh and one final thing: For a long time I had an old paperback sci-fi anthology sitting around my house. It was called "The Crystal Ship". Check out the cover art
, and the summary of the first story, and tell me that isn't the direct inspiration for the orbital city in Ilium, including that crazy multi-seated transport platform visible in the corner of the cover!