Ilium is a brilliantly conceived story that artfully combines Shakepearean and Homerian themes with a surrealistic future in which high technology coexists with dinosaurs.
Picture it, a world where people can travel in the blink of an eye with the aid of “faxing,” co-exist with the gods of Olympus (who often stop time to interfere in the lives of mere mortals), and the characters from Homer’s The Iliad are flesh and blood beings who bring the great poem to life. While that seems dizzying enough by itself, let’s throw in a society where reading no longer exists (shudder) and the Earth is no longer considered to spherical.
Then mix well with handfuls of expertly drawn characters that fairly leap off the page and minute (sometimes to the point of annoyance) descriptions of the fanciful imaginings of Simmons’ mind, and you have a very good novel. The plot, however, is occasionally bogged down in too much detail, which impedes the flow of the pacing and may tempt the reader to (gasp) skip ahead a few pages.
The dichotomy of such genius existing alongside such ignorance is a not-so-gentle reminder that if society becomes too enamored of technology, it can easily no longer regard old-fashioned skills and values in their properly inestimable place. This is a warning we would all do well to heed in this age of children logging so much computer time that they never pick up a book or anything else to exercise the muscles of their brains or bodies. On a larger scale, this lesson speaks to adults as well who are often so frighteningly dependent on technology as to be completely lost when the cable or Internet connection goes down.
The magnitude of this project requires a sweeping epic, and Simmons delivers with only a few glitches. Ilium comes fairly close to being a new classic but misses by a smidgen. With a tendency to hopscotch between various storylines a bit too much and, as mentioned before, a habit of over-describing, the result is a slightly jumbled yet still entertaining offering.
For those unfamiliar with The Iliad and Greek gods, Simmons kindly includes a rap sheet for each of the main characters to help keep the players straight. It is very interesting to read the possible -- perhaps even probable -- scenarios that the author dreams up using the skeleton of great classic literature.
So skillfully drawn are the scenes that the reader feels that must be what Odysseus, Paris and Agamemnon did and why. The use of the “scholic” as a narrator provides a slightly clinical eye from which to view the unfolding of events. For all history buffs, the premise of a literary professor getting to view the events he or she has made a living out of describing to students is a tantalizing nibble from a pie that only makes them want more.
All in all, Ilium is a good example of what good science fiction can do: provide pleasant hours of escapist reading while also giving the reader some underlying message to mull over later.