Dan Simmons is definitely a modern author. But Olympos, the conclusion to his science fiction revisioning of the story of Troy, itself feels like a modern version of the intellectual science fiction of the late 1960s. Like the groundbreaking work of Dangerous Visions, Olympos delights in exploring human society through exaggeration, in playing with time and space through unusual narrative directions, and in the presentation of genuinely alien life forms. Olympos is, on one world, the tale of the Trojan War with an alien flare; on another, the last humans of Earth fight for their survival against their rebellious robot servants; and in the space between, sentient machines and a single displaced human from our time strive to understand the connection between the two. The whole is presented with an expansive confidence and sense of exploration missing in mainstream science fiction since about 1982.
As was sometimes the case in those bold attempts of the past, it often falls flat. The choice to depart from the standard linear narrative structure may present more challenging work, or allow an author to weave more threads into the story. But there is a reason the usual straightforward path of beginning, middle and end has become the standard, and Olympos demonstrates the difficulties of other techniques.
Simmons attempts to balance constantly multiplying storylines in Olympos, moving not only between separate locations and disparate characters but between moments of time. From the opening at the funeral of Paris, Olympos flashes back months, flashes forward years, and plays endlessly with the time in between. It is to Simmonsí credit that these often-colliding storylines are never confusing, but they are often boring. Changing viewpoint in time and place often requires flashbacks, and more than once the climax of one story is defused by a casual bit of context in another. Too, the cliffhangers created by such narrative hopping soon begin to feel manipulative, even repetitive, interfering with the suspension of disbelief so urgently needed in a story that has Greek Gods and Lovecraftian horrors rubbing shoulders. A rather less noble failing is Simmonsí retro-preoccupation with sex scenes. Like his flashbacks, the sex scenes come early and often, with detailed, mechanistic descriptions aplenty. Far from being scandalous or erotic, the bump-and-grind moments become first ludicrous and then boring, little more than speed bumps in the path of the main stories.
Sex scenes and jarring cliffhangers notwithstanding, Olympos moves with gripping speed. And that speed ensures that, as a story, Olympos works. The plight of the characters stirs panic, the portrayal of the Trojan War injects flesh and soul into stiff figures of legend. The overarching explanation that ties the separate stories together is revealed to characters and readers in the same small doses, until the conclusion gathers such a sense of inevitability that the final revelation feels almost trivial. And the final grand meeting of characters, schemes, and timelines is frankly epic.
Dan Simmons proves himself willing and worthy to try for the stars. Olympos may not quite reach the heavens, but the attempt alone is a wonder.