Sunday, August 23, 2009

Closing Thoughts: Ilium

# of pages: 576
Pages read so far: 1,256

I'm fairly proud of myself for getting through this one. Not that it was bad, because it wasn't, but because it was big, wordy, and pretty far outside my realm of reading experience. I know 576 pages isn't necessarily a lot, but these were big pages, little words, and lots of sciencey stuff--both real scientific theory and elaborate technobabble. In other words, this was a novel that took effort for met to barrel through, and the result is a wildly imaginative narrative that throws together Homer's Illiad, Shakespeare's Tempest, and alien robots, among other things. While that sounds like a recipe for fanfiction disaster, it actually plays out as a sci-fi epic that makes the original Illiad pale in scope.

Simmons is a very good writer. There were times when I felt like "being a great writer" was getting in the way of his storytelling, and that's generally a turn-off of mine. (For example, and entire chapter describing the alien physics that allow a ship to take off from Jupiter's atmosphere and land safely on Mars by using completely fictional units of measurement and electronic equipment takes great skill, but I'm perfectly happy just saying "They took off." That, however, is completely a matter of personal taste, and not something that can be held against the writer) I was perfectly able to overlook these instances, though, because Simmons did a fantastic job of setting up so much intrigue all throughout the story, which is remarkable considering the reader thinks they already know how this one should end if they've ever taken a western civilizations class (thanks, OBU!).

It took me awhile to get into the story because the majority of the book jumps between three completely separate storylines, none of which seem in the least bit connected. (In fact, this book never did actually all of them into the fold, but they set things up for that to happen in the second book, Olympos, so I was okay with it) Of the three plots, I only found one even remotely interesting for the first hundred pages or so--and remember, big pages, little words. So I was afraid that I'd be struggling with this book the whole way through. Once I got about a hundred pages in, though, things really began to pick up on all fronts, the bland-er characters started to take shape and develop, the adventure factor was cranked up a few hundred decibels, and life got more interesting. (Which, it turns out, was kind of the point of at least one of the stories, so I can completely understand why Simmons constructed this part of the story the way he had. I still sorta wished he'd gotten into about 20 pages sooner, though)

Bottom line: here is a great, epic tale, and a successful modern attempt to capture the spirit of the Greek poetry. From the starting-lineup-ish rundowns of who is fighting in what battle to the distinctive attention given to each detail of every individual death, the novel echoes of Homer without sounding pretentious for the most part. I'm impressed. (Side note: there were a LOT of typos in this book. A guy's or place's name is spelled with an O here, a U there, then an O again; or, one of my favorites, at one point the word "scuttled" was spelled with three "t's" instead of two. Doesn't somebody get paid to catch those things??)

That said, it's not a book I can readily recommend to most of my friends. The story, characters, and writing are all great, but the content of the book make it something I would not want just anybody to read. First is, obviously, the language, which is to be expected in a war novel, especially in this day in age. As I've stated before, language no longer phases me, but I know some people are still bothered by it, and if you're one of those people, this book may not be for you. Second, there is a LOT of sexual content in this book. Which, again, is what comes with a Greek epic story. There's a lot of sex. Most of the conflict in Greek stories seems to originate out of sexual situations. The Trojan War begins because one guy steals and sleeps with another guy's wife. It's going to be there. But it is EVERYWHERE in Ilium, and not just in the Greek storyline. Naked bodies and parts of naked bodies are described somewhat gratuitously, to the point that I could see it being border-line pornographic to those who already struggle with that sort of temptation. Plus, there are times when nude or nearly-nude descriptions are not really necessary (the thermal-suits, the callibani), but are used anyway. If you're bothered be pseudo-erotic descriptions, or if you know they're just not good for you to read, this is a book you're better off skipping. And finally, it's bloody. Oh, boy, is it bloody. For the third time, that's a necessary part of this story and of its Greek origins, but that doesn't mean everybody can stomach it. People--not just soldiers--die in ghastly detail. I'll just say that if you can't handle a man dragging another (living) man's intestines out of his guts or a vivid description of babies getting chopped up, so read something else.

Wow! That felt like the longest disclaimer EVER! I'ma skip the synopsis, since it's hard to do without spoiling things anyway, and just jump straight to some spoilerish highlights below:


--I loved the banter between Mahnmut and Orphu. I was becoming concerned that it was going to be primarily spurious by the time we got to the end, and one could make an argument that it ultimately was, but I think it did a great job of keeping us grounded in a world of literature, so that when certain elements--especially Calliban, Prospero, etc--became part of the narrative, they didn't seem out of place.

--Simmons is a jerk for leaving us with that ending. The Greek and Trojan armies are united and storming Olympos with an army of alien robot infantry, the humans on earth are freed from their terrible comfort (and ultimate slavery) at the possible price of freeing the monsters that were secretly feeding on them, aaaaaand to be continued. Jerk.

--I liked the growth we got in the human characters (the ones in Harman's story). At times I didn't quite follow their motivations for doing certain things, but as a guy who's tried to write a novel I can totally appreciate that sometimes, somebody had to do something out of character to keep things moving forward.

--One of the best lines I've ever read: "These deus ex machinas have a way of sneaking up on us literary types." Orphu to Mahnmut

--It is absolutely insane that this entire book is just set-up to the actual ware between man and gods. My initial thought upon finishing (a 3:30 this morning) was "I have to go put a hold request for the next book!!!" I think that's what you're going for when you write something like this. However, I think I'll go ahead and get through my list first. Olympos will be at or near the top of my NEXT reading list, though!

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