With his new book Ilium, Dan Simmons has written an exciting work of science fiction that is partly based on Homer’s Iliad. At first it would seem that Simmons is writing Ilium in the shadow of the Iliad — a dry and dull piece of literature, right? — as a way of garnering respect not otherwise inherent in writing science fiction (fairly or unfairly). But the situation becomes more complex when the Iliad itself is examined closely. The Trojan War has an abducted wife, feuding gods, countless deaths, betrayal and backstabbing, and just about every lurid element that has been complained about in modern lowbrow culture. If the Iliad is more violent than, say, Kill Bill, what to make of this?
The basic answer is: popular culture is a lot more flexible than some current definitions allow, always has been, and (hopefully) always will be. If Homer’s Iliad was popular in its own era but is not so much now, that only means that time has lost the Iliad‘s cultural references and changed reading tastes. Ilium by Simmons is not a cheapening of the Iliad, but rather a passing of the torch, a way of revitalizing this great story for current audiences.
The second question raised: why has such a violent bit of culture survived? Do we really need all this bloody fiction? This can be addressed by looking at the other major literary influence on Simmons in this book, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare has always been a point man for the intersection between high and low, and what happens if the “low” elements that some have complained about are taken out? I’m thinking about a man named Thomas Bowdler, who lived in the early 19th century and was convinced that all of the violent and “inappropriate” material in Shakespeare’s plays was just that, inappropriate. He hacked out all the gory or lurid stuff in an edition called Family Shakespeare. The results were patently ridiculous… for one thing, there wasn’t much left! And Bowdler’s name has entered the language as a derisive verb, to bowdlerize. The lesson of Bowdler is not that every overly bloody story is justified, more that the “low” elements can be crucial tools in the hands of a skilled writer.
This brings me back to the new book by Simmons. When I read Ilium, I was struck by how cheerfully and capriciously violent the story was. By my arguments, the key question is: does it work? The ultraviolence certainly helps reinforce the parallel with the Trojan War! And yes, the gory stuff is generally well-integrated in the story and supportive of the main theme.
Ilium describes a bizarre war in the far future and follows three groups of characters; we only gradually learn how all the stories are related. Mahnmut and Orphu are two sentient robots from Jupiter, sent to investigate strange happenings on Mars. Hockenberry is a human scholar who originally lived in the 20th century, but has been resurrected thousands of years later to observe an ongoing war. He was a Homeric scholar and it seems as if the Iliad is either being recreated on Mars, tampered with in the past itself, or some strange mix of the two. Back on Earth, a group of decadent humans live in total ignorance of the technical means that supports their lifestyle.
In this third storyline, Simmons uses one of these decadent humans to make a point about violent tendencies: “With human beings, no matter how civilized you appear, it is just a matter of reawakening old programming… Your genes remember how to kill” (501). This is a bit too convenient for the plot, but it does point to some of the key questions of the book. Do our genes indeed remember? Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes? The Trojan War, one of the oldest stories of war in our culture, is quite fitting as a way of asking these questions.
Simmons gives us an awesome cliffhanger as an ending for this book and plans to conclude the story with Olympos, due out next year. And I find it interesting that the current rage in the movies for epic adventures, spawned perhaps by Gladiator a few years ago, has taken flight this coming summer as a big budget Trojan War flick called Troy starring Brad Pitt and many others. Call me crazy, but I’m actually looking forward to it. The original story has spectacle, and it’s just a matter of finding out if Hollywood delivers on its usual promise of entertainment. Simmons certainly delivers the goods with this book.