Tuesday 16 December 2008

ILIUM by Dan Simmons

Most excellent.

I like SF, and I like much of what gets lumped under the rather stuffy title 'classic literature'. Clearly, so does Dan Simmons. Set in a very distant future, long after both AI and posthumans have emerged, this novel contains three main storylines, all of which eventually intersect.

First, there's a group of languid, pleasure-seeking old-style humans living on old earth, all their needs taken care of by mechanical servitors left for them, presumably, by the posthumans. Upon completing a century of life, they are supposed to ascend to the orbital rings where the posthumans reside, and join them. A small group of old-style humans decides to find out what's really going on in those orbital rings. Which, as it turns out, involves Prospero and Caliban from Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

Simultaneously, a group of AI robots left to pursue their own ends in the Jupiter moon system note anomalous amounts of quantum acitivity on Mars, and launch a mission to find out what is going on. Among them are Mahnmut, who is obsessed with Shakespeare's sonnets, and his friend Orphu, who prefers Proust.

Oh, and there's the Olympian gods too, who have all the powers ascribed to them in Greek myth. Only, it seems they can't see the future, so they've brough back a bunch of scholars from the future to confirm if the events taking place as they observe and interfere in the Trojan war correspond with Homer's account.

Simmons has pulled off quite a coup here. His novel bristles with the up-to-the-minute hard sf concerns about posthumanism, quantum science, AI and so on. At the same time, he's found a way to bring in heroes from antiquity and great works of literature from our past and use them illuminate what our future might be like.

ILIUM is the first part of a duology. The second is OLYMPOS, which I'm currently reading. There is so much left over to be tied up in the first book that I think the two would best be considered as one long story split into two books.

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