Olympos is no more the sequel to Ilium than Return of the King is a sequel to The Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers; rather, these books by Dan Simmons tell parts of one story. I highly recommend these to fans of SF who also enjoy classical mythology.
Original Publication Date: June 2005
Humans modified to become Greek gods oversee a Trojan War that has gone hopelessly awry. A Lovecraftian alien, meanwhile (strictly speaking, an alien inspired by Browning’s reflections on Shakespeare in “Caliban Upon Setebos” as filtered through Lovecraft), characters from The Tempest, and some leftover self-directed weapons battle with the remnants of humanity back on earth. All of this threatens the fabric of things, and it falls to the Moravecs—-sentient constructions based on the moons of Jupiter–, aided by a reconstructed professor from our era, a comatose woman from a war-torn time, and some heroes from classical mythology, to help.
Major points go to Dan Simmons for constructing a coherent and highly readable novel from these elements.
The mysteries and plot twists of Ilium and Olympos develop from millennia of imaginary history, of future cultural and scientific developments that have reshaped the world and humanity. While a few aspects remain unresolved, Simmons manages to track more speculative elements than some SF writers conceive of in a lifetime.
Along the way, he recapitulates the history of SF conventions and plays with the characters and ideas from some great works of western literature. Play is the correct word; at one point, an angry and oversized Zeus strides across a battlefield, and it’s not difficult to imagine a child crossing a yard where plastic figures wage war. Simmons, the author, has fun with a number of characters and conceits, original and borrowed, and ambitious readers will find much to enjoy in these books. You are advised to read them together, however. It also wouldn’t hurt to have read some Classical mythology, the plays of Shakespeare (The Tempest, in particular), and have some passing familiarity with quantum physics.
Numerous other references riddle this story, but the aforementioned strike me as the most important.
Olympos features a handful of sexual encounters, which Simmons generally handles effectively. The drive-in apocalyptic make-out scene which occurs towards the end of the book proves both evocative and funny. However, the Olympian coupling between Zeus and Hera, rendered with decidedly purple prose, falls flat, even as parody.
Originality: 3/6. Many of the elements in this novel have appeared before. Simmons borrows several of his characters, and the solution to one of the story’s key mysteries has been used a number of times before: in, for example, Heinlein’s Number of the BeastI know of no other work that uses these elements in quite the same way, however, and rarely have they played quite as they do here.
Story: 5/6. I enjoyed reading Simmons. The story that entertains but lacks explanation in Ilium resolves nicely in this second volume. I liked the society established in the final chapters but, given how much his characters have experienced, it seems a very easy conclusion.
Characterization: 5/6. This novel features many, many characters, handled in different ways. They’re believable, though perhaps not as memorable as they could be. We also see a bit less of the moravecs which proved Ilium’s strongest characters.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6. Simmons writes very well. Some might prefer one fewer satiric jab or fannish gag, but he keeps these relatively unobtrusive.
Overall Score: 5/6.
In total, Olympos receives 35/42
The Cranky Campus Critic
Simmons has written a far-ranging SF adventure, but along the way he unabashedly celebrates western literature and culture. His future society, when it works for the best, borrows more than a little from western civilization. While he references popular culture and various kinds of science fiction, he fills his novel with characters and ideas from the traditional canon of western literature. I take no exception; Olympos is his book and he argues persuasively for the importance of knowing the history and cultures that have shaped one’s society. (At the same time, he suggests that we must kill our gods, but this idea has loomed large in the western mind since the Enlightenment).
He dedicates Olympos to Harold Bloom, best known to the general public as a champion of aesthetics in literature, and an opponent of narrowly politicized literary criticism. One wonders, however, about Simmons’ own political angle in his novel and, in the interest of provoking discussion, I thought it would be fun to examine possible readings of this text.
Another Bloom—-Allan—-, a man also rather fond of the western literary tradition, argues that contemporary western civilization may be the first to produce its own barbarians. Neither Dan Simmons nor Harold Bloom quite share Allan Bloom’s extreme conservatism, but in Ilium’s hedonistic, post-literate old-style humans, lost in parties and culturally clueless, finally forced in Olympos to understand their own humanity, one sees a satiric portrait of contemporary culture, especially youth culture.
Tolerance and multiculturalism? Simmons makes heroes of the otherworldly moravecs, but they share the same literary and cultural fascinations as their human designers. Two of the greatest, most insidious threats stalking the future earth (and one significant past threat) are the creation of an Islamic dictatorship, and I suspect someone will read this as a nod to those conservatives who consider Islam the greatest threat to western civilization (beyond those keg-toting, post-literate barbarians, of course). I think I would tread easily here; both the Sword of Allah and the Voynix had to be created by some form of extremism, and the consequences of many different societies’ short-sightedness plague this future world.
Feminism? Many traditionalists have viewed it as the enemy, and this novel does feature a disastrous, incompetent uprising by several women during the restaged Trojan war. Their motives make a kind of sense, however, and any uprising by untrained, poorly armed citizens would lose as disastrously to battle-hardened soldiers. Anyone suggesting this incident is misogynistic would surely be missing the broad context of Olympos, which features many strong female characters.
Something there may be to these hypothetical readings. However, Simmons’ novel should not be read as a novel-with-a-thesis, and certainly not as allegory. He has produced a work that plays with ideas familiar to him, and it relates a remarkable, thought-provoking tale.