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Olympos
Dan Simmons
Gollancz paperback £10.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Given that it is impossible to write meaningfully about the far future, the aim of hard SF space opera is verisimilitude, rather than prediction. The harder the SF, the harder it's trying to make us believe that the essentially arbitrary and phantasmagorical events of the story are possible under the right circumstances. Heroic fantasy - hard SF's mirror-universe twin - aims for the same verisimilitude using a different palette of techniques. They both satisfy the same basic needs, though: incredible events and amazing vistas, characters with the fates of worlds in their hands facing danger at every turn, and knotty melodramatic plots.

Dan Simmons has already shown his ability to provide these with his sublime duo Hyperion and The Fall Of Hyperion. Those books mixed an intriguing future history with Canterbury Tales, Keats, Roman Catholicism and the end of the universe in a way that was both convincing and astonishing. His latest series has the same magic as those two books. They are urgent, exciting and full of gripping characters facing tough decisions. The first volume, Ilium, came out in 2003, and I didn't realise it was part of a series. I don't mind admitting that I almost cried with frustration when I got the end and it just sort of... stopped. So, I was very pleased to spot the sequel, Olympos, even though it slipped under my news radar.

I'll admit straight up that one of the reasons I loved these books so much (and the Hyperion books, for that matter) was that they flattered my crappy English literature degree pretensions of being culturally engaged. Simmons references The Iliad, Shakespeare's sonnets and The Tempest, and Proust's cycle of novels 'The Search For Lost Time'. The first two were a big part of my high school and university education, while the third I know from general stuff picked up in the course of a lifetime interest in literature and that 'Summarise Proust Competition' sketch from Monty Python. Although Simmons provides sufficient background material to make his references accessible, the modest amount of knowledge that I have added immensely to my enjoyment of these books.

Ilium begins with the word 'Rage', which, as even the densest student of classics will recall, is also the first word of The Iliad in the original ancient Greek version handed down from the distant past. The first of three interwoven plots follows Thomas Hockenberry, a classics professor from Indiana who has been resurrected by the ancient Greek gods to observe the siege of Troy and report any discrepancies with Homer's poem. It appears to be far in the future, but Hockenberry has no idea how he got there or what the gods want, let alone who they are or where they come from.

Simmons brings the ancient passions of the gods and heroes of the heroic age alive with a mixture of knowledge and artifice that fuses into a gritty magical milieu. This has the sweaty feel of reality, and death is frequent and gory on the lethal battlefields. Like Homer, Simmons enjoys reciting the names, parentage and the achievements of the mighty warriors just as they are killed messily in battle, and makes good use of Homeric epithets and characteristic phrases like "rosy fingered dawn" and "the wine dark sea". The whole thing is done with great panache and when the events of Simmons' Trojan war of the novel begin to drift away from Homer's, he maintains those characters within their Homeric models with utter conviction.

The second strand follows the fate of a group of 'old-style' humans who live an idyllic life of parties and pleasure in the distant future. Post-literate and incurious about their past or present world, they live out their allocated "five twenties" dependent on automated systems operated by the aloof post-humans. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a cage without bars. Daeman is a young pleasure seeker who - more or less against his will - gets involved with a group who are interested in what has gone before. With the questioning Harman, Hannah, who has learned to smelt metals, and Ada, whom he at first hopes to seduce, he goes searching for evidence of the past across an Earth nearly empty of people but full of baroque ancient wonders and bizarre dangers.

It starts out innocently but the more they find out, the more danger they face and the second volume, in particular, really puts Harman and Ada through the wringer. In a book filled with great characters, the 'old-styles' probably pack the biggest emotional punch, as their trajectory from blissful ignorance and innocence to visceral understanding of the brutal nature of life and death is both tragic and inspiring.

In the third thread, advanced robots living in the rings of Saturn and on the moons of Jupiter wonder what is happening back on Earth. Having not heard from humanity for a thousand years or so, they have suddenly detected an increase in quantum-shift activity on Mars and decide to investigate. The exploration team includes Mahnmut of Ganymede - who is to operate his submersible The Dark Lady in the seas of Mars - and Orphu of Io - who is to collate data on the mothership while Mahnmut and the others explore Mars. Mahnmut and Orphu already know each other, having corresponded at length discussing Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets, which obsess Mahnmut. Orphu, it turns out, is similarly enthralled by 'In Search Of Lost Time', which he has been studying for much of his 1,500 years of life. It's a quirk of the robots that inhabit the outer solar system that they all have an interest in 'lost age' cultural artefacts. Much fun is had at the expense of various robots and their fascinations with Star Trek or big band music or medieval theology or some other quirky topic. The mission doesn't go quite as planned and Orphu and Mahnmut find themselves stranded together on Mars.

I enjoyed the gentle, intellectual comradery of Mahnmut and Orphu a great deal. Their ongoing discussion about Shakespeare and Proust carries a great deal of the thematic weight of the novels, but it's laid on with a light touch and is never patronising or pretentious. The robots have a donnish good humour and are a classic double act in looks: Mahnmut is a small humanoid, Orphu a giant crab. Something about the imagery of these two having scholarly conversations as they sail through the stormy Martian oceans in a sail boat piloted by little green men stands out even among the many amazing images in the book.

It's hard to discuss the details of Olympos without giving too much away about Ilium, so I'll simply say that volume two is just a exciting and urgent as what went before. With the main character's stories more or less complete in Ilium, but with much more plot to unravel, Simmons introduces some new voices. Helen of Troy's machinations after the changed circumstances give an insight into the sheer brutal reality of the ancient world, while Achilles' quest to find and then kill Zeus riffs further on the themes of love and anger that dominate book one. Harman is given centre stage among the 'old-style' humans and his journey fills in the back-story and much of the science fictional premise.

I suppose you could say that the conclusions presented in Olympos, the whys and wherefores of it all, are a load of old sci-fi cobblers, and you wouldn't be far from the truth. However, I don't think I've read a single space opera of this type where the climactic reveal has been anything other than a letdown, and what's presented here is no more or less stupid than the theology of spice in Dune, cunning old Hari Seldon and has psychohistory, or the whatever it was that the Lensmen were up to. It's interesting, as an aside, to take a look at Jack Vance's Demon Princes series in this regard. Although that series doesn't have the cosmological kick of a true space opera, it's significant that the climax (the defeat of the final Demon Prince) is consciously bathetic, as if acknowledging that any conclusion cannot outshine the pleasure of the story that preceded it. I don't think such a deconstructionist approach would have worked for a sturm and drang series like Ilium/ Olympos but it shows that these books are more about the journey than the destination.

And the journey in Ilium and Olympos is a great deal of fun. This is a superb two-book series that is gripping, literary and astute. Space opera really doesn't get any better than this.
Olympos - UK edition

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Olympos - USA edition


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