Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos by Dan Simmons, 2005

Dan Simmons is a truly original author, and the Ilium/Olympos cycle is one of the strangest and most rewarding pieces of fantasy- sc-fi literature I've read. Olympos, the second volume, is every bit as good as the first, which was a truly magical novel.

The plot is not describable. It is intricate and multi-faceted and demanding. It involves a careful reconstruction of the Iliad in an alternate universe, a post-apocalyptic Earth, mechanical cyborgs called moravecs who discuss literature and poetry, characters from Shakespeare with god-like powers, tentacled monsters, enormous plot twists, planet-destroying black holes and Coke cans.

Like TV's Lost, the duology is both a challenging mental puzzle and a rip-roarin' tale of action and adventure. Simmons is clearly at home describing impossible and fantastic spectacles: the city of Paris iced over into a web of frosty tunnels, an incredible cable-car system using thousands of replicated Eiffel Towers, titanic battles between gods and hideous monsters, collapsing cities. A passage telling of a giant Brane Hole appearing in the middle of deserted Paris:

Daemen raised his face and stared, jaw going slack. A spinning had appeared in the direction of the crater, somewhere between him and his mother's domi tower. The thing was some hundreds of meters across and spinning rapidly. A form of lightning crackled across it like a crown of electrical thorns and rays of random light stabbed out from the sphere. The wet air was filled with rumbles that made the pavement shake. Shifting fractal designs filled the sphere until the sphere became a circle and the circle sank, ripping a building apart as it settled to the earth and then partially beneath the earth.

Sunlight flooded out of the circle now, but it was not any sunlight as seen from Earth. The circle stopped sinking with only one-fourth of it wedged into the ground like some giant portal. It was only two blocks away, filling the sky to the east. Air rushed toward it from behind Daemen at near-hurricane speeds, almost knocking him down in its loud, wailing rush.
(pages 222-223)

Simmons's prose is quite good, and he's especially talented at describing otherwordly locations. His action scenes are notably well-written, too (Daemen's battle with Caliban on the e-ring in Ilium is a good example).

Olympos's story is absolutely mammoth, with dozens of subplots, supporting characters and various strange tangents, yet Simmons does a solid job of keeping his plot under control.

Unfortunately (again, like Lost), a few plot threads and mysteries never quite get cleared up. I would like to have a clearer picture of who/what exactly Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Setebos are. The Odysseus/Sycorax storyline is also given short shrift.

One of Simmons's main problems with the novel is that--due to the incredible complexity of the story--his characters sometimes get shunted aside a bit. Hockenberry, Daemen, Ada and Harman are all fine characters, but none of them pop very much. They also have an annoying tendency to say exactly what they feel and to recap important points in their dialogue, which can come off as a tad clunky at times.

It's really well-read moravecs Mahnmut and Orphu who steal the show, along with Hephaestus, the snarky god of fire. I especially like the bond between Mahnmut and Orphu, and their literary discussions are a lot of fun.

The novel is definitely smart, mixing literature and actual science in a way that makes both accessible and entertaining. It says a lot for Simmons that he can make lengthy tangents about Proust or quantum mechanics genuinely interesting.

And after 1700 pages, Simmons has a lot riding on his ending, which is largely satisfying. All questions aren't answered, but the fates of the main characters are all detailed and I feel like the puzzle pieces to the mythology are all there-- you just need to assemble it yourself.

The book is wildly, wildly entertaining. It's an intelligent, visually incredible page turner and an extremely impressive achievement. Simmons is shooting so much higher than the ordinary author, and has so much respect for the intellect of his audience. The Ilium/Olympos cycle is one of the best pieces of science fiction/fantasy I've yet read.

NEXT UP: I'll be reading the little-known crime novel Soft Touch, by legendary author John D. MacDonald.

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