Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I won't call this a formal review, but I do want to discuss the book.

I notice that I wrote about Dan Simmons' Ilium back in 2005. It's hard scifi, taking place some 3000 in the future and having a whole bunch of nanotechnology this, quantum that, and lots and lots of worm holes and space ships.

First it's about a "post literate" society that has forgotten how to do everything for themselves, including read. They have no art or culture of any kind. They just sort of ... exist. They are completely dependent on robot "servitors" and alien "voynix" creatures, without ever stopping to question where they came from.

Second it's an advanced technological recreation of the Trojan War, where the gods themselves play a very personal role.

But what makes it fodder for this blog is the two robot "moravecs" floating through space, doing their job...and analyzing Shakespeare during their slow cycles. More specifically there is one moravec, Mahnmut, who has chosen Shakespeare. Another chooses Proust, and still a third the Bible. They have discussions about why their human creators gave them such an interest in human literature, and come to the conclusion that it has to do with the "inexhaustibility" of the source material. After all, these robots are out in space analyzing this stuff for hundreds of years, they can't ever be finished.

Maybe you'll come to this book for the analysis. Moravec Mahnmut has some very interesting thoughts on the sonnets, including a detailed analysis of Sonnet 116 as an angry letter to the Fair Youth, about how the youth has no idea what true love is. (I've not done that justice.)

Honestly, though, this is a small part of the Shakespeare. Once the action really gets going, Mahnmut rarely has time to revisit his sonnets. This does not stop him, and his friend Orphu, from exchanging many many Shakespeare references, however. During one near shipwreck they recite the opening from The Tempest. I loved it.

The author is quite comfortable with his Shakespeare references. I caught one "Never, never, never, never, never" which was an obvious Lear reference (and I don't have it in front of me, but I'm pretty sure there were 5). Surprisingly I have not yet seen the "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport." Seriously - that is, like, the plot of the whole Trojan War thing, there are god characters who flick humans into and out of existence at a whim. It is the very definition of that quote. I thought perhaps Simmons was unfamiliar with Lear, but the never never never thing was surely a Lear reference.

Lastly, did I mention that this whole two-book set ("Olympos" being the sequel) is a giant Tempest story? Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Setebos are actual characters in the story. Yes. It's hard to fully explain *who* they are, but their relationship is pretty accurate - Caliban's a minor bad guy, Setebos is a major bad guy. Ariel and Prospero are apparently good guys, but in that sort of "I'm looking out for myself, not you" way of being a good guy, you know?

These are some epic, hard sci fi books. Both weigh in at upwards of 800 pages. At times I forgot which planet I was supposed to be on, and at least once I've forgotten what millennium. I am assuming that this is my confusion, and not the author being inconsistent. On that note I will mention that this is one of the worst edited books I've ever read. I read it first 5 years ago, in hard cover, and remember a coworker showing me a blatant proofreading error where, if I recall, a paragraph started out talking about the character of Big Ajax and then in the middle switched to Little Ajax, an entirely different person. Well it's five years later, I'm reading the mass market paperback, and there are seriously dozens of spelling mistakes still scattered throughout (like referring to a spaceship submersible as a "subermisible"). I haven't found such blatant mistakes as the earlier one, but the spelling errors and typos are frequent enough to be annoying.

Summarizing? There is a lot of Shakespeare in these books, in many forms. You have to wade through a crazy amount of confusing hard science fiction, time travel, worm holes and all that good stuff to get to it. So if that's your thing anyway, you've got to read these. If you're not a hard scifi fan, you will get lost. Guaranteed.


catkins said...

It looks like "Ilium" was written in 2003. The idea that Sonnet 116 represents "an angry letter to the Fair Youth, about how the Fair Youth has no idea what true love is" was first suggested by Helen Vendler in her book on The Sonnets in 1997. I will bet the rest of the "detailed analysis" follows Vendler closely.
You are tempting me to pick up the massive tomes, just out of curiosity. Maybe I'll Kindle 'em.

catkins said...

OK, got the book on Kindle. It actually quotes Vendler. The brief analysis of The Sonnets I have read so far could have been written by me!