Thursday, January 24, 2013

Finally! Genre Fiction That Doesn't Suck!

I heard about Dan Simmons about seven years ago. Through Wikipedia of all places. It had nice things to say about Hyperion and I thought, "I should read that sometime."

Sometime never came but I did finally read another, and likely better, work by simmons - Ilium. A re-imagining of Homer's Iliad on the planes of Mars, presided over by posthuman "gods" residing atop Olympos Mons and narrated by a resurrected twentieth century Homeric scholar with a healthy repertoire of snide comments regarding the epic goings on.

And it works. Not completely but enough that the few falterings don't matter. Despite clocking in at the standard sci-fi/fantasy page count - somehwere in the region of paperweight - it never once feels slow or like it's just padding itself with needless noodlings in its own setting. Y'know, like some other work out there...

The scholar - Hockenberry - is the primary character and so gets to narrate his own segment of the story. There's also a bunch of pampered transhumans back on Earth embarking on a journey out of innocence and sentient robots around Jupiter's moons who launch an expedition to Mars because of all the wonky quantum physics the Olympians keep stirring up.

Why the Olympians are doing this is one of the big questions here, and it synchs up with those Earth manchildren trying to find their own answers. And something to do with Shakespeare's The Tempest being re-enacted in a low orbit city with Caliban himself. It's really a big mash-up of the most recognizable classics in literature and it's amazing not that Simmons could write it - any dolt on the internet can - but that he writes it so well!

And it all comes down to character. Hockenberry is the star of this show with his wit and drive for self-preservation - an alien quality to the ancient Greeks and Trojans. But he's nearly overshadowed by, of all things, a giant robot crab from Io named Orphu who spends most of the novel disabled and only able to chatter on the radio with his Europan aquanaut buddy as they sail a makeshift raft down the Valles Marinaris. This is the part that actually explains what the hell is going on and it never feels like an infodump but rather an organic progression of the narrative.

All of which allows Simmons to accomplishes the one thing genre fiction still does better than "serious" fiction - getting U the reader to cheer for fictional people you only know in text form. When holes in space-time open up, exposing the home of the Olympians now so hated by Greek and Trojan alike, Hector and Achilles charge through the abomination of physics together, looking to kill themselves some gods. It's one of those moments that makes you jump up and go, "Yeah!" to the confusion of everyone else on the Metro.

I could explain why those two famous blood enemies have joined forces against their own pantheon - with some sneaky help from Hockenberry - or you can just read the damned book yourself. You won't be disappointed, which is a stunning rarity in today's literary market.

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