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  Bookends: Dan Davidson


Reviewed: July 13, 2009
By: Dan Simmons
Publisher: Harper / Torch
725 pages, $8.99

They’re fighting the Trojan War on Mars. For reasons that are never completely clear, the entire cast of Homer’s Iliad has been assembled to stage a recreation of the epic battle.

Who has assembled them? Well, it seems that the entire pantheon of Greek gods has done the deed and that that they have seeded the battle with resurrected “scholics” to make sure that events unfold the way they have been recorded.

We learn this from our first person narrator, Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., brought back to life to serve the Muses, gifted with the ability to morph his shape, to be invisible when he choses, to teleport from place to place.

Wait, I’m talking about technical tricks, aren’t I? These “gods” are using technology. They are practising Clarke’s Theorem, which says that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic to those who don’t know how it works.

We are in a post-human world here, and the post-humans, who may be slightly insane, have remade themselves as gods, but not without imposing consequences on the rest of the solar system.

There are still normal people (more or less - there’s been some tinkering) around, and one of Simmons' plot threads has us following a group of them around in their pointless existence. In their banality they are like the Eloi of Well’s The Time Machine. Just why the post-humans have maintained a herd of them is not clear. They lack any sense of history, are served (or perhaps herded) by machines in their fancy mansions. They live for a century in lives marked off in groups of 20 years, at the end of which they ascend to some mysterious place for a body tune-up and return for the next 20 until the end.

One group goes traveling. They meet an original human, the Wandering Jew. They learn of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in what Star Trek bafflegab would call a transporter buffer. They meet Odysseus, who is somehow the same and yet not the same as the man in the Trojan reconstruction. They learn of many mysteries and they are forced to grow up.

Meanwhile, mankind’s other progeny, the deep space exploring robot machines, have themselves evolved into self-replicating cyborgs. Called moravecs (a reference to Canadian futurist Hans Moravec), these beings have long been fascinated by their human creators, and often have specialty hobbies involving aspects of human culture. The one we get to know best. Mahnmut, is a devotee of Shakespeare, while his companion, Orphu, loves the work of Proust. They have some interesting conversations during their long journey from the moons of Jupiter, where they live and work, to Mars, where something strange is happening.

They have been sent, along with two other companions, to investigate the massive surges of quantum based energy emanating from the Red Planet. These surges and their attendant wormholes threaten to destabilize the solar system and the machine minds of Jupiter want to know what is going on, and want to put a stop to it it they can.

Simmons has moved though nearly every type of genre writing during his career. There are horror novels, fantasy novels, science fiction novels, thrillers, hard boiled detective novels and, most recently, historical novels. He must give bookshop clerks the heebie-jeebies. There’s no way, for instance, that Children of Night belongs on the same shelf display with Darwin’s Blade, Hard as Nails, The Terror, Hyperion or Ilium. You’d either have to have a Dan Simmons’ section, or scatter him all over the store.

The other thing about Simmons is that he has a distinct voice for each type of writing that he attempts. His SF novels have a similar tone. His work in The Terror felt very 19th century, even when it was in the present tense, I’m looking forward to Drood, his retelling of Charles Dickens' last novel, written as if by his friend, Wilkie Collins.

In the meantime however, I intend to read on. Book two of this saga, Olympos, awaits me. Ilium ends on a more or less satisfactory cliffhanger (well, three cliffhangers, really) but i wa not put of by this. As the book reaches its end there is an exchange between Hockenberry and his fellow scholic, Nightenhelser.

Nightenhelser: “Do you know what’s going to happen next there? In your new world?

Hockenberry: “Not a clue. But it’s going to be damned interesting to find out what happens next.”

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