In an unimaginably far off future humanity is not at all what it once was. On Earth itself there is a static population of intellectually diminished engineered humans with organic software they don’t know how to use embedded in their genes. They live for 100 years, kept young by five rejuventations throughout their lives. One man, Harman, is not satisfied with the Eloi like existence and seeks meaning in the last years of his final twenty.
At the far reaches of the solar system there are self aware artificial intelligences in a variety of robot forms designed to function in the diverse planetary conditions beyond the orbit of Mars. Originally seeded by those known as the old humans, they have had no contact with the home planet, but many of them are obsessed with human culture and literature.
On Mars, the upgraded version of humanity known as the post-humans has bootstrapped itself into an incredibly powerful race of creatures and seems to have gone quite mad in the process. They have tapped quantum energy and used it to grant themselves the abilities of the pantheon of the Greek Gods, establishing their Mount Olympus on Mar’s Olympos Mons.
From there they have reached into another universe and meddled personally in the events of that reality’s Trojan War, using both godlike litres and advanced technology to influence the battle. Reaching into the past of their original Earth they have obtained the DNA of a number of famed scholars, rebuilt them, and placed them as “scholics” among their toys to monitor the events and keep them on track.
One such is Thomas Hockenberry, who finds himself caught up in the internecine plots of the mad Olympians and ends up changing history - or is it literature? - he’s not sure.
The robots have a much more serious mission on their to do lists. According to their calculations the amount of quantum flux energy that is being thrown around in the vicinity of the planet Mars has the potential to destabilize the solar system, if not the galaxy and more. They don’t know about the “gods”. They don’t know anything when four of them are sent in-system on a reconnaissance mission, but what they find when they get there is worse than anything they could have imagined.
Simmons has mixed the elements of several classics here as he did with his earlier Hyperion saga. While the stories on the alternate Earth and the terraformed Mars take their cue from the tales of Homer, events on mainstream Earth borrow elements from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, even to having a meddling holographic AI magician named Prospero and villains named Caliban and Setebos.
While the plot threads involving the Trojans and the post-human gods are told on a epic scale, the story on Earth is one of a losing battle fought by humanity against the voynix, artificial creatures who have served the cattle-like humans as servitors for centuries, but which have suddenly turned violent and genocidal due to events elsewhere.
A young man named Daemon is emblematic of the long struggle the remaining humans on Earth must take to find themselves worthy of continued existence once again. In the first book, Ilium, Daeman was a young fop with nothing but pleasure, food and sex on his mind, like many of his fellows. He is forced by circumstances to find unsuspected reservoirs of strength and ability within himself. Seemingly the least of the characters we meet at the beginning of the story, he rises to meet and triumph over adversity and becomes a key player in humanity’s survival.
Dan Simmons is an extremely talented writer who began his work in horror and fantasy, has also written hard-boiled detective stories, thrillers, historical fiction and of course, science fiction. He wrote a fascinating, if very dark, novel about the lost Franklin expedition (The Terror) and his latest work is a pastiche on the work of Charles Dickens, called Drood.