I reached the point long ago where I became rather fiercely committed to the idea of reading a novel without knowing too much about the story. Book covers are immediately discarded upon purchase (sometimes not to be found for months later when they surface again all crumpled and wrinkled), and I passionately avoid reading the back covers of paperbacks until after the book is read, at which point I am usually grossly offended. Consequently, I picked up Dan Simmons' "Ilium" simply because I heard it was a retelling of the Trojan War in general and Homer's "Iliad" in particular. Since I teach that epic poem in my Classical Mythology class and have always considered myself to be an "Iliad" person rather than an "Odyssey" person, that was enough to get me to pack this book away for a recent trip when I could commit myself to some serious continuous reading. So I was rather surprised to learn that a retelling of the "Iliad," after a fashion, is but one of three story threads that start to come together over the course of this 576 page novel, which is itself but the first half of a the saga envisioned by Simmons.
The Trojan War is being reenacted on Mars by a race of metahumans who have assumed the roles of the Greek gods of classical mythology. Our vantage point to this exercise is Thomas Hockenberry, a scholar who is pretty sure he is dead and remembers little of his life on earth, but knows Homer's epic poem chapter and verse, and along with the rest of his colleagues is cataloguing where the action diverges from the "Iliad." It seems that Homer played around with the chronology when he wrote his epic thousands of years ago, which begs the question of why Hockenberry is now watching it played out and getting involved in a way that goes well beyond academic interest, beginning with a night in the bed of Helen of Troy herself. Meanwhile, a couple of robots with a propensity for quoting Shakespeare and Proust are leaving Jupiter to head to Mars to check out the strange readings they are picking up and back on Earth a group of humans living in a post-technological world where mechanical servants take care of their every needs are starting to rethink the way things are. When the latter meets up with Odysseus, we have another substantial clue that (surprise, surprise) these three plot threads are all parts of the same puzzle.
I have to admit that my interest for the non-"Iliad" parts of "Ilium" took a while to be kindled, mainly because my fascination with how the Trojan War was playing out was so great. Hockenberry has been studying the Trojan War for nine years and as the novel begins he and his colleagues are excited because they have finally reached the start of the "Iliad," when Agamemnon, King of the Acheans, arrogantly insults the great warrior Achilles over Briseis of the lovely arms. However, this becomes almost a minor consideration for Hockenberry the Muse he serves brings him to the goddess Aphrodite, who wants the scholar to kill the Athene herself.
From the opening paragraph, where Simmons does a pointed take off on the famous beginning of Homer's epic, Simmons dances his story in and around the "Iliad." The question of how a mere mortal such as Diomedes could dare to attack the gods themselves on the battlefield, and actually wound then, is not answered: he is injected with nano-technology by another deity. However, it is when we get to the fateful point where Homer's story is effectively derailed and Hockenberry makes the inevitable declaration to Dorothy's little dog that we are no longer in the "Iliad" and are now charting new ground.
Ultimately Simmons is more like Euripides than Homer. It was the Greek dramatist who set up the ironic foreshadowing of the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles in "Iphigenia at Aulis" and who created an emotional counterpart in "The Trojan Women" to the end of the "Iliad," where Hector's corpse is brought back to the city. Homer's epics were not holy writ for the ancient Greeks, and the tragic poets could use his characters to tell their own stories, which is exactly what Simmons is doing (there is one part that struck me as a deadly serious twist on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”). I have the feeling that the conclusion will be more like the "Odyssey," especially since the "original" fate of Troy, Achilles, Hector, and the others are well over the rainbow, but now I am curious to see not only what happens next, and who wins the new war that has begun, but also because I want to find out who is behind the curtain.