Olympos by Dan Simmons

August 7, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Typically, when faced with the all-too-common reality of one story spread across several volumes for publishing reasons, I review and rate them as one work. I make exceptions, however, when the quality of the work changes significantly between them. Dan Simmons has written two excellent science fiction novels, Hyperion and Ilium. Unfortunately, Fall of Hyperion wasn’t so much a sequel as a necessary second half, and an inferior one at that. That duology remained good enough for me to recommend. I’m not so sure I can say the same thing about Olympus. I give it three stars because in spite of its many flaws it has some compelling scenes and much of it is competently written.

It’s not a new observation in science fiction criticism that it is easier to pose fascinating mysteries than resolve them, and it is unfortunately true here. However, unlike Hyperion, most of Ilium‘s charm came not from the mysteries it posited but from the characters and the use of the Trojan War setting. It is unexpectedly disappointing that neither of these qualities carries over to the sequel. We don’t find out anything new about the characters in Olympos and they don’t grow very much, either. I’m not going to spoil anything here but suffice to say the Iliad is left behind in Olympos and indeed, except for some very unnecessary riffs on Euripides and the usual long Proust quotes, most of the literary aspects are left behind. The characters move around the world, enduring action set pieces here and there and only occasionally learning anything. Simmons seems to have a blind spot which manifested in the Endymion books but is even more prevalent here. He has two characters talking, one of vast knowledge and power and the other an ordinary person, and the former refuses to say anything the other person has a prayer of understanding. Instead of speaking simply, they speak in riddles. And not because Simmons is going in a Gene Wolfe sort of direction and writing a puzzle-narrative, but for no good reason. The reader can more or less follow what the powerful character says and is meant to. Instead of someone who knows just saying what the voynix are in simple terms, for example, we have to endure it being said forty times in different vague ways. There’s no good reason for the various characters in the know to be obscure, they all just are obscure by nature, even though they are of many different natures. The reader will understand after five or no more than ten oblique explanations but the book’s ordinary characters must continue wondering. Meanwhile, these already annoying conversations are made considerably worse by having the response to each bit of information inevitably be, “I don’t understand.”

Of course, the mysteries from Ilium are basically resolved. I say basically because while at the end the reader understands everything, most of the explanation is handwaving in any case. People who read the Hyperion and Endymion books will be familiar with Simmons’ approach to science: have enough science concepts floating near the surface (leaving aside just how scientific string theory really is) to make for long, tedious explanations but ultimately grounded in good, old-fashioned magic. Sorry, but the word “quantum” does not give free reign to do whatever one likes. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with magic, but if Olympos was more honest on this point it would make for a more readable and streamlined narrative.

In the two books–probably clocking in at around 500,000 words–Simmons wields a formidable array of characters and stories. He does this with the competence you expect from an author of his experience and reputation, at least until the end. The end is deeply perplexing to me, for it resolves some issues with the status of humanity in its various forms, but does nothing to clear out some of the dozen or so petty gods floating around the narrative, many of them profoundly malign and the rest with interests best described as perpendicular to the characters we are supposed to care about. With these agents still outstanding, nothing has really been resolved. If this was a trilogy it might be understandable, but I’ve heard no evidence of that and the way the ending is handled suggests it is meant to be The End. His failure to deal in any real way with the Quiet is particularly obnoxious. He explains everything else at length but leaves this rather obscure reference to reader to decode. I’m not sure which is worse, not understanding what he means as I fear most will not, or understanding as I’m pretty sure I do and wishing he’d done more with it.

Some people will no doubt find deep meaning here, for Simmons has left things just ambiguous enough that enterprising readers can imagine some flame of greatness is casting all the shadows. For myself, as fond as I am of some of his literary invocations in Ilium, I can’t condone what (little) he does with them in Olympos. His attempt at making some sort of grand statement on suffering and fate founders due the characters being left behind alternately in the trivia of his metaphysics and the directionless action scenes. I’m glad Simmons aspires to great things, but I wish he would consider a more streamlined approach. I think he overuses literary references, but since his books run off the rails without these references supporting them I will instead ask that in the future he simply consider simpler narratives. If you haven’t read anything by Simmons, Hyperion and its first sequel are worth your time. If you really like it, by all means read Ilium and the rest. If you aren’t a fan of Hyperion, give Olympos and its predecessor a pass.

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