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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Saturday, August 20, 2005


The big concern most people had about Dan Simmons's Hugo-nominated novel Ilium was that it was really only the first half of an excellent book. It was a very good first half, but he's had trouble with endings before-- in particular, Rise of Endymion is one of those books that retroactively screws up the books that went before. And Ilium was the sort of a first half that often proves difficult to complete. There were so many plots, and so many myteries set up that bringing them all to a fitting conclusion would be very difficult indeed.

The concluding volume, Olympos has now been released, so it's possible to look at the work as a whole. On the bright side, it doesn't go completely off the rails the way the second Endymion book did. I'm not entirely satisfied with the ending, but it's not throw-across-the-room awful. (I'll be happy to discuss it in detail in the comments, but I'd like to keep the main post mostly spoiler-free.)

The problem with this book is the stuff that happens along the way to the ending. I don't have that many plot-level complaints, but the scene-level problems are numerous enough that it became something of a chore to read before the end.

Right up front, let me say that the sex scenes (of which there are several) are just excruciating. I mean, award-worthy bad sex scenes. If you come to a point in the book where somebody starts to get naked, do yourself a favor, and skip ahead a page or two.

Most of the problems that got on my nerves had to do with my personal dislikes, though. In particular, the excessive naivete of the "old-style" human characters became really grating-- the scene in which one character visits the ruins of Paris had me wanting to reach through the pages an slap the author silly:

Legends persisted that right where the north rim of the crater was now, a huge building called the Luv-- or sometimes "the Lover"-- had been sucked down to the center of the earth... taking with is a lot of old-style human "art." Since the only "art" that Daeman had ever encountered were these few "statues," he couldn't imagine that the loss of the Luv amounted to much if everything in it had been as stupid as the dancing naked men in the Avenue Daumesil crevasse now behind him.

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse than that, later in the book.

The book is also guilty of the usual Star Trek horizon problem. The Twentieth Century was evidently the most important century in the entire history of centuries, because two thousand years in the future, all the cultural references people make are only to events from the Twentieth Century or before. Even the political conflicts of the post-human era are too-close echoes of the conflicts of today.

The biggest problem, though, is probably the way the book overdoes the explanation. One of the really cool things about Ilium is the way that the Earth of the distant future is subtly warped away from the familiar. Bits of the story take place in Paris, but it's called Paris Crater, and dominated by, well, a crater, and an enormous lighted statute of a woman. There are some cutesy touches, too-- the "Guarded Lion" station, the "Champs Ulysses" running through the city-- but it's an alien place, in a believable way. And there's no explanation of how it got that way-- the characters just take it for granted that there's always been a towering statue of a woman just outside the smoking crater in the middle of Paris.

This volume falls back into the clumsy SF trap of explaining everything. Some of the mysteries are allowed to remain mysterious, but in other cases, it's like he's got a checklist that he's working through, to make sure he doesn't miss anything important. And there seems to be a second checklist, used to ensure that none of the guns seen on any of the metaphorical mantles in the first part of the story go un-fired.

Some of my reaction can no doubt be attributed to the fact that the summer is almost over, and I'm exhausted and cranky. Still, I had to force myself through a good hundred pages of this, lured by the promise of getting to read something that wouldn't piss me off.

Now I just need to figure out what that would be.

Posted at 5:41 PM | link |
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