Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book Reviews: Ilium/Olympos & Battle Royale

Ilium & Olympos by Dan Simmons
Before I say anything critical or get to the unfortunate complaint that will not vacate my head where it rests and squawks and leaves me no peace, let me just say that I loved these stories, I loved the experience of reading them, and I am now without a doubt a Dan Simmons fan, with plans to start Hyperion presently, or perhaps Drood.

In fact Simmons has made me more than just interested in his other writing. I also want to re-read Shakespeare (starting with Tempest), discover Proust, refresh my memory of the Odyssey and Aenead, read Schliemann’s notes on Troy, and even brave the literary Olympus Mons that is Joyce’s Ulysses (a climb I abandoned years ago before even reaching Base Camp 1.)
A writer who can inspire that kind of frenzied excitement in someone already 80% bibliophile is someone with a gift. Simmons’ imagination is quite frankly staggering. He’s not content with just the idea of a modern day college professor witnessing the Iliad in real-time, ordered to take notes of any deviations from Homer and report it to the Greek Gods, a conceit so simple and perfect it alone could warrant 700 pages. No, instead he quickly has this scholar embroiled in the plots of the gods themselves and then, since his characters are almost all human and spirited and individual, he discards tradition and edicts and turns the entire classic tale on its head in continuous, original, shocking ways. And I’m not just talking about the professor “bedding” Helen of Troy. Almost every chapter of Ilium ends in the most delightful shock, and you find yourself flipping two pages instead of one in your eagerness to find out what happens.

But patience is a virtue, and Simmons proved in Ilium that biding your time with him would not only pay off in the long run, even the comparatively uneventful and boring events would prove interesting and provide examinations of his wonderful characters. Prospero and Caliban, Shakespeare characters come to life, are menacing and insightful and deep. Daeman and Harman and Ada, old-style humans crippled by years of ignorance, are fascinating as they learn of life and humanity and their own capabilities. Hockenberry the scholar, thumbing his nose at everything he once held sacred; Homer and poetry and heroism, and the gods themselves. And perhaps most of all, Mahnmut of Europa and Orphu of Io, the half-organic, half-technologic moravecs of Jupiter, Shakespearean and Proustian scholars respectively, humorous and logical, brilliant and unfamiliar with human thoughts, brave and noble, these ‘robots’/androids may be the most soulful characters in the whole epic.

So here’s the problem. It all starts in Olympos, somewhere around the last third of the novel. And by ‘it all starts’ I actually mean ‘it all ends but doesn’t go anywhere.’ Ilium ended beautifully though open-ended, in the kind of way that set –up the beginning of Olympos perfectly. And while the sequel did a pretty good job of starting well and picking up that momentum, it wasn’t perfect (I expected more War with the Gods material, and for longer.) Nonetheless it was pretty much at the same level as Ilium, continuing threads begun in the first novel and starting its own.
But then suddenly we’re 700 pages in and it’s over. A fairly big event happens, though not necessarily bigger than any of the other earth-shaking, universe-changing events that have come in the past, and we see the mild fallout and recovery and how our characters react and grow in the following months and years. We get snippets of their new lives as a sort of goodbye to them and then it ends.
After two huge books, several mythologies created and explained from the ground up, religions, technologies, heroes and villains, the amount of dangling plot lines Simmons left could fill another duology. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is.
Setebos, many-handed as a cuttlefish, set up as the main villain of Olympus and arch-enemy to all of the virtuous characters, simply disappears. No showdown, no ominous threat, no intentions revealed. He/it’s just gone. Gone into hiding on earth? Into another universe? To return some day? Who knows.
His departure, ostensibly, was triggered not only by the evolution of the old-style humans and arrival of moravec technology, but from the apparent impending arrival of The Quiet. The Quiet? The one true God? Or at least the God who created all other gods? We got hints and mild prophesies about the Quiet, but nothing ever solid and certainly nothing in the story about it. It was stated with certainty that it was coming, so whatever peaceful life we’re told our characters are leading at the end, it’s not guaranteed to continue.
Caliban too survives. This part I get. I loved seeing Daeman rescue all the surviving Jews, having memorized the name. I loved him not leaving before confronting the true Caliban and, I understood completely and loved that he was glad Caliban got away, ‘in his heart of hearts’, so that their confrontation still waits for him in the future, the whetstone for his sword. But, still…we’ll never get to see it.
Harman’s entire journey in the end seems pointless. He got all that knowledge and shared it with Ada and the rest, but what was even the point of him entering the nuclear/black hole sub Sword of Allah to get poisoned and almost die?
For that matter, the entire black hole weapon submarine plot was bizarre. I have no objection to a plotline that tells how insane devout Muslims are in their genocidal frenzy and murderous rationalizations, and I love that a book about the future of the human race shows their inevitable increase in anti-Semitic and anti-human psychopathy. But for an author who could go into detail about a quasi-religion, about the relationship between a god and his creation based on one single line of Shakespeare and a corresponding Browning poem…how can this guy touch on a subject like Islamic anti-Semitism without actually mentioning either religion? Either use the story as a way to comment on the reality, incisively or critically or just as a documentarian, I don’t care, but don’t just stick a random unexpected, unrelated plot that occupies several characters for many days of the climax yet has no affect on the conclusion.
The war with the Titans continues on Mars unobserved. The zeks and their purpose and intentions were kind of shown but not elaborated. Prospero’s true character was not revealed, nor was Moira’s enigmatic existence. Setebos and the Quiet are nowhere to be seen, as are many of the Greek gods we came to know. Achilles searches for Patroclus but the end of his noble wars and righteous quests is him riding slowly followed by an infuriating nag of an Amazon. Hockenberry opens a freaking bar.
It just wasn’t enough. It didn’t pay off. It’s like Simmons got completely bored and lost interest in these characters he’d probably spent years with. He just decided he was done and it was time to end it, without really ending it.
If, one day, he announces and releases a third book, I vow to take every criticism back and approach that book not only with an open-mind but an eager heart. God knows he has enough left to write about here. These characters; Mahnmut and Orpho, Helen of Troy, Ada and Daeman, their stories don’t feel at all finished, and I would joyously welcome their next installment.
But it seems he has no intention of doing another book. As is his right as creator, he let go of the world he created, kicked his kid out of the house before he was finished growing.
And as is my right as reader, especially one who was loving these books so fervently, I don’t forgive him for it.

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

I don’t think I’ve fully made up my mind about this book yet. Here’s what I do know: it is very, very hard to read. In fact, as embarrassing as it may be to admit how susceptible I am to literary manipulation, it made me physically ill. By the final 50 pages my head was splitting, my stomach constantly flipping, and my eyes themselves were attempting to lose focus and thus bring an end to the entire experience.
Yes, it’s bloody and brutal and savage. But that can’t be all of it, cause torture-porn aside I have a pretty high tolerance for the violence of gore produced in the last couple generations of our culture. I think it’s because I don’t see the reason behind it, I don’t know what was redeeming about the book, or what Takami was trying to say through all the violence.
You’d think it was obvious; a deep-felt critique on the inherent evils of fascism and authority figures and even men in general. The few times the narrative stretches out for more than a few pages, it’s usually one of the more intelligent students (there are a couple brilliant ones) enlightening their zombie-lemming-like friends about the system of government they live in.
Then again, the other times Takami pauses to tell an extended story, it’s to introduce us to a character, get to know him/her intimately, learn their secret love, hope, shame, goal or origin, just to have them brutally murdered a few minutes later.

I’m not denying those stories aren’t effective and well-written (though the translation is often very clunky.) Some of the background stories and expositions are beautiful and emotional and might even hold up as interesting if the specter of horrible death wasn’t hanging over everyone. I also have to grant Takami credit for his imagination—not just the sadistic Program held by a logical, well-run, fear-based dictatorship, which I for one completely believe could happen as they’ve done worse – but the depth of characters he managed to come up with. Almost all of the 42 characters had their moment, and all were described with convincing clarity and humanity. You’ve got a sociopath, a rebel, a poet, a bad girl, lovers, friends, narcissists and a sneaky queerburger.
So here’s my problem. Even with a surprise twist plot development at the end, even with the fulfillment of at least SOME of your hopes that SOMEONE will make it off the island alive and turn the tables against these evil adults, the emotional battery you took to get to that point has rendered any triumph moot. This is no Hunger Games, which showed the horrors of war and unlimited government, but did it all through the eyes of one fierce, brave girl. Battle Royale makes us sit inside the head of every single child that is forced to murder or be murdered. And you can’t endure some 40 arbitrary deaths and one or two survivals without knowing it wasn’t worth it. To top it all off, Takami decides to use the epilogue to shit all over the single positive development in the whole novel, leaving us with a bizarre, faux-insightful, mid-chase scene leaving our main characters, the ones who offered a glimmer of hope and a chance to breathe a little freer, with very uncertain fates.
Here’s the point: Takami doesn’t use all this violence to say something. Yes society can be bad, fascists suck, beware giving too much control to one man, etc. He uses the suspicion and distrust and terror of 42 classmates loosed upon each other with weapons as an example of life in a totalitarian regime, which is probably pretty accurate. But the deepest theme or message I can find in the entirety of his story is this: even with shitty oppressors, life can be on occasion beautiful and worth whatever hardship endured so long as you get to experience a little love and self-discovery.
That’s not a bad message, I’ll grant that, but it’s just not enough to justify the whole story to me. Considering the scenes he put me through, I suppose I wouldn’t be satisfied till I read this government get toppled, and Shuya and Noriko living in America with rock music and babies and a PTA meeting to vote down that idea of sending 10th graders to an island to kill each other. It’s quite possible I missed some large insight or theme or justification, so please share if you have a different opinion, though most reviews I see online center around the word “entertaining.”
Admittedly, I sat there and read the whole thing. But I don’t recall many moments of actual enjoyment. And the truth is that right now I’m reading HMS Surprise for the 5th time, it being the first Patrick O’Brien I spotted on my shelf, just to wipe the lingering taste of disgust and horror out of my brain and restore myself to a more cheerful disposition.


  1. Man, never heard of any of these books! Thanks for the eye-opening reviews. I often find that books with elaborate alternate worlds rarely end in a satisfying way. Unless they are set up from the start as clear good v. evil battle (LOTR, etc.) Otherwise it's almost always too many threads to wrap up, and the risk of contradicting oneself or dropping the veil runs high. That said do really want to read Illium now.

    As for Battle Royale, no way. The Hunger Games struck a better tone. If you're going to bill the book and cast it as Y/A, then ease the hell up on the out and out gore.

    Brilliant writing as always, Captain!!

  2. I agree with above comment. We all, your faithful readers, want to see your writings out there, on Amazon and B&N, hard cover and all the trimmings.

    Can't wait to lay my hands on Ilium!


  3. I'm not a big fan of the science-fiction/fantasy genres. What I am a fan of, actually, is Dan Simmons. He is the only author who can constantly hop genres all the while remaining fresh and appealing to all of his fans.

  4. I slogged through the first 200-300 pages of Ilium too early and too apathetic to notice anything about Islam, lost it, was a bit annoyed at first because most of the time and then realized I didn't care when I read his Time Traveler story. Damned if I remember what I read afterwards. I think it was Slaughterhouse-Five.

    As for Flashback, I would recommend you read Fairyland by Paul McAuley instead. Simmons totally ripped it off.

  5. What about Hockenberry's confrontations with Helen ? what do you know about it? Interesting book, absolutely in love but im confused about this part