Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#88: Ilium, #17: The War of the Worlds


“Human art, Mahnmut knew, simply transcended human beings.” 
Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede."

" 'Arête is simply excellence and the striving for excellence in all things,' said Odysseus. “Arête simply means the act of offering all actions as of sacrament to excellence, of devoting one’s life to finding excellence, identifying it when it offers itself, and achieving it in your own life...Eating? Eat as if it was your last meal. Prepare the food as if there were no more food! Sacrifices to the gods? You must make each sacrifice as if the lives of your family depended upon your energy and devotion and focus. Loving? Yes, love as if it was the most important thing in the world, but make it just one in the constellation that is arête.' "
Dan Simmons' monstrous epic of a novel, Ilium, seems destined to become a classic in my view. This book is one of the primary arguments that intelligent, literary science fiction is alive and kicking in the twenty-first century. I'll start off by saying that the sheer imaginative power that Simmons exhibits in this novel is dazzling, rivaling the likes of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker in terms of creative power and uniqueness.
Ilium is quite a long book, due to the fact that it features three story-lines, which are interwoven more and more as the novel concludes. The three story-lines of the novel crisscross time and space, and Simmons borrows from many other famous SF tales and literary classics to enhance the overall imaginative force of Ilium. And even these three story-lines feature divergent subplots that make this novel quite complex, just as Homer's Iliad, which this book is based off. Simmons blends high-tech Greek gods who reside on Olympos Mons on Mars in the far future, with the traditional story of the Trojan War --throwing in sentient, ultra-literate robots from Jupiter, strange robot-like creatures on Earth who serve a stagnant, ambition-less population of humans and mysterious little green men from Mars while he's at it. Much like Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, an earlier SF epic about technologically advanced humans turning themselves into gods, the reader is left in the dark most of the time. There is mystery and intrigue at every level in Ilium, and in each plot line -- the story of our main protagonist Thomas Hockenberry and his quest to bring down the gods of Mars, the Trojan War as it rages on Earth and is influenced through space and time by the Martian gods, the Jovian moravecs on their mysterious quest to Mars, and the group of humans who journey to the orbital rings of Earth to find out the truth about humanity as they know it-- and Simmons provides few answers throughout the novel. But due to the deft story-telling and action-packed plot, I didn't mind that I had no clue how or why certain things were being done; Simmons trusts his own skill as a writer and doesn't disappoint, leaving the reader hungry for more, trying to figure out more about the mysterious, but crucial, aspects of the plot.
Of course, in such a long, intricate and mysterious novel, many cool SF concepts abound. The far-future Earth of Ilium is a place where humans live like the eloi of The Time Machine: lazily living pointless lives without questioning any aspects of their existence. The machines serving these humans and the resurrected dinosaurs that roam the wilds of this future Earth echo novels like Tevis's Mockingbird and Crichton's Jurassic Park. In this future Earth, a sentient Internet-like duo of creatures known as Prospero and Ariel (the "logosphere" and "biosphere" that exist all throughout the Earth) remain mysterious forces that seemingly influence physical events in the world. And at the heart of the novel is a message about tampering too much with Nature, as the gods and their meddling with quantum wormholes across time and space threaten to tear the solar system asunder.
All in all, this novel contains too many details for me to even begin to summarize, but I'll assure you this. Ilium is an incredibly imaginative novel that features masterful pacing, and is tough to put down. It's extremely readable and already a classic in my view. Just trust Simmons' story-telling if you are initially confused by certain aspects of the're not supposed to fully "get it", and you won't. But the shortage of decisive facts about what is actually going on only serve to make this novel more of a page-turner. This book is a breath of fresh air in the field of science fiction. I'd recommend it to action fans, sci-fi buffs and classic-literature enthusiasts alike.

The War of the Worlds:

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” 
“We can't have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” 
“ What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think that God had exempted [us]? He is not an insurance agent.”
“This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants.” 
H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is the first alien invasion story, and it remains to this day, the quintessential one. The premise is so simple that it has been mimicked time and time again by SF novelists and screenwriter for decades --changed and evolved by authors like Arthur C. Clarke, in Childhood's End. Much like Wells' other famed classic, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds changed science fiction as we know it, and paved the way for countless stories about aliens. The influence of this novel may be the single greatest one on the genre of SF as a whole. Let's face it, science fiction deals with aliens a lot of the time.
Wells' novel is, firstly, an excellently descriptive one. It's easy to forget that Wells was a great writer in addition to being the pioneer of ideas in the genre. I'll start by saying that War of the Worlds is not much like The Time Machine at all, which is a more cerebral, ideas-based novel. War of the Worlds gets down to business quickly --the Martian invaders of Earth come down in mysterious giant cylinders, are observed, and soon start killing off any terrestrial resistance with their unstoppable killing-machines. These machines are essentially one-hundred-foot-tall tripods that have the ability to dispatch humans en masse with strange Heat-Rays and gouts of poisonous Black Smoke, weapons which the people of 19th  century England --where the story takes place-- have no defense against. Due to Wells' initially quick pace, War of the Worlds is still quite accessible despite its age and a surprisingly small smattering of archaic language. As the Martians sweep through England with little trouble, our unnamed narrator --a writer much like Wells himself-- must find his way through the grim, post-apocalyptic wasteland and try to survive. It's a tense, gripping novel that has a fair amount of action, and the reader is always fully aware of the despair, anxiety and fear felt by the narrator as he struggles to survive and keep away from the clutches of the Martians.
The War of the Worlds is split into two "books": "The Coming of The Martians", and "Earth Under the Martians". In my view, the second is absolutely excellent, written very economically and filled with awesome scenes as the narrator must traverse the blasted, burnt countryside to survive, and when he learns the truth about the inevitable Martian demise. The first book is just as good in places, especially the initial Martian landing and attacks, but gets somewhat bogged down in the descriptions of the narrator's brother (who is seemingly forgotten and fades from the picture in Book 2) escaping from London --chapters I think the book could do without. Particularly suspenseful is the scene in which the narrator is trapped with the curate in a wrecked house near the Martian pit for many days, and they become somewhat less than human in their fear, paranoia, and, in the curate's case, insanity. Another great scene in Book 2 comes from the narrator's conversation with the artilleryman, in which he describes his Darwinist vision of mankind living underground, accepting only the strong, and biding their time until they can revolt. Ultimately, the teller of this tale proves to be unworthy of his own grandiose schemes. However, his Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest message resounds throughout the novel, especially as Wells, in a stroke of originality and genius, has the Martians die not from any machinations of Man, but from Earthly diseases and bacteria.
The War of the Worlds is many things -- a pioneering work of science fiction, a metaphor for the technologically advanced British Empire's subjugation of primitive cultures around the globe, and a message that the strong and intelligent can find ways to survive. And it is certainly a genuine classic of science fiction.

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