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Olympos by Dan Simmons

01/11/2005. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: Gollancz. 690 page enlarged paperback. Price: 10.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07262-8.

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What has everybody suddenly got against Paris? Not just Paris the Greek but also Paris the city. In classical literature, Paris was the cause of the Trojan War when he was asked to judge which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. He wasn't a totally innocent youth as he allowed himself to be, bribed by the promise of the beautiful Helen for his wife. Unfortunately, Helen was already married and her husband objected strongly to her elopement with the Trojan. In David Gemmell's new series, Helen, when she appears near the end of the first volume, 'Troy: Lord Of The Silver Bow', is described as plain - Spartan women were not bred for beauty but strength of character - and Paris as a callow youth. Dan Simmons, in 'Ilium' and 'Olympos', portrays Helen as a more fickle character, willing to take opportunities that appear to be to her advantage. On TV, Bettany Hughes has tried to find the truth behind Helen, as thus, Paris.

Dan Simmons who began his tale in 'Ilium' and continued it in 'Olympos', uses the text of Homer as a starting point but by the start of the second book it is beginning to deviate considerably. The enactment of the Trojan Wars is a symptom of the problem that is escalating within the Solar System. Superficially, Earth is a utopia. The million people still living there have an idyllic life, faxing themselves from one party to another. Orbiting above the planet are two orbital rings where they believe they are faxed for rejuvenation every twenty years and, after five rejuvenations, will go permanently to paradise. One form of entertainment - reading and TV are things of the past - is the turin cloth. Placed over the face, it enables the viewer to live the Trojan Wars in real time. As might be expected, there are worms in paradise. Partly due to the activities of Harman and his friends in 'Ilium', the voynix, who hitherto have been regarded at mute, harmless servants begin a campaign of human extermination. No-one is safe anywhere.

Paris, the city, has already suffered in the past. A black hole experiment that went wrong left a huge crater in the centre at the bottom of which, seething magma can be seen. To add insult to injury when Caliban, released from his orbital prison chooses his base on Earth, he makes it Paris. His creatures kill everyone in the city and cause it to be covered metres deep in blue ice. (Simmons is not the only author to bury Paris in ice as Alastair Reynolds also does this in 'Century Rain'.)

Simmons is drawing on a number of sources for his inspiration. The Homeric Troy set on a terra-formed Mars with the gods at home on Mount Olympos provides an excellent vehicle for those posing as gods. They certainly have god-like powers, even though these come from manipulating advanced technologies. Closer to Earth, the Tempest is played out with not only Caliban but Prospero and Ariel having roles in the events.

Significant to the unravelling of the situation are the moravecs. These were biologically-adapted centuries before to survive in the harsh environments of the outer Solar System. Mahnmut is at home in the methane seas under the crust of Europa and Orphu, his friend is able to survive in hard vacuum. Mahnmut has a fascination for Shakespearean sonnets, so much so that his submersible is called The Dark Lady. Orphu has a predilection for the subtleties of Proust. They are sent to discover the source of the anomalies that have apparently changed Mars in an impossibly short space of time and the fluctuations in quantum fields that are in danger of destroying the whole system. It is by applying their knowledge of literature that the sense of the science is worked out. The book is extremely complex with the various disparate groups significantly affecting the others. There are so many different elements in the two books that it has taken an exceptional writer to visualise them and bring them together into a coherent whole. Simmons plays with literature, language, science and drama, winding them together into an exciting adventure. Take nothing here at face value.

Pauline Morgan

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