August 13, 2010

Sing, O goddess, about the ultimate mashup

Pelarsalen 4"Helen of Troy awakes just before dawn to the sound of air raid sirens."

That is one of the best opening lines of a novel I have ever read. Dan Simmons' Illium and Olympos (the line is from the later) are very well written novels, which is fitting since they on a deep level are about stories and their power. They are also dense, crammed with references and sometimes infuriatingly more interested in literary details than making sense.

Just as our civilization would leave amazing piles of comics, computer games, bizarre art pieces and radiated television shows behind if it disappeared, so have the posthumans of the novels littered the solar system with strange things: a mysteriously rapidly terraformed Mars, double rings of paradisical orbital cities around Earth, a chasm across the Atlantic, continent-spanning steampunk transport systems, Shakespearean protagonists with near-divine powers, an ongoing Trojan War and, indeed, quarrelsome Greek gods living on Mount Olympus and shooting down passing spacecraft. Resurrected scholars monitor the progress of the Trojan War, bourgeois eloi spend their time on Earth flitting around parties and in the outer system the moravec cyborgs debate literature. It is a total mess, and would in lesser hands likely make a very silly setting. Simmons manages to pull it off, but just barely: this is an extremely epic story (the *Illiad* is just one of the subplots!), but so epic and literary that it is nearly absurd.

Being an avid hard sf reader I found the moravecs the most appealing characters. Literature- and engineering-minded by design, they have a thriving civilization in the outer system but little contact with whatever is going in the inner system. As they get concerned about the weirdness and start investigate they act as the classic outside view, helping the reader (at least the reader based in hard sf) figure out what is going on. They are rational without being dogmatic: if a Greek god flies by in a chariot they will accept it and try to make some measurements. In many ways they are far more like us the readers than the "normal" people living on Earth, who have a culture and lifestyle supported by unseen technologies to the degree that many human universals seem to have broken down.

The novels can be seen as ambitious mashups: Homer meets Shakespeare meets Nabokov meets Proust meets Shelly. Many characters speak and act based on things in other works of literature: just as there exist parallel worlds in the in-story physics, the literary parallel worlds interact with the Illium/Olympus world. Which makes it somewhat confusing if you haven't read the originals (and who, honestly, has read Shelly's Prometheus Unbound?) On the other hand, this is after all what many people reading "real literature" enjoys - just as I enjoy noticing hard sf authors having done their physics homework and maybe run a few simulations to test their models. This kind of densely intertextual and referenced story might be just what posthumans would be telling each other: every strange turn of phrase or quote can be instantly googled and maybe also directly contextualized.

In the end, I think the key insight I got from these novels was that a healthy future posthuman futures are likely to be baroque rather than sleekly modernist. There will be more culture around, easier ways of accessing it, easier ways of expressing culture materially. Even if a small fraction of the civilization cares, that will still produce enormous amounts of very strange artefacts. Homer would likely find these novels prime examples.

Posted by Anders3 at August 13, 2010 12:42 PM