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Simmons reinvents Caliban, revisits "The Iliad" and returns to Hollywood


By Dorman T. Shindler

E ver since he took the literary world by storm in 1989, publishing Phases of Gravity, Carrion Comfort and Hyperion in the same year, Dan Simmons has been impossible to pigeon-hole. The first was a mainstream novel; the second, horror. The third title would become (along with The Fall of Hyperion) a modern classic of science fiction.

Simmons often mixes elements of classic literature into his novels of SF, fantasy and horror: The poems of John Keats inspired the Hyperion novels, as well as Endymion and The Rise of Endymion; both T.S. Eliot and Dante were the inspiration for The Hollow Man; and A Winter Haunting owes much to the fiction of Henry James. Although Simmons is recognized as a highly literary writer of genre fiction, he is a very popular writer, too. Simmons's popularity stems from the fact that his novels are always entertaining and driven by strong narratives. The handfuls of awards he has won—including a World Fantasy for his first novel, Song of Kali, a Bram Stoker for Carrion Comfort and a Hugo for Hyperion—attest to his critical popularity as well.

After more than 20 years in the business, Simmons is still successfully hopping from genre to genre. The past few years have seen him publish novels like The Crook Factory (an historical thriller and winner of Colorado's Fiction Award) and A Winter Haunting (the sequel to his popular horror novel Summer of Night). He has also been penning a crime fiction series featuring hard-boiled protagonist Joe Kurtz (Hardcase and Hard Freeze). In between all of that, Simmons actually found time to write a handful of science-fiction short stories. All of which were collected in Worlds Enough & Time (2002). And if readers paid close attention to one particular story, "The Ninth of Av," they would have gotten a preview of things to come, because it was a prequel to his latest, far-future SF novel, Ilium (2003). Using "The Iliad" as his jumping-off point, Simmons weaves three different narratives into a seamless whole that will have fans of his Hyperion/Endymion novels squirming in their seats for 12 months—because the companion novel, Olympos (2004), which winds up an SF action-adventure tale involving quantum physics, sentient robots, the epic battle of Troy and the Greek gods of Mt. Olympus, won't be published until this time next year.

Last month, Simmons and I conducted an interview via email in which he discussed tackling Homer's classic in order to write his new novel, his take on one of Shakespeare's classic villains and his new status as a Hollywood producer.



We know Ilium is based on "The Iliad," but why did you feel compelled to throw Shakespeare's The Tempest and Nabakov's Ada into the mix?

Simmons: They weren't thrown in like random vegetables into a stew. As those who read Ilium might suspect and those who read both Ilium and Olympos will understand, the literary connections and underpinnings to this tale are essential to it. There are discussions in Ilium—between two moravecs (sentient, self-evolving organic-robotic creatures) as they sail a felucca down the flooded Valles Marineris on Mars, if I remember correctly—about connections between the physical world, the quantum world and certain literary classics.



Caliban is an important character in Ilium—except that he's not quite the same Caliban most Shakespeare scholars and interpretations have come to know. A recent interview in Publishers Weekly mentioned that he was inspired by the poems of Robert Browning and Auden. Can you elaborate?

Simmons: In my opinion, The Tempest's Caliban is one of the great monsters of all time—and certainly one of the most under-used! The Caliban that most modern audiences "know"—at least for the last half-century or so—is a weak, pale, politically correct shadow of the slithery monstrosity that made audiences shiver in Shakespeare's day. The Mediterranean setting for The Tempest—first staged in 1611, I think—was well known by English audiences (as was Africa) primarily as a source of things dark, dangerous, scaly, clawed and other-worldly. Today's heavy-handed political interpretation is that Caliban was a poor victim—an oppressed but noble native soul straining under the yoke of capitalist-colonial-imperialism—but Shakespeare and his audiences understood that Caliban was a monster—and a really monstrous monster, ready to rape and impregnate Prospero's lovely daughter at the slightest opportunity.

And, yes, Ilium draws as much on the terrifying Caliban from Browning's almost forgotten "Caliban Upon Setebos" and W.H. Auden's wonderful poem-play "The Sea and the Mirror" as it does upon The Tempest's scaled and fanged creature.

The monster in Ilium pulls most of its dialogue and all of its outrageous speech patterns—rather like Tolkien's Gollum on speed and steroids—from Browning's poem. And as I've mentioned elsewhere, Auden's 1940's Caliban says this to an audience as he stands alone onstage—

"Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seats,
An unidentified plane is reported
Approaching the city. Probably only a false alarm
But naturally we cannot afford
To take any chances."

Now tell me that this wouldn't get an audience's full attention in the America of 2003 A.D. Plus—just to let readers of Ilium in on a secret connection that I tried to keep hidden all through the novel—Caliban's mother in The Tempest is the Algerian witch Sycorax, known in earlier days as Circe, the seductive enchantress who holds Odysseus hostage for most of his 10 years of wandering absence after the Trojan War.

Coincidence? I don't think so.



Both you and Tom Wolfe have publicly stated that a novel should "show us something about our times." Do you think Ilium holds up to those standards—if so, what sort of reflection does it cast about our times?

Simmons: Whatever Tom Wolfe said, I don't feel any need to live up to his standards. (Anymore than Wolfe worries about living up to mine.) It's true that I've said elsewhere that I think Wolfe is right when he suggests that a greater number of contemporary novels should pay more attention to the real world—perhaps even observe things outside their own sensitive psyches once in a while so that readers centuries from now can learn something objective about our age—but Ilium is speculative fiction. It's a giant canvas—one of two—and the SF palette is bright and varied and about much more than just showing us something about our times.

On the other hand, at least one reviewer has already commented on the specific—sometimes shameless—commentary on the 20th and nascent 21st centuries that appear in Ilium. It's not a book that pretends to have 40th-century sensibilities—the connections are there.

The impetus for Ilium came from my own desire to re-engage with Homer's "Iliad" for a couple of years and to try again to understand the wildly different sensibilities of that work, that age, that era of human psychology. As David Denby wrote about his re-encounter with "The Iliad" in his 1993 New Yorker article "Does Homer Have Legs?" (and again in his book, Great Books):

"[In Homer's "Iliad"...] Feasting and acts of warfare and of sacrifice to the gods can be performed in only one way—superbly, with utmost effort and lavish skill and maximum exposure to failure. The act must risk, in the outward trajectory of its effort, the clear possibility of failure. The act must risk, in the outward trajectory of its effort, the clear possibility of shame. When performed supremely well, it may be painful but never meaningless."

By the way, that last sentence pretty well describes my attitude toward writing. But in the meantime, I confess to being interested to see the result when that Greek, Homeric "heroic code"—a total commitment to arête (excellence in all things)—collides with my novel's extrapolation of our society where the highest goal has become to be seen as a victim, where mediocrity is expected everywhere, and where the goal of most people seems to be to risk nothing at all in the flat, listless, riskless trajectory of their effort.



Reviewers have often alluded to your "literary sensibilities." When choosing literary classics like "The Iliad" or Hyperion or The Tempest or The Inferno as jumping-off points for your SF novels, is it your hope to reintroduce (or introduce) your audience to these classics? To whet their appetites and perhaps have them go back and investigate these works on their own after reading your novels?

Simmons: No. I don't write to teach. Nor do I have a mission or message behind the books I write. If my books could speak, they would say—a la Popeye or Jahweh dressed up as the burning bush—"I am what I am," or perhaps, more succinctly, "I am, I am." If some of my readers are stirred to read or re-read "The Iliad" after reading my Ilium, that would delight me as much as hearing that some folks wandered back to John Keats after reading one or more of my Hyperion novels. But I'm not a Pied Piper, just a teller of tales. And I think these inclusions make some of my tales more interesting—or at least more fun.



"The Ninth of Av" (with it's NYC archipelago) and "Vexed to Midnight By a Rocking Cradle" feature a future Big Apple that has been submerged. "Flashback" mentions a drug that (I think) is also mentioned in Hyperion. Is this an ongoing, conscious effort of yours to create a loosely linked, SF future (a la Heinlein)?

Simmons: Nope. "The Ninth of Av" is a sort of disconnected prequel to Ilium, so characters, creatures and plot elements appear there first. Anything else anywhere else is pure coincidence or an exercise in recycling. I'll leave those Heinlein-Asimov-Blish-and other (sometimes awkwardly) connected futures to the ghosts of those who created them. The only common ground my various futures share is in the limited dendrites and gray matter of my brain.



In Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion you had mankind (the Hegemony) taking on their futuristic "gods"—the A.I.s—and now, in Ilium (and, presumably, Olympos) humans are doing battle with their gods once again. Is this an obsession with gods vs. man (to use your own words, "a slow circling of obsessions as visible and sometimes ominous as buzzards wheeling above a desert hiker")?

Simmons: Not an obsession—no buzzards in sight here—but I have to confess that tales of wars and disagreements between mere mortals and their gods are not without interest. I mean, the Bible's sold pretty well. And I hear rumors of some fat poem called Paradise Lost that seems to get some mileage out of that concept. Even in religion, it seems, there is no drama without conflict.



Your online site, www.dansimmons.com mentions some big news concerning the production of a movie based on Hyperion. Anything to report on that?

Simmons: There is some very exciting news regarding the option of my four Hyperion novels (plus the single published novella set within the Hyperion universe) to be adapted into those most lovely four words—"a major motion picture"—but the contract stipulates that the studios, director and producers involved get to make the formal announcement with all the details. So I'm waiting for that announcement. I guarantee that at least one person—moi—will be excited when it comes down.

In the meantime, I did just see a formal announcement from New Regency Films that they have optioned my first novel, Song of Kali, for a film to be directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem For a Dream). This interests me—especially if the film is to be shot in Calcutta, where the novel is set.

I'm officially a producer—not an honorary producer in charge of sitting by the door, but a bonafide producer on the two film projects I mentioned, which will involve at least some conferences and reviewing of screenplays as they're written—and we're currently discussing a deal where I would write the screenplay for an adaptation of my 2002 horror novel, A Winter Haunting, using elements from my earlier novel, Summer of Night.



Other than your busy schedule as a Hollywood film mogul, do you have any forthcoming projects you'd like to mention?

Simmons: Olympos is the next big challenge. It's due to be delivered next year, but it's just in the earliest stages. This will be a big, bold book—on the scale of Ilium, but with a much different psychological focus and narrative structure—and I'd be lying if I didn't say that the challenge is daunting. Fortunately, I like daunting.

The third "Joe Kurtz" novel—Hard As Nails—is scheduled to be released later this autum, and I owe St. Martin's Press (Minotaur) the fourth and final contracted Joe Kurtz book next year. My working title for that is Hard Day Dying.

Beyond this little bit of scheduled work, I have one more book contractually due to my publisher Harper Collins, but we haven't decided on the nature of that novel yet.

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Also in this issue: The cast and crew of Freddy vs. Jason




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