Summary of the story
Yoon Ha Lee’s “Variations on an Apple” begins with Paris, and follows him (mostly) throughout. He gets drunk, and sees three goddesses: Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. They produce an apple and ask him to choose which one to give the apple to. He refuses all three of them. He instead takes the apple to Ilion, who is the city he resides in. Ilion is in human form as a male, and he eats the apple.
Cassandra, Paris’s sister, warns against the apple, but by then it’s too late. The ships come to Ilion, after which play out different possibilities. One is where Ilion tricks the general, but still ends up giving its respect to the conquerors, though the conquerors then become part of the city. In another, Ilion goes down into an artificial ocean world, and the ships that try to follow become parts of the sea themselves. The third is where Ilion eats all the sentient beings within itself, and becomes a wasteland. In all of these, Ilion is compromised because of the apple.
Ten years later, Ilion is still being sieged. Paris almost wishes the apple never came to him. The enemy fleets withdraw, and Ilion gives all of its citizens the task of analyzing why. Paris tries to edit out his need for sleep, but he still finds himself falling asleep. The enemy general’s attack using negative space opens all of Ilion at once. Paris is asleep when that happens.
Paris is locked in grav-weave, and is visited by the general. Paris says that the fairest isn’t a goddess or a city, but this metal warrior, who is Helen. Helen says she must kill him now, as the gods listen in on everything. She raises a gun to his head, and he thinks that “Ilion never stood a chance.”
The acute tension was the siege and downfall of Ilion, while the chronic tension was the destruction the apple brings.
What makes the story interesting?
The relationship between Paris and Ilion is what’s featured heavily, and it stays interesting in the unpredictability of an entire city. This is shown how each time Paris sees Ilion, it is a different person. Lee is able to handle Paris’s relationship with an entire city, and it’s handled almost in the way relationships with gods are handled in modern times.
Paris also is shown as painfully human. The first time the readers see him is when he’s drunk, and he only refuses the goddesses because he’s already in a relationship with Ilion itself. Ilion is also the strongest being he knows, since he says,
“If anyone has a chance of keeping the fortress contained, it’s the oldest and greatest of fortresses.”
Ilion is also an old Greek word for “Troy,” which is why Homer’s epic is called the Iliad.
What kept the story grounded for me was the real life mentions, like Zhuge Liang, Vauban and Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi, who are real strategists. There was also the constant references to math and technology and theories, which can get overwhelming at times.
I first highlighted Ilion in different colours, whether it was a city or a human or both. Sometimes the city and human part is indistinguishable, which I want to take away. People write odes to cities, but I’d never seen a city humanized in this way before. Ilion isn’t a nice city:
Ilion threaded his fingers through Paris’s hair. It almost didn’t hurt.
That casual mention stuck out to me. Paris is used to this kind of pain coming from Ilion.
Another thing I highlighted was the transition from myth to technology, and ways that the myth was turned upside down: Cassandra lives in the circuitry but can still see things others can’t, Hector is a ship, Ilion is in space, Helen is the conquering metal general and made out of metal, and Paris can edit out his need for sleep. Lee keeps the goddesses as goddesses, which is what hooked me was the very beginning, because Paris is drunk, and suggests that the goddesses choose who to award the apple to by random number generator.
The final thing I highlighted was the apple and the mention of choices. Both Cassandra and Helen imply that Helen had the same choice, and refused it. There is also the question of fate, and whether Ilion can escape the apple’s nature, even without Helen. But even in all of the different versions, Ilion manages be compromised in some way. In the end, Paris describes it as “Ilion never stood a chance.”
What can I imitate in my own writing?
I definitely want to take away the personification of a city. Ilion felt like a character, especially when there were grey areas when I couldn’t tell whether the city or the human manifestation was talking/acting. I also want to use the author’s comment on fate, and how even though parts of the myth are converted into tech, Ilion still falls. Ilion falls in each version of the story, because it cannot escape the apple’s nature. I also wanted to take away how much importance the author put on a seemingly insignificant object. The apple, in the original story, was the source of the conflict with Troy in the original myth, but the readers and the characters soon forget about it as the gods and the mortals get wound up in their own hubris. By shifting the focus to the apple instead of the war itself, Lee created a new perspective on an old story. I want to recycle ideas and put my own focus on them, too.
Even though Ilion was doomed from the moment it took the apple, did you hold out any hope that it would survive?
Did Paris and Ilion have a loving relationship?
How did the existence of gods in this otherwise science fiction plot work for you? Was the universe believable?