Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons has a hard-on for Shakespeare. Not surprising in a writer, of course; indeed, one might have to question his sanity if he didn’t. Simmons is just more open about it than most, in that he weaves his influences directly into his own work. He started getting referential in the Hyperion series, where the first volume Hyperion is a blatant homage to the Canterbury Tales; in The Fall of Hyperion he takes it even further, with much of the narrative (far-future science fiction, mind you) being told from the perspective of the poet John Keats. His two-volume epic Ilium/Olympos not only takes as its central concept the Greek gods resurrecting 20th-century scholars to make sure that the Trojan war goes exactly as Homer wrote it, but features a robot who is a scholar and expert on Shakespeare as well as appearances from Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban from The Tempest. Dude likes to get meta, is what I’m trying to say here.
Muse of Fire, a brief 105-page novella, finds Simmons returning to far-future sci-fi after a brief detour into historical fiction (the excellent The Terror). The story is told in the first person by Wilbr, a minor player in the best Shakespearean troupe in the galaxy. Humanity is an enslaved species scattered over hundreds of worlds, held in bondage by the Archons, senseless carapaced alien overlords who themselves were only the least-powerful of the four known alien races. Wilbr’s troupe, the Earth’s Men, make their living traveling from planet to planet, performing the works of the Bard for the workers. During one particularly memorable performance of Much Ado About Nothing, Archons arrive unexpectedly and summon the Players to perform directly for them. This sets into motion a chain of events that will change the place of humanity in the cosmos…or eliminate it entirely.
There isn’t much room for embellishment or rumination in this work; instead, the reader can bask in the vicarious wonder of people who, for love of an essentially dead art, find themselves deeper and deeper into things they are able neither to control nor comprehend. What keeps it from lapsing into boring linearity are two things: first, Simmons is and always has been a master of visual storytelling, and he turns it up to 11 here. Every set piece, every bit of scenery is described with sumptuous economy, epic landscapes of language conjuring cinematic vistas. Second, Simmons makes you love Shakespeare as much as he does. He drops little bits of trivia into the story, pulls particularly meaningful passages out for examination, hammers on the universality of Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and so forth, and just generally makes you feel like those plays are the most meaningful thing the human race has ever produced; hell, it’s not just a feeling, its an actual plot point.
Its hard to sell a book this short as a standalone unit. I suspect that it is already out of print; I found my copy in an online used bookstore while attempting to assemble a complete collection of Simmons’ works in hardback. With a cover price of $35 for a novella barely 100 pages long, I suspect this was a labor of love and not meant to bring home the bacon the way the books he wrote before and after (The Terror and Drood, respectively) were and did. But if you can get hold of it, and you love and/or admire Shakespeare, this book will bring you an almost visceral pleasure, and you will find yourself returning to it and basking in the glow of one artist’s admiration for another. Highly recommended.