Whereas delaying reading A Case of Exploding Mangoes for four years didn’t improve the experience, I am glad that I waited until now to read Muse of Fire. I recently read Much Ado About Nothing for the first time, in order to teach it to a Year 9 class, and being familiar with that play’s plot and characters definitely improved my comprehension of this Shakespeare-infused novella.
Dan Simmons banks on the continued popularity of the Bard in this book, which is set in a future where humanity has regressed under the baleful influence of a hierarchy of alien species. The vast majority of humans are labourers, eking out an existence on any number of planets. After dying, their alien overseers transport their corpses back to Earth to be entombed until the day of reckoning. Muse of Fire follows a group of humans who have escaped this dull life for one slightly more adventurous. Told from the perspective of Wilbr, a minor player, the story follows the crew of a ship of the same name as they travel from world to world and put on Shakespeare plays.
Shakespeare’s wild popularity despite the fact that his language becomes more archaic with every passing decade is a testament to his skill as a writer, and to the skill of the people who perform his plays. I suppose it’s similar to how people can enjoy an opera even if they don’t speak the opera’s language; the actions and tone of the players are a language all on their own. In the future, human civilization has fallen apart to the point that, as Wilbr explains, they no longer have their own arts; they barely have their own culture. Hence, Shakespeare is even less accessible to their audiences than it is to the audience of today.
Indeed, one has to wonder if Shakespeare would make much sense at all. Do these people know what a thane or a king even is? How much of an oral tradition preserves the past? Simmons doesn’t quite let on, which makes it difficult to judge the extent to which Shakespeare might be understood by these people. In discussing the role of Shakespeare in Brave New World with my AS Level literature class, we talked about how the people of the World State didn’t have the emotional training needed to appreciate Shakespeare, let alone the cultural baggage necessary to understand him. I can’t help but wonder if the same is true here. People’s lives seem so curtailed; can they comprehend the richness of fantasy and circumstance that Shakespeare unleashes with every line?
Our intrepid (and youthful) narrator, Wilbr, certainly does. He is our only window into this watered-down version of humanity, and as the plot thickens he recounts how he went from being a rather undeveloped human being to a Shakespearean actor and afficionado. His commentary on Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth all evoke the passion for and sense of wonder about Shakespeare’s plays that demonstrate why they are so timeless. If all Simmons set out to do was write a story that celebrated Shakespeare’s work, he has succeeded.
The plot itself, unfortunately, is much less exciting. Wilbr’s troupe has attracted the attention of the aliens who lord it over humanity (the “overlords”, if you will). They get ordered to perform, again and again, for increasingly alien species who are higher up in the pecking order. At last, only Wilbr and his shallow, poorly-characterized love interest are left to perform an ad hoc version of Romeo and Juliet for “God”. And it’s all a test (of course).
Echoes of Simmons’ other work, particularly Hyperion, are evident here. There’s the humanoid manifestations of god and the questions of whether such beings are worthy of worship. There’s the transcendent or otherwise sacrificed human beings, such as the mysterious woman called the Muse who embodies the ship’s cognitive functions. And there is a sense of inevitable, eschatological doom hanging over the collective souls of the human species. It is rather heavy stuff.
But all this takes place on a very flimsy canvas of a setting. Simmons doesn’t see fit to explain much about how humanity got this way. He leaves a lot about the story’s background mysterious, such as why human corpses are always returned to Earth. Aside from the repetitive plot structure and frequent praise for Shakespeare, there is not much going on here. Similarly, the characters are nothing to write home about. Wilbr is well developed as our narrator, but the others are flat and two-dimensional, remaining loyal to the one-line descriptions Wilbr tags them with near the beginning of the story.
Plenty of interesting ideas. Excellent use of mood, atmosphere, and tone. And, of course, it’s all about how Shakespeare is the bomb (and you know he is). In these respects, Muse of Fire is an excellent novella—but as a story, it failed to capture, sustain, or really even stir my interest. Once again, I remain ambivalent about Simmons—this was not the book that could push me to one particular side of the fence.