Mon 4 Aug 2008
As the intro post stated, today I’m reviewing a Subterranean Press release. Dan Simmons is a Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Bram Stoker Award-winning author who spent nearly 20 years being an elementary school teacher; he has written several very large novels that are primarily science-fiction and horror. He got his start from a short-story competition in 1982; his first novel was published in 1985. Many of his books have ties to classic literature, including the Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Apparently the screenplay that he wrote for his novels Ilium and Olympos has been optioned, but I have no news after 2004 on that.
Muse of Fire is a slender (105 pages) Shakespeare-influenced far-future science fiction novella. Wilbr is a member of a traveling Shakespeare-acting troupe, called the Earth’s Men. Their ship is called the Muse of Fire; when the book starts, they are traveling to a world that is merely numbered to perform for the humans there. Humans are basically enslaved as ‘arbeiters’ (laborers) or ‘doles’ (desk-job types), or apparently traveling actors. They rarely see their alien overlords. The troupe performs Much Ado About Nothing, and in the middle of the performance, the lowest level of alien overlord (the Archons) show up, and order the troupe to a command performance. Are they being tested? Will they pass?
In this universe, the human race has basically been enslaved by several levels of alien above them: the Archons, the Poimen, the Demiurgos, and the Abraxi. Archons are the lowest level grunt overlords; the Poimen are apparently shepherds. A Demiurgos, many billion years ago, created humanity and earth; they apparently came back to pass judgment on earth and take it over at some point. The Abraxi are the embodiment of the Abraxas, which seems to be a Gnostic-inspired deity of duality — God and Satan in one creature. Unfortunately, I can’t see the word ‘abraxas’ without thinking of the 1970 Santana album (my father’s a fan); the book acquired a soundtrack of Latino-inspired guitar for me.
The main conceit of this book is Shakespeare’s plays; the troupe performs five of them and discusses at least a couple more in a very short period of time. The plays performed are Macbeth (er, The Scottish Play), Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. The discussion of these plays and their general relation to life and humanity form the bulk of the book; the overarching plot with the alien overlords is a bit of a construct to require them to perform so many plays. That’s not to say that the plot is disheartening, or ridiculous; I actually enjoyed it. I liked thinking that there were alien overlords who like Shakespeare.
If one is looking to read pure science fiction, that probably isn’t this book. While there are definite elements of science fiction in it — aliens of various flavors, faster-than-light travel, other planets, robot-like things, spaceships — it’s mostly about Shakespeare and acting. Fans of Dan Simmons, from what I’ve gleaned off of various websites, will be used to his heavy dependence on and references to classical works, though, and will probably be expecting it. The characters in the acting troupe are definitely characters, from the too-old-to-play-Hamlet actor who now plays Lear, primarily, to the bewilderingly attractive Juliet/Ophelia, Aglae. Many of them have names that refer to Shakespeare’s original troupe (Kemp, Tooley, Heminges); all are, of course, theatre-types. Overall, it was quite an enjoyable, humanity-affirming read, and I’d recommend it for Shakespeare fans as well as Dan Simmons fans. 5/5 stars.