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Shakespeare still valuable in space

Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons. Subterranean Press, 2008. 105 page

In recent years, it has become fashionable for writers who have “cult followings” to issue limited editions of handsomely packaged and extravagantly priced short works. Somebody like Stephen King, William Gay and Caitlin Kiernan can get away with this. In addition, these “collector’s editions” frequently end up on eBay where they are sold for astonishing sums. (At the present, limited “rare” editions of Kiernan’s Tales of Pain and Wonder are being sold for $900 to $l,000 each!)

Dan Simmons is no stranger to the glitzy field of special editions. Most of his epic novels (which usually run over 600 pages) are customarily issued in both a standard format and a collector’s edition which invariably sells out. However, last year, Subterranean Press issued the slender Muse of Fire (actually a novella) with much fanfare and a price tag of $35. A half-dozen critics began their reviews, “Worth every penny!” The first edition sold out, and the second edition is still doing well. Is it worth it?

Yes, it is, simply because the author remains one of the most gifted writers of “speculative fiction” around. Epic works such as The Terror, Drood and Hyperion demonstrate Simmons’ skill in blending exhaustive research with stunning imaginative narrative. Muse of Fire has the same characteristics, plus this brilliant gem is actually a homage to William Shakespeare.

The narrator of Muse of Fire, a young actor named Wilbr, belongs to a Shakespearean troupe called the Earth Men. (One of the names for Shakespeare’s original troupe was “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”) The 30-some members of the troupe travel on a great spaceship, the Muse, performing the complete works of the bard for the inhabitants of 10,000 inhabited planets; in fact, the number of worlds is so vast, explorers have stopped giving them names. Numbers will suffice, says Wilbr who notes that the Earth Men have just completed a production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” for planet 25-25-261B where the seas are composed of sulphuric acid and the days are 18 hours long.

According to Wilbr, the Earth is but a faint memory — a dead planet with its natural resources depleted and its oceans drained. All humankind has been enslaved and is scattered through other galaxies where they work in mining camps. Their conquerors, the Archons are a highly advanced (and totally non-human) race devoid of sensory perception. Consequently, they only experience and understand “human” feeling by attaching themselves to another species, the dragomen. Each dragoman possesses hundreds of filaments and tentacles which can convey sensations (emotion, music and human speech) to the Archons. The dragomen hang over their hosts like great squid, their dangling tentacles attached to Archon brains — a decidedly creepy image.

When Muse of Fire opens, Wilbr’s troupe of actors find themselves performing in a mind-boggling setting. The silent Archons — the usually invisible members of the ruling caste — sit in a massive theater encircling the Earth Men and their makeshift acting area. Their only response to the conclusion of the play is a whirring of their great insect-like wings. Eventually, the troupe learns that their last performance was a test to determine if the Muse and the Earth Men should be exterminated or allowed to travel to other worlds and perform for other species that are even more advanced than the Archons — the Poimen, the Demiurgos (the original creators of the “failed” earth) and perhaps even a semblance of a supreme being called Arbaxas.

At this point, when the troupe learns that they will not be destroyed, they are given a new name: the Heresiarch’s Men. They also discover that they are no longer capable of determining the destination of the Muse (which had previously been controlled by a mummified woman, floating in a cylinder of water — a kind of guiding spirit). When control passes to an unseen power, the mummified body of the Muse is rejuvenated and acquires the features of a beautiful woman.

The troupe begins a series of performances — each more demanding than the last — which includes “Macbeth” (a play traditionally associated with bad luck), “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Key passages from all of these plays are interspersed with Wilbr’s account of the troupe’s exhaustion as they move from one full production to another with only an hour and 10 minutes to rest between performances. The actors become increasingly frustrated since they are dependent on a badly impaired dragoman to interpret and explain their dilemma.

What gradually emerges in this extravagant “space drama” concerns the significance of Shakespeare’s plays — not merely as literature, but as some ultimate moral and spiritual guide. When the Earth was subdued, highly advanced species such as the Archons, Poimen and the Demiurgos became the caretakers of Earth’s art, culture and religion. The discovery of Shakespeare’s plays and their possible significance led to the creation of a kind of cosmic philosophy. Although thousands of years have lapsed, Wilbr and his fellow actors still meditate on the sacred teachings of Jesus, Saint Jung and Shakespearean drama. All of the actors know all the speeches in all the plays.  However, for all of their advancement, the meaning of “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Macbeth” cannot be fully comprehended by the conquerers. As the dragman finally tells the troupe of actors, “You have been allowed to live only because of Shakespeare.” Slowly, painfully, the “great powers” of the universe are receiving spiritual and moral guidance from the Earth’s Men’s performances.

There is much more here, of course. Muse of Fire contains beautifully contrived scenes of advanced cities on planets with numerous moons — all wrapped in impossible scenes of stellar beauty. There is even a sensual enactment of “Romeo and Juliet,” for the Demiurgos in which simulated sex becomes real. One member of the troupe turns out to be a kind of galactic terrorist, intent on bringing it all down, and he nearly succeeds. However, beneath it all is Simmons’ lavish narrative that glitters with mythical, Gnostic and poetic images that are reminiscent of the best of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction. Muse of Fire is definitely a “collector’s item.”

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