Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has an uncanny ability to write well in any genre. Muse of Fire is a science fiction novella about a wandering troupe of Shakespearian actors known as Earth's Men. They travel about the stars in a distant, bleak future where humanity lives under the rule of a hierarchy of mysterious and powerful set of alien overlords.

In this setting, the human race is divided into arbeiters, who perform manual labor, doles, who are gray-hearted and somber clerks, and the dragomen, who are sexless, genetically altered translators for the Archon, large arthropods who are the immediate overlords of mankind. The crew of the Muse of Fire don't seem to fit into any of these categories and it is isn't clearly explained why not, though the narrator is one of the few humans who comes from Earth, which is a blasted, desolate planet filled with the billions of sarcophagi of generations of dead humans, who are returned to their ancestral homeworld by their alien overlords upon death.

In the middle of a performance on one backwater world, the Earth's Men draw the wholly unexpected attention of an audience of Archons. They are then sent on a breakneck journey to perform a new play for each of the alien races who control the known universe. First they perform Macbeth for the Archons, then King Lear for the amphibious Poimen, then Hamlet for the colossal and terrifying Demiurgos, and finally Romeo and Juliet for the mighty deity Abraxas.

It is a strange journey, full of dazzling imagery and mysteries that remain mysteries to the largely befuddled human crew. Along the way, Simmons manages to give a pretty good description of the various personalities found in the theater and this particular troupe, coupled with asides relating to various aspects of Shakespeare's plays and the roles therein.

Knowing Simmons, but having only slight familiarity with gnosticism, I'm confident that there are many layers of symbolic meaning to the names and choices for the various alien hierarchy and the odd religion that the human race follows. However, not being able to appreciate the full depth of such aspects did not impair my enjoyment of the story, which kept me reading past my bedtime to get to the end.

In somewhat classic Simmons fashion, there's no real sense of the ramifications of the changes that take place as a result of the events in the story, either for the individual characters or for humanity as a whole. But it is quite clear that significant change has occurred.

I don't know that I would buy this book as a stand-alone novella unless I found it for a good price. But the story is included in Gardner Dozois' anthology The New Space Opera, so you can get it there along with a lot of other interesting stories.

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