Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons
Semiotics considers the process whereby one person communicates meaning to another. Put simply, A formulates a message in which he or she encodes meaning. In some suitable way, this message is transmitted to B who decodes the message and extracts meaning. The problem for A in this system is to ensure that the meaning he or she actually wishes to transmit is the one that B understands when the message is decoded. So, as a no-doubt-apocryphal example from the days when battlefield messaging relied on human messengers, a General receives the message, “Send three-and-four pence, we’re going to a dance.” For the young lovers of decimal currency, the old pound sterling used to be divided into shillings and pence. The phrase, “three-and-four pence” was an abbreviated reference to three shillings and four pence: just the right amount to pay for tickets to the ball. But what the battlefield commander actually said was, “Send reinforcements. I’m going to advance.” This phenomenon is called Chinese whispers and has been captured in a party game where semi-inebriated people sit in a circle and whisper a message to each other in turn and are then amused by how mangled the words get as they pass through many different ears and mouths. So authors must take care to ensure that they say what they mean, and to say it in a way that can be understood by their audience (or something).
By cultural convention, some authors achieve universality. No matter when they created their works, they can still be read and enjoyed centuries later. As plays or adaptations into visual storytelling, the audience can still find enjoyment and appreciate how little people have changed. Whether this is the original story of how Leonidas held off Xerxes at Thermopylae as retold by Frank Miller or the film, 300, or Beowulf as endlessly recycled in television or cinematic adaptations, people still respond to heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. Perhaps the writer most accepted as transcending time is Shakespeare. His poetry and plays seem to have captured the widest range of human strengths and weaknesses, and resonate through the ages.
Muse of Fire, a novella by Dan Simmons, takes as its conceit, the notion that there would be a market for a troupe performing Shakespeare in the far distant future. I am using “conceit” ambiguously as being both an artistic device for the story itself and pride in an author like Shakespeare whose work has the ability to survive technological and cultural transformation. Like Jack Vance who has a troupe of singers traipsing from planet to planet in the appropriately titled Space Opera, Simmons has a group of travelling players endlessly touring planets where there are human remnants, and performing the Bard. Things like this happen in science fiction. What then follows is an exercise in what those of a technical bent call intertextuality, where selected works from one author are woven into and interpreted to advance the telling of the new story. On a smaller scale, Muse of Fire pursues the same methodology as underpinned the Ilium/Olympos duology.
Handled well, the mediation of one text through another can produce interesting synergy. But the danger is that the modern author inflicts his or her own research fascinations on the unsuspecting reader. Striking the right balance in fiction is always a challenge. In this instance, even though I used to be a regular ticket holder at Stratford-upon-Avon, I found the Shakespearean quotes and analysis slightly overdone. While there is no disputing the ingenuity of the plot to take such a cliché and convert it into something more interesting, the end product is only partially successful. Bolting on some super-science, if not fantastic, elements as the environments in which the plays are performed and contextualising these elements in a Gnostic framework does not rescue the whole. Indeed, if anything, this story as a spiritual allegory is somewhat heavy-handed.
So I am back to yet another moment of self-reflection to justify why I buy these expensive books from Subterranean Press. I suppose the answer is that some of them do prove their value in literary terms. Perhaps, if I was a bigger fan of intertextualism, I would have enjoyed Muse of Fire more. As it is, I am unlikely ever to pick this up again. The jacket artwork is quite pretty, but this is another white elephant of a book for me.