The distant future finds humanity scattered over hundreds of worlds, enslaved to an alien race, laboring in mines and building fortresses for their spider-like masters, the Archon. Earth has been transformed into a mass grave, and all that remains of human culture is the daily fare of pubs and churches. And also, as luck would have it, the plays of William Shakespeare.
Wilbr, the narrator of the tale, is by his own admission not the most talented of actors. His Rosencrantz is fine, but he knows he'll never have a shot at Hamlet. Meanwhile Aglaé, "the best and most attractive Juliet and Rosalind," hardly acknowledges his existence. They and the rest of the crew of The Muse of Fire tour the galaxy, offering residents of the planets they're allowed to visit a moment's respite from lives of drudgery. When a group of Archons join the audience to observe one otherwise routine production, the players find themselves conscripted into a series of shows put on for the benefit of ever more strange and powerful alien races. Naturally, the survival of the human race hangs in the balance.
Muse of Fire is a short novel (it originally appeared in the New Space Opera anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan), but it feels expansive. As the crew travels from one stage to another, each more grand and bewildering than the last, the member of their troupe who usually plays Iago plots to overthrow their cruel masters, while Wilbr and Aglaé prepare for a final performance on which everything depends: a rendition of Romeo and Juliet unlike any other.
This is not the first time Dan Simmons has yoked the classics of the Western canon to space opera science fiction. The novels of his Hugo Award-winning Hyperion Cantos bore the influences of Keats and The Canterbury Tales (for starters) and Ilium featured a re-creation of the Trojan War on Mars. Fans of those masterly works will adore Muse of Fire for its layered symbology, intertextual wit and deep humanism. But Muse of Fire also shows Simmons at his best as a storyteller, and readers will be delighted by a tale so expertly told.
Jedediah Berry is the author of The Manual of Detection, forthcoming from Penguin Press.