This was the book that made me wonder whether I just wasn’t enjoying reading books on the smartphone. Bridge of Birds would be terrific in any format, but I had had lukewarm or only just better than lukewarm reactions to two authors I normally quite like, Connie Willis and John Scalzi. Then I tried an author I was unfamiliar with, Dan Simmons, and the book, Muse of Fire, didn’t do much for me at all. (It originally appeared as part of the anthology The New Space Opera. I read an electronic version of an edition from Subterranean Press.)
The story follows an interstellar troupe of Shakespeare players in a universe where humans have been reduced to slave labor for mysterious and extremely powerful alien overlords. Humanity has been dispersed to small settlements among the stars, while earth itself has been converted into a massive mausoleum: dead humans are brought back from various stars to be interred in crypts that cover the surface of the planet, a surface now dry and dusty because the oceans have been drained by the aforementioned overlords. The traveling Shakespeareans seem to be one of the few groups of humans to move from star to star, and to escape lifelong drudgery.
The protagonist is Wilbr, a 20-year-old actor who has been with the Earth’s Men since he was nine. As the story opens, they are about to perform Macbeth at a mining outpost. Wilbr introduces most of the cast, and it is a group rife with conflict and ready for drama. And then … nothing happens. Or rather, a great many things happen, but none of it arises from the characters, and only minimally from the setup. The course of the plots struck me as one deus ex machina after another, quite literally, as the crew encounters an ascending line of godlike aliens, all of whom are very fond of Shakespeare. Or at least want to see Shakespeare performed by live humans, for reasons that remain ineffable.
I get that the author considers Shakespeare a pinnacle of human achievement. That’s nice. It’s not a story, and reading this attempt made me cranky enough to wonder whether the act of swiping a screen rather turning a page had something about it that annoyed me so deeply (and yet unconsciously) that I would be unable to like any book I read in smartphone format. Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate cured me of the notion, but that’s another story.