When I heard that Tad Williams, author of the excellent “Otherland” scifi series, had written a Shakespeare book? I went on the hunt. It’s pretty much out of print so I had to hunt a little farther than usual, but I did manage to find it.
The Tempest ends with Prospero and Miranda leaving the island, Ariel released from bondage, and Caliban…. what? Left alone to rule the island? How’s he feel about that? Is it what he wanted?
Flash forward 20 years. Prospero has passed away, Miranda is married with kids of her own. And Caliban has at last escaped the island and shown up in her room to tell his side of the story.
The premise, is pretty neat. It makes me think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and all that “who is really the monster here” stuff that comes along with listening to the monster tell his side of the story.
Unfortunately the execution turns out incredibly boring. The book is written in second person – told from Caliban to Miranda. I’m not a big fan of that style, it’s jarring to me to keep reading lines like, “I see by your expression that you do remember the place I’m talking about.” Argh. No, no I as the reader do not. Don’t do that. I’m aware that I am reading a book about fictional characters, third person he-said/she-said is fine with me.
Now take that style and tell 20 years of story (more, actually) from the point of view of a character who didn’t even know how to speak for the first half of it. Caliban tells the story of how he and his mother arrived at the island, and how they survived. The amount of story that Williams has to backfill, since Shakespeare gave us none of it, is pretty hefty. How’d they get there? Much like Prospero she was kicked out of town and put on a boat to starve. Why? Because she was a witch, not to mention pregnant. Who was Caliban’s daddy? Doesn’t say. Why did she not teach Caliban language herself? Townspeople burnt out her tongue before they shipped her off. Ah. How, then, does Caliban know all the details of the story, if she was not able to tell him and she died before Prospero showed up?! Turns out that Prospero knew all about her from before she was sent off to the island, and knew all about her and Setebos.
Imagine if you could remember when you were 6 months old, before you knew how to talk. Now imagine trying to explain what you were feeling. Worse, imagine a hundred or so pages of that. That’s what Caliban’s story is like.
Truthfully it’s just not for me. The overwhelming feature that keeps pulling me back to Shakespeare is the essence of what it means to be human that he puts into each character. It’s hard enough to do that with Caliban, it’s not like in this day and age we get a lot of feral children introduced to society who come to regret it. It dawns on me that there’s a certain irony in comparison to A Brave New World, where the “savage” is actually the wisest character of the bunch, and he spends most of his time quoting Shakespeare! Here you’ve got a Shakespeare original and somebody putting a book’s worth of non-Shakespeare words in his mouth.