Review: The New Space Opera 2, ed. Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan

NSO2

(Eos Books ISBN 9780061562358 (distributed by HarperCollins))

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, January 2010)

If defining ‘space opera’ is a slippery slope in itself (beyond the basic tropes, I suppose, of spaceships, Galactic quests, grand designs, and ‘sense of wonder’), defining such a beast as ‘the new space opera’ has got to be a losing proposition. But it’s not, surely, the definitions that matter so much: what of the stories?

‘Utriusque Cosmi’ by Robert Anton Williams is a conflation of sweeping cosmology (through the end of the Universe, and beyond, and back again) and personal tragedy, as the entity who was once a girl named Carlotta confronts her fate and her history. It’s an effective start to the anthology, with a nice broad-spectrum range and a gritty resonance.

Enormous Big Objects are among the staples of space opera, both old and new. But what happens when Enormous Big isn’t an object? And just happens to be plumb spang in the path your spacecraft needs to traverse, if it’s to make the next jump point? ‘The Island’ by Peter Watts is one of the standouts in the collection, scoring big on sense-of-wonder.

‘Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance’ by John Kessel aims for less of the majestic sweep than the two preceding stories, settling into a satisfactorily intriguing tale of postmodern espionage. I’m not sure I entirely buy the story’s conceit of literature as weapon, but it works, in context.

‘To Go Boldly’ by Cory Doctorow takes plenty of pot shots at an easy target – no prizes for guessing which one. The brilliance of Doctorow’s skewering pretty much carries this one. It’s maybe wearing a little thin by the tale’s end, but for the most part, this is seriously funny.

I have a lot of respect for John Barnes, whose novel A Million Open Doors is a brilliant and enthralling space-opera adventure, and whose other work generally impresses. But ‘The Lost Princess Man”, in this volume, seems needlessly Machiavellian, and quite disappointing.

‘Defect’ by Kristine Kathryn Rusch makes, again, with the espionage – if rocketry is the first prerequisite of true Space Opera, then spycraft must surely come a close second – in a story focussed on murder, loss, and retribution. This is a classic sample of space adventure, told from a well-realised personal perspective. There’s, perhaps, nothing genuinely new about the story, in terms of plot developments, or dilemmas posed, but it runs well.

‘To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves’ by Jay Lake explores the classic triangle of Captain, Captain, and Sentient Spacecraft, in a story with a lot more atmosphere than the planet they’ve landed on. Recommended.

‘Shell Game’ by Neal Asher sits somewhere between Iain M Banks’ ‘Culture’ universe and the realms of Alistair Reynolds’s ‘Revelation Space’ series. By itself, it’s too short a work to convincingly usurp either of those behemoths, but my understanding is that most of the rest of Asher’s work (none of which I’ve yet read) is also set within the ‘Polity’ universe that forms the backdrop for this tale. This is a good example of the space-opera form.

‘Punctuality’ by Garth Nix is something of a disappointment – too staged, too brief, too lightweight.

‘Inevitable’ by Sean Williams is a sequel, or perhaps a companion piece, to his classic story ‘A Map of the Mines of Bernath’. It’s a good example of Williams’s style: tense standoffs, well-fleshed characters, a twist or two, with a fast, grainy feel to the prose. If it perhaps doesn’t entirely live up to the heights of ‘Map’, it’s still a worthy successor.

‘Join the Navy and See the Worlds” by Bruce Sterling has a near-future focus, a satisfactorily dystopian air, and a lot of detail. Too much detail, in my view, for the story to get airborne. Sterling’s an accomplished futurist, but he takes too many opportunities to infodump all over this one.

If just one word would suffice to describe ‘Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings’ by Bill Willingham, then that word would have to be ‘rollicking’. But, given the title, what else would you expect?

‘From the Heart’, by John Meaney, has all the elements, but doesn’t really shine: there’s too strong a taste of wish-fulfilment.

‘Chameleon’ by Elizabeth Moon, the anthology’s longest story – it maybe makes novella length – is a propulsive YA adventure on an interstellar way-station, as a bodyguard struggles to protect the children of a very wealthy man. There are serious shades of Heinlein in this one, more in the pace than in the politics. Effective.

‘The Tenth Muse’ by Tad Williams is another spaceship-in-peril story. Old movie references make for some nice grace notes, but I never fully engaged with this story.

Justina Robson’s ‘Cracklegrackle’ has a mysterious, untrustworthy alien seeking to help lay a ghost for Michael Bishop, whose daughter has gone lost on Mars. More of a psychic journey than a physical one (though spaceships are, yet again, involved), this didn’t greatly resonate with me.

‘The Tale of the Wicked’ by John Scalzi places us back in classic Space Opera territory: the standoff between two opposing battle-craft, both badly damaged. Serious fun.

Mike Resnick’s ‘Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz’ plays it for laughs, a little too self-consciously, perhaps. It’s not as entertaining as the Doctorow story, nor as effortlessly wry as the Scalzi, but it earns its place. And if you’re not completely rollicked-out by the Willingham piece, then this, too, rollicks in its own way.

‘The Far End of History’ by John C. Wright bears no real similarity to the story that precedes it, except, perhaps, for a slight surfeit of self-consciousness. Wright seeks to marry the intimate with the grandiose, in a tale of courtship between two planets. It’s not as silly as it sounds, but nor is it entirely successful. It’s possible, however, that by this point I was suffering from sense-of-wonder fatigue, which is a serious risk when you plough into a collection of this type.

Overall? I enjoyed much of the anthology, but I’d have to say it left me feeling somewhat disappointed. The editors, Dozois and Strahan, make a virtue (in the introduction) of having chosen work exclusively by authors not represented in the preceding – and to my mind, superior – volume in the series. But I’m not convinced this strategy is a virtue. This time around, there’s no Alistair Reynolds, no Greg Egan, no Paul McAuley, no Peter F. Hamilton. And, although several of the authors represented in this volume do excellent work, we’re two volumes down and there’s still no Iain M Banks, no Lois McMaster Bujold, no Jack McDevitt. Space Opera as a genre should have more ability than most to produce an anthology of breadth, diversity, and depth. Here, though, the breadth is there, the diversity, but the depth?

This time around, the depth is lacking, just that bit.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)

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