Review: The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

new_space_opera

(Eos Books, 978-0-06-084675-6)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, February 2008)

Space opera, as Dozois and Strahan categorise it in their introduction, is spacecraft, aliens, high adventure in deep space, the big Galactic picture. It has a long and rich history as an SF subgenre, and has been experiencing something of a renaissance for the past couple of decades after arguably having become stale in the 1970s and 80s. This anthology collects new stories by many of the writers involved in this renaissance.

Having defined space opera in a reasonably complete and clearly-thought-out fashion, the editors then choose to open the anthology with a story which, to my mind, isn’t space opera at all. This doesn’t matter too much – “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones – is an undeniably hard-edged and provoking science fiction tale of alien races, cultural differences and inequity, and it resonated with me long after reading.

Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring” adheres more to the core space-opera content of interstellar conflict and spaceflight. It’s a highly concentrated, slightly offbeat story of three clone-siblings at the centre of a Galaxy-wide battle between two races. Juxtaposed against “Saving Tiamaat”, it comes across as surprisingly serene in contrast, though McDonald’s body count is vastly higher than Jones’.

“Hatch” by Robert Reed is an example of Enormous Big Thing storytelling. Reed has apparently written several stories set in and on the Great Ship, a Jupiter-sized alien spacecraft colonised by a variety of societies. In “Hatch”, we follow the fortunes of Peregrine, an expert in the salvaging and scavenging of exotic or valuable material from a possibly dying alien entity, the Polypond, encrusted on the ship’s hull. The worldbuilding is fascinating; though, not having read any others in the story sequence, I can’t reliably judge how “Hatch” fits in or measures up. For me, it failed to shine against the neighbouring stories, although it was wonderful to visualise.

I’ve read several books by Paul McAuley, though mostly his early works. In “Winning Peace”, Carver White is an indentured slave sent by his owner, Mr. Kanza, on a risky voyage to retrieve a mysterious and possibly valuable artefact from close orbit around a brown dwarf. Carver sees in this escapade a chance for freedom, but the outcome hinges on Kanza’s military accomplice and on an alien rescued from a wrecked spacecraft. It’s a tale with overtones of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and while there’s nothing particularly new to this story, it works quite well.

In “Glory”, Greg Egan’s use of an arcane optical phenomenon as a crucial plot element impressed me greatly, as did his refusal (unlike a majority of the writers here) to resort to magical physics in the construction of his tale. Egan’s story tells of two human mathematicians, Anne and Jane, who incorporate themselves into the warring factions of the Noudah race for a chance to rescue some details of the mathematical heritage of the Noudah’s antecedents, the Niah. There are reasonably transparent analogies drawn to recent developments in terrestrial civilisation, but “Glory” skirts polemicism to round out what, for me, was one of the volume’s highlights.

“Maelstrom” by Kage Baker narrows the focus from the interstellar to the interplanetary. On Mars, Mr. Morton has acquired enough wealth to allow him to fulfil a dream as parton of the arts, and he builds a hideously ornate theatre dedicated to dramatic readings of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Baker’s story follows his efforts to stage a reading of “The Descent into the Maelstrom”, with the assistance of several local amateur actors of widely varying skill and two Earth-born immigrants, the talented Meera and the habitually miscast Crispin. As with the Jones story that opens the anthology, I’m not sure of Maelstrom’s credentials as space opera per se (although it’s undeniably space-based, and has quasi-operatic episodes), but it’s a wonderful story nevertheless, managing to evoke both the off-world wonder of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and the polished farce of the Market Snodsbury prizegiving speech from P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ novels.

Peter F. Hamilton’s “Blessed by an Angel” places Imelda, a pregnant teenager on the planetary backwater of Anagaska, at the nexus of a conflict between the Advanced and the Higher, two factions who differ strongly on their visions for human destiny. As with most, if not all, of the anthology’s story’s, it’s a very well-executed tale – Hamilton is a dab hand at worldbuilding, and the dozen pages of the story’s span are plenty to convey a detailed, rounded view of the society which Imelda inhabits – although the twist in the end is moderately predictable and unexceptional.

Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” is short, witty, and well worthwhile. And you’ve got to admire a story that, aside from anything else, comes up with the concept of “phytobraking”.

“The Valley of the Gardens”, by Tony Daniel, is a tale of humanity’s rear-guard action against assailants from another universe. It’s well done, but didn’t really shine for me.

“Dividing the Sustain” by James Patrick Kelly is a black-humour comedy of manners detailing the last weeks of Been Watanabe’s voyage to Little Chin on a colony ship piloted by a Captain whom no-one can actually remember having seen recently. Been’s decision to turn gay clashes with his infatuation with Ilona, the missing Captain’s twenty-nine-months-pregnant ex-wife. Both Been and Ilona have hidden agendas, but if Been’s provides much of the narrative’s ostensible purpose, it’s Ilona’s that proves the real show-stopper.

Alastair Reynolds’ “Minla’s Flowers” explores familiar territory – the misuse of knowledge – but presents itself with freshness and clarity. Merlin’s spacecraft is forced to make a landing on Lecythus, a planet he’s learnt will die in seventy years’ time when a stream of exotic material disrupts Lecythus’ sun. The inhabitants’ only hope is to advance, with Merlin’s occasional guidance, from an early 20th-century technological society to a starfaring culture within the span of a natural human lifetime. The lifetime is measured out in Minla, initially a six-year-old girl whom Merlin meets at the story’s beginning. Minla’s actions and decisions are pivotal to the society’s progression from primitive industrialism to a civilisation capable of journeying to another, safer star; but human nature is a constant, so it’s a progression heavy with a sense of foreboding.

“Splinters of Glass” by Mary Rosenblum is set beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa, where Gerta’s ex-partner Qai is in hiding after having double-crossed a group of people who don’t take kindly to being shortchanged. This is a propulsive little tale of revenge, forgiveness and pursuit, and Rosenblum’s use of Europa as a setting, though fanciful in some of its imagined aspects, is refreshing after so many of the anthology’s preceding pages have been spent in deep space or on entirely fictional planets.

Although I remain greatly impressed by Stephen Baxter’s first novel, ‘Raft’, I have to admit that I lost interest in his broad-brush space epic Xeelee sequence after one of his novels treated the end of the Universe as a somewhat anticlimactic plot point. Baxter’s offering here, “Remembrance”, is a story that riffs on Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’: here an old man recounts the secret oral history that’s been passed down to him, and which he feels compelled to disseminate in turn, regarding the blocked memories of an episode in Earth’s subjugation by the alien Squeem race. Baxter’s detailed knowledge of physics, never far from the forefront of his space-based fiction, is undeniable but the human element of “Remembrance” never really came to life for me: there are sections of dialogue which seem too obviously intended to provide background information, rather than character insight, and the decision taken at the story’s conclusion, regarding Earth’s response to the newly-revealed past atrocity, doesn’t sting in the way that, say, the revealed brutality of human nature does, in “Minla’s Flowers” two stories previously.

“The Emperor and the Maula” by Robert Silverberg has human transgressor Laylah spinning the story of her exploits as a means of delaying her execution by the all-powerful Ansaar emperor Ryah VII. It’s an intriguing story, always seeming just one step away from descent into pulp cliché, and while it delivers no sparkling insights or dizzying turns of plot, it works well enough.

Gregory Benford’s “The Worm Turns” is apparently a sequel to his earlier short story, “A Worm in the Well”, which I don’t remember having read in this time-sequence. Aspects of the story’s construction – Benford’s trademark play with high-physics concepts, and the somewhat off-key, somewhat comic-tinged characterisation – sit incongruously together, though perhaps in the context of the earlier work these attributes might make a better match.

“Send Them Flowers” by Walter Jon Williams is a romp, bubbling with intrigue and narrowly averted mishap. Crossbie and his friend Tonio flee across the multiverse, looking to escape the cuckolded husband of another one of Tonio’s long line of ill-chosen lovers. But Tonio, it seems, just can’t help himself … A highlight.

In Nancy Kress’ “Art of War”, Jon Anson struggles with his place within the military hierarchy as he seeks to catalogue a trove of stolen human art, rudely stored in caverns on a colony planet abandoned by the alien Teli race. The story is thoughtful and clever, though I found the ending mildly unsatisfying.

“Muse of Fire” by Dan Simmons rounds out the anthology; it’s also the collection’s longest story. Simmons is one of those SF writers who, while clearly a master storyteller (“Muse” is highly readable and contains some powerful and vivid imagery), isn’t really to my taste. His novella here mixes Shakespeare and metaphysics as a wandering troupe of actors are called upon to stage versions of the Bard’s plays for an ascending hierarchy of alien overlords.

The New Space Opera is already building a reputation as one of the landmark anthologies of 2007. Anthologies are always uneven things, in the perception if not in the construction – not all stories will be to everyone’s liking, and there are certainly stories here I didn’t warm to – but Dozois and Strahan have assembled a very strong collection, and I certainly found much of it rewarding. I could reiterate my favourites among the contents list, but that, I think, would not be an overly helpful exercise – other readers are likely to have lists which differ greatly from my own. I will say that I encountered work by several writers new to me, of whom I’m keen to learn more: the book serves as a valuable introduction to a cohort of fine current SF writers, as well as providing an excellent modern overview of SF’s flagship subgenre. There are too, I believe, rumours that New Space Opera is to become a continuing series of anthologies, or at the very least to spawn a sequel.

That, I think, is something to look forward to.




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