Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The New Space Opera, Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Before delving into what this book has to offer, a word about the subject it addresses is in order. Just what, you might wonder, is the "new" space opera it refers to? What can possibly be new about it? For that matter, what exactly is space opera, period?

The editors, of course, address that subject in their introduction. As most who've given the issue some thought seem to argue, they point out that space opera is more than just a science fiction story set in space; rather, it has two special characteristics. The first is an intense romanticism, the second, a grand scale—a sense and use of the immensity of time and space—such as you can find in E.E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton and other such writers in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the numerous authors who have followed in their footsteps, like Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert.

The "new" space opera, commonly dated to the early 1980s but prefigured by some works going back to the 1960s, is harder to define so neatly. However, it is roughly analogous to the cyberpunk movement that cropped up at the same time in its being a synthesis of the style and sensibility introduced by the genre's "New Wave," with more traditional science fiction subject matter. Dozois and Strahan speak of the works coming out of it as "literary, challenging, dark, and often disturbing, but also grand and romantic, exciting, fast-paced . . . and told on an enormous stage," complete with all the elements expected of them: exotic aliens and planets, gigantic celestial events, interstellar wars, galactic empires, mind-boggling and even cosmic time scales.

This is, of course, not the only large anthology devoted to the revival of space opera to appear in recent years. On first reading the title I immediately thought of The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. However, there are important differences, chief among them that Renaissance is designed to give the reader a sense of the whole history of the field, using selections from material that has previously appeared in print (from Edmond Hamilton's 1929 "The Star Stealers" on), whereas this volume consists wholly of original contributions from authors who are currently productive.

The response to those stories from the critics has on the whole been excellent. Ten of the eighteen stories in the volume appeared on Locus's recommended reading list for the year 2007. Gwyneth Jones's "Saving Tiamat," Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring" and Greg Egan's "Glory" all ended up in Gardner Dozois' Year's Best collection for 2007, while Egan's piece (along with Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?") also reaped a Hugo nomination.

In short, this volume by itself represents a substantial share of the most-acclaimed short fiction of last year. A reader may think: That is all very well, but how is this book, really? The genre's literati have traditionally not been kind to space opera as such. Might this be a case of bait and switch, as sometimes happens with anthologies and collections like these? Alas, many of the reviews, including one by noted British critic Paul Kincaid, contend that this volume may be exactly that.

Of course, this may simply be a reaction to the fact that those looking for the sort of stuff Brian Aldiss served up in the wonderful anthologies he edited in the 1970s (such as the two-volume Galactic Empires) are likely to be disappointed. A lot of classic genre tropes—space-based feudalism and the anachronisms that go along with it (some of which were touched on in an article in the September issue of this journal), battles fought with good old blades and blasters, aliens of the kind that would be played by an actor in a rubber mask in a film or television production, and so on—are generally absent here. The writers also tend to eschew the surreal and outright fantastic in favor of a harder-science feel (however much future generations may laugh at what we think of as scientifically plausible).

To be honest, I missed the presence of such things myself, but the absence of those elements does not necessarily mean a story lacks those key characteristics of a sense of romance and a sense of the immense mentioned above. Olaf Stapledon, for instance, achieved his effects using very little of such. However, the rarity of them hints at a deeper problem, namely that the editors were overanxious for the anthology to seem as "serious" as possible, a determination which sits poorly with the color and romance and unbounded imagination that many of those who pick up this volume crave, and with which space opera is supposed to be synonymous. The conventional standards of critical respectability, the emphasis on hard-edged extrapolation prevailing today at the expense of other imaginative approaches (one consequence of which is the posthuman quality of so many of the book's milieus), the difficulty of maintaining a romantic outlook in this age of lowered expectations (an issue I took on in my recent essay, "'The End of Science Fiction': A View of the Debate") all work against the things that made space opera so exciting, making it that much harder to write good, new stuff.

As if that weren't enough, there is the genre's age to consider. In the essay "Reading for the Undead," John Barnes, himself a space opera writer of note, observes that by its third generation (which is where space opera certainly is) a genre
tends to become something like an inside joke (as with much of live theatre), a treasured family story (as with opera or jazz), or a set of exercises in which to display virtuosity (as with ballet and with much of orchestral music).
The editors of The New Space Opera seem afraid of the book making the genre appear exactly that way, and I suspect that in addition to the omissions described above, that worry has also manifested itself in the lack of parody (and the general flatness of the comedy) in this anthology. Parody when a genre is unquestionably young and vigorous is one thing, but quite another in such a moment of insecurity. Dozois and Strahan are eager to demonstrate the vitality of the genre with this volume, but their trying too hard has unintentionally sent the opposite message.

Not surprisingly, while just about every story here is set in space, and can make some claim to romanticism and immensity, only a third or so of the stories in here really satisfy in the way Dozois and Strahan outline. Dan Simmons's "Muse of Fire," for instance, is most assuredly a space opera, as is Robert Silverberg's "The Emperor and the Maula." One would not have to stretch the definition to consider Robert Reed's "Hatch," Alastair Reynolds's "Minla's Flowers," Tony Daniel's "Valley of the Gardens," McDonald's "Verdanthi's Ring," and Egan's "Glory" space opera either, at least in their essential material. Considering some of these stories as part of a larger body of work set in a shared universe, the list also gets a bit longer, so that I would feel compelled to include Peter F. Hamilton's "Blessed by An Angel." However much I try, though, it remains difficult for me to accept a story like Kage Baker's "Maelstrom," or Mary Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass," as "true" space opera.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of good science fiction here, however one categorizes it. Even if these stories do not necessarily convince the reader that we are in, as Dozois claims, the Golden Age of Space Opera, some of the examples presented here are nothing short of dazzling. Much of the fiction that has a more tenuous claim to the label is also of a very high quality. Indeed, this is a connoisseur's book—and not solely because of the quality of the individual pieces, which is high. Those who do not read much contemporary science fiction, or whose experience is confined to the higher-selling and more easily accessible stuff (like media tie-in novels or the military science fiction of Baen Books) may find some of these stories a bit over their heads, though I would argue that these stories are worth the effort for an inexperienced but open-minded reader.

Furthermore, while some readers may wonder why a favorite space adventure writer of theirs isn't represented (Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross all just give endorsements on the cover, while Iain Banks, Scott Westerfeld and many others only rate honorable mentions in the introduction), as it is the anthology has contributions from eighteen authors, collectively running to over five hundred packed pages. Most of the stories are accordingly novelette-length or longer—a story length hard to publish in today's market, as every working and aspiring writer knows—which makes anthologies like this a special opportunity.

On balance, it would have been impossible to include everyone, and I think that on at least that level, the editors made good use of the space, beginning with Gwyneth Jones' "Saving Tiamaat" (which you can also find here online), the first story by that author that I have actually liked. Set aboard a Babylon-5-like space station serving as the seat of the galactic Diaspora featured in other stories by Jones, it focuses on station officer Debra during the interstellar organization's intervention in the affairs of the KiAn—a world sharply divided between two castes, the relationship of which is characterized by customs that shock and horrify outsiders. One of the few stories here to present human beings as part of a galactic community with other species, it is thinner on world-building than I would have liked it to be, but it nonetheless proves to be an engaging story about the dilemmas raised when humanitarian imperatives collide with cultural politics.

The piece that follows it, Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring," offers a Rococo vision of posthuman space empire, "the Clade," combining Stapledonian scale with cutting-edge technological extrapolations. The conception may be a little too luxuriant, in fact, at times overshadowing the slender plot, which focuses on the effort of two members to find a shipmate gone missing (and despite that, is just plain confusing at times), but is by itself enough to make this story worth the read.

Robert Reed's novelette, "Hatch," is part of the "Great Ship" sequence he launched in 1994. This particular one is about passengers stranded on the outside of the ship's hull and forced to survive there while cut off from the increasingly mysterious interior of the vessel. Living in a rocket nozzle on the gas giant-sized ship, they live off the remains of an alien attacker's body that has formed an ecosystem on the ship's exterior. Peregrine, a prosperous "raider" whose job is harvesting the periodic "hatches" that send enormous swarms of aliens up into the atmosphere of the "Polypond," now in the midst of an affair with an old engineer who knew his mother, catches wind of a rare giant hatching which, of course, may well lead to much more than that.

The scale and audacity of the conception of the Great Ship is immediately arresting, and readers unfamiliar with Reed's previous writing may not find this quite as easy to read, or as rich, as those who already know it, but they should still be able to enjoy it, and are likely to want to read more about this universe.

In Paul J. McAuley's "Winning Peace," Carver White, a former military officer and prisoner of war in a conflict between Earth and the alien Collective (just one of many species to have knocked humanity near to the bottom of the galactic food chain), was sold into indentured servitude by his captors. His current employer, the scheming Mr. Kanza, now makes him an offer. If he performs the difficult task of recovering an Elder Culture artifact, he will grant him (and the brother he thought was dead) their freedom.

In contrast with this anthology's other stories about down-on-their-luck types trying to survive in a harsh galaxy, this one goes for grit over humor, and does so with good results. The unforgiving nature of this milieu comes through very clearly, as does White's tenacity and desperation, which help to make this hard-edged piece genuinely suspenseful.

To go by the accolades given these stories so far the next one, Egan's "Glory," also available online, may be the most honored of the pieces in the whole volume. I did not come away thinking that this was the best story in the whole anthology, but I did enjoy reading it nonetheless.

The opening pages are as technically stunning as they are dense (enough so to be off-putting if one isn't in the mood for thick detailing of a piece of radically futuristic technology), but the pace picks up soon enough after that, and the focus also becomes much less technological. Joan and Anne, two friends from the advanced "metacivilization" spanning the galaxy, have been sent to investigate a recent archeological discovery on an aggressive, primitive world still divided among competing, militaristic powers. While they certainly encounter their share of dangers and complications, at bottom the story is a meditation on the evolutionary paths of species and cultures, and the consequences of attaining long-sought-for knowledge.

About as far different from "Glory" in subject and tone as it can be, Kage Baker's novelette "Maelstrom" is about an eccentric architect's dream of bringing theater to a colony on the Martian frontier, with a stage production of Edgar Allen Poe's "Maelstrom" for a premiere. "Maelstrom" is feather-light, and I felt that we didn't see enough of Mr. Morton after the early scenes, but the telling is breezy, and fans might enjoy the jokes about just what constitutes serious theater in this version of the future.

The next story in the anthology, Peter F. Hamilton's "Blessed by an Angel," is unique in this group for two reasons. The first is that his war story, rather than pitting humanity against an alien opponent, has humanity divided against itself. The cause of that division is the second thing that makes his piece unique: rather than incorporating the tropes of the Singularity into a future which is socially, emotionally and psychologically much the same as ours, he has the posthuman conservatives ("Advancers") and radicals ("Highers") from his popular "Commonwealth" saga at odds over a crucial fork in that road. The result in this universe has been a Cold War-like stand-off, and in keeping with that, Hamilton presents us with a compelling Cold War-style game of infiltration, subversion and counter-stratagem played just under the surface of the daily life of the inhabitants of Anagaska.

The writer following Hamilton, Ken Macleod, is one I have long regarded as a stand-out for his boldness and imaginativeness in tackling political themes most other authors would never attempt. This particular story is wryly told from a far future where memories of the "Old Space Age" are hazy by a ne'er do well who, following his arrest and fining for adultery, took on the job of "cleaning up" the mess from Wolf 359, a privately owned experimental civilization. While readers who know Macleod's Fall Revolution books might wonder if this is not simply another variant on the New Mars theme of libertarianism-run-amok, he goes in a different direction this time. The treatment is spare, but the story's cleverness makes it work.

Considerably richer on the level of pure story, Daniel's novelette "The Valley of the Gardens" is structured around two plot threads. One is the story of a young man from the titular valley who falls in love with a desert nomad from across the fence dividing their respective communities—but is unable to be with her. The other is a story of love amid a long-ago war with the ancient, alien Hirudineans, looking to conquer the universe. Each is compelling in its own right, both because of Daniel's world-building, which are comparable to McDonald and Hamilton in this volume (in particular due to the imaginative and masterful mix of the pastoral and technological in the landscape of Cangarriga), and the drama of each of the narratives. Despite their differences in theme and tone, they also smoothly converge in the latter half of "Valley" to make this one of the volume's most satisfying pieces.

A far cry from Cangarriga, James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain" is set aboard a crowded colony ship ferrying a load of "Consensualists" to their new world. Traveling with them is undercover courier Been Watanabe, who in the course of his assignment copes with difficult podmates, the problems of getting older in a posthuman age, and his intense attraction to the wife of the captain, who somehow never seems to be around. The future in "Dividing" is more whimsical than the others, and the occasional imaginative flash, and the cleverness of the plotting, keep the reader's interest in a familiar premise.

Rather more serious, and rewarding, is Reynolds's novella "Minla's Flowers." Like many of the other stories gathered here, it too continues a story begun elsewhere- specifically the tale of a spacefarer named Merlin, in the course of a quest for a super-weapon with the potential to save humanity from the alien "Huskers" (which began with "Hideaway" in 2000). Here he happens upon a lost offshoot of humanity living in a society resembling 1910s Earth. During his brief stay among them it becomes clear to him that their sun, and their world along with it, will be destroyed in a cataclysm in seventy years' time. After he reveals this information to the inhabitants, the race is on to build a space-faring civilization capable of saving the planet's inhabitants.

The device of a spacefarer happening on a world "out there" that just happens to look like a recognizable earlier moment in our history requires avoiding a great many pitfalls, but Reynolds pulls off the job with aplomb, using the situation to good effect. In most of the stories in this anthology, the issues of our time have generally been outgrown in a transition to posthumanity, or at least some other stage of development, but Reynolds' story derives a good part of its punch from having something to say about problems we now face. By turns touching and tragic, it may also be the most human of the stories in the volume.

Much more modest in scope, but also more intimate than most of the pieces here, is Mary Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass." As readers familiar with Rosenblum from science fiction stories like "Search Engine" may expect, "Glass" is a futuristic noir which, in this case, takes place on Europa. Opening with a fugitive living as a "moss" miner sees a woman from a past he thought was behind him, much of this is familiar stuff, but the plot has an intrinsic interest, and Rosenblum tells the tale well, making effective use of her exotic backdrop.

The problem of a past that won't go away reappears quite differently in Stephen Baxter's "Remembrance," which is about a buried trauma for the human species from an alien occupation that has since ended. As it happens, the memory surfaces just when it may be the key to resolving the crisis that began when the United Nations discovered a colony of the "Squeem" on the Saturnian moon Rhea. There is little in the way of a scientific detective story here, the structure of "Remembrance" essentially a framing device for the revelation of that memory by the only man in the world who remembers the event. Baxter invests just enough imagination in this variant on the familiar premise to make the idea work.

Robert Silverberg's "The Emperor and the Maula" similarly tells of an occupied Earth, a utopian future world that fell under the control of the Ansaar, perhaps the only really old-fashioned galactic empire in the volume. As a new entrant into the empire's elaborate hierarchy, humanity is sufficiently unassimilated into the galactic culture that the mere arrival of a human being (a barbaric "maula") on the Ansaar's capital world instantly condemns them to death. Nonetheless, Laylah Walis comes to the capital anyway, and ends up intriguing the Ansaar Emperor himself. The story that follows is a reworking of the tale of Scheherazade (with a bit of the Biblical Esther thrown in), and includes all the operatic splendor that a fan of these stories can hope for from a story set in the palace of a star monarch.

Much closer to home, and down at heel, Gregory Benford's "The Worm Turns" features Claire, an independent contract hauler who is blackmailed into a tricky wormhole recovery by Suits threatening to confiscate her ship. Inevitably, there are complications, and more significant developments—but these are all in a day's work for Claire (who comes off as an incongruous mix of "chick lit" heroine and roughneck), and her concerns are more immediate, financial and personal. Benford's strong suit here is his handling of the hard science element; other aspects of the story are not quite as satisfactory, the dénouement in particular falling flat, logical as it may be given what we know of the protagonist.

Walter Jon Williams also does a comic turn in "Send Them Flowers," the tale of two losers making their way through the multiverse's probabilities aboard a space yacht. At any given time they are chasing opportunity and running from trouble, doing both with just enough success to keep alive and keep running (not least because Tonio, one-half of the team, regards himself as a ladies' man and has a knack for getting into misunderstandings about "borrowed" items). The result held my attention, but never quite engaged me in the way I'd hoped, and to be honest I wished I'd spent the time with Aristide and Bitsy instead—another Williams duo that I had rather more fun with.

We return to the theme of humanity at war with a mysterious alien adversary in Nancy Kress's rather literally titled, "Art of War." The enemy this time around, the Teli, has a curious penchant for looting any human art objects they can find, and following the capture of a Teli stash by Terran forces, Captain Porter—a Space Navy officer who has also been trained as an art historian—is called in to catalog the haul. In the course of his assignment he finds himself butting heads with his commanding officer General Anson, not only because of Porter's doubts about the real story of a recent military victory, or because he finds himself in the midst of a cultural mystery that may well have very practical significance for the progress of the war, but because she is his own mother, who has been ashamed of him ever since she branded him a coward in his childhood.

This story is plainer than many of the others in this volume, and Anson comes off as a stereotypical ogre of an officer raging against a child who has disappointed them (save for the sex change Kress wrote in by making dad into a mom). The result is that this crucial relationship is rather one-note for something so central to the narrative, but the core concept is a compelling one, and Kress to her credit doesn't flinch from taking the story to its logical and devastating conclusion.

Similarly offering a consideration of the significance of art, Dan Simmons's "Muse of Fire" is perhaps the most ambitious piece in the volume, as well as being the longest—and last. In this future humans have been conquered by ten foot tall alien "Archons," and reduced to a "cultureless, futureless" slave species, the bottom caste in a galactic hierarchy of sentient beings. A few of them, members of a troupe of Shakespearean actors accustomed to playing for human laborers and administrators, are ordered to give a command performance for a local Archon ruler. They soon enough find themselves on a dizzying journey through ascending levels of reality, and their practice of their craft a fight for their lives—and perhaps, far more than that as well.

Simmons's novella is less striking for the originality of the idea at its core than the imagination, skill (and it must be admitted, audacity) of the execution. As readers familiar with his previous work may expect, it is grandly conceived and richly detailed, and pulled off with sufficient aplomb as to make moments that would seem simply ridiculous elsewhere utterly absorbing.

Readers should be warned up front, however: a more-than-cursory knowledge of, and interest in, Shakespeare's plays is probably necessary for this one, without which large chunks of the narrative might be impenetrable, and part of the effect certainly lost. Simmons here is absolutely in metafictional territory, but speaking as one who has tended to associate the term with self-indulgent postmodern hacks, I have to say the label doesn't nearly do it justice. The result, in theme as well as quality, is a very fitting close to the volume because even if the anthology on the whole leaves you feeling the genre has already seen its best days, this story can make you believe that at the very least a few last, great pieces remain to be written.

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