Saturday, August 11, 2007

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

“science fiction is for real, space opera is for fun”
-Brian Aldiss

The term ‘space opera’ dates to the early 1940s when it was coined by Tucker Wilson to describe “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn”. Through time it has evolved past its derogatory roots to be a general descriptor of wide-ranging adventures in space, often lauding human conquest of the universe. In the 1970s, authors began to reinvent and reinvigorate this aging form and the ‘new space opera’ evolved in concert with cyberpunk, trending toward darker topics, stronger characterization, and the use of new technologigies and infusion of hard sci-fi elements and scientific rigour, while distancing itself from the triumph of mankind style of old. The New Space Opera collects original short stories and novellas by some of the most prolific writers of the new space opera tradition of the past 30 years. Authors include Gwyneth Jones, Ian McDonald, Robert Reed, Paul J. McAuley, Greg Egan, Kage Baker, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Tony Daniel, James Patrick Kelly, Alastair Reynolds, Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Baxter, Robert Sivlerburg, Gregory Benford, Walter Jon Williams, Nancy Kress, and Dan Simmons.

I feel the need to provide some context for the rest of the review – space opera, new and old, is not a sub-genre that I have much experience with. This doesn’t come from any dislike, just the limits of time and scope on my reading for the past 20 years. Another area of limited exposure is shorter fiction – yes I’ve read and liked quite a bit of it, but the novel is the form I fell for and spend the most time with. I feel the need to provide this context because my over all impression of The New Space Opera sums up best with ‘meh’ and I believe that this is equally a result of my reading background as it is with the stories themselves.

As with most anthology collections, The New Space Opera has both winners and losers. Unremarkable and forgettable are the terms that jump into my mind regarding most of the contents – not one story kept me up thinking late into the night, and very few left any lasting impression. At the same time, I wouldn’t call any stories bad. It could be argued that space opera (new and old) is more often aimed at the entertainment/escapist side of fiction, but then the most entertaining stories can get my pulse racing and stick with me will into the night and beyond.

Another contributing factor is the editorial introduction to each story. In other anthologies these jewels are often as good (or better) than the stories that follow – not so with The New Space Opera. These introductions offer little more than an extended bibliography and leave the impression that the editors don’t have their fingers on the current pulse of the genre, but remain in somewhere in the past.

As I indicated above, there are a few entries that stand above, justifying the time spent reading this book – these are the stories I’ll highlight in more detail. Those stories not mentioned were lost in the mediocrity of the majority.

The first six offerings presented little of great interest to me. ”Maelstrom” by Kage Baker presents a fun look at an eccentric’s goal to bring the art of the theatre to a colonial Mars, but was too jumpy and uncertain in its execution to ultimately satisfy. This sets up the seventh story, “Blessed by an Angel” by Peter F. Hamilton, to shine as the most skilled presentation to this point. We see parallel story arcs where a young woman in a free and fun society has her personal rights violated by a pair of shadowy agents next to the story of an angel spreading his genes in an effort to help humanity evolve to a more enlightened place. The stories meet and the angelic life seems much less angelic, the shadowy agent a little less bad, and the reader is left to wonder if either side has it right.

Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf359” and “Dividing the Sustain” by James Patrick Kelly weave heavy doses of dead-pan humor, with MacLeod shining a bit brighter with his banter between a long-lived human and a spaceship as they encounter an isolated human population. Gregory Benford’s “The Worm Turns” isn’t as successful at the witty banter between human and machine in his first contact story of wormhole wrestling. Though as far humor is concerned, “Send them Flowers” by Walter Jon Williams rules with its short-on-cash rogue-ish captain and his Don Juan companion as they aim to stay one leap ahead of slighted lovers in an inter-dimensional ruckus. This story could have been written by Joss Whedon – thinking of which, isn’t it a shame that Whedon doesn’t write short (or long) fiction?

Robert Silverberg reinvents Arabian Nights in “The Emperor and the Maula” with a fairy tale for the stars and a human race that has found nirvana, only to have it annexed and enslaved by an ever expanding galactic empire.

My favorite installments seem to be the stories that get a bit more ‘political’ and pointed in their aim. “Art of War” by Nancy Kress features the estranged son of a heroic military leader in a time of war between humans and an alien race. Through the recovery of looted art he discovers the key to their enemy’s war, an answer beyond the willingness of the general to accept. The inflexibility of those in power proves deadly in the end. “Minla’s Flowers” by Alastair Reynolds left the longest impression on me in a story of unintended consequences where a man called Merlin chooses compassion against better judgment and helps a primitive human society rapidly evolve to avoid the upcoming unavoidable destruction of their planet. Power corrupts and humanity never seems to change.

Though it wasn’t my favorite, the strongest story is the last –“Muse of Fire” by Dan Simmons. As with much of his writing, “Muse of Fire” is heavily peppered with literary reference and Shakespeare in particular. A troop of players travels part of the galaxy to entertain the long enslaved human race – an unprecedented opportunity to perform for their masters arises. What Shakespearean play will save humanity – King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet …?

For those that are fans of space opera, old and new, The New Space Opera is a collection you’ll enjoy, and for those that are seeking adventurous stories in fascinating settings afar, this is a collection you’ll enjoy. For me it is too much mediocrity surrounded by too few gems – but those gems just might be enough. 6/10


Ian Sales said...

I've just finished this anthology myself. I think you're a little harsh in your judgement - there were some good stories in it. I agree that Dan Simmons provided one of the best ones, but I also liked the James Patrick Kelly. Al Reynolds did what Al Reynolds does. Ditto for Ken MacLeod and Pete Hamilton. Kage Baker's story was poor - the Brit characterisation was unconvincing, and it wasn't even space opera anyway, "new" or otherwise. And Silverberg's "retelling" of Scheherazade came across as merely lazy.

I'll admit I like space opera, and I found the anthology a good cross-section of the state of the sub-genre. Oh, and I also agree that the introductions to the stories weren't very good - in some cases, they were out of date too.

According to Jonathan Strahan's blog, he's just signed a deal with Harpercollins for a sequel anthology. I'll certainly buy it.

Unknown said...

"Another area of limited exposure is shorter fiction "...

For me as well. But I opted for 'The Space Opera Renaissance' instead.

Neth said...

-Ian, I suppose that everyone has their own opinions. I don't feel that I was too harsh - most of the stories were mediocre in my opinion. But, there were definately some good ones in there - good enough to make it worthwhile (if barely).


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