29 June 2007

Locus Magazine reviews The New Space Opera

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, June 2007

The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos 978-0-06-084675-6, $15.95, 516pp, tp) June 2007. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

It's been nearly four years since Locus's special issue on the New Space Opera, and even then several of the contributors argued that the movement stretched back, in one form or another, at least to M. John Harrison's 1975 novel The Centauri Device. And last year's Hartwell/Cramer anthology The Space Opera Renaissance, which argued in part that the New Space Opera wasn't all that new, included among its major selections Samuel R. Delany's 1966 novel Empire Star. Whether the movement (or trend, or subgenre, or fit) is more than four decades old or whether it's mainly a product of the 1990s is by now fodder for literary historians and LiveJournal obsessives, but what all the debates have so far had in common is that they were by necessity ex post facto efforts to classify or reclassify stories and novels that may or may not have been written with any sort of movement in mind at all. What would happen, though, if a stellar group of writers, many (but not all) associated with the movement, were invited to contribute new stories specifically under this rubric? That is the question that Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan present in The New Space Opera, and while they claim in their introduction that the stories were solicited without any particular definition or argument in mind, the result is a kind of collective overview that may be among the clearest — and least theoretical — outlines of the movement to date. If what results is not exactly a consensus, it at least offers some reassurance that those of us who were confused about the parameters of New Space Opera (or NSO) may have been the ones who were right all along.

Any anthology of original stories, of course, depends in part on what the editors can get, and in the case of The New Space Opera there's an added limitation that comes from trying to represent in short form a trend usually associated with novels. This perhaps explains the most obvious omissions, such as Iain M. Banks (who hardly ever writes short form) or M. John Harrison (whose stories seldom fall into this vein), but their influence is visible in all sorts of ways in these 18 stories, and there are enough recurrent or familiar tropes that we can almost begin to discern the outlines of an NSO playbook. Starships, for example, are invariably chatty and argumentative and are sometimes personified with weird haiku names like Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity (Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring"). Far more than in the old space opera, these same starships are likely to be captained by women, but by and large they're not happy about it (McDonald again). All architecture is just ancient; just about any structure of any size is at least several millennia old, whether it's a 50,000-year-old broken fence (Tony Daniel's "The Valley of the Gardens") or a long-abandoned arcology (Peter Hamilton's "Blessed by an Angel"). Space heroes are morally ambiguous and sometimes do double duty as assassins (Gwyneth Jones's "Saving Tiamaat"). Technologically advanced civilizations may be snotty about Earth's primitivism, but they themselves are not above slavery and genocide (Paul McAuley's "Winning Peace" or Stephen Baxter's "Remembrance"). Story endings may strive for elegiac poetry ("furious bodies riding upon a trillion, trillion wings, reaching for this prize that has been lost," from Robert Reed's "Hatch") or buddy bonding ("The two men grinned at each other. Then they ran for the scow" from McAuley's "Winning Peace") or tough-guy taciturnity ("I still have a gun to find, and I'm not getting any younger. Mission resumed" from Alastair Reynolds's "Minla's Flowers"). Nothing is small, nothing is weak, and nothing is very close by; scale is just as important to NSO as it was to Doc Smith. Alien empires, as in the old space opera, never have to worry about budgets.

But if one were to come away from this anthology with a sense of a single recurring theme for New Space Opera, that theme would be war, and not the triumphal star-smashing wars of your grandpa's space opera. The lead story, Gwyneth Jones's "Saving Tiamaat", quickly sets up the morally ambiguous tone of much NSO by giving us a narrator who is attempting to broker a peace between warring factions on a remote planet, but whose final strategy is bluntly cynical and not all that effective to boot. McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring" — which may offer the richest panoply of ideas of any single story here — proposes a solution to an interstellar war that is even more dubiously expedient. An indentured prisoner of war in McAuley's "Winning Peace" finds an unlikely ally in a corrupt naval officer (political corruption is another entry for the playbook). Rarely is there room in the NSO universe for frankly heroic action, although Tony Daniel's "The Valley of the Garden" — one of his most effective stories to date — centers around an act of selfless sacrifice in the face of an unimaginably ancient and almost unknowable enemy. In one way or another, wars, slavery, or genocide figure in the stories by Reed, Baxter, Silverberg, Kress, and Simmons as well, and more often than not humanity is on the receiving end.

But — and here is another innovation of NSO that would have been all but invisible in its namesake ancestor — there seems to be a role for art in these worlds as well. The narrator of Nancy Kress's "Art of War" is an art historian cataloguing works inexplicably stolen by enemy aliens when he discovers that the aliens' own art may reveal clues to their combat strategy — a conclusion that his overbearing mother (who is also his commanding officer) views with contempt. It's perhaps one of the most effective character-driven tales in the book. Two stories, Kage Baker's "Maelstrom" and Dan Simmons's "Muse of Fire", involve dramatic productions. The Baker story, which concerns an effort to mount a production of Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" on Mars, is a clever bit of comic relief that nevertheless stretches the definition of space opera beyond anything else in the book, but the Simmons novella, which involves a spacefaring Shakespeare company called upon to present productions before a succession of increasingly awe-inspiring alien intelligences — perhaps to save the human race — is one of the major new pieces here, revisiting the fascination with classical literature that Simmons displayed in the Ilium diptych, but with considerably more focus. Performance as a means of survival is also the theme of Robert Silverberg's Scheherezade-like "The Emperor and the Maula", in which a young woman's shaggy-dog storytelling skills not only save her from execution, but lead the draconian emperor of the title to reconsider the nature of the human society he has enslaved. Pure math rather than art is at the center of Greg Egan's "Glory", involving an effort to decode the metamathematical formulas left behind by an ancient race on a distant planet, and except for the three-page entrance exam of speculative physics that opens the story (and that turns out to do nothing more than explain how a spacecraft gets launched), it turns out to be one of his more humane and accessible tales, without losing the sense of intellectual adventure of which Egan is a master.

As the Silverberg and Baker tales suggest, there's also a fair amount of humor represented here, but for the most part it's achieved without resorting to easy parody of space opera clich├ęs. The most sophisticated example is probably Ken McLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" in which the narrator — to work off a fine for adultery, of all things — agrees to single-handedly attempt to clean up a "civilizational implosion" on a remote corporate colony, with unexpected success. Walter Jon Williams's "Send Them Flowers", with its pair of bantering rogues fleeing through various dimensions and bedding various women, calls to mind Fritz Leiber more than classic space opera and achieves a similar tone of raggedy insouciance. There's also a fair amount of banter in James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain", which begins with a passenger on a colony ship deciding to change his sexual orientation midstream — creating confusion among his companions in this "consensualist" culture — but which ends up as the tale that most directly addresses the issues of gender, which have also become fair game for NSO scenarios.

Not surprisingly, given the sometimes complex nature of constructing an entire universe that will support space-opera perspectives, a number of the stories connect with earlier works by the same authors. Robert Reed's "Hatch" is another of his Great Ship tales — involving the massive planet-sized starship from Marrow and other stories — but here, facing the depredations of an equally massive alien entity called the Polypond, we may be witnessing the end of the complex shipboard societies that fueled those earlier tales. Gregory Benford's "The Worm Turns" is a direct sequel to his "The Worm in the Well", showing what happens when the wormhole captured in that earlier story starts to get squirmy. Alastair Reynolds's "Minla's Flowers" — which may capture the heroic planet-saving ethos of earlier space opera more effectively than any other tale here — is a kind of sidebar to his earlier tale "Merlin's Gun" — though it's actually a stronger story — while Peter Hamilton's "Blessed by an Angel" is set in a backwater planet of his Commonwealth Universe. Stephen Baxter's "Remembrance" fills in a gap from his ongoing Xeelee sequence, this time describing the horrible punishment visited on Earth by its earlier conquerors the Squeem, one of the more enigmatic alien races from this sequence. It's not entirely clear whether Mary Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass" is set in the same world as her Horizons — the World Council described here sounds pretty much the same — but it shares with that novel a sympathetic approach to exiles and fugitives, in this case a software smuggler hiding out on Europa who's tracked down by a former lover and pursued by an assassin. It's an efficient and fast-moving planetary adventure that takes full advantage of its exotic setting.

While The New Space Opera may not settle any arguments about definition — although the stories by McDonald, Egan, MacLeod, Daniel, Reynolds, and Simmons seem to me to provide the most valuable checkpoints and to make the most resonant use of the effects that NSO is capable of generating — it's by any measure a strong and provocative anthology and almost certainly one of the defining original anthologies of the year. I expect we'll be seeing bits of it in next year's parade of "year's best" anthologies and awards nominations, and we ought to be.

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the June 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Friday, June 29, 2007 12:49:00 PM, k. davidsohn said...

What, no Vernor Vinge? That's as large an omission as Banks and VV does write short form fiction as well as novels.

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 7:43:00 PM, Jonathan said...

Vinge was invited to write for the book, but was unable to be involved, which was obviously very disappointing. We would have included him if we could.


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