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The New Space Opera
edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan
HarperCollins Eos, 515 pages

The New Space Opera
Gardner Dozois
Gardner Dozois was the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine for many years and is the editor of the annual anthology series The Year's Best Science Fiction, as well as many other anthologies. He has won more than 10 Hugo Awards as the year's best editor, and 2 Nebula Awards for his own short fiction. His short fiction appears in Geodesic Dreams: The Best Short Fiction of Gardner Dozois. He is the author or editor of better than 70 books, including the anthologies The Good Old Stuff and The Good New Stuff. He's also edited such theme anthologies as Dinosaurs! and Dog Tales!. He lives in Philadelphia.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: One Million A.D.
SF Site Review: Galileo's Children
SF Site Review: Strangers
SF Site Review: Future Sports
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighteenth Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Space Soldiers
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction: 17th Annual Collection
SF Site Review: Isaac Asimov's Solar System
SF Site Review: Isaac Asimov's Werewolves
SF Site Review: Future War
SF Site Review: The Good Old Stuff
SF Site Review: Nanotech
SF Site Review: Isaac Asimov's Detectives
SF Site Review: Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History
SF Site Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fifteenth Annual Collection

Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan was born in Belfast and moved to perth in 1968. He is the co-founder of Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently the reviews editor of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his family.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Best Short Novels 2006
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2005
SF Site Review: The Locus Awards

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

I've always regarded space opera as science fiction's guilty pleasure. It's not the sort of stuff you'd recommend to a non-SF reading friend, because they'd just not get it. There's something almost juvenile in it, the sort of loud, garish, wide-screen pleasures that turned us on when we were younger and busy discovering the illicit thrills of SF.

You certainly don't turn to space opera for literary respectability, for fine honed characters, for searching insights, for any sort of subtlety. The exemplar of space opera is probably E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series, which begins with two galaxies colliding, and then just gets bigger. Because that's what space opera is all about: scale. We read the stuff to get blown away by the vastness of space, the immensity of time, the sheer mind-numbing size of big dumb objects that are bigger than any other big dumb objects. If a story doesn't expand to fill every nook and cranny of your imagination, it just ain't space opera.

And now we get "new" space opera, as if we need to rediscover our guilty pleasures, and maybe feel a little less guilty about them. But how does new space opera differ from what I suppose we must call old space opera? Well, to judge from the contents of this collection, it differs by not being space opera at all.

If space opera does anything it takes on the huge mystery of out there with a cavalier insouciance. But you can't do that if you are planet-bound on a world that has no mysteries left. Mary Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass" is set entirely below the ice of Europa; it's a gripping chase story full of thrills and cliffhangers, but it's no space opera. It doesn't even venture onto the surface, let alone into space. At least Kage Baker's "Maelstrom" has a passing reference to the journey from Earth to Mars, though that could have been cut from the story without making any noticeable difference. Other than that we are restricted to the surface of near-future Mars in a comedy about the first stage play on a Mars that still has the frontier feel of America's old west. The comedy is rather strained, and it's not an especially good story, but presented as space opera, of any stripe, it seems woefully out of place. Or it would do if so many of the stories around it didn't seem similarly divorced from the theme of the anthology.

Of the 18 contributors to this volume, only Robert Silverberg was writing when space opera last seemed like an unexceptional option for an author; but all of the other contributors surely grew up reading it, and several of them (Robert Reed, Greg Egan, Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, Dan Simmons) have written work that comes close enough to space opera as to make no difference. So why is there this collective failure of nerve when presented with the opportunity to write an unapologetic space opera?

Perhaps it's the fact that, with our (supposedly) more sophisticated audience these days, no-one feels they can get away with not apologising for space opera. Certainly these stories, even the ones that come closest to the scale and the verve of the old space opera, are filled with strategies for avoiding or disguising the brash simplicities of the sub-genre.

One strategy is to merge old space opera with a more complex modern theme, such as posthumanity. Ian McDonald does this excessively in "Verthandi's Ring" changing the nature of his characters and their settings so thoroughly and frequently that it becomes difficult to keep up with what is happening. Greg Egan does something similar in "Glory," which opens with a tour de force description of technological marvel that has all the scope and sweep you expect of space opera, but this is followed by a planet-bound story of alien archaeology that seems to have no connection with the first part. Both these pieces feel as if they belong as part of a longer work that might provide the context both seem to be missing.

Another strategy is to make the setting seem as if it is bold and original. In the weakest story in the book, "Send Them Flowers" by Walter Jon Williams, the two priapic chancers who are our anti-heroes engage in various adventures on a strange planet in "the borderlands of Probability." Except that Williams gives us absolutely no sense of what it might be like in a different Probability, at least as distinct from any other alien world, and in every other respect the story he has to tell is slight and not particularly original. Curiously the chancer, living on their wits outside the norms, is a common character in these stories -- you'll also find them in Paul McAuley's "Winning Peace," Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359," James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain" and Mary Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass" -- possibly as an updated, if anti-heroic version of the competent man who used to star in so much SF.

Of course one of the problems with space opera was finding a plot to match the scale of the setting, which was why so many of them turned into war stories. This is at least one tradition that many of the authors of these new space operas seem happy to follow. There are wars in "Verthandi's Ring" by Ian McDonald, "Winning Peace" by Paul McAuley, "The Valley of the Gardens" by Tony Daniel, "Minla's Flowers" by Alastair Reynolds, "Remembrance" by Stephen Baxter and "Art of War" by Nancy Kress. But we've changed the way we write about war over the last half century or so, now we need to get close in to the fighting to illuminate the dirty horror of war, rather than pulling back to capture the sweep and glory. Even in this most typical trope of the sub-genre, therefore, there seems a disjunction between what the story calls for and what the writing is doing. Only Alastair Reynolds seems to get the measure of this dichotomy in a very clever story about a lone visitor who attempts to jump-start technological development on an isolated world so that the people might rescue themselves from the coming destruction of their sun, then has to watch in horror as technological innovation comes at the cost of increasingly nasty warfare. Again, I would hardly call this space opera, but it is certainly very good science fiction.

Which is part of the problem. There is good science fiction here, but the context, the diktat that we are reading space opera which most of the contents of the book so signally fail to be, has the effect of making the collection seem weaker than it might otherwise be. Gwyneth Jones makes an investment in character in "Saving Tiamaat," but in the context of space opera character can only work at the expense of spectacle. It's the difference between close focus and wide view, and the scale of space opera really demands that the emphasis should be on the wide view. And elsewhere we get familiar science fictional devices: a woman impregnated by what is effectively an alien in Peter F. Hamilton's "Blessed by an Angel"; a journey through a wormhole in Gregory Benford's "The Worm Turns" -- but familiar science fictional devices, no matter how well deployed, aren't enough to make a story space opera, otherwise all science fiction would be, by default, space opera and that is manifestly not the case. At least Robert Reed deploys a big dumb object in "Hatch," another in his ongoing series of stories set on the massive and mysterious ship that featured, for example, in Marrow. But though the setting is space operatic, the small scale of the events featured in this particular iteration makes the story seem less so.

And so it goes. In space operatic terms too many of these stories are actually quite dull, and that is one thing space opera should never be. Mindless, maybe, but not dull. Yet here the arrangement is the other way round, there is if anything too much mind on display: thoughtful SF does not fit with full-blooded space opera. Which is the other distancing strategy used throughout this collection: self-awareness. Two of the stories, "Remembrance" by Stephen Baxter and "The Emperor and the Maula" by Robert Silverberg, specifically feature storytellers, who tell essentially the same story of Earth overcome by aliens. In each case this distancing tends to diminish the effect of the tale, especially in Silverberg's story where conquest, disorder, and failed rebellion are largely off-stage even in the story within a story. Silverberg's story seems particularly perfunctory, a careless recasting of the romance of Scheherezade, which ends with the enchantress becoming enchanted with the emperor she's supposedly there to assassinate. On top of these two pieces, there's the rather heavy-handed use of alien art and archaeology as metaphor in "Art of War" by Nancy Kress and "Glory" by Greg Egan. And the theatre in Kage Baker's "Maelstrom" has its echo in "Muse of Fire" by Dan Simmons, the longest story here and the one that, if anything, redeems the whole collection.

Simmons is the only author here who seems to have fully engaged with the idea of space opera, because it features a small human ship being swept across the cosmos in a series of ever greater encounters until they end up destroying god. He incorporates the scale and progression of space opera, but here also imbues it with value. The setting is the far future, after Earth has been conquered (a disturbingly common scenario throughout this collection), human culture has been destroyed and humanity has been enslaved by the alien Archons. If the name rings a vaguely theological bell, that is deliberate because in this universe there is a hierarchy of alien races that echoes the heavenly hierarchy of angels, leading up to Abraxas who is god. In this universe, a small troupe of actors travel from planet to planet performing Shakespeare for the remnants of enslaved humanity. But then they catch the eye of the Archons, and through them the Poimen, the Demiurgos and finally Abraxas. Before each they are required to perform, until it becomes clear that Shakespeare is a test to decide whether humanity should be allowed to survive. There is a stunning but, in the end, pleasing arrogance in the idea of Shakespeare representing not just the soul of humanity but, in the end, the soul of the universe. And the climax sees our heroes breaking free of a superstition-riddled cosmos into a rational universe where humanity controls its own destiny. It's a stirring, awe-inspiring, thrilling concept carried off with the sort of aplomb that used to make space opera such a pleasure, guilty or no. It's just a pity that the rest of this collection couldn't match up to this achievement.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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