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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
and The New Space Opera
Gardner Dozois edited Asimov's Science Fiction magazine for nineteen years (1986-2004). During his stewardship it became clear, over the years, that he was keenly aware of his responsibility to the science fiction audience he had inherited and that now read his magazine every month. We use specifically, and place emphasis on the words science fiction, rather than the fairly recently resurrected and now once again fashionable catch-all designation favored by some of "speculative fiction" (though the term was first introduced over 50 years ago by none other than Robert A. Heinlein, and in somewhat different context given its time), for the term "spec-fic" is now sought as shelter for Slipstream, New Wave Fabulism, Magic Realism, and anything else that is not generally regarded by common shorthand consensus (at least, while in the bar), as science fiction. It might seem strange, therefore, that we would now point to Damon Knight's offhand and seemingly vague and imprecise observation that (and we paraphrase) "we know science fiction when we point to it."
So for the here and now, we're talking science fiction. SF. As we understand it in the bar. As Damon might have tossed it off between drinks, not realizing the yes-and-no truth of his observation depending upon how it might have been spun decades later. Be that as it may . . .
Fully cognizant of the many exciting avenues of expression the literature of science fiction afforded its most talented, thoughtful, and imaginative writers, and the limitless modes of creativity to be found within this most free-form, wide-open of genres, and giving exposure to them all in his magazine, Gardner Dozois rarely (you can count the stories on one hand and have fingers left over) ran a story that failed to meet the commonly accepted definition of SF. And most of these were, by his own admission, in his earlier editing years. But he remained true to Asimov's audience by publishing SF. This decision was approved of not only by the magazine's readership but the larger SF community as a whole, for it rewarded him with 15 Hugo awards as Best Editor, more than any other editor in the field's long history. He must have been doing something right.
Gardner Dozois's knowledge of the entire multi-faceted SF genre (including its history, and how he has embraced its growth and evolution over the decades), coupled with his business sense of what SF readers want (whether this be a rousing adventure tale, a thoughtful treatment of social or political relevance, or that new "cutting edge" SF story) and being able to deliver it to them for almost twenty years, surely says something about him not only as an editor, but reveals his personal love affair with this upstart, 20th century genre as a literature worthy of his lifelong devotion.
Though he has edited many original anthologies and reprint collections himself, or with various co-editors, prominent among them Jack Dann and Sheila Williams (including both fantasy and science fiction), if one correctly parses comments made in introductions to his The Year's Best Science Fiction collections over the years, or have interviewed him, been privileged to have been on panels alongside him, or read any of his other introductions and prefatory story comments in several of his anthologies or collections, one notes an affection for, as he puts it, "center-core" SF. Center-core SF being that broad and colorful spectrum (within the still larger science fiction genre) encompassing both Adventure SF and the Space Opera, which are the sorts of story which formed the nucleus of SF's initial readership throughout the 1930s, the 1940s, and into the mid-1950s. Think Sense of Wonder, and all of the myriad ways authors have shown us its splendors over the years, have enlarged our perspectives (for better or worse), and revealed both our positive and negative qualities as a species and as individuals set against colorful backdrops of planetary adventure or cosmic time and distance. And at the same time, whether in the front or back story, have asked serious questions about ourselves, our place in the universe, or how we deal with timeless problems of an individual nature. Such is the unlimited literary territory possible in the best of Adventure SF and Space Opera.
Dozois's affection for Adventure SF and Space Opera is given voice when he says of Poul Anderson's 1995 story "Genesis" (from Far Futures, ed. Gregory Benford): "The Anderson in particular delivers a few genuine jolts of pure-quill old-fashioned undiluted Sense of Wonder, something the genre does all too seldom these days." –Gardner Dozois, in his "Summation: 1995," from The Year's Best Science Fiction, 13th Annual Collection, 1996.
This is reaffirmed two years later, where Gardner has begun to spot a trend, when he writes (emphasis mine): "In fact, it seems to me that the percentage of really hard-core 'hard SF' has gone up sharply in recent years, as has the percentage of wide-screen, Technicolor, baroque Space Opera, stuff reminiscent of the old 'Superscience' days of the '30s, but written to suit the aesthetic and stylistic tastes of the '90s. There's more 'real' SF of several different flavors and styles around these days than ever before, if you open your eyes up and look for it—" –Gardner Dozois, in his "Summation: 1997," from The Year's Best Science Fiction, 15th Annual Collection, 1998.
Not content merely to comment on an upsurge in Adventure SF and Space Opera, he decides to become a participant by editing two wonderful volumes of it. While noting the differences between the two types of SF, he then gives readers The Good Old Stuff (1998) and its followup The Good New Stuff (1999). Both volumes are subtitled "Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition."
The first volume showcases some great offerings from the post-war era of the late 1940s ("The Rull" by A. E. van Vogt, Astounding, May, 1948) through the early 1970s ("Mother in the Sky with Diamonds" by James Tiptree, Jr., Galaxy, March, 1971). Of the sixteen stories, fully half are from the 1950's, and include such fondly remembered tales as Jack Vance's "The New Prime," C. M. Kornbluth's "That Share of Glory," Leigh Brackett's wonderful "The Last Days of Shandakar," Murray Leinster's "Exploration Team," Poul Anderson's "The Sky People," and Gordon R. Dickson's clever "The Man in the Mailbag." The 1960s are represented with stories from Cordwainer Smith, Brian W. Aldiss, H. Beam Piper's instructive (we learn how to make gunpowder in fairly specific detail) "Gunpowder God," Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny's classic "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth." This is a terrific collection for those wanting to discover what Adventure SF is all about, not to mention for those of us who may have missed the odd story or who simply wish to revel in colorful nostalgia for a few hours curled up on the couch.
The Good New Stuff picks up where its sister volume left off, with a story gap of six years from 1971 (Tiptree's "Mother in the Sky with Diamonds" from the previous volume) to 1977—this period a fallow one while Adventure SF recovered from the effects of the New Wave. This dry period is reflected with only two entries coming from the late 1970s, John Varley's "Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe," from the Spring, 1977 Asimov's, and George R. R. Martin's Hugo winner "The Way of Cross and Dragon," from the June, 1979 issue of the late Omni. The four stories from the 1980's (right before the surge in Adventure SF and Space Opera became noticeable as a trend) come from Bruce Sterling ("The Swarm," F&SF, April, 1982), Michael Swanwick, Vernor Vinge, and Janet Kagan.
When Adventure SF truly takes flight once again it is in the 1990s, and is reflected here by no less than eleven of the seventeen stories. Entertaining, colorful, thoughtful reads come from diverse authors and sources: Walter Jon Williams/When the Music's Over, Robert Reed and R. Garcia y Robertson/F&SF, Stephen Baxter and Tony Daniel/Asimov's, Peter F. Hamilton and Paul J. McCauley/Interzone, just to name a few. Aesthetic sensibilities have been updated for a contemporary audience and in light of current scientific findings, but the sense of adventure and storytelling still remains front and center.
Both volumes begin with lengthy introductions by Dozois, tracing the history of the Adventure SF story, its trials and tribulations, and its resurgence from the dry period of the New Wave '70s, and how at different times it has been derided and fallen out of favor, only to dust itself off and return in all of its present glory. You can't keep a good, rousing story down. Both volumes are recommended unreservedly.
Once again, not content merely to comment about the surge in Adventure SF and Space Opera, nor to offer a pair of retrospective collections featuring some of its finest examples spanning five decades, Gardner Dozois (with co-editor Jonathan Strahan) has now given us what may be (and we say, at this mid-point of 2007, may be, for there are several other top-notch original anthologies begging our praise) the best original anthology of the year, with The New Space Opera, subtitled "All new stories of science fiction adventure."
We've all had the experience of enjoying a favorite band, or music group, the one who's first album (or CD) was either a chart topper or an underground classic in waiting, every cut a winner. We bought their next album in eager anticipation of same, and then the third and the fourth—and each one became a classic as well. But then the group split up, or faded away as subsequent albums contained fewer and fewer hit songs, or the band chose to go in another direction and lost its hardcore following. Eventually, we were lucky if there were more than one or two songs on an entire LP that we liked. Try as we might with different bands or groups, it was rare to find an entire album or CD with more than one or two songs worth playing more than once. Over time it became rare to find the equivalent of a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a Let It Bleed, a Déjŕ Vu, or any of the first four albums of Led Zeppelin. Unless, of course, members from several defunct super groups got together for a one shot like Blind Faith.
Such is the case with the vast majority of original science fiction and fantasy anthologies published each year. With many of them being written to narrow, specific niche interests, the product tends toward the familiar and is guaranteed to make the publisher's money back, hopefully with a small profit to boot. After all, publishers are in business to make money, and there is certainly nothing wrong with this at all. On occasion within such niche or "theme" anthologies there will come to light a gem or two, and so much the better; the airplane traveler or "beach read" buyer will more than have gotten their money's worth. We hasten to add that a number of the more creative theme anthologies (with a variety of publishers) of the past few years have raised the bar significantly, are quite enjoyable, and a higher than usual number of the stories have found their way onto the various yearly Recommended Reading lists and have even been nominated for several awards.
That said, it is still the rule that the preponderance of the original theme anthologies rarely seem to put forth more than one or two stories rising above the average, regardless of how one wishes to define "average."
All of which makes the appearance of Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan's The New Space Opera a minor miracle for, caveats of personal taste aside, there's not a loser in the bunch and more than likely some future award nominees.
[Note: some of the stories discussed below contain spoilers.]
Gwyneth Jones's "Saving Tiamaat" shows how current problems may be carried into the future when the interstellar Diaspora Parliament endorses a weak non-interference policy concerning a planet whose inhabitants have been waging war against one another. One planetary group is cannibalistic and holds dominance over the other for ultimate epicurean purposes. Through skullduggery of the oldest kind, the enslaved faction becomes armed and revolts, threatening planetary disaster (which will affect other worlds). The DP is forced to step in and mediate, giving ambassadors from both factions neutral ground for talks aboard the space station Speranza, which is half-artificial and half hollowed-out asteroid. Needless to say, because of ignorance of the cultural subtleties and rituals of the natives, enlightenment by the interstellar peacemakers comes late. Both warring sides are factionalized to the point where nothing short of drastic measures are called for as the only solution. How this resolves itself equitably, and involves an ethical choice for the overall good, and which said choice is carried out via a high-tech intervention, forms the basis for this fine tale of interstellar politics, intrigue, and unintended consequences forcing those in power and behind the scenes to settle the matter once and for all—with a solution that while effective and achieves the desired results, forces the reader to face an ethical dilemma in the face of harsh reality. Tiamat/Tiamaat by the way, was an ancient Babylonian serpent-goddess of the sea-deeps, which, after you've read this story, reveals the title as aptly chosen.
[As coincidental anecdote to the above, we recall that Edmond Hamilton, one of the most renowned and beloved purveyors of space adventure and space opera, also penned a tale revolving around Tiamat, in his 1948 Weird Tales story "Serpent Princess."]
"Verthandi's Ring" by Ian McDonald involves zero sum warfare on the largest galactic scale possible, between the civilizations of the Clade and the Enemy—both virtual and real, from the galactic to the quantum. The scope is wide and plays out in hundreds of thousands of years and on trillions of worlds, and with an Enemy species that only desires the total annihilation of humankind. The key to it all is Verthandi's Ring, a light-years long remnant superstring folded into a loop, which portends disaster for one species or the other. It is "a subquantal fragment of the original big-bang fireball, caught by cosmic inflation and stretched to macroscopic, then to cosmological scale." The Enemy can only use it as an ultimate weapon.
Our only hope against this implacable enemy—and the price of victory in our universe—is that by defeating them here, the Enemy will prevail in a parallel universe, thus maintaining a sort of cosmic balance. The key to victory lies in the hands of a Clade crew, who can change bodies at will and hide in real or virtual space. Some sequences are a trifle hard to follow, or attempt to stick with at times, due to the imaginative use of hypothetical physics concepts McDonald plays so easily with, concepts so far removed from our ability to visualize and keep straight while following the main storyline. Still, an imagined far future so bizarrely envisioned as to boggle the mind and capture once again a true sense of wonder in the reader.
[Speaking of implacable enemies bent on our species' total annihilation on a cosmic scale, and virtual space, consider (with allowances for terminology) Edmond Hamilton's January, 1947 novelette for Weird Tales, "The King of Shadows." As in "Verthandi's Ring," the fate of our species on a stellar level is in dire peril and there is only one answer, one path to victory and survival. In "King of Shadows" the survivors of humanity must exchange their physical forms for one of shadow, and are thus transformed into electrical energy beings who live forever (for it has come to pass that thousands of years ago humanity had mastered certain kinds of super-science), and only in Hamilton's early variation of "virtual reality" can they travel interstellar distances to fight the overpowering Alien destroyers. Note also that in the current story the bad guys are called simply the Enemy. In Hamilton's story they are called simply Aliens.]
Robert Reed's "Hatch" takes place around, on, and inside an immense, dead-in-space human ship attacked by an equally crippled entity/ship known as the Polypond. We're talking both immensity of scale and time here. It concerns those left to live outside of our blocked-from-the-inside ship, an individual doomed to live on the makeshift habitats barnacling the crippled ship, and what he finds of the outer universe after thousands of years—that their complacency and disregard of the wider universe may eventually lead to their, and humanity's demise, as the alien Polypond beings have been looking at the longer picture. A cautionary tale of looking inward rather than outward for ultimate survival. This is interstellar war given the long view.
"Winning Peace" by Paul J. McAuley follows interstellar war between the Alliance and the Collective. The Collective has won. The story quickly centers on three characters: Kanza, an unscrupulous trader; Rider Jackson, criminal turned hero of the Collective relegated to an outpost because of his former criminal record; and Carver, captive Alliance soldier now indentured and working for Kanza.
Kanza forces Carver to hunt (illegally) for a valuable alien artifact near a brown dwarf. If found, Kanza is out of debt and his business once more solvent. Kanza enlists the aid of Jackson, offering him a cut of the profits. Jackson is also indentured to the Collective military and wants to be free, so goes along with Kanza's illegal plan. They discover the alien race known as the !Cha, who hold the key to the mystery and the artifact. Suffice it to say that this is one of the more straightforward tales, and through plot machinations and double-dealings things work out for (almost) everyone. This story feels more like old time Space Opera than any of the previous tales so far, though it too takes place amidst a backdrop of interstellar space. Spaceship chases, AIs, and implanted security devices abound. It's a familiar plot updated and well done with former enemies uniting in a common cause.
"Glory" by Greg Egan is one of the book's standouts. One the planet Noudah there are two competing cultures: the Tira and Ghahari. The story involves a search for a lost artifact from ancient Niah culture, dead three million years. This artifact contains the equivalent of a Unified Theory of the universe (i.e. a GUT, or Grand Unified Theory as termed by today's physicists) as contained in mathematics which the advanced worlds of the Amalgam seek. Two archaeologists are dispatched to the planet to try to find this potentially revolutionary artifact. One of them, Anne, does, and is killed during her escape from the planet by one of the competing planetary cultures, the Tiran, who are also in a race to discover this powerful artifact. Her secret does not die in space, however, as she leaves its existence (and complete mathematical theorem!) for her compatriots to discover . . . if they are clever enough. Her method of concealment shows the author's own ingenuity and is the highlight of the story. "Glory" exhibits amazing, mind-bending creativity, with implications into different cultural philosophies (Seekers or Spreaders), and which ideology has the best chance to survive the span of Time. It is at once beautiful and awe-inspiring.
It should be noted that a cursory knowledge of cutting-edge future physics concepts would prove very helpful in fully appreciating Egan's wild vision of launch transport for the archaelogoists from the very heart of a sun, to the world of Noudah. "Glory" opens with a cold splash of Sense of Wonder to the face and by the time you dry yourself off and shake your head it hits you once again with its even wilder conclusion. Highly recommended.
"Maelstrom" by Kage Baker is perhaps the least space operatic (in terms of scale) of any of these stories. It tells of a rich eccentric from Earth whose dream is to open a theater (The Edgar Allan Poe Center for the Performing Arts) on Mars, in its early days where mining is a frontier operation. The first play is, quite appropriately, Poe's The Maelstrom. Through mishap and misadventure (the director and cast are misfits, wannabes, and harmless losers) this first performance goes well. "Maelstrom" is humorous, lighthearted, and a pleasant diversion.
"Blessed by an Angel" by Peter F. Hamilton is an interesting story dealing with advanced beings known as the Higher who have come to the human-colonized planet of Anagaska in a shapechanging spaceship to impose their way of life on humankind. The humans on Anagaska are known as Advancers, preferring their own extended lifespans through immortality drugs to the virtual immortality of the Higher. The Higher is a vastly large virtual mind where abstract pastimes such as Art and Philosophy can be pursued forever, and where immortality is offered as real and permanent, and not just a real-world extension obtained through drugs.
One of the Higher (called angels) in human guise befriends, charms, then impregnates a willing young girl with Higher seed. The girl's pregnancy is discovered and aborted, and a human fetus replaced in her womb. Lest too much be given away, we will say only that the impregnated girl has a twin sister. The resolution involves this and recovered memories from the Higher's human host. Along the way, the story asks (implied) questions about individuality vs. a group mind and the advantages and disadvantages of real flesh and real experience vs. virtual experience.
"Blessed by an Angel" is a fairly interesting short story with nice descriptions of the Arcworld city of Kuhmo portrayed as provincial and semi-pastoral, in counterpoint to the more bustling, scientifically advanced Commonwealth planets, though Arcworld's local people are plugged in to cyberspace and enjoy high-tech advantages in spots. It seems the quintessence of the perfect planet, balancing high-tech with the pastoral…until the Higher arrive. Which might account for their selection of this easy-going, trusting world for their initial advance in the first place.
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod chooses as its subject matter different types of government rule based on several models. To pay off a fine for adultery (he was unaware of local planetary law), a man agrees to discover what happened on planet Wolf 359. It was set up as part of a social experiment designed to prove that a world-state government, and a world government run as a corporation, were both wrong. The term used to describe planet Wolf 359's failure is civilization implosion. Our man finds out the truth, but instead of reporting back to his superiors that the government has disintegrated to the point where the experiment has failed and the planet should be destroyed (though his ship-AI does report), he instead decides to save them from destruction with advanced nano-tech from his ship's stores. Long story short? The planet is stabilized, but what sort of government now works? MacLeod's answer can be seen as scathing indictment or honest assessment. You decide.
"The Valley of the Gardens" by Tony Daniel is absolutely amazing. It is deadpan serious and at the same time serio-comic in its brief homage to Lovecraft, as well as to the best of the old space opera traditions. Over vast amounts of time, the boy even gets the girl. Imagination is alive at its most creative extreme here. The good guys are threatened by a Chthulu-type entity, a hive-mind Evil that sucks everything of its life and energies. The story's scientific sensibilities are, however, updated to reflect current, high-end physics concepts. This is Chthulu for the 21st century and beyond. I realize the description sounds a tad hokey for the praise I've given it, but for some reason "The Valley of the Gardens" brought home to me once more just what varied forms Space Opera can take, and how thoroughly rewarding and downright enjoyable they can be at their best.
"Dividing the Sustain" by James Patrick Kelly takes place during an interstellar voyage. The plot is relatively conventional, but the focus here is on social structures and how they are altered in various and highly personal ways due to strong advances in the sciences. People live very long lives, but must be "recast" in other forms, each more radical, in order to extend their lifespans (such is a restriction of the current technology). One man recasts himself as gay, but it doesn't "take" fully. He therefore can't help himself falling in love with the ship captain's ex-wife (who is pregnant). She is pregnant by the captain, her ex-husband, who is now in the midst of his fifth, and most radical, recasting. The "sustain" of the title has to do with how the ship travels between folded dimensions on its way to colony Chin, where Consensualists reside. Add to this one Been Watanabe, his top secret assignment to smuggle a very special personality transplant (buried in his mind) to the colony for an unknown buyer. He has forged transport papers to do so, and his mission is all very illegal. Who the mysterious buyer turns out to be, and what Watanabe discovers while en route about the secretive captain and his pregnant ex-wife (with whom he has wild sex!) turns out to be a dandy little mystery, with an unexpected and highly unusual denouement. The concept of being able to switch one's sex and/or sexual preference almost at will reminds us of Tanith Lee's ahead-of-its-time SF novel Don't Bite the Sun (DAW, 1976), though the similarity ends there as Kelly recasts the concept to great effect.
"Minla's Flowers" by Alastair Reynolds is one of the book's strongest. A pilot on a mission elsewhere lands on the planet Lecythus due to mechanical problems. He is soon embroiled in the midst of a planetary war and takes sides with those who have helped him, one of whom is the small girl Minla, to whom he offers flowers as a token of his affection and thanks. Due to plot machinations, the pilot must spend decades within his ship in cryosleep, awakening along the way several times to check the progress of Minla's people as they develop the technology they will need to escape their doomed planet, for a predicted cosmic cataclysm will soon destroy their sun.
As Minla comes of age so does her personality, but not as we might expect. The exotic flowers she has received several times from the pilot figure heavily in the story's poignant ending, and are symbolic of her emotional and psychological catharsis from child to adult. "Minla's Flowers" takes place against a backdrop of interstellar spaceflight, planetary warfare, how people grow and evolve given individual circumstances, with Minla's flowers the thread binding the story together until its unexpected ending. Rousing, touching, and at the same time sad, we really fell for this one.
"Splinters of Glass" by Mary Rosenblum tells the action tale of a stolen nanovirus by a miner on Europa, and how he must elude those hoping to recover the illegal virus deep within the myriad ice caves and tunnels of the giant moon. There are nice descriptions of how a semi-developed mining class and its local businesses might operate (replete with tourist "malls"), as well as a nice look at the gigantic ice caves and mining tunnels through which the primary chase scene takes place.
"Remembrance" by Stephen Baxter asks us to examine the question of revenge, and if it is ever appropriate. Long ago, an alien race known as the Squeem had conquered Earth, but were then thought to have been wiped out in their turn. Now an isolated Squeem colony has been discovered and a woman now in power consults a Rememberer who fills her (and the reader) in on the history of the Squeem and their battles with Earth. What this woman learns decides her course of action . . . with Earth's long-term interests at heart. What she decides, and why, form the crux of this ethically framed tale.
"The Emperor and the Maula" by Robert Silverberg is a delightful reworking of the Scheherazade story, but with a clever inversion. In this instance, an Earth woman actually travels across the immensity of space to the interstellar emperor knowing she will be put to death. As in the original, she buys time by regaling the emperor with stories each night; in this case the stories of how she came to be where she is, and what has brought her to his Capital World, now awaiting death should her tales fail to please. But there is much more at stake than her own life, as her enchanting stories reveal. This one reads and feels like something out of Jack Vance's space operas of the '50s, with the welcome, but expected atmosphere of the Arabian Tale. "The Emperor and the Maula" is great entertainment. Think Space Opera meets Majipoor cum Vance.
Gregory Benford's "The Worm Turns" is effective enough in its own way, but rather minor Benford. A female interstellar miner is threatened with bankruptcy unless she agrees to fly one more mission to a far wormhole. Something has happened to, or gone wrong with, the wormhole, which is essential to galactic flight. Along the way she beds an agent of the Company before and after her perilous journey, but that's about it. There's interesting talk of ceramic spaceships, time turbulence, alien robots, and the like, and the journey to the wormhole is a pleasant one while information is gathered that will aid in diagnosing the wormhole problem. It's a perfectly adequate story mind you, but when stacked up against the level of competition with which it must compete here . . .
The slick opening lines of "Send Them Flowers" by Walter Jon Williams sets the tone for what is to follow:
We skipped through the borderlands of Probability, edging farther and farther away from the safe universes that had become so much less safe for us, and into the fringe areas where the stars were cloudy smears of phosphorescent gas and the Periodic Table wasn't a guide, but a series of ever-more-hopeful suggestions.When the more responsible captain of the ship and his chick-magnet sidekick, Tonio, enter a brothel, they fall into one deadly misadventure and scrape after another, eventually winding up in a sticky situation with the local ruling nobles (and a bride to be). Colorful description and witty banter massage this tried and true storyline and make it sparkle. A great bit of fun.
Nancy Kress' "Art of War" is military SF focusing on the lives of a general and a captain, the former the mother of the latter. The general thinks her captain son an embarrassing failure, for he exhibits seizures and is a mere art historian and not a line soldier.
The story takes place during a war between Humans and the Teli. The young captain is deployed to a planet to recover stolen Human artifacts. Employing advanced mathematical models and chaos theory, he discovers a link between the alternating quiet periods when Teli Art is produced and their periods of War-making. In the process, he also inadvertently destroys the myth surrounding one of his mother's military victories. Kress is adept at having the solution to the larger, military problem also resolve the personal one, making for a tight story. Also refreshing is her use of art history and attendant insights into the culture of the enemy, which aids the military greatly in its on-going war with the Teli.
"Muse of Fire" by Dan Simmons is a visually powerful and mind-expanding trip: Sense of Wonder writ large across the sky to behold with eyes wide as saucers and mouths agape in awe.
A traveling troupe of actors is captured by a powerful alien being and forced to perform at various points across the cosmos. Why? Are they being tested? Is humanity being tested? Does humanity's survival or extinction hang in the balance, or is something else at play here? "Muse of Fire" examines the nature and purposes of gods, childhood illusions (in the growth of the human race), and our place in the universe. The grand galactic tour we share with the actors as they are whisked from super civilization to even more advanced civilizations that are increasingly beyond our powers of comprehension, is stunning. This surely must rank as one of the most Out There exhibitions of pure unbounded imagination we've read in quite some time in short SF. And that's saying something, given some of the other stories in this very collection.
More often than not, it is easy to choose one's favorites from a collection of all new work. But not here. There are so many sterling examples of what Space Opera and the Adventure Tale can aspire to, that every reader or reviewer is bound to come away with at least a double handful of favorites. Ours include Robert Reed's "Hatch," Peter F. Hamilton's "Blessed by An Angel," Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359," Walter Jon Williams' "Send Them Flowers," and Nancy Kress' "Art of War." We find ourselves even more taken with Greg Egan's "Glory," Tony Daniel's "The Valley of the Gardens," James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain," and Robert Silverberg's "The Emperor and the Maula."
Our ultimate pleasure however was derived from, and therefore our unqualified praise is reserved for, Alastair Reynolds' "Minla's Flowers" and Dan Simmons' "Muse of Fire." Taken as a whole, The New Space Opera is a landmark volume, and sure to become a classic. Our highest marks (and thanks) go to editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan.
A final word, and one more fine book to recommend. Gardner Dozois' other concern, that of bringing younger readers into SF, is brought to public notice when he writes this about Greg Bear's 1997 novel Dinosaur Summer. He praises it "for managing to do successfully what a number of other authors have tried and failed to do in recent years, writing a Young Adult SF novel that manages to be good science fiction and entertaining enough to hold the interest of younger readers, all at the same time. The field desperately needs more such books, the'90s equivalent of the so-called juvenile novels of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton that addicted whole generations of readers to science fiction in the '50s and '60s; if we had them, perhaps fewer young readers would be inclined to turn to Star Trek and Star Wars novels instead for the kind of fast, 'fun' read they're looking for. A few conscious attempts have been made in the last couple of years to duplicate the Heinlein-style 'juvenile,' but they've mostly been faintly dull and weighted down with heavy indigestible lumps of stodgy libertarian polemic." –Gardner Dozois, "Summation: 1998," from The Year's Best Science Fiction, 16th Annual Collection, 1999.
Once again, not content merely to reprint collections of excellent stories such as those found in The Good Old Stuff and The Good New Stuff, both longtime collaborator Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois have chosen an active role by putting together an all-new collection of superlative YA SF titled Escape from Earth: New Adventures in Space. Its 420 pages are enough to give breathing room to seven novelettes and novellas by Allen M. Steele, Kage Baker, Geoffrey A. Landis, Orson Scott Card, Walter Jon Williams, Elizabeth Moon, and Joe Haldeman.
The book is a pure delight, featuring teenaged protagonists (of both sexes) who: dream of becoming an astronaut as in Allen Steele's "Escape from Earth"; or, as in Geoffrey A. Landis' "Derelict," peer pressure is too much for one youngster and his friends as they find themselves on a dare exploring an eerie and dangerous abandoned space station . . . which isn't quite totally abandoned. Joe Haldeman's "The Mars Girl" tells the story of an intelligent, precocious young girl who discovers aliens on Mars while wandering around on the surface of the planet when she shouldn't be (and almost gets herself killed in the process), and in Kage Baker's tense yarn, "Where the Golden Apples Grow," a young lad must traverse a Martian dust storm in a sabotaged rover and stave off those trying to kill him, while desperately hoping to keep his father, who has had a stroke, alive in the back of the rover.
Perhaps the most ingenious of the lot is Walter Jon Williams' "Incarnation Day." Through a convincing bit of future-scientific speculation (read: hocus pocus) the story tells of children who are raised from "inception" in Virtual Reality. Then, when old enough, they are . . . forgive me . . . reverse hocus-pocused into living (and at least semi-mature) adolescents. This is known as their Incarnation Day. Subtle humor abounds, for what parent wouldn't want to be absolved of those nightmare teenaged years until their little darlings were educated and presentable to the world? And what teenager wouldn't become impatient and want to be let out of his or her "prison" to live in the real world for a change? Good stuff.
Escape from Earth is not only a bang up collection of stories fit for the younger set, but is an exhilarating read for adults as well. Highly recommended.
Adventure SF and Space Opera have come a long way since those early days of the 1930s and 1940s pulps, with their crudely written (but nevertheless enthralling) stories. One thing they have never lost however, and is what shines in all of the tales in both of the new books looked at above, is that ever-elusive Sense of Wonder. These stories also show that Space Opera and Adventure SF have the capability to offer far more than mere entertainment, despite Brian Aldiss's glib and rather dismissive remark made in the introduction to his 1974 collection Space Opera: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures: "Science fiction is for real. Space opera is for fun."
Well, Space Opera, resurrected and in full flower as The New Space Opera and Escape from Earth boldly attest, now not only offers the bright, adventurous, inquisitive mind the largest of all canvases upon which to see played out grand adventures in far-flung galaxies amid futures yet to be, but at the same time explores human issues and problems with which we as a race have had to deal throughout our long history (sometimes poorly) and which we will (inevitably) have to deal yet again.
Not if, but when we eventually make it out there, maybe we'll be wise enough not to make the same mistakes that have plagued countless earthly empires and earthbound migrations as we sought to expand, and chart the unknown. When all is said and done, and if the Space Opera adventure tale gives us nothing more, remember that it has never forgotten to pay homage to one of the most time-honored traditions in all of literature—of any kind: the story.
Primary works cited:
The Good Old Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition, ed. Gardner Dozois (St. Martin's Griffin, Nov., 1998, 434 pp., $15.95)
The Good New Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition, ed. Gardner Dozois (St. Martin's Griffin, Feb., 1999, 450 pp., $17.95)
Escape from Earth: New Adventures in Space, ed. Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (SFBC, Aug., 2006, hc, 420 pp., $14.99)
The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan (HarperCollins/EOS, June, 2007, Tpb, 515 pp., $15.95)
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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