The New Space Opera 2 reviewed

The New Space Opera 2

Opera or string quartet?

A review by Geoffrey Dow

"The true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story; the thrilling adventure tale of powerful rocket ships, dashing heroes, and far frontiers — stories of immense scope and scale, color and action, taking us to the ultimate limits of both time and space [...]"
— From the introduction to The New Space Opera 2)

There really is no such a genre as "science fiction". Unlike whodunnits or romances, SF1. is a genre more by marketing fiat than by standard tropes or formulae2.; there is no fixed plot, character-arc or even place or time required to define a work of science fiction as science fiction. Indeed, such a definition has been a matter of debate within the field for decades and I'm certainly not going to essay my own here.

How about space opera, then? That term too has a long and controversial history and for a long time it was used mostly as a pejorative, to indicate stories that were, essentially, mindless action-oriented adventures not to be taken seriously by anyone much over the mental age of 14. (Think Star Wars: wonderful to look at but dumber than a shuttle-load of trans-dimensional circuit-breakers.)

The "new space opera" then, presumably includes the "thrilling adventures" and "far frontiers" quoted above, but with the addition of more sophisticated characterizations and technological and political backgrounds.

If only The New Space Opera 2 had lived up to those introductory words, or to its excellent predecessor (The New Space Opera) this would have been an easy review for me to write. As it stands, the volume contains few thrills, frontiers that feel about as far as a trip to the end of the subway line, and socio-political speculation springing right out of 15th century Europe or even 1st century Rome.

With only a very few exceptions, in The New Space Opera 2, the "sense of wonder" for which science fiction — and especially space opera — is famous is pretty much absent. If The New Space Opera 2 tells us anything about the field in general, it suggests one that sees our future as one constricted by centuries-old political structures, threatened by eternal warfare and, perhaps paradoxically, one in which space travel is about as comfortable — and about as interesting — as a series of rides on space-going subway cars.

Half-way through my first read of this substantial anthology (Neal Asher's "Shell Game"), I felt as if the editors had opted for adventure in subway cars, whether or not that particular train was heading to the ends of time and space. Unlike the first volume in this series, which I thought a very good representation of the varieties of "new space opera"3., The New Space Opera 2 feels less like a celebration of the far horizons to which SF can take a reader than it does a repudiation of same.

Not that it's all bad, of course.

The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois
The New Space Opera 2
Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Straham
Published by EOS (HarperCollins), 2009
544 pages.

The strongest story by far (and the only one I would consider a potential award-winner) is Peter Watts' "The Island". Though its setting also "suffers" from both the aforementioned feeling of confinement as well as an active cast of only two (three, if you count a semi-sentient computer), Watts brings to the reader a strong sense of the sheer scale of near-light-speed travel through both deep space and deep time.4.

As I've come to expect from the author of Blindsight, "The Island" includes a compelling (if not necessarily very sympathetic) narrator and a rigorously worked-out situation and plot, accompanied by scientific speculation at once "cosmic" in scale and yet firmly rooted in the logic of Darwinian natural selection, while the emotionally-resonant story grounds the reader with a very unusual mother/son relationship indeed.

At the opposite end of the scale is Cory Doctorow's "To Go Boldly" — the "corrected" syntax of the title all by itself should tell you what to expect. "To Go Boldly" is a smug take-down of Star Trek-type tropes in particular and of human-dominated galactic empires in general. Unfortunately5., Doctorow's barbs are aimed at obvious targets that have long-since been pierced by many, much-sharper, darts.

The New Space Opera 2
Contributors:

Neal Asher
John Barnes
Cory Doctorow
John Kessel
Jay Lake
John Meaney
Elizabeth Moon
Garx Nix
Mike Resnick
Justina Robson
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
John Scalzi
Bruce Sterling
Peter Watts
Sean Williams
Tad Williams
Bill Willingham
Robert Charles Wilson
John C. Wright

In between the extremes is a reasonably solid, but mostly forgettable, collection of science fiction stories.

The opening shot, Robert Charles Wilson's "Utriusque Cosmi" is cosmic in scope (it starts in the very near future and includes the end of the universe itself), but suffers from affectless prose and a very passive narrator. I didn't care about her, I predicted the "twist" ending about midway through and found the vaguely fractal-like cosmological and exo-anthropological speculations both uninteresting and unconvincing.

John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" is a standard-issue chase story, with a macguffin in which I just don't believe. That a society so high-tech as to make our own look like a hunter-gatherer's in comparison would be based on a single copy of anything (let alone a play that has been performed in public) fails to convince, and yet another story of a single individual "saving the world" is lazy trope all too common in SF.

John Barnes' "The Lost Princess Man" introduces yet another future of massive social stratification, one in which — through the wonders of genetic engineering — the aristocracy is literally at least physically superior to proles. That the bulk of the "action" takes place in a virtual reality makes "The Lost Princess Man" iffy as new space opera and a bit of a narrative cheat.

The prolific and always readable Kristine Kathryn Rusch manages many of the above tropes quite a bit better in "Defect", in part because the story does not concern the Fate of Worlds, but of characters. "Defect" includes quite a lot of action but it is not about action. The action serves the story, rather than the other way around. Like Watts' story, "Defect" is also about an unusual mother-child relationship, but the similarities end there. Where Watts' story sees hope in mere survival, in Rusch's survival implies much greater things to come.

Jay Lake's "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves" is the story of a complicated mutiny aboard a starship and the related battle between two millenia-old former lovers, the point of which escapes me only a couple of days after re-reading, perhaps because the most vivid character is the ship's computer. Similarly, Asher's "Shell Game" reads like a paint-by-numbers adventure-story-with-love-interest. In this case, humanity all-too-easily defeats an alien menace (without genocide, for a refreshing change) and the boy gets the girl — but the reader is unlikely to care much about either.

Garth Nyx's "Punctuality" is a mild-entertaining short-short with a twist on both the duties of a galactic emperor and on the nature of faster-than-light travel. It would not have been out-of-place as a filler in an issue of Analog, but what it's doing in a $20.00 anthology is another question.

By comparison, Sean Williams's "Inevitable", is a must-read. But only by comparison. A well-told tale of time-travel, it doesn't break any new ground and — like so many of the stories here! — most of the action happens underground and anyone familiar with time-travel paradoxes will figure out the inevitable conclusion long before the protagonist does.

Another story that arguably doesn't belong in this anthology, though one better than most of its companions, is Bruce Sterling's "Join the Navy and See the Worlds". Set entirely on a relatively near-future earth, Sterling's story sees the genesis of a new space-age, inspired by but independent from, that of a failing United States. Though well-written, I found the fifth-business narration unengaging and the story simply out of place, a critique of space opera rather than an engagement with it.

Bill Willingham's "Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Fringe", on the other hand, can be classified as nothing but space opera. It could also be read as an answer to "To Go Boldly" — affectionate where Doctorow is contemptuous, "Fearless ..." embraces the genre's standard tropes and cliches, turning down its collar, brushing its hair and sending it out into the world. Unfortunately (I know, there's that word again!), the story is slight and the ending is so predictable I'd almost swear I'd read it before.

John Meaney's "From the Heart" reads like an excerpt from a much longer work and suffers for that. A cross between a bildungsroman, a love story and an action story, it fails to engage on any level but the first one.

Elizabeth Moon's novella, "Chameleons" is another relative high-point in this book, though again, it has the claustrophobic feel so common to this book. Moon introduces us to yet another future dominated by massive social division, petty greed and (in this case) egregious parenting. Moon writes an excellent action story, though, and Chameleons is one of the few here I didn't have to re-read in order to remember what happens in it.

Another high point, probably in the top three, is Tad Williams' "The Tenth Muse". Featuring a complex but not confusing background, unusual but empathetic characters and a genuinely alien menace, Williams' story comes to a satisfying and slightly open-ended conclusion, leaving the reader pleased to have visited and hoping Williams will give us the chance to return.

Justina Robson's "Cracklegrackle" brings us back to Earth (or Mars, in this case) with a bit of a thud, unfortunately. The story of a father searching for his lost daughter by a mysterious entity — alien or a super-human? If it was made clear in the story, I've forgotten — who shows him a truth beyond his ability to accept. Intriguing and complex enough to suggest this story is part of a larger "universe" that I would like to see more of, the story suffers from a failure to convince me of the psychological reality of the protagonist, so that his tragedy becomes mere anecdote.

John Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked" brings us back (almost) to "the final frontier". Opening with what promises to be the conclusive battle between a pair of faster-than-light battle-cruiser's, "The Tale of the Wicked" turns out not to be a war story at all. With an explicit nod to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, Scalzi's tale is an engaging take on emergent intelligence and what it might mean for us when (if) it happens.

The penultimate story here, Mike Resnick's "Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz" is, as the title suggests, a lighted-hearted farce, complete with a "full-time freelance hero", a lusty and buxom heroine named (really!) Voluptua von Climax and a sort-of jewel-heist with a twist. Forgettable, but good fun enough if you like that sort of thing (and, with misgivings, I do).

Finally, John C. Wright's "The Far End of History" delivers The New Space Opera 2's promised cosmic scope and scale, but fails to convince with its love story, its war story or its aeons-long history of humanity. Really, if a writer is going to destroy the entire galaxy, the reader ought to care, and this reader didn't.

As is no doubt already abundantly clear, I can't recommend this volume. If the contributors' list excites you by all means pick up a copy when it comes it as a mass-market paper-back, but please don't give it some non-SF reading friend who you hope to interest in the field. This book won't convert anybody.

Notes:

1. I say SF because I came of age when Sci Fi referred primarily to Sf in film or television or to refer to SF the user considered inferior (often including just about anything that might have been considered "space opera", come to think of it). And so I continue using the old-school terminology. But I know the battle is long-lost and so won't bite if you prefer to use that "hideous neologism". Language changes and sometimes you just gotta roll with it. — Return.

2. This is not to say there's no such thing as formulaic SF. There is, and plenty of it. But it is the sub-"genres" which more easily carry the label of genre than does the field as a whole. — Return.

3. All right, all right! From the editors' introduction:

"The true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story; the thrilling adventure tale of powerful rocket ships, dashing heroes, and far frontiers — stories of immense scope and scale, color and action, taking us to the ultimate limits of both time and space..." — Return.

4. One element that divides "new space opera" from the old is a refusal to use faster-than-light travel, so Watts' characters have been travelling for several billions years from our perspective. — Return.

5. I say "unfortunately" for a couple of reasons. First, because he online persona suggests someone who broadly shares my political and philosophical beliefs, and we usually want to like the work of those we agree with. Also, we attended the same high school and I believe his first year there coincided with my sixth (and, yes, last — that's another, and a long, story). — Return.

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