The New Space Opera Mass Market Paperback – Aug 11 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The new space opera shares with the old the interstellar sweep of events and exotic locales, but Dozois and Strahan's all-original anthology shows how the genre's purveyors have updated it, with rigorous science, well-drawn characters and excellent writing. Many of the 18 stories play with the scope that characterizes classic space opera. In Greg Egan's Glory, creatures embody themselves as aliens to perform archeological research, only to get caught up in a struggle between two worlds. Robert Reed's Hatch, limited in locale to the hull of a giant ship, proves that the scope of the struggle for life is always epic. Stephen Baxter's Remembrance walks a line between the personal and the global as resisters against Earth's conquerors remember one man's struggle against the alien invaders. Kage Baker's humorous Maelstrom, in which an acting troupe on frontier Mars puts on a Poe story for the miners there, tells a personal story in an epic setting. The new space opera teaches us that despite the bizarre turns humanity may take to conquer these outré settings, a recognizable core of humanity remains.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
The rich space opera tradition, extending from the off-world voyages of Verne and Wells to this galaxy-embracing anthology, is arguably sf's most prolific subgenre. Veteran anthologist Dozois and coeditor Strahan present some of the newest boundary-stretching variations on the category's many themes. Accordingly, the roster of contributors includes some of contemporary sf's brightest innovators, such as Peter Hamilton and Robert Silverberg, as well as such rising stars as Tony Daniel and Mary Rosenblum. Ian McDonald brilliantly sketches entire future cultures and histories in Verthandi's Ring, the main concern of which is millennia-old intergalactic battles. In Hatch, Robert Reed describes the precarious lifestyle of a small human society eking out a living on the surface of a Jupiter-sized starship. Other tales monitor species-changing scientists, an eccentric Martian arts colony, and Earth's last traumatized survivor. In sheer breathtaking, mind-expanding scope, this collection of some of the finest tale-spinning the subgenre has to offer delivers hours of exhilarating reading. Hays, Carl
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Although most of the stories stand on their own--I think Hamilton's is the only exception--I think newcomers would still get a better introduction to today's space opera by starting with a novel or two, like Reynolds' REVELATION SPACE (on the heavier side), Stross' SINGULARITY SKY, or Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR (on the lighter side). (Note that Stross and Scalzi do not have stories in this volume.)
The book has a number of highlights. Walter Jon Williams' yarn "Send Them Flowers," features a couple of not-quite-on-the-level pals who flit around in a space yacht. Williams' irresponsible and irresistible (to women) character Tonio is a humorous wonder. Tony Daniel's "The Valley of the Gardens" is a weird, charming, and melancholy tale about a man and a woman who sacrifice themselves to save the world. Dan Simmons' "Muse of Fire" may overstate the cosmic importance of Shakespeare, but it is nonetheless surprising and engaging. While the book also has low points, none of the stories, aside from Hamilton's contribution, are truly bad. Baker's "Maelstrom" is silly and patronizing to its characters, Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass," is awkwardly written (but clearly superior to Hamilton in execution if not imagination), and McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring," is artsy but empty.
In sum, this collection is not going to blow anybody away, but it's a worthwhile addition to the library of any fan of contemporary space opera.
A pair of human researchers change their species to investigate a scientific anomaly on another planet. A group of traveling Shakespearean actors give the performances of their lives for the aliens who have conquered and enslaved Earth. A human society which has barely conquered the airplane has less than 100 years to live; their sun is in the path of a destructive stellar phenomena. An experienced interstellar traveler urges/pushes them into a crash course in spaceflight. He has to deal with what the society has become.
An alien ship the size of Jupiter has been turned into the ultimate cruise ship, on an eons-long trip around the galaxy. After a hijack attempt goes wrong, a number of passengers are trapped outside the ship and are forced to create their own society on the ship's hull. A very rich man on Mars decides to bring Art and Culture to the miners who live there. He spares no expense to build a theatre with imported walnut paneling, and advertises on Earth, for actors who are ready to emigrate to Mars.
I really enjoyed these stories. Each of the authors in this collection very much knows what they are doing. This is a formidable group of tales, and is essential reading for all science fiction fans.
For that grand scale, I'd specify vast scales of time and space and weaponry. The fate of species - their lives or at least their sanity and cultural viability - should be at stake and not some mere individual's happiness or survival. Some of the stories in this collection are good but not space opera. Some are both. But there aren't enough good stories of any type to give this collection a higher rating.
The following stories fall in the unsuccessful and not even space opera category. The setup for Gwyneth Jones "Saving Timaat", the narrator helping in the negotiations between representatives of two warring groups, the one cannibalistic predators on the other, is good but the emotional connection of the narrator to the cannibal chief and her motivations are too oblique. James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain" is a would-be comedy of manners about a courier aboard a ship of communist colonists and the steps he takes to get close to the captain's estranged wife, subject of an unaccountable infatuation, and to avoid getting "stale", a consequence of longevity treatments. Not at all interesting. Nancy Kress has put out some wonderful work, particularly when she engages in speculating about the consequences of biotech. However, her "Art of War" seems just a writerly exercise in developing the title phrase into a story and playing around with the cliché of stern military father (here a stern military mom) and a disappointing son. The story's war between alien Teli and humans and the place each species' art plays in the struggle just didn't have the grand feel of space opera.
In the good but not space opera category are several works. Paul J. McAuley's "Winning Peace" has the flavor if not the plot of Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or a film noir. Its protagonist, sold into slavery after being taken prisoner in humanity's civil war, is offered freedom in exchange for aiding in the quest for an alien artifact. He, however, has other plans - as do all the human and alien principals in this story. Mary's Rosenblum's "Splinters of Glass" is a chase story initiated when the protagonist's old girlfriend, from whom he's been hiding, shows up with assassins in tow. He and the woman head out into the fissures of an ice world. Walter Jon Williams' "Sends Them Flowers" has an interesting background - alternate universes differentiated not by divergences from some historical point but slightly different physical laws - and a couple of interesting characters tramping about in their inherited spaceship. However, the problems of the duo, most of them caused by the womanizing of the ex-con, don't have the grandiosity required by space opera.
In the not very engaging but still space opera category are several stories. Kage Baker's "Maelstrom" gets in here solely because its Martian setting, with a group of misfits trying, in an unsuccessfully humorous plot, to stage Edgar Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" evokes the spirit of the American West, one of the spiritual ancestors of the space opera. Gregory Benford's "The Worm Turns", sequel to his "A Worm in the Well", has lots of hard science with a cometary prospector and her artificial intelligence heading through a wormhole. But I found the story, even with its encounters with aliens on the other side of the wormhole - they're not at all happy about seeing humans, the resulting conversations between the aliens and AI, and the banter between machine and prospector uninvolving. Robert Reed's "Hatch" has a promising set up: survivors of the Polypond War live on the outside of the Great Ship (setting for several Reed stories) and scavenge materials castoff by the cloud-like biomech Polypond. However, the ending is too obscure and wrecks an interesting story. Tony Daniel's "The Valley of the Gardens" has a key ingredient of space opera: a vast war between aliens from another universe and humans, a war humans are loosing, And the plot, alternating between the unexpected human victory in that war and its consequences on a young man's world, was intriguing. The payoff, though, seems another writerly exercise in contrived symmetry between the two halves of the story, and the relation between a soldier and his weapon a badly literalized metaphor.
Another story marred by a too neat plot contrivance is Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring". However, it's not marred enough to keep it out of the good and space opera category. Like some of the best stories in this collection, it brings the red in tooth and claw Darwinian struggle for existence into the ecosystem of the whole universe. When two species with superscience compete, there can be no peaceful co-existence because each wants and needs all the material and energy resources of the universe. Here it is not a simple version of humanity struggling with the aliens but the many clades man has evolved into. Alien mathematical archaeology and how advanced cultures find the will to survive - as well as an opening of diamond hard science fiction describing an unusual alien probe - are in Greg Egan's excellent "Glory". Peter F. Hamilton's "Blessed by an Angel" is set in the universe of his Commonwealth. It shows that civil wars may be fought over how to control humanity's impulse to go into the box and embrace a life of lotus-eating in virtual reality. Here the conflict is not overt, doesn't involve fleets of ships, is fought with subversion and espionage but the stakes are still for the race's future. Ken Macleod is a socialist whose fiction is loved by libertarians. Here he brings his wry, cynical take on the futility of all political systems and combines it with evolutionary design strategy to show how the unfortunate inhabitants of Wolf 359 are part of an experiment to solve some old political problems. The title asks "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" It turns out that a lot of people should be. Alastair Reynold's "Minla's Flowers", part of his Husker sequence and direct prequel to "Merlin's Gun", has Merlin stumbling across a human world threatened with extinction, in 70 years, by a breakdown of the alien Waynet transportation network. In and out of stasis as he tries to help them develop the tech to migrate offworld, he watches a little girl develop into an unpleasant, Stalinesque leader. Stephen Baxter was one of the British revivers of space opera. His Xeelee story "Remembrance" features man's first encounter with alien invaders and the resulting bitter conflict, for which Baxter pulls out three nifty bits of diverse and credible science, teaches the hard lesson that peaceful co-existence between man and alien is a doomed and foolish notion. The redoubtable Robert Silverberg has a human woman from the backwater of an alien empire confront the Emperor and, reminiscent of Scherezade in the Arabian Nights, use her wiles to effect her purposes. "The Emperor and the Maula" doesn't really have the science and technology of new space opera, but it's definitely still space opera. One of the longest stories in the book, it's enthralling all the time. Also long and enthralling is Dan Simmon's "Muse of Fire". In a world of god-like aliens where humans are merely slaves, a troupe of Shakespearean actors is compelled to put on performances for their masters with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. It manages to touch on the effects of art in a harsh world without engaging in easy pieties about art's power and benefits.
"Saving Tiamaat," "Verthandi's Ring" & "Hatch": I don't really know, because I found them so convoluted that I didn't finish them. Some of the authors of these stories introduce the reader to a slew of aliens, alien civilizations, and future technologies in a few pages, where maybe a 50 page introduction to a 300 or so page book would be adequate.
"Winning Peace": Not bad, but could have used a longer treatment. A common theme in this volume seems to be the situation where one group of humans (or aliens) subjugate another group of humans, who find some means of revenge in the end.
"Glory": There are so many things going on in this story, that I'm not sure why the author didn't write a full-fledged novel. I would even read it.
"Maelstrom": This is one of the more memorable stories because it's about a group of rag-tag actors on a recently colonized Mars who put on a play which loosely reflects the lives of colonists. It's surprisingly humorous, but categorizing it as a "space opera" is really a stretch.
"Blessed by an Angel": If I hadn't have read Peter Hamilton's incredible "Pandora's Star" (and the much more mediocre sequal "Judas Unchained"), I would have been completely lost. That's another thing that you find in the volume -- some of the backgrounds of these short stories were already covered in full-blown novels. This particular story is ok, but I would think incomprehensible to one who didn't read "Pandora's Star."
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359"?: I'm sure I read it, but nothing sticks with me.
"The Valley of the Gardens": A touching Romeo and Juliet type love story set on an alien world. This also cries out for a longer treatment.
"Dividing the Sustain": Utterly bizarre. Don't know what quite to think about it. Another thought I have about alot of these stories is that the authors tend to forget that if real/actual/virtual time is substantially longer than one's perceived time on a space-ship, the technology will change completely once the voyage is finished (think about our technology 20 years ago).
"Minla's Flowers": A superb novella about a space traveller who attempts to advance a civilization before its time to avert disaster. I really liked this one and am interested in reading more by the author (Alastair Reynolds).
"Splinters of Glass": Most of it describes a chase scene on flying skateboards through icy pathways on Europa (and a love story to boot). OK, as far as it goes.
"Rememberance": An interesting tale about an alien race that nearly destroys humanity and makes everyone (save one person) forget about it. Humanity now has the power to destroy them. Also could have been better as a full fledged novel, or a decent Star Trek episode.
"The Emperor and the Maula": Maybe because I'm such a huge Robert Silverberg fan, this was my favorite entry. It tells the story of a far future human race, that had finally found peace and cooperation, only to be subjugated by the Ansaar, who conquer the Earth through a terrifying shock and awe campaign, and then basically treat humans like an insignificant nuisance (part of the "Maula" -- creatures below contempt). A brave young woman named Laylah visits the Ansaar's home planet knowing it means her certain execution. But she manages to get in the presence of the Emperor who doesn't quite know what to make of her. Silverberg's traditional skills, such as describing exotic alien planets, and the arrogance of a supreme leader, shine through here. "The Emperor and the Maula" could probably work just as well as a fable without a scifi/space opera setting. In fact, it reminded me somewhat of the story of Purim, (Laylah reminded me an awful lot of Esther).
"The Worm Turns": Strange and surrealistic. Like some of the other stories, one needs to probably understand something about wormholes in order to appreciate it, which I really don't.
"Send them Flowers": Dull and one of the few entries I thought was too long.
"Art of War": An exo-art historian, who has a hostile relationship with his mother (a four star general in the military), tries to find a pattern in how an enemy alien race arranged art in caves which they had stolen from humans. Huh?
"Muse of Fire": I loved "Hyperion," but I often find Dan Simmon's writing to be extremely dense. Here, he shows off his obviously prodigious knowledge of Shakespeare. The story wasn't bad, but he really shouldn't have tried to cram all this stuff (the performance of Shakespearean plays in front of a serious of increasingly God-like aliens) into 61 pages.
Read "The New Space Opera," if you like short science fiction stories. It may also lead you to an author or two in whom you might become interested.
I think my biggest complaint is that the ends of the stories weren't generally satisfying to me. I guess the stories must have been sufficiently good in that I was anxious to see how they would turn out. However that is where I found myself disappointed.
I would recommend this collection, but I wouldn't put it at the top of my list.
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