Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2007
Reviews: THE SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE and THE NEW SPACE OPERA: ALL NEW STORIES OF SCIENCE FICTION ADV
THE SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE
Edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Tor/944 pages/$39.95)
THE NEW SPACE OPERA: ALL NEW STORIES OF SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURE
Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (Eos/528 pages/$15.95, trade paper)
Reviewed by Dorman T. Shindler
After the “Star Wars” movies hit neighborhood screens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the subgenre of Space Opera—once considered all but dead—has flourished. Though practiced by well-respected writers within the genre, Space Opera never seemed to get as much respect as “hard” SF. Two recent anthologies not only celebrate Space Opera, they acknowledge its importance to the field of SF and fantasy and its reemergence as vital part of the new renaissance for the genre in literature (not to mention film and television)
The Space Opera Renaissance edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (who brought us The Hard SF Renaissance as well as The Ascent of Wonder) is a huge, doorstop of a book that does a good job of tracking the development of the subgenre from the days E.E. “Doc” Smith (who wrote The Skylark of Space, but isn’t included in this tome, darn it) to the more recent writings of Allen Steele, Catherine Asaro and Stephen Baxter. Another Space Opera pioneer—Jack Vance—also misses the role call in this roomy anthology. Although Smith and Vance are no-shows, the inclusion of Jack Williamson’s “The Prince of Space” is a welcome sight. It’s a story that virtually invented the idea of “space habitats” that rotate in order to simulate gravity. Knaves. thieves and pirates play a part in 1949’s “The Enchantress of Venus” by Leigh Brackett (surely one of the most versatile writers to grace the field) as well as 2002’s “Ring of Rats by R. Grarcia y Robertson—and both make for wild, adventurous reads. Although the early stories of Space Opera seem to have been given a bit of short shrift (“The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith, and a Robert Sheckley gem are included), the latter days of Space Opera’s renaissance, from the late 1970s and on, are well-covered.
Stories by David Brin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charles Stross and Robert Reed are among the rich, well-written pickings. “The Shobies’ Story” by Ursula K. LeGuin, which deals with a reality shift caused by a faster than light drive, works very well as a representative of the sort of thoughtful but well-paced fiction LeGuin (in novels like The Left hand of Darkness) was writing early on in her long career. A newer, and particular favorite of mine, is “Orphans of the Helix,” a Locus Award-winning novella tied to the classic “Hyperion/Endymion” Space Opera quaternion by Dan Simmons. Set over 400 years after the events in the last of those four books, the story finds the crew of the starship Helix being awakened to investigate a distress signal. The ensuing adventure pits the characters (named after Japanese authors like Saigyo, Murasaki, etc.) against and out-of-control “harvester” ship running on auto pilot and threatening an entire civilization near a double star. Like the best of Simmons’ space operas, this story uses just about everything but the kitchen sink to tell an entertaining and adventurous story. (With over 30 stories offered up, The Space Opera Renaissance is a great buy—a paperback will be published in July).
Oddly, “Muse of Fire,” the contribution by Simmons in The New Space Opera—a collection of brand new, original works—which once again makes use of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare) and starships, doesn’t quite fire on all thrusters the way “Orphans” did. But as editor Dozois points out, Space Opera is many things to many readers and writers, so while Simmons’ story isn’t quite up to snuff, a good deal of the many other variations on the subgenre in this collection are. “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” by Ken Macleod successfully fuses humor and cynicism into the mix. The story begins with the protagonist dumping his “smart clothes” in an effort to throw off pursuers—the garments dance about like something from a Tex Avery cartoon. Robert Silverberg mixes familiar tropes with new ideas and new twists in “The Emperor and the Maula,” in which a woman from Earth finds herself at the center of a galaxy-spanning empire, pleading for her race’s freedom. She’s imprisoned, of course—and sentenced to death! But like Scheherazade, heroine Laylah Wallis proves resourceful, and while she spins her hypnotizing tale, author Silverberg slyly muses on the art of narrative structure, etc.
In “Dividing the Sustain,” James Patrick Kelly postulates a future—and a race of people—who are happy to have rid themselves of emotion. But a smuggler aboard a starship enroute to one of their settlements truly shakes things up. And in “Maelstrom,” Kage Baker makes good, humorous use of the same trope Simmons started from—a troupe of space-traveling actors—when thespians have to act out an Edgar Allen Poe story for some miners on Mars. Other highlights include pieces by Tony Daniel, Mary Rosenblum and, especially, Greg Egan.
Sure the Hartwell/Kramer anthology could’ve used more early Space Opera work (something by Alfred Bester, for example) and both anthologies could’ve used a piece by Elizabeth Bear (one of the fasted rising, new SF writers), but it’s hard to complain about two anthologies that offer up such terrific stories by many of the finest writers in the field.