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The New Space Opera 2: All new stories of science fiction adventure
Edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan
Review by Ernest Lilley
Eos Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061562358
Date: 01 July 2009 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Review: The New Space Opera / Show Official Info /

All the way through The new Space Opera 2 I've been plagued by the question of what space opera is, and whether or not the stories in here fit the bill. Better minds than mine have and will grapple with the question, of course, but that doesn't quite stop me from beating my head against the monolith to see how hard it is. It's pretty hard, by the way.

In space, nobody can hear the fat lady sing. Well, unless they have their comms open, anyway.

When I think space opera, I think Doc Smith, and having surfed around a bit on the subject, I can see that I'm not alone. The part I always liked was probably the least important, the super-vortex-battle-dreadnought slug-fests with corpulent pyrotechnics as layer upon layer of energy screens flared to incandescence and brave crews fought the good fight.

Actually, I don't think it was the slug-fests I liked so much as the romantic band of brothers facing ultimate evil that pulled me in. And that melodrama is what made it space opera. Grand scale, check. Clash of civilizations, check. Characters consumed by passions beyond those of mere mortals...double check.

The "old" space opera is accused of being too pro-human, and I'm sure that's fair on the whole. But only on the whole. There have been dark characters since the proto-genre characters spawned by Wells and Verne. Humanity wasn't meant to win so much as it was fated to bumble along.

While Doc Smith's scientist/heroes did tend to pureness of character, you shouldn't forget characters like the amoral Blackie DuQuesne, from the Skylark of Space series, or Nadreck, the cold blooded (physiologically and emotionally) Lensman of the Palain VII. Or Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964) in which a planet/space ship fleeing religious repression takes up orbit around Earth, eats the moon and generally causes a bad time for everyone. That was in the 60s, so maybe it's too late to make my case, but my point is that there has always been a dystopian counter current in SF. The change isn't so much that space opera has turned over a new leaf as that our idea of story has expanded to embrace tragedy as well as comedy.

I love the bit in Stranger than Fiction where Dustin Hoffman, playing an English professor asks Will Farrel, who is hearing an author write his life story in his head, if the story is comedy or tragedy. What's the difference?

Professor Hilbert: To quote Italo Calvino, "the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.

Harold: What?

Professor Hilbert: Tragedy you die. Comedy you get hitched.

So it goes. You can learn a lot at the movies.

In the end, I wound up asking myself if the story felt like it could be made into an opera. Does it have enough drama? Does fate seem cruel, kind, or just disinterested? Are the principles tormented by the choices they have to make? Does it feel operatic? Some do...some don't.

As it happens, I took notes.

"Utriusque Cosmi" by Robert Charles Wilson

    Robert Charles Wilson's story is big, and it takes place in space, though really it takes place at the end of all things, which is a place beyond space. It takes place while the universe is circling the drain at the end of time, with Carlotta, who was once a girl, looking back over the time before she became "raptured up" and immortal. It reminds me a bit of the ending of James's Blish's Cities in Flight, which also deals with information transfer at the end of the universe, though I could name a few others (Poul Anderson's Tau Zero among them) that might fit the bill better. So this story is big, and it's got space, and a clash of civilizations, so I suppose it's space opera?
"The Island" by Peter Watts
    Peter is as brilliant as ever. Who would have though of a Dyson sphere made of meat? Though to call it an island doesn't quite grab me. Better than a meatball, I guess.
"Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" by John Kessel
    It's got a big theme, the resurrected race of man and their relationship with the nanny gods left behind when the first race of man ascended, check. Spaceships? Not so much, but there's a flit from one planet to the next that keeps it from being a "planetary romance". Good writing? We're talking John Kessel here. Check. Win the battle, but lose the war? Could be.
"To Go Boldly" by Cory Doctorow
    Evidently, there's light space opera too, and nicely done. Cory holds up a mirror to the fascism which is Trek and gives us a pretty telling look at ourselves. Dear Cory. Please go help them write the next Star Trek script. I like the continued rip off of titles and themes from classic SF, by the way. This one reminds me a a short story that's vaguely haunted me for decades, Frederick Brown's "I Won't"
"The Lost Princess Man" by John Barnes
    More good writing, with a bit of wry wit. Charles Stross ends his novel Halting State with a nice tribute to the Nigerian bank phishing scheme. I mean, what would you think if someone from the bank of Nigeria really did want to send you a really big check? This story has its own turnabout, when a victim of the lost princess kidnapping scam has to be recovered, since she really is the lost princess, and the empire needs her. Fool me once, shame on me...
"Defect" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    Rusch is an enjoyable writer, and her Retrieval Man series, sort of a noir detective in space, is pretty decent, but she's no Chandler. This yarn about a spy/assassin who wants to come in from the cold is likewise fair, but lacks the edge that one of the original master spy writers, or Charles Stross, could have given it. Operatic? I don't think so.
"To Raise A Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves" by Jay Lake
    Jay's a thoroughly inventive writer, and a fine craftsman. Still, I wasn't quite bowled over by "Mutiny" which came away as pretty good. It does have the classic operatic elements in it: culture wars, vast backstory, forbidden and inconvenient love, but it never really feels tragic enough to be opera.
"Shell Game" by Neal Asher
    I really like the idea that Asher came up with for his ultimate revenge against a warlike species of aliens, which reminds me a bit of Niven's Puppeteer's solution to the overly warlike Kzin. Interestingly, though there are a couple of humans at the center of the action here, they don't get to do much of anything except provide viewpoint characters, and in the end they're just tits on a bull.
"Punctuality" by Garth Nix
    This is good SF and good writing too. The story has empire spanning consequences, so it fulfills it's space opera qualifications, but only just.
"Inevitable" by Sean Williams
    Interesting that the editors should put this and "Punctuality" back to back, since they both deal with similar conceptual underpinnings. This one is a bit more operatic with some real elements of fate, foreknowledge, and tragedy.
"Join The Navy and See the Worlds" by Bruce Sterling
    At first glance, one wonders if this qualifies as space opera. It's in the near future, it only technically makes it to space aboard a suborbital tourist flight, and it's not all that tragic. But it is about a new world order rising from the tired ashes of the old, and the more I think about it, the more I think it's space opera...Bollywood style, perhaps.
"Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings" by Bill Willingham
    Bill consciously tries to capture some of the swash and buckle of the space opera of yesteryear, and pulls it off quite well in fact. It's light space opera, but pretty decent.
"From the Heart" by John Meaney
    There's an operatic backstory in the middle, though the action is laid on only to provide an opportunity to drag out it's telling. I have some problems with the way his "graduation ceremony" is handled, but the story is pretty good.
"Chameleons" by Elizabeth Moon
    Elizabeth Moon turns in an enjoyable romp where a man's past comes back to haunt him. It's space opera credentials feature the scion's of an uberwealthy galactic industrialist and a persecuted group of les miserables humanmoids, all of which make a fair bit of drama and soul searching.
"The Tenth Muse" by Tad Williams
    Since these are all original stories, one supposes that the authors were given the mission to write a short space opera, maybe a space operetta. Tad's story itself fulfills enough opera conventions, especially in that the hero gives up love for art, but it turns out there's a play within a play, and a clever commentary on the subject. Bravo.
"Cracklegrackle" by Justina Robson
    It's got operatic tragedy in it, and it's well done, though not my cup of tea. The questionable science (questioning it is part of the story) put me off a bit.
"The Tale of the Wicked" by John Scalzi
    As usual, Scalzi turned in a solid yarn, and as usual it's fun and well thought out. There's an anthology on machine ethics out there somewhere that's crying for the inclusion of this though, and it would be better served there than here.
"Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz" by Mike Resnick
    Nice. Mike pulled out all the stops to come up with a classically comic opera. Of course, he's the man for the job, as many of his stories feature larger than life heroes and desperadoes. I'm not sure this qualifies as the "new" space opera, but it's great fun.
"The Far End of History" by John C. Wright
    Leave it to John C. Wright to cap the collection with a love story between two planets, or maybe even something bigger, like between the last warrior and his enemy. As with everything he writes, it's beautifully written, erudite as hell, and possibly the best example of what I'd consider new space opera in the book.
Collectionwise, I give the whole endeavor a "pretty good", which, considering the talent of the authors and the editors combined, is faint praise. I suspect that trying to write within the constraints of the subject stilted the authors a bit, and that they too spent time wondering what space opera was, that they might have otherwise spent figuring out what story they wanted to write.

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