The New Space Opera

Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, The New Space Opera is a collection meant to examine the most recent re-invention of the sub-genre. One thing that’s clear is these stories were mostly written to exemplify an existing style of SF, and they don’t necessarily break a lot of new ground. One way they do reach for new territory is in postulating some really outlandish means of interstellar travel, including to some really inventive concepts. This is a hefty collection, and it took a while to read, so some of this is from fading memories, but here we go:

The book launches with “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones, a diplomatic drama, in which a splinter of human culture, proposed for reintegration with galactic society, turns out to have developed some disturbing customs. It’s an interesting reflection on how we have to deal with less dramatic cultural differences on Earth today, and a strong start to the collection.

In Ian McDonald‘s “Verthandi’s Ring”, we meet the three-clone crew of an intergalactic battleship, returning from a monumental war. This story, covering events of epic scope, might easily have become dry and encyclopedic, but never does. Instead, a surreal tone brings together the galaxy-spanning war and the personal conflicts of the three protagonists, and also keeps the reader continuously feeling they’re just one revelation away from understanding the milieu and the story.

In “Glory”, by Greg Egan, a pair of mathematical archaeologists travel between stars to investigate the mathematical theories of a vanished race, but they discover that math may have influenced the dead culture profoundly. The highlight is a description of interplanetary travel mechanics more involved than anything I can remember, but that’s only stage-setting. The story of Anne and Joan and the successor civilization to the vanished mathematicians on planet Noudah is also compelling, and well worth the reading.

“Maelstrom” by Kage Baker is a “jus’ folks” story from Mars, where a rich eccentric and a band of misfits and outcasts are setting up the first theatre. They hire a couple of B-list (or C-list) actors from London, build a temple of drama, and away they go. Good fun if you’re in the mood, maybe a little too cute otherwise.

Peter F. Hamilton‘s “Touched by an Angel” revolves around a young woman on a visit to a new lover. It turns out the lover is actually an evolved human, or “Higher”, attempting to spread his genes through the standard human population. He, and his genetic trail, are pursued by authorities using memory extraction technology. The story is something of a throwback, relying on a Nivenesque oversight by its main characters to work. It’s still a good read, but might belong more to the “old” space opera than the New Space Opera.

“Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken McLeod is a parody of a Heinlein super-man story. McLeod is as outspokenly socialist as Heinlein was libertarian, so its not hard to see where the parody is coming from. The hero starts out literally naked and running from the law, and ends up … in much better circumstances. There are even what look like (though I can’t nail them down exactly) references to Heinlein’s future history of lunar rebellion. Or maybe even democratic socialists sometimes fantasize about poking a stick in the eye of government and going off to start their own totalitarian galactic empires.

“The Valley of the Gardens” by Tony Daniel begins with a farmer whose lush land borders a desert wilderness, then flashes back to the cosmic war that created the desert. The war was waged against invaders across the boundary from a neighboring universe, making a nice thematic connection on the idea of borders. Numerous New Space Opera tropes are packed in, including pervasive computation (throughout the soil of the planet itself) and uploaded or reproduced personalities; and a few new twists, such as a pair of soldiers psychically joined by “quantum entanglement”. The story corrals all these themes and ideas nicely, making a fine read.

In “Minla’s Flowers”, by Alastair Reynolds, a one-man starship is marooned on a backwards planet. The pilot lets himself get caught up in local affairs, with disastrous consequences. Like a few other stories here, this one seems to deliberately reach back to old space opera tropes, as the natives have just reached the leather jackets and goggles era of aerial warfare, bringing to some fantastic ’30’s styling to the setting. “Minla’s Flowers” also stands out as one of the darkest stories in the collection.

“The Emperor and the Maula”, by Robert Silverberg is the 1001 Nights re-set in the court of an interstellar emperor. Despite the well-known source material, it’s very entertaining. The ending is surprising mostly for how much is never explained.

Walter Jon Williams‘ “Send them Flowers” opens with a pair of ne’er-do-well starhoppers on the run from authority in the form a family-run megacorporation. At their next port of call, they get involved with a second powerful family, avoid a double-cross on a shady local cargo run, and eventually work out the real reason their pursuers are after them. Again there’s some clever tricks employed to justify interstellar travel. But the heart of the story turns out to be the personalities and relationships of the two roguish spacefarers. A really excellent story.

“Art of War” by Nancy Kress takes off on the work of Allied soldiers who had to catalog and repatriate the Nazi’s looted art treasures after World War II, putting her protagonist in charge of a similar operation in relation to a defeated alien menace, and adds a strong story of interpersonal conflict as the academic art curator protagonist must contend with his military hero mother commanding the operation. The story is somewhat weakened by the overly one-sided depiction of the mother, and overly handicapped son, but still carries real drama and kept me engaged.

The final story, Dan Simmons‘s “Muse of Fire”, is the highlight of the collection. It starts out with a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors visiting the various outposts of humanity, enslaved by more powerful alien powers and working hopelessly as brute labor on bleak and uninviting planets. Although there’s an element of homage to the Bard’s plays, and some reworking of old ideas, as in Baker’s and Silverberg’s pieces, Simmons takes us well beyond the usual territory for stories of life in space reflecting the life we know. This is a well-chosen finale for an overall well-chose book of tales.


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