Go Way Out
After Falling On Hack Times in the 1970s, The Space Opera Makes A Comeback
No matter what the genre in question is, to a non-genre reader, all genre books are the same. Every romance features Fabio ripping the bodice of some longhaired vixen. Every mystery involves a little old lady who solves crimes with her cat. And all science fiction involves space ships and bug-eyed monsters.
I can't speak for the other two genres--for all I know the stereotype is true--but I can bring some reality into this monolithic perception about speculative fiction. This vast accretion of titles easily includes a dozen subgenres, from cyberpunk to steampunk to alternate history to high fantasy. Space ships, etc., only show up in one very small subgenre of SF: the space opera.
Space opera has been kicking around since the turn of the last century. The SF writers everyone knows--Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert--all penned at least one. In the 1960s and `70s, however, "space opera" became code for "hackwork," possibly due to the rise of pop culture space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars. The idea of a "romantic adventure set in space and told on a grand scale," which is how The New Space Opera editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan define the subgenre, fell out of favor.
But during the '90s, these editors posit, the form returned. It's different this time around, mostly because the global culture is different than it was 50 years ago. It's a good point, yet the stories that have been collected here make it hard to put your finger on exactly how the new space opera is different from the old. Is it just that new space opera is more likely to feature a protagonist who is female (and, interestingly, still written about by a man)? Or that we are more wary of technology 50 years on? Or is this new simply because it was published in 2007? It's not clear--and the editors fail to define what they mean when they call these stories "new space opera."
Which isn't to say that Dozois and Strahan have assembled a bunch of novellas that fail to ignite your sense of wonder and excitement. Most of these stories are incredible, engaging works: Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?," a brisk story full of sly humor that occasionally captures the antic glee of Douglas Adams' best; James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing the Sustain," a whimsical tale about a smuggler and love that is set on a ship speeding through the galaxy;. or Walter Jon Williams' "Send Them Flowers," which is also about smuggling and love from an entirely different perspective than Kelly's, but just as whimsical and memorable.
If nothing else, these 18 stories give you an excellent introduction to the field as well as a list of authors to look for the next time you're at the bookstore. Even the most casual SF reader knows some of these writers, granted, but reading their work in this context reminds everyone to dip back in to their collections. Like his Scheherazade-esque main character in "The Emperor and the Maula," Robert Silverberg proves that he can still spin one heck of a yarn, and has earned every last bit of praise heaped on him over the past six decades. Kage Baker's "Maelstrom" may not be her most challenging work, but it does prove that her writing is always delightful and her characters rich. Dan Simmons' "Muse of Fire" is just a marvel of storytelling, blending Shakespeare and aliens in rich, wonderful ways.
There are a few misfires, such as Ian McDonald's "Verthandi's Ring" and Robert Reed's "Hatch." The idea of cool aliens and mind-bending worlds is one of the most notable trappings of space opera. These two stories prove that it is possible to go too far. Readers on this planet still need something that they recognize and can identify with; otherwise the story just feels like the retelling of a stranger's dream, one in which you have no idea what the symbols stand for. Their willingness to dance on the cutting edge is laudable but the editors could have taken a firmer hand.
Which may be the biggest issue with the book as a whole. While a large percentage of this collection is full of space opera goodness, Dozois and Strahan's introductions do them no favors. Instead of interstitial bits of text that help place the writer or the tale in some sort of context, the editors have merely crafted extra long bibliographies. Dozois, who edited Asimov's magazine for 20 years as well as more than a dozen other anthologies, and Strahan, former book reviewer for Locus magazine and an Australia-based anthology editor, have been in the field long enough to have some opinions. It's a shame that they only provide details that you could easily find out for yourself, rather than their thoughts on any given tale. It's also a shame that they used the same line of description--enough ideas packed into this short story "to fuel many another author's eight-hundred-page novel"--for both Kelly's and McDonald's stories. That may be true, of course, but it makes the stories in question feel redundant rather than as vital and "new" as they are.