REVIEW: The Space Opera Renaissance edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of 32 stories attempting to provide historical perspective of space opera.
PROS: 24 stories good or better, 10 of them outstanding; historical editorials.
CONS: 8 stories mediocre or worse; editorials have academic tone.
BOTTOM LINE: You are unlikely to find a more comprehensive survey of space opera.
It takes a certain ambition to try to get your editorial arms around space opera because it seems that everyone has their own definition of it. It’s as if the definition of it is as subjective a thing as success or beauty. It therefore may not be surprising that a space opera anthology, which attempts to put space opera in historical perspective by including samples from all its variations, is just freakin’ huge. At 32 stories (12 novellas, 12 novelettes, 7 short stories and 1 vignette) and 940+ pages, The Space Opera Renaissance is one giant, arm-numbing tome. When you open the cover and see that the book is printed with smaller than normal text, it may seem downright daunting. But if space opera is your thing, like it is mine, you’ll dive into it with laser blaster drawn.
So how does a reader get his arms around this? The book’s table of contents shows its organization. Stories are grouped into sections roughly by era, yet inexplicably the publication dates of the stories within each section do not always fall within those dates. This must be an editorial oversight. It would have been better to leave off the year labels on the section headings to avoid the confusion.
Hartwell’s and Cramer’s introduction – an expansion of an earlier essay titled How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera – serves to put space opera in historical perspective by considering the myriad of definitions it has held over the years. It’s not all laser blasters and spaceships. Along with story intros that are longer than those in most anthologies, the main introduction has a somewhat academic tone that makes it seem like a stiffly-delivered dissertation. Space opera is supposed to fun. Writing about it should yield something fun as well. Otherwise, the essay does great job cataloguing the history of space opera, from its critical abusive roots to its morphing into something acceptable by the literati.
Since the definition of space opera is so broad, it’s no wonder that some of the stories seem to be all over the sf genre map. Several stories seem more happily pigeonholed to other sub-genres (like military sf, for example) than they do in the space opera camp, but only diehard space opera purists would be bothered by this. The result of the genre-mingling is a diverse mix of stories that either hint at or have feet firmly entrenched in whatever your own personal definition of space opera might be. As to the quality of the stories, well, that varies. It seems that some stories were chosen to make the volume more comprehensive. That’s the point of this volume, I suppose. But how many anthologies can boast having only top-notch stories anyway? The book succeeds in its goal of providing a comprehensive survey of space opera.
There were ten standout stories this volume. They were “The Star-Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton, “The Swordsmen of Varnis” by Clive Jackson, “Empire Star” by Samuel R. Delany, “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks, “Escape Route” by Peter F. Hamilton, “Aurora in Four Voices” by Catherine Asaro, “The Death of Captain Future” by Allen Steele, “Fools Errand” by Sarah Zettel, “Spirey and the Queen” by Alastair Reynolds and “Guest Law” by John C. Wright. Six of the stories are available online, as noted by the hyperlinked story names below.
[Note: It's rare for any anthology, but certainly possible in one of this size, to include a story that qualifies as a novel by the SFWA standards, but Donald Kingsbury's Kzin story "The Survivor" clocks in at 60,000 words according to the author's website. When published as part of The Man-Kzin Wars IV, it was 245 pages. For that reason, I will not include it in my short story reading project but since it does contribute to the overall quality of The Space Opera Renaissance, I have weighted "The Survivor" rating as twice that of a novella.]
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “The Star-Stealers” [Interstellar Patrol] by Edmond Hamilton [1929 novelette]
- Synopsis: Federation of Space Fleet Command Ran Rarak is assigned to investigate a massive, dead-sun-like object hurtling towards Sol and threatening to pull it and its planets out of the solar system.
- Review: : For all its old-time flaws (incorrect science, overly dramatic dialogue, one brief questionable moment of gender bias at the end) this was both charming and one helluva thrill ride. The lead expedition team’s excursion on the surface of the object, fraught with danger at nearly every turn, was page-turning, quick-moving and flat-out fun.
- “The Prince of Space” by Jack Williamson [1931 novella]
- Synopsis: The adventures of a misunderstood space pirate and his attempt to save the world from blood-sucking Martians.
- Review: Although this had the requisite action (and lots of it!) that is expected in space opera, there were too many things that kept it from rising to the top: the dialogue was unnatural and corny, the damsel/Prince love story was way too cheesy and the overuse of the sentence-starter word “presently” was starting to annoy. There were some redeeming qualities, though. There was an unusually (for old-time space opera) heavy use of hard science to explain the ships and weapons and the action was relentlessly fast-paced. Mostly, when all was said and done, this was a good, fun story.
- “Enchantress of Venus” [Eric John Stark] by Leigh Brackett [1949 novella]
- Synopsis: Eric John Stark travels to Venus looking for a friend who was lost. He arrives in the city of Shuruun, learns of the Lost Ones and seeks some answers in the castle of the decadent Lhari, rulers of a mysterious city.
- Review: Meh. The impact of this story was lessened, I think, by its length. Had it been half its size, it would have packed a bigger punch. As it was, by the time we learn of the secret of the Lost Ones and the Lhari’s quest for omnipotence, interest had seriously waned. There are some good moments: much of the action takes place in a sea of mist so thick you could swim in it; the in-fighting Lhari were somehow Roman in their ruling style and intrigue; the unsuspected assistance of Treon was a well-deserved comeuppance for the ruling class; and freeing a planet of an oppressive regime is always a good thing. No spoiler there, I think. Early on we see a prophecy that (surprise) comes true. Why do all fiction prophecies come true?
- Note: Also known as “City of the Lost Ones”.
- “The Swordsmen of Varnis” [as by "Geoffrey Cobbe"] by Clive Jackson [1950 vignette]
- Synopsis: A warrior named Tharn and a princess named Lehni are in hot pursuit by the evil swordsmen of Varnis as they are moments away from unlocking the secrets of the mysterious Living Vapor.
- Review: A short parody of space opera that succeeds in getting a laugh by using a gag that was later seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- “The Game of Rat and Dragon” [Instrumentality of Man] by Cordwainer Smith [1955 short story]
- Synopsis: : Details a seconds-long battle between a human pilot that is telepathically linked to a cat and an evil force that exists in the dark recesses of space.
- Review: Smith sets up an interesting universe in which mankind has partnered with telepathic cats to defend themselves against malevolent forces encountered during space travel. The evil force, manifested as dragons to the human pilots and as rats to the cats, fears light and the cats, projected out ahead of the ship in their own probes, use light weapons to defeat the bad guy using their, well, cat-like reflexes. It may sound silly, but the detail in which Smith plays out the all-too-short battle sequence is quite engrossing. Cleverly, the story is broken into chapters (The Table, The Shuffle, The Deal, The Play, The Score) depicting the Game that is played in the narrative.
- “Empire Star” by Samuel R. Delany [1966 novella]
- Synopsis: Comet Jo, an eighteen-year-old from a mining colony, sets out to deliver a message of utmost importance to Empire Star. The problem? He does not know what the message is.
- Review: Dizzyingly cerebral. As I write this, my mind is still reeling from the self-referential Mobius strip of its construction. That’s an apt description, actually, as the story really has no beginning or end, but is cyclic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the story lines of characters are independently cyclic but phase-shifted with respect to each other, as if each character is chasing another around the strip. The story is told from the point of view of the omniscient observer named Jewel, a high-order intelligence. Point of view, as it turns out, plays a central role in the story. We learn that beings are simplex, complex or multiplex; states of being increasing in awareness. The 18-year-old protagonist, Comet Jo, begins as a simplex being at a mining colony but is tasked with delivering a message to Empire Star, yet he has no knowledge of either the message’s content or Empire’s Star. This story follows his increasing understanding of the situation with the universe, the “Lll” beings and the people in his life. As he becomes Multiplex, the reader learns (through the meta-level voice of Jewel) that the story is indeed structured as to be seen from the simultaneous points of view from a multiplex being. This is all heady stuff and deeply satisfying in many respects.
- Interesting Quote: “The only important elements in society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society’s values, can force it to change.”
- “Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerly Dead” by Robert Sheckley [1972 short story]
- Synopsis: A series of glimpses at the end of the world.
- Review: Although this was intended as a space opera parody – and indeed it succeeded within each vignette at making up grand and glorious story climaxes in charming, over-the-top space opera style – the story as a whole was ineffective because the glimpses were disjoint. Better would have been to link them together to make a cohesive story instead of a jumbled string of retellings of the same joke.
- “Temptation” [Uplift] by David Brin [1999 novella]
- Synopsis: While the rest of their race traverses the stars, a group of uplifted dolphins, for various reasons, are stranded on the planet Jijo. Peepoe, a female dolphin abducted by two males, manages to escape and stumbles on an alien habitat. Tkett, the archaeologist, sets out to look for Peepoe and stumbles across a similar artifact. Separately, the dolphins learn of an alien race (the Buyur) and their plans affecting the destiny of all sentient races on Jijo.
- Review: Excellent world building marks this story, not only for the Uplift series background, but also for Jijo itself. The dolphins are the seventh intelligent species that populate Jijo, and the Buyur aliens would love to have them as part of their exhibit. What they promise is very tempting for the dolphins, as it involves getting anything you could wish for. I liked that the ensuing discussion had a science fiction vs. fantasy slant to it, especially since it rings true with my own feeling about the seemingly arbitrary nature of fantasy fiction. Brin does characterizations well enough that you sometimes forget your reading about dolphins (like Tkett who refuses to give up hope that he’ll one day return to the Earth they abandoned), yet he snaps us back to attention when dolphin-specific biology plays a central role in the story’s resolution of the desire for free will.
- “Ranks of Bronze” [Gaius Vibulenus] by David Drake [1975 short story]
- Synopsis: An army of Roman-era military slaves fights a battle for their alien owners.
- Review: This reads more like military science fiction than the space opera which is only at in a few short sentences at story’s end. Still, this is a tight, well-written good read with healthy doses of action and drama. I wouldn’t mind checking out the longer version of this story. I suspect the enhanced battalion, given longevity through alien science, offers a good vehicle for many far-flung battles.
- Note: This story was later expanded into the novel-length Ranks of Bronze and has a sequel, The Excalibur Alternative.
- “Weatherman” [Miles Vorkosigan] by Lois McMaster Bujold [1990 novella]
- Synopsis: Ensign Miles Vorkosigan is assigned a temporary position as a weatherman in an arctic military camp to prove his worth as a ship pilot.
- Review: Meh. This story was unspectacular and too long. I wouldn’t call it bad, but it was far from page-turning. Miles faces several challenges that must be overcome including acceptance from his peers, a dangerous excursion in the harsh environment, a drunken predecessor and a maniacal commander. The handicapped Miles is likable and does prove his mettle (as the existence of several books makes obvious), but it hardly made for the exciting story for which I had hoped.
- Note: This is an excerpt from The Vor Game.
- “A Gift from the Culture” [Culture] by Iain M. Banks [1987 short story]
- Synopsis: A female member of the Culture, now re-gendered and living among humans as one of them, is asked to commit an act of terrorism to cover some gambling debts.
- Review: Believe it or not, this is my first Culture story. [Hangs head in shame.] The good news is that what little of the Culture I learned from this story makes me want to start on the books. Wrobik, the alien living a secret life amongst humans, wrestles with the decision which is soon made all the more difficult when the bad guys hold hostage Wrobik’s boyfriend (although re-gendered, Wrobik still prefers men). And interesting dilemma and one that probably could have had a more satisfying resolution. The gift – a gun that responds only to the touch of someone from the Culture – was way cool and featured a cool online help system.
- “Orphans of the Helix” [Hyperion] by Dan Simmons [1999 novelette]
- Synopsis: Nine members of a colonization ship awaken from cryo-sleep when the controlling AI’s detect a nearby anomaly in the middle of their voyage.
- Review: Believe it or not, this is my first Hyperion story. [Hangs head in shame again.] Some of the background story was most likely lost on me (including an ending that is sure to please readers of the novels. I think.) but what I did get was very enjoyable. The nine members of the ship discover an improbable world and a fierce menace whose coexistence cannot continue along its current path. This poses a nice, juicy moral dilemma for them, the resolution of which is infused with a healthy dose of sense-of-wonder. Very good stuff.
- “The Well Wishers” [Tabitha Jute, Plenty] by Colin Greenland [1997 novella]
- Synopsis: Tabitha Jute lands on Umbriel to transport a consignment for an ex-entertainer and meets a group of people who can turn dreams into art pieces.
- Review: Greenland does an excellent job portraying the nearly lifeless world of Umbriel. The fascination with the power of the natural resource known as the Wells has long since faded, but some hangers-on do remain – the so-called Well Wishers who use the Wells to turn dreams into bizarre art objects. Umbriel’s small population contains some eccentric characters, foremost of all is the mysterious Princess Badroulboudour, a rude recluse who is way past her prime and knows it. Near the end of her contract, Tabitha meets “Princess Bad’s” chauffer and becomes involved in a murder mystery that isn’t quite a mystery at all.
- “Escape Route” [Night's Dawn] by Peter F. Hamilton [1997 novella]
- Synopsis: Captain Marcus Calvert is hired to mine asteroid gold by some questionable characters, but instead finds an alien artifact.
- Review: I had read this story about 5 years ago, remember liking it, but didn’t recall all the reasons why. So I figured it was time to rectify that situation and I’m glad I did. All the makings of a good space opera are here: the knows-best hero, alien technology, big dumb objects, ulterior motives, sense of wonder and other unmentioned stuff that would just spoil it for you; it’s no wonder I remember liking the story. It begins as a simple exploration story with a complex background having just the right amount of politics and economics for me – relatively little. Then when they stumble on the 13,000 year old artifact, things switch from exploration to action. It felt like getting two stories for the price of one. Hamilton’s style is quite agreeable to me and it was a hoot to return to the Lady MacBeth, ZZT drives, habitats and the rest of the Night’s Dawn universe.
- “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington” [Honor Harrington] by David Weber [2001 novella]
- Synopsis: Honor Harrington completes her final exam aboard the Navy ship War Maiden which is assigned to stop space piracy.
- Review: Meh. The anthology’s introduction to this story mentions “a tendency to spend pages describing ship maneuvers and tactics, sometimes to the detriment of story pacing.” Good call. At times, pages are used to describe a simple thought that needs no more elaboration than a mere mention. While language used is clear and easily read, such longwinded passages – and there are many – make the story feel padded. True, there is some good world-building that comes out of it, but the cost is fluff. I would have liked to see less talking about nothing, and more progression of (and substance to) the plot. The climactic battle scene is good but hardly compensates for the feelings of drudgery I had reading this. I could see some appeal of the series, though: the character of Honor Harrington is a strong one and her telepathic Treecat is fun. Side note: This is another story I would classify as military rather than space opera.
- “Aurora in Four Voices” [Skolian Empire] by Catherine Asaro [1998 novelette]
- Synopsis: Imperial Messenger Sauscony “Soz” Vadoria visits Ansatz, a planet populated by artistic geniuses calling themselves Dreamers, and meets Jato Stormson, a prisoner held captive by a sadistic Dreamer in the nighttime city of Nightingale.
- Review: Story elements are beautifully woven together as we learn Jato’s predicament (a crime he did not commit), his simplistic background (he alone does not know how to interface with computers) amongst a city of elite who ignore him, his secret artistic masterpiece (an intriguing blend of geometry and music), his attraction to Soz (the rare human in a world of translucent-skinned Dreamers), Soz’s augmented abilities and the history of the Dreamers. The story builds upon itself, layer by layer, keenly using mathematics to attract the inner geek and never lingering too long on any one scene – even the romantic ones. In the end, the story leaves you rooting for the heroes and enjoying the ride.
- “Ring Rats” [Slaver] by R. Garcia y Robertson [2002 novella]
- Synopsis: A tour ship is hijacked by space pirates called slavers.
- Review: After a somewhat slow start (perhaps a bit too much time fleshing out the character of the thirteen-year-old orphan pilot Kay), the story rapidly builds tension as the slavers board the tour ship and we follow the attempts of Heidi, the ship’s virtual reality entertainment coordinator, to escape the bad guys. There is some way cool usage of VR here, including using it as a way to escape the pain of real life. The gritty depiction of life was well done and the climactic scene was nail-biting.
- “The Death of Captain Future” [Near Space] by Allen Steele [1995 novella]
- Synopsis: Rohr Furland is hired as second mate aboard the spaceship Comet which is owned by a semi-delusional loser who thinks he’s Captain Future from the classic, real-life science fiction space opera stories of the 1940′s.
- Review: Not only is this an excellent story in its own right, but the intent to pay homage to Edmond Hamilton – who wrote the large majority of the Captain Future stories – succeeds in a big way. Steele includes many of the famous tropes from yesteryear’s sf and even has a first mate that is both a beauty and a bug-eyed monster. She’s a good character who is hardly the damsel in distress. The captain, whose real name is Bo McKinnon, is an overbearing, overweight, obnoxious jerk who had the money to fulfill his ridiculous fantasy of being a starship captain. The only reason Rohr Furland puts up with it is because McKinnon is his transport to a better job. But when the Comet receives a distress signal from a manned asteroid, they are forced by law to investigate. Although the plot has the flavor of classic space opera, Steele fortifies the story with his signature dash of dangerous realism. Well done.
- “A Worm in the Well” by Gregory Benford [1995 novelette]
- Synopsis: A pilot named Claire takes survey job to gather information about a small wormhole very close to the Sun.
- Review: This was heavy of the hard sf and got better as it went. Claire, deep in dept, takes some serious risks with the help of her ships on-board computer. Benford inundates with lots physics (antimatter and negative mass – there’s even a chart!) but makes it easy to follow and enjoy the ride.
- “The Survivor” [Kzin] by Donald Kingsbury [1991 novella]
- Synopsis: Depicts 44 years in the life of a cowardly Kzin during the Man-Kzin wars.
- Review: At 106 pages of Tiny Type, this is hardly a short story. (Actually, Kingsbury’s stated word count of 60,000 exceeds the SFWA word count for novella (17,500 – 40,000) making this a novel-within-an-anthology.) I’m not entirely sure that so much space was needed to tell this story; whole chunks could have been left out entirely. As it was, there was some good stuff to be found. The main character is a member of the honorable but ferocious Kzin (first seen in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories and Ringworld books). The dilemma for our hero (whose name changes from Short-Son of Chiir-Nig to Eater-of-Grass to Trainer-of-Slaves as the story progresses) is that he is a coward. Only luck seems to keep him alive in a situation that allows for his brethren to rend him limb from limb. This poses some interesting moral dilemmas for him as he attempts to “do the right thing” (by human standards) in some situations involving human slaves. But even better were the parts where the reader gets the alien point of view. It was easy to forget this. Some scenes lulled you into a state of unawareness, but the author was just setting the scene for a sudden and brutal wake-up call (like the ripping of human flesh) that Trainer-of-Slaves is indeed a ferocious alien. The character does grow as his life – and the war – progresses, but it did seem that this was sometimes due to blunder and luck rather than the character’s own initiative. But, oh, the length! I was ready to move on long before the story ended.
- “Fools Errand” by Sarah Zettel [1993 short story]
- Synopsis: Dobbs is a Fool on a ship, serving as entertainment to ease the stress of long space travel. But the Fools are secretly more than that and the ship’s Fool must save the day when a rogue AI threatens all of civilization.
- Review: At first, the idea of fool being a position of importance on a ship seems comical at best and just plain silly at worst. But the Fools Guild is way smarter than they appear. Dobbs turns out to be a woman with the courage and know-how to save the day from the rogue UI who has already started riots around the galaxy by erasing all traces of the digital-only currency. How Dobbs saves the day offers even more insight at the genius of this story’s setup.
- Note: This story forms the basis for the novel Fool’s War.
- “The Shobies’ Story” [Hainish] by Ursula K. Le Guin [1990 novelette]
- Synopsis: The ten person crew of the Shoby test drives an experimental ship whose engine is based on something called “churten theory”.
- Review: This story deals with group consensus and its impact on reality; how the observer affects the experiment. Because churten theory deals with perceptions, reality and how one defines and creates the other, the narrative (once the engine is engaged) becomes a hodgepodge of alternate and simultaneous realities that seem more frenetic than anything Philip K. Dick could write. And it’s just as off-putting, too. Did their instantaneous trip actually happen? Did they reach their destination? Each crew member, adults and children, perceive different versions of what, if anything, really happened. As a reader, I found myself not really caring.
- “The Remoras” [Great Ship] by Robert Reed [1994 novelette]
- Synopsis: Quee Lee, a passenger on the Great Ship that circles the galaxy, encounters a Remora, the genetically altered humans that live on the hull of the ship, and is drawn to his exciting lifestyle.
- Review: This is the first of Reed’s Great Ship stories (see Marrow) and it’s a very strong one. There is sense of wonder a-plenty behind the Great Ship setting. The Remoras are permanently enclosed in their lifesuits (like smaller, self-sustaining versions of the ship itself) and the radiations they endure on the ship’s hull have seriously altered their appearance away from their human norm. But they have learned to control those mutations. Quee Lee’s boredom prompts an excursion to the outside with a Remora named Orleans, to whom her husband owes money. The Remoran life appeals to her so much that she takes some astonishing measures that she hopes will pay off.
- “Recording Angel” [Confluence] by Paul J. McAuley [1995 novelette]
- Synopsis: Mr. Naryan, an archivist on a planet of uplifted animals, must bear witness to the return of a post-human named Angel.
- Review: Within its somber overtones, the attraction to this story is world of Confluence itself. Long ago, humanity (The Preservers) created subservient races of uplifted animals (The Shaped), With Angel’s return, the “people” of Sensch bend over backwards to give her anything she wants. What she wants is to escape the rest of the crew from the five million year-old ship on which she arrived. Mr. Naryan rightfully fears the outcome of her return.
- “The Great Game” [Xeelee] by Stephen Baxter [2003 short story]
- Synopsis: An anti-war, hard sf story in which Marine Lieutenant Neer is assigned to retrieve an academician who is trying to understand why the Xeelee are interested in the system’s unique star.
- Review: Equal parts hard sf and anti-war message, this story has adventure and sense and wonder. It matters not to the Admiral that the Xeelee’s intentions may not be as malevolent as first thought – he’s looking for a reason to go to war. Baxter successfully balances the delicate mixture of sf and politics.
- “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel” by Michael Moorcock [2002 novelette]
- Synopsis: The legendary Captain John McShard searches for a girl kidnapped by the vicious Thennet on Mars.
- Review: Moorcock’s homage to the planetary romances of Leigh Brackett succeeds in tone and flavor but is a little top heavy with world-building and light on the action-adventure. When he finally does encounter the Sorceress, a battle of wills is waged with the eventual outcome a bit predictable and thus maybe a little too similar to the planetary romances of yesteryear. Beyond that, this is enjoyable science-fantasy. I also liked the mention of classic sf characters like Brackett’s John Stark and C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith.
- “Space Opera” by Michael Kandel [1997 short story]
- Synopsis: A satirical, act-by-act summary of a space opera play.
- Review: Besides coming off more like it’s mocking the genre instead of being the parody of it, this was sadly an unsatisfying read. It would have been more entertaining – and a more effective parody – had the described plot been written with derring-do prose instead of the cold voice of an “impartial” observer in the audience.
- “Grist” [Metaplanetary] by Tony Daniel [1998 novella]
- Synopsis: A pending war in a post-human future leads a priest who has lost his faith to seek an old friend who holds the key to preventing the war.
- Review: This is one of those sf stories (like some of Charles Stross’ stories) whose explanation of what is really happening is either never fully/clearly explained or is beyond my grasp – which amounts to the same thing. What I do know is that the focus is on the characters instead of the impending war between the inner system (connected by a communications web called the Met) and the outer system. People are combined into LAPs (Large Arrays of Personalities) which is some combination of biology and nanotech (the grist). Andre Sud, the post-human priest, realizes his old friend Ben Kaye (known as Thaddeus or TB since his recent transformation to LAP-hood) is the key to preventing the war. Thaddeus can sense the future and change it, but is tied to his past as he tries to re-create his past love (Alethea) through Jill, who we first see as a rat-killing ferret. (There’s actually a love pentagram kind of thing going on between Andre, Ben/TB, Molly, Alethea, Jill – who loves who and in which incarnation, etc., that lends some mild drama to the story.) As I said, all of these elements are dangled two or three steps in front of me as I follow the urgency of what they are doing – especially the action-drenched closing scene – but can’t quite grasp the meaning of a world that otherwise seems so intriguing.
- Note: This story forms the first section of the author’s novel, Metaplanetary.
- “The Movements of Her Eyes” by Scott Westerfeld [2000 novelette]
- Synopsis: An artificial intelligence bonds with a fifteen year-old girl named Rathere, who travels the galaxy with her father.
- Review: At its core, the story of the AI gaining intelligence and nearing the point of sentience is a little creepy; skirting the lines of a horror story as it begins to transform Rathere. Slowly, the AI achieves a closer relationship with Rathere than her father has and indeed, it eventually evolves into a relationship that he should never have. (Despite Rathere’s age, this is not sf for kids.) A nice touch was the planet-hopping that showcased some nice settings – like the planet of glacially slow-moving aliens or the station where the AI helps Rathere become more socially successful.
- “Spirey and the Queen“ by Alastair Reynolds [1996 novelette] (I read this in September 2003; here’s what I said then.)
- Synopsis: Warring factions of humans are lead to believe that a war is still being fought by their automated “wasp” creations.
- Review: When reading this, I thought it got off to a slow start. Then I realized that I was being fed background and clues as the story quickly shifted into high gear, interspersing the action with interesting plot twists. There are lots of ideas stuffed into this story. In a short space, Reynolds manages to build a fully-fleshed universe enriched with cool ideas. I want more.
- “Bear Trap” [Eschaton] by Charles Stross [2000 novelette]
- Synopsis: Futures trader Alain Blomenfeld, on the run and harboring questionable memories in his uploaded brain, meets Arianna, a woman claiming to be his wife, and is attacked on his way to meet royalty.
- Review: Meh. Yet another uploaded consciousness story that – by this point in my reading history – left me cold. There’s a heavy economics flavor and everything has a personality, including wet bars. This future is so unfamiliar that by the time Arianna’s real identity is revealed, it’s unspectacular. But that’s just my mood. Fans of Stross’ cutting-edge, drag-me-into-the-future style will find exactly what they are looking for.
- “Guest Law” by John C. Wright [1997 novelette]
- Synopsis: Two ships in the far future meet in the Void; one is the noble ship Procrustes containing evolved humans who obey strict customs, the other an ancient ship whose captain boards Procrustes and must obey guest law.
- Review: The background for this story is as intriguing as the story itself: Earth has been overrun by machines and the remnants of humanity have lived for eons in space, adapting their bodies and their customs to the ways of space. Guest law requires that ships meeting in space must share resources and crew. The dilemma of the story is whether the ancient ship will honor guest law. The Procrustes‘ social structure is class-based, with lowly manual laborers (like the Engineer called Smith) being fourth-class citizens, their lives in the hands of the noble captain (a hermaphrodite named Ereshkigal) and her vassals. When the captain named Descender visits from the ancient ship, things start out relatively normal, but then take a sharp turn towards creepy tension. All, as one might suspect, is not what it appears to be. With good ol’ classic sf flavor and a surprise or two to boot, this was an entertaining read. My one minor letdown here is the result of the story’s success at depicting the drama and endearing the reader towards Smith: in the exciting final scene, the too-abrupt ending left me feeling cheated. I knew what’s going to happen, but darn it, I wanted to see just desserts.
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