REVIEW SUMMARY: Another worthwhile sampling of space opera adventure.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 17 SF adventure stories “in the grand tradition” written after 1970.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: 13 stories good or better, 5 of them standouts.
CONS: 4 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good representation of space adventure stories between 1970 and 1998.

Gardner Dozois’ 1999 anthology, The Good New Stuff: Adventure in SF in the Grand Tradition, looks at space adventure stories written between 1970 and 1998. It is the companion to his earlier anthology from 1998, The Good Old Stuff, which samples adventure stories from 1948 and 1975. (Both books, by the way, are (were?) available from the Science Fiction Book Club as The Good Stuff. Biblioholic that I am, I also have a copy of that hardback omnibus in addition to the individual paperbacks, a disorder I thinly rationalize by having the ability to read one at home and one on my lunch hour without having to carry a book back and forth. [Hangs head in shame.])

The stories in The Good New Stuff do an admirable job at entertaining, though there were some weaker stories. When the stories worked, though, they worked quite well. Standout stories include “The Way of Cross and Dragon” by George R. R. Martin, “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling, “Poles Apart” by G. David Nordley, “Cilia-of-Gold” by Stephen Baxter and “Escape Route” by Peter F. Hamilton. I note here without comment (since I can draw no conclusion from it) that a larger-than-expected number of stories had some economic element to them.

In the introduction to The Good New Stuff, Dozois uses the term adventure synonymously with space opera. Thus, I cannot help but compare his two anthologies to the more recent (2006) collection of space opera, The Space Opera Renaissance edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer. While the Hartwell/Cramer anthology seemed more concerned with critical analyses and all the myriad definitions of space opera (including some forays into military sf), the Dozois books seem to (mostly) center on stories of adventure. However, the inclusion of some stories here also seemed questionable, like “The Blind Minotaur” which came across more like a literary fantasy than adventure story. To be sure, both anthologies succeed at their own goals and there is only one overlapping story between them (Hamilton’s “Escape Route”).

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe” by John Varley [1977 novelette]
  • Synopsis: Piri, living a “second childhood” as a clone genetically altered to be amphibious in an underground biome on Pluto, meets the mysterious Leandra who holds a secret about the true nature of things.
  • Review: This was kind of line two stories on one. First is the sense-of-wonder-filled story of Piri’s second childhood and how he has been altered to be able to breathe underwater. The Pluto biome (the Pacifica Disneyland) is an interesting setting in the same way that The Truman Show was; we see starry skies that are incompletely, the edge of the world, a faux “sky” that unsettles others. The second story is uncovered through Leandra when we learn about the outside world and a pending economic war with the inner planets. Throughout the story, besides the slowly rising tension, is the theme of innocence lost, which culminates in a surprise ending directly related to Leandra’s ulterior motives.
  • “The Way of Cross and Dragon” by George R. R. Martin [1979 novelette] [I read this back in July 2005; what follows is what I said then]
    • Synopsis: A tentacled alien who happens to be the Archbishop of the Christian church sends a human priest to the world of Arion to confront the heresy embodied in a newly formed religion worshipping Saint Judas Iscariot. This story’s title is named after their Bible.
    • Review: You know you’ve read a top-notch story when it combines thought-provoking ideas, dramatic tension, believable characters embroiled in conflict and does so in a way that makes you want more. This story had all of that. Father Damien is the doubting priest who is sent to confront the heretic, Father Lukyan. On his journey we are treated to a beautifully rich back story of the Judas religion. His mission is anything but standard as Father Lukyan has a surprise in store for Father Damien. The author weaves issues of faith, heresy and truth in a marvelous “religion is opiate for the masses” speech given by the ex-Christian Luckyan. I loved the all-too-brief dynamic between Damien and the alien archbishop. The philosophical discussion between Damien and Lukyan were just as fun. This is a great read.
    • Note: Winner of the 1980 Hugo and Nebula Awards.
  • “Swarm [Mechanist/Shapers]“by Bruce Sterling [1982 novelette]
    • Synopsis: Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel visits the hive of the insect race known as the Swarm with motives other than his proposed research.
    • Review: This was a fascinating read that provided lots to think about and imagine. Besides the cool depiction of the alien society and how they live inside an asteroid orbiting Betelgeuse, the Mechanist/Shapers backdrop is quite appealing. They are two separate factions – the Shapers leverage genetics to bred high intelligence, the Mechanists use machines to further their aims – fighting over cultural dominance of the human race in order to determine its future. Afriel is a Shaper looking for an advantage over the Mechanists and he sees no problem using the Swarm race as pawns to do so. But he gets a quick and tidy lesson that intelligence may not be all that important when it comes to survival of a species. The ending was a smidgeon unsatisfying because it was somewhat open-ended, hopefully an obvious platform for the stories that follow this one.
    • Note: This is Sterling’s first story set in the Mechanist/Shapers universe which is also the setting for his novel Schismatrix. Both novel and stories are collected in the book Schismatrix Plus.
  • “The Blind Minotaur”by Michael Swanwick [1985 short story]
    • Synopsis: A Minotaur partners with a Harlequin; they have a falling out; the Minotaur is blinded, assumes the role of beggar, and depends on his young daughter to guide him.
    • Review: : I can’t say this story did much for me at all, let alone that it is included in an anthology of adventure stories. There is a surprise or two; for example, the reason for the dispute between Minotaur and Harlequin, how the Minotaur becomes blinded, etc. And I did like the storytelling. The story starts in the middle with the girl leading the sightless Minotaur away from a pestering crowd and uses flashbacks to tell how we got there. There is also a backdrop with hints of technology and far future. But, yikes, the content! It was too much mythology and symbolic fantasy to suit my taste. Why the heck would the Minotaur partner up with the guy who knocked him into unconsciousness with a stick? Bah! I knew there was something else going on here. (“Ah, must be symbolism!” I said.) Googling reveals that the story is based on a piece of artwork by Pablo Picasso (fond of both Minotaur and Harlequin) where he shows a blind Minotaur being led by a young girl. Um, OK. If you know and appreciate the art, then add a star or two.
  • “The Blabber”by Vernor Vinge [1988 novella]
    • Synopsis: In the remote Slow Zone, unseen aliens demand that Hamid Thompson hand over his unique pet, an animal referred to as the Blabber because she perfectly mimics things she hears all the time.
    • Review: Although set in the same future as Vinge’s Zones of Thought novels, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, “The Blabber” is my introduction into the universe. (I know…I know… It’s just as well; this story was written first.) Like other Vinge stories I’ve read, I had the same unsteady feeling reading this one. Vinge thrusts you into a world that is not immediately understood but is nonetheless intriguing. Hamid lives on a human Slow Zone colony planet name Middle America where technology lags that of the planets in the Beyond. (In the Slow Zone, faster-than-light travel is not possible and posthumans can only function at human levels.) Hamid works with Tourists who periodically give the planet the economic jolt it needs to advance. While the locals marvel at an alien artifact (an ansible) offered as part of a trade, Hamid has dreams of seeing the Beyond. Because of his unique pet he might just get the chance. Some aliens, collectively known as Ravna & Tines, would like to acquire the Blabber for reasons initially unknown but all too apparent after they resort to extreme violence to get their way. Fun adventure ensues.
    • Note: In Dozois’ story intro, he says this story is an undisguised homage to The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein.
    • Note: In his commentary for this story in the collection The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, Vinge says that “The Balabber” is both a sequel to the A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky and at the same time a prequel since “The Blabber” was written first.
  • “The Return of the Kangaroo Rex [Mama Jason]“by Janet Kagan [1989 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A colonized planet’s delicately balanced ecology is at stake when a vicious breed of kangaroo reappears and threatens to tip the scales.
    • Review: This eco-adventure was heavy on the “eco” and light on the adventure. While I liked the main character for her sassiness and tenacity I just couldn’t find a compelling enough reason to become all that involved in her fight to keep the locals from wiping out the vicious roos, which, by the way, were cool…they had razor sharp teeth spanning their 180-degree jaw. Plus there was the fact that the ecological solution to the dilemma is seen a mile away.
  • “Prayers on the Wind”by Walter Jon Williams [1991 novelette]
    • Synopsis: While war with an alien race threatens the spread of enlightenment by a Buddhist theocracy, the up-and-coming Incarnation exhibits questionable behavior.
    • Review: Initially seeming to concentrate on the impending conflict with the centaur-like Sang race, the story shifts focus to a more serious threat. The newest leader of the Buddhist theocracy, the government that represents all of humanity, is acting in a manner unbecoming of one who is supposed to be so enlightened. All of this is witnessed by one of his aides, Jinge, who remains true to the Path to enlightenment, which apparently does not prohibit lusting after young boys. One cool feature of the future is that the Incarnation/Bodhisattva is imprinted with memories stored in a planet-sized AI, also known as the Library. The AI can manifest things like little demons and levitate objects. The most entertaining element of the story is the Incarnation’s decline towards insanity. Good stuff.
    • Note: Nominated for the 1992 Nebula Award for best novelette.
  • “The Missionary’s Child”by Maureen F. McHugh [1992 novelette]
    • Synopsis: Desperate and hungry mercenary Jahn Sckarline is hired by a shady stranger to be his bodyguard.
    • Review: This good adventure story gives hints and peeks at a bigger back story about the history of mankind in space that has the potential to rival the main story itself. Jahn, a stranger on a strange island, is an expert at sword-wielding and needs work, but when a very questionable character needs the services of a bodyguard, Jahn’s need for food and money overcomes good sense. On board the stranger’s boat, Jahn meets a young girl with a very special talent that just might be the key Jahn needs to get off the faraway island.
    • Note: McHugh went on to write the novel Mission Child based on this story. I’m wondering if this story, given its surprise ending, affects the enjoyment of the book.
  • “Poles Apart [Trimus]“by G. David Nordley [1992 novella]
    • Synopsis: Representatives from the three races populating the world of Trimus – humans, the amphibious Do’utian and the bird-like Kleth – must come together to stop serial murders of their people.
    • Review: Nordley’s story could easily be enjoyed for its swashbuckling content alone (swordfights on the high seas; a submarine/rammer battle) but there is much more here to enjoy. The planet Trimus is closely tied to the number three. There are three sets of poles, there are three main climates and there are three intelligent species populating the planet, a long-forgotten experiment in social engineering. Each species (one land-based, one sea-based, the third at home in the air) generally lives at peace with another as enforced my Monitors of all races. However, there are enclaves which civilization has left behind. These primitivists do not lack technology but they do lack advanced tech. A team of monitors – the human Mary, the male Do’utian named Drin and, later, the Kleth named Do Tor – get to the bottom of the killings and have some tense, well-written adventures along the way. Particularly well-done was the portrayal of the different species’ cultures and the fast-paced action sequences. However, I did think the scene where Drin resuscitated Mary while she was sealed in his enormous beak was pushing it a little too much. Otherwise, this was a very good story with some positive (and not so positive) examples of living in harmony. Well done.
  • “Guest of Honor”by Robert Reed [1993 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A space traveler, mission completed, returns home to be guest of honor at a party attended by the near-immortals who were the basis for her existence.
    • Review: A sense of foreboding introspection hangs in the air of this story as the reader comes to realize the fate in store for Pico. She’s a genetic composite of sixty-three super-rich near-immortals – her parents – and they thrive on her tales of her space adventures. You see, having attained long life spans, humanity has lost its drive to explore for fear of circumventing said immortality. These people live their adventures vicariously through composite humans they send out into space. A cool and worthwhile idea, to be sure, but I get the sense that this was meant to have a more emotional impact than it did. The buildup was a little slow and the payoff was good, but it could have gone in a number of different directions, some of which might have been more satisfying.
  • “Flowering Mandrake”by George Turner [1994 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A first contact story in which a plant-like alien, the lone survivor of his crew, travels light years to our own solar system.
    • Review: The biology of the plant-like aliens was well done and interesting – thought was given to various life functions and defenses – but in the humans’ slow, methodical handling of the newly discovered ship, the pacing seemed to crawl. It got more engaging again when the humans revealed themselves to be ringers for the plant-alien’s mortal enemy.
  • “Cilia-of-Gold [Xeelee]“by Stephen Baxter [1994 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A mining team on Mercury discovers an alien life form.
    • Review: Here’s another fine hard sf story from Baxter. While human engineer Irini Larionova investigates strange anomalies at the Mercury mining facility, she learns of the presence of alien life forms. The story alternates between human an alien viewpoints. There’s an excellent sense of wonder as Baxter tells the story from the aliens’ point of view; specifically from the alien named Cilia-of-Gold, who is infected with a life-threatening parasite called Seeker. Can she lead her people to safety while resisting the parasite’s pull to certain doom? Well done.
  • “Gone to Glory”by R. Garcia y Robertson [1995 novelette]
    • Synopsis: An ace pilot named Defoe is charged with finding a missing terraforming team on the planet Glory.
    • Review: While there were some cool ideas here (genetically engineered Neanderthals and super-chimps to do the dirty work of terraforming; internal navmatrix computers; personal ornithopter wings), they were overshadowed by lackluster characters and pacing. One exception: the final scene which involved an airship was quite exciting, at least by comparison.
  • “A Dry, Quiet War” by Tony Daniel [1996 novelette] [I Read this back in September 2003. What follows is what I said then.]
    • Synopsis: On a remote planet, a space soldier returns home from the future (the end of all time, actually) expecting a quiet retirement but finding another fight. The augmented soldier restrains himself for fear of upsetting the outcome of the future battle. But when alien baddies make it personal, it’s go time.
    • Review: Another good story that slowly builds up to its graphic finish, but keeps you interested along the way.
    • Note: This story is available online at Infinity Plus.
  • “All Tomorrow’s Parties”by Paul J. McAuley [1997 short story]
    • Synopsis: An immortal encounters someone who is trying to kill her at the tail end of a century-long celebration attended by clones and other artificials.
    • Review: Despite the grand ideas presented here – things like posthumanism, world-sized planets constructed by machines and the gene war history – this story lacked any significant dramatic element to keep me immersed. The point-of-view character is quite flat beyond her contagious pensiveness. The bad guy, while having a sufficiently sf-nal motivation, was more mysterious than evil.
  • “Escape Route [Night's Dawn]“ by Peter F. Hamilton [1997 novella][I Read this back in September 2006. What follows is what I said then.]
    • 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.
  • “The Eye of God”by Mary Rosenblum [1998 novelette]
    • Synopsis: An empath is hired to find a fellow human lost on a forbidden alien planet.
    • Review: With few words, Rosenblum creates a rich setting of secretive aliens with the power of gateway travel, intriguing alien biology and customs, and a likable ex-negotiator with a painful past. The alien Rethe resemble human females and Etienne is thus reminded of a former lover. Etienne is hired to find a man named Duran on a planet that the Rethe have deemed off-limits to humankind. She is accompanied by a young Rethe named Zynth – referred to as “it” since most Rethe are not breeders – and together they tackle the rough cliffside where Duran’s fate could hopefully be learned through Etienne’s empathetic powers. Many of the fast-paced, dramatic final scenes play out on the windy cliffs of an alien world. Good stuff.

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