BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 19 stories attempting to define the New Space Opera movement.
PROS: 15 entertaining stories, 4 of which were outstanding.
CONS: 4 stories were mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good collection of space opera stories for a modern audience.
I missed out reading the first edition of this series, so I made an extra effort to read The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan. (Browse inside.) As per their introduction, it attempts to help define a new literary movement, one resulting from the evolution of space opera from being the “true heart of science fiction” to a genre that adds more rigorous science, more character depth, better writing and sensitivity to political realities. Based on this definition, does the anthology succeed?
Absolutely. The assembled stories offer a wide variety of uniquely fresh approaches to space opera. And while some of the stories seemed to lean more toward the old definition (an assessment that was predicted by the editors in their introduction), there were quite a high number of stories that achieved my primary objective: to be entertained.
Standout stories include:
- “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson
- “Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings” by Bill Willingham
- “The Tenth Muse” by Tad Williams
- “The Tale of the Wicked” by John Scalzi
Individual story reviews follow…
In Robert Charles Wilson’s “Utriusque Cosmi,” Carlotta is asked by an alien intelligence (a member of “The Fleet”) if she would rather stay on the Earth to meet its sudden, impending end, or be uplifted to posthumanism and join The Fleet. This turns out to be an excellent start to a mind-blowing story that allows Wilson to take us across immeasurable time scales and incredible wonders — including the war between The Fleet and their unseen enemy. The story is told from Carlotta’s point of view (she’s actually telling the story to her younger self) and interleaved with the day she left her broken home. But the mind-numbing scales and Big Ideas are what this story – and space opera – are all about. Well done.
“The Island” by Peter Watts takes us to the far, far future where human laborers aboard a starship build Stargates for the long-unseen (and super-evolved) ruling class. Long periods of seep mean their lives are spread out across millennia, with non-coinciding wake periods leading to loneliness. The daily minutia of running the ship is left to its artificially-limited AI, named Chimp. The narrator learns she has a son, Dixon, who is not so bright and looks at Chimp as a mentor. Neither Chimp nor Dixon realizes that their current build imposes a danger on a new star-sized life form. Nor do they see reason to change their course and save its life. Good drama all around and, of course, big ideas that tease the reader into learning more, only to be brought to even bigger ideas.
John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” follows the daring escape of a monk named Adlan who steals a valuable cultural artifact from the Caslonian Empire to use as leverage to free his planet, Helvetica. Along the way he meets Nahid, a soldier and a non-believer, with whom he forms a relationship and who aids in his escape. Kessel’s story is a fast-paced adventure, barely slowing down long enough to drop hints at the world in which it takes place (like this being the second wave of humanity after the first ended in posthuman apotheosis) before Adlan is once again following the voice of the gods he hears in his head to more adventure. But there was some weirdness about, particularly in the ability to deep-freeze humans by putting them in special 9-dimensional pouches.
Cory Doctorow’s “To Go Boldly” is exactly what you’d expect if Doctorow wrote space opera: a combination of traditional action-adventure and pop-culture geekery. In this case, a ship’s commander is forced on an away-mission by a seemingly all-powerful adversary who thinks he’s playing an RPG. It’s an entertaining mix. From a space opera perspective, the action is tight and the Captain is well-drawn; complete with a signature charismatic stare. From the geek perspective, the ideas about space travel make so much sense as to be comical – but not enough to overlook the hand-waving over the tech or the ending that fell just a little short of delivering.
The title character of “The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes is a con man who runs an insurance fraud scheme that involves “finding” one of the many lost princesses of a galactic empire. Here, the con man deals with an aristocrat (who, like all aristocrats, is above the law) to perpetrate his most important scheme yet. This was an interesting premise and setting, but perhaps there were a bit too many layered truths – such that the surprise ending was no surprise at all.
In Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Defect,” the protagonist is a government operative on the run who finds that to be a task not so easily accomplished. Her training, which has forced an emotional detachment from her son, also allows for a quick-paced narrative toward the satisfyingly bleak finale.
It took a while to get into Jay Lake’s “To Raise A Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” because it was hard to get a handle on the world being built. Two captains, both members of a human faction of immortals called the Before — a reference to the time before humanity’s great disaster known as the Mistake — are bonded to the same intelligent/sentient ship. Captain Cannon is trying to prevent Captain Siddiq from leading a mutiny. What plays out is ultimately satisfying (especially the creepy ending) but still somehow aloof in its presentation.
Neal Asher’s “Shell Game” is set in his Polity universe about 200 years after the Prador war. The new alien menace is the Lild, a theocratic race bent on destroying the unworthy Human race. A small team aboard the ship Gnostic, is used to alter any uneventful outcome by playing off the Lild’s religious foundations. That’s just some of the back story in Ashers’ worldbuilding-heavy story, which contains interesting characters in unexpected situations.
In “Punctuality” by Garth Nix, the Emperor of all known space takes his genetically engineered daughter to learn the secret of the Punctuality Drive, a technology that dictates the schedule on which the empire runs. Unfortunately, whatever is somehow intuited by her is never really explained. This story raises more questions than it answers.
“Inevitable” by Sean Williams hits the ground running with a cat-and-mouse game between Master Bannerman, a woman of the Guild, and her captive, Kindred, a terrorist from the group known as Terminus. It’s never quite clear who fulfills the roles of good and bad, but it is known that the Guild is seeking to control the Structure, a mysterious mechanism for travel through time and space, believed to be under the control of Terminus. When the Structure is finally encountered, this space opera story shifts gears to become a time travel story. I believe Williams was trying to create the same type of tidy story as Delaney’s “Empire Star” though the ending here felt somewhat unresolved.
Bruce Sterling’s “Join the Navy and See the Worlds” is less of a story than it is a portrait of a retired space-navy-man-turned-moon-explorer, Joe Kipps, who appears to be occupied on a new front: the delicate world of publicity and press relations. Joe is not really a hero, but his government positions him that way, and so this is a portrait of a sad man perpetuating the false pretenses set up by others. Some interesting world building around the future of India, but the story never seems to go anywhere.
Bill Willingham’s “Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings” revels in its homage to classic space opera while it delivers space pirates, mutinies, cool weapons, a bit of bravado and a dash of devil-may-care. The protagonist, Danny Wells, is the only human aboard an all-too-alien crew of cutthroats who gets more adventure than they bargained for. Willingham (through sometimes-clunky prose) presents a very good space opera that ultimately takes a surprising left-turn into comic book territory, an area with which the author is comfortable (Willingham wrote Fables). I’m not sure if this is a comfort-level choice or genius. I’m going with genius.
“From the Heart” by John Meaney is a space opera spy thriller – or rather it’s meant to be. Sabotaging the drama, though, is the absence of any clear reason for caring what is happening to the main character (currently using the name Carl Blackstone) or his ultimate mission. More interesting was his back story about how he became a Pilot and a spy. This story seems to take place in the universe of his Nulapeiron Sequence as it uses the same concepts of revered Pilots traveling in mu-space. Perhaps is I had a better understanding of that universe I would have enjoyed this more.
Elizabeth Moon’s novella, “Chameleons,” is about a security expert (Bryce) guarding two very important youngsters (Karl and Evan) as they are delayed in a spaceport awaiting a spaceship owned by the boys’ rich father. While Bryce’s precautionary measures are meticulously detailed, without knowing what the real threat is, it all seems like unnecessary machinations the reader must sit through until the bad guys reveal themselves nearly halfway through the story. At this point, the story becomes much more interesting as it combines some decent action scenes, Bryce’s shady past, and a surprise ending.
“The Tenth Muse” by Tad Williams is about an encounter with an alien presence as seen through the eyes of the cabin boy. Despite being in a new space opera anthology, this engaging story (which reads like a young adult story but isn’t) evokes an old space opera feel that offers a few welcome surprises along the way. For someone who writes mainly fantasy, Williams can spin a damn fine space story.
Justina Robson’s “Cracklegrackle” by is built on an interesting premise. A desperate father seeks the help of an alien to help track his missing daughter. The alien can see hidden signatures (invisible to humans) that are left behind by living creatures and serve as a history of transpired events. There is some additional layers to this story (the father is a posthuman decanted back into human form; the alien is a genetically “forged” creature) but the author’s writing style was hard for me to consume.
John Scalzi pays homage to Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics with his highly enjoyable story “The Tale of the Wicked”. In it, the determined captain of the sentient ship Wicked is hell-bent on destroying an enemy ship. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Scalzi’s accessible writing style helps make this a quick read, and the spins of Asimov’s laws is an extra level of nostalgic fun. Well done.
Mike Resnick’s lighthearted “Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz” is really a space western (and thus homage to old space opera) about a freelance hero (Catastrophe Baker) and his quest to find the missing canticle of a play produced by Saul Leibowitz. Along for the ride is Voluptua Von Climax, an (obviously!) amorous adventurer in her own right. Resnick’s engaging prose goes a long way to making this too-brief adventure work. The story is also bookended as a bar story, which gives the author another chance to throw a pun. In the end, this is a fun story.
John C. Wright returns to the universe of his Golden Age trilogy with the novella “The Far End of History”. It’s a simple love story, if your idea of simple entails a galaxy-sized scale and planetary consciousnesses in an unrecognizable, far-flung future. Penelope and Ulysses are the principle characters, but their distance from resembling anything remotely human makes it hard to relate to them. The prose is also ultra-dense, making it hard to follow. What was interesting to me was seeing some of the creations and components from the author’s very-enjoyable trilogy: the Oecumene, mental structures, posthumanism, sophotechs, Atkins, and more. But that sadly did not carry the story.