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.]
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