I generally like stories that let me
become one of the characters. I like to, if not identify with, at least feel like I understand his or her motivations at a personal level. But space opera is often written on a grand scale, with clashes of nations, cultures, and even galaxies. It’s got to be a challenge to combine the two, and I often don’t like the results. Nevertheless, one of my other favorite components of science fiction is the
sensawunda, and space opera often has that in spades. If an author can get personal and include that innate coolness, then it’s a pretty damn good story.
Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful (and sometimes quite fanciful) technologies and abilities. Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale.
new space opera as used in this anthology refers to the revival of space opera in the 1980s and 1990s. Frankly, I never realized it had died out, but apparently it did during the 1970s. Supposedly better than the pulpy space opera of yesteryear, a lot of it is overlong and obtuse, or just incomprehensible to me. Much like some fantasy is. However, this is a collection of short stories, so none of them should be overlong at least.
I should count the number of authors in Gardner Dozois anthologies which he terms as
Big Names. He seems to declare quite a few new Big Names every year.
Saving Tiamaat, Gwyneth Jones
- In the wake of a devastating war that kills nearly all of both species, the Ki and the An refugees are housed in a park-like station. There they negotiate over the end of their war, with members of a galactic federation watching over. Jean-Luc Picard struggles with the prime directive when he learns that the And eat the Ki. Okay, it isn’t Picard. And I probably have who eats who confused. That’s the main thrust of the story and I thought it was kind of boring. The technological aspects just confused me.
Verthandi’s Ring, Ian McDonald
- McDonald is one of the S.F. writers who likes to write about the singularity, the point where technology becomes so advanced that everything afterward is pretty much magic. At least that’s the way I understand it. This story, on the other hand, contained nothing I understood. I think it’s a post-Singularity universe, and that’s why everything was so weird. I had to skip all but the first few pages cause I hate being lost.
Hatch, Robert Reed
- Reed has a series of stories set on a giant Jupiter sized space ship. In this one there’s a giant alien that fought the ship and lost and now is attached to the surface. A city of humans and aliens also resides on the surface, stuck there after the war with all the ways inside blocked up defensively with
hyperfiber. Periodically, creatures hatch from the surface of the dead giant alien, and people harvest them for raw materials. One such hatch turns out not to be creatures but instead a giant ship that escapes. What portent does this have for the Jupiter-ship? I didn’t care though. I didn’t care for the characters. Never got to know them. And I had nothing invested in the world either. No history with it.
Winning Peace, Paul J. McAuley
- This one I liked a lot. Sold into slavery after his Alliance lost a war to the Collective, Carver White’s owner Mr. Kanza wants to use him to retrieve a ancient artifact from a dangerous location near a sun. To get White to cooperate, Kanza reveals he owns White’s brother as well. Only unbeknownst to Kanza, White knows his brother was killed in action. Can he use that small leg up to get his freedom?
Glory, Greg Egan
- I also enjoyed this story of archaeologists making first contact with an alien world. It starts off with a great hard S.F. sequence which explains how the scientists encode themselves into data and shoot a very very small amount of matter light-years across the universe to reach the planet in the first place. Then it’s how they make contact with two of the dominant nations on the planet, both of whom are mistrustful of the other. Doing all this for a bit of mathematics seems extreme, as my first thought is why couldn’t these people figure out all the needed math themselves. But you need some sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to make it all work, and this is really as good as any.
Maelstrom, Kage Baker
- I really wouldn’t term this story space opera. I think of opera as something grandiose, and this story is not. It’s smaller and more personal. I liked it though. Basically a human on Mars decides to put his wealth to use starting up a theater so miners and other assorted
salt of the earthfolk can enjoy the arts. The first production is a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s
A Descent into the Maelström.
Blessed by an Angel, Peter F. Hamilton
- I’ve read a few of Peter Hamilton’s novels, and while I think they are good, they are a bit too grandiose. I don’t mind the grandiosity too much except that it makes the novels so very long. Short story length works pretty well for him too though. It’s a story of rooting out a spy told both from the perspective of the agency that intercepts him, as well as the unknowing targets of the spy.
Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?, Ken MacLeod
- After getting caught with his pants off, our protagonist must head to a former colony world that has dropped contact in order to pay off his fines. Very bleah to me. Just couldn’t care about this guy, nor about the world he checks out.
The Valley of the Gardens, Tony Daniel
- I’ve liked a couple of Tony Daniel’s stories, but this one was a little bit on the weird side and I just didn’t get into it. Inter-galactic war with what turns out to be an extra-universe enemy. An end to the war that confused me as to why it worked. An aftermath that includes teleporting rocks and a telescope that saves the hero of the war. Why a telescope? I don’t get it.
Dividing the Sustain, James Patrick Kelly
- This story presents a colony ship of
consensualistsin which Been is undercover. Consensualists believe in only doing things on which a group consensus has been reached. Been is maneuvering his way out of his small group and in with the captain’s ex-wife (the crew are not colonists). Only Been really has any depth, and you get a sense of his personality, though some of the things he does don’t make sense. But the whole milieu is just cool. Kelly includes quite a few components in a short space: life-extensions, genetic modifications, interesting social movements, and more.
Minla’s Flowers, Alastair Reynolds
- The only Alastair Reynolds I’ve read before was
Galactic North, which I just couldn’t get into. This, however, I really liked. Starfarer Merlin runs into some difficulties and becomes semi-stranded on a long-lost colony planet to make repairs. The inhabitants have reverted to just past industrial revolution type of technology. Merlin also discovers that their sun is about to be destroyed, so he warns them they have about 70 years left. They need to unite the planet and get off it before it’s too late. Merlin stays to help, periodically going into suspended animation in his ship. Hard to really identify with any of the characters, but they do have a lot of depth. A good warning that if you are going to pick sides, it’s best to check out both of them.
Splinters of Glass, Mary Rosenblum
- A very well-done story about an outlaw hiding out in ice-caves under the surface of Europa. An old flame tracks him down and leads an assassin to him.
Remembrance, Stephen Baxter
- Well-written, but this did not move me at all. Aliens conquer Earth. Humans overthrow aliens. Military commander has to decide what to do with a small number of aliens found hiding decades later. Old man who remembers the history of the war tells the story so commander can decide. Ta-da! I think this exemplifies the problem I noted in my first paragraph of this review. It’s hard to make a grandiose landscape into something personal. This one didn’t manage that.
The Emperor and the Maula, Robert Silverberg
- Wow. I hated this story! Human travels to emperor’s home world and tells him stories of how his species conquered Earth. First, boring. Second, predictable.
The Worm Turns, Gregory Benford
- Characters: bland, boring. Snarky artificial intelligence. Sexually voracious female ship captain. Hard science fiction: confusing. Something about a worm hole. Some sort of intelligent group mind on the other side that doesn’t like visitors. Don’t forget standard creditor makes an offer debtor can’t refuse cause debtor needs to pay off debt.
Send Them Flowers, Walter Jon Williams
- Another story I really liked. A take on the whole multiple universes thing that gets about the right amount of detail in the science speculation. Sometimes hard S.F. writers spend way too much ink trying to hash out every little detail. This happens quite a bit with time travel stories, and sometimes with theories of multiple universes. The heart of the story is a philanderer and his accomplice, the trouble they get in to, and how they get out of it.
Art of War, Nancy Kress
- Art historian catalogs human artwork stolen by aliens at war with humanity. They were stealing it to learn something practical about us that they could use in war. Sub-plot about the historian’s relationship with his perfectionist authoritarian mother and now the commanding general in the war was just… I dunno, it felt pretty unoriginal. Also, what the aliens were trying to learn results in a
trickending which cheapens it. Once you know what it is, there is no reason to read the story a second time. A
revealshould make you want to read the story a second time.
Muse of Fire, Dan Simmons
- If I had to guess something about Dan Simmons from his writing, I’d guess he really loves classic literature. Hyperion is an ode to past writers.
Muse of Fireis all about Shakespeare. Out of all the stories in this anthology, this one sucked me in the most. Long enslaved by alien Archons, humans are reduced to worker slaves, with some itinerant actors traveling the galaxy. The troupe in this story performs Shakespeare. The Archons are but the lowest levels of rulers. Three levels above them exist. For reasons explained toward the end, the company must perform for each level of ruler, up to the god Abraxas. It is a test. At each level the fate of humanity rests on them performing Shakespeare. I’m not even a lover of Shakespeare, but between the sense of awe that Simmons manages to impart into the ever more spectacular worlds and the minutiae of actors’ egos, I loved this.
Five or six of these stories really got me, so I’d have to say this is a successful anthology from my reader’s perspective.
And after reading the whole thing, I am kinda getting tired of Dozois’ introductions. They sound all the same.
Person X made their first sale in 197X, and became a regular contributor to magazines X, Y and Z. Their first novel was X, which was followed by Y and Z, of which M and N were nominated for the Hugo/Nebula. Author Q now lives in San Chicagiana with their wife and three dogs. In the story that follows, protagonist X really learns what it means to dance to the sound of a different drummer!
I haven’t read any of the other Best of S.F. anthologies that have proliferated in recent years. Are they copying the same introduction format from Dozois? Someone remind me to look next time I am at the bookstore. He selects generally good stories though, and I assume in this case he and Strahan had a hand in editing the stories themselves, since these are all original publications.
Title: The new space opera
Editors: Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan
Cover artist: Stephan Martiniere
Imprint / publisher: EOS / HarperCollins
Length: 515 p.
Publication date: July 007
LC classification: PS648.S3 N47 2007