edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan
by Alan DeNiro
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, as noted in the introduction to The New Space Opera, defines space opera as “colorful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict.” Many of the authors collected in this anthology are well known to readers of science fiction, although few are known among a general readership, or even a readership willing to dip toes into non-realistic modes of storytelling. This is curious. In a decade in which a lot of science fiction has migrated toward the mainstream—i.e., when genre distinctions have been seen as more meaningless than ever—space opera has been one of the forms of genre fiction stubbornly kept within the confines of its own long-set parameters. And even though some of its practitioners have been hallowed outside the genre for their non-space opera work—Delany, Tiptree, and LeGuin come to mind—it’s not as if stories with hyperdrive starships will be gracing the Paris Review anytime soon.
This isn’t exactly a problem as much as a data point: what drives the engine of genre acceptability forward? And—more pertinent in regards to the book in question—how do contemporary practitioners of space opera respond to the challenge of keeping the form relevant? I would hazard a guess that most of the writers in the book are extremely conversant in the history of science fiction, and how space opera—from the earliest pulps of E. E. Smith onward—has shaped larger trends of science fiction, both in literary forms and popular culture. But with a few notable exceptions, the attraction of the form seems to be that it allows writers to sidestep issues of character, supposedly in the service of mimesis (albeit of a speculative sort).
In many of these stories, Earth-like physiology has mutated to a point of no return; virtual realities give way to virtual bodies and vice versa. The anthology has a general inhuman pallor—to put it another way, humanity has been emulsified against the backdrop of far-flung space—but all too often, the fiction suffers because of the unexplored consequences of this stance. Like the protagonist in Greg Egan’s “Glory,” who is a molecular payload shot across space, many of the characters are, in essence, simulacra. People (if they can be called that) have to have their sharp edges smoothed over in order to survive in the recesses of the vacuum. And yet, how does a writer balance the needs of narrative when characters’ motivations are, at best, flat? (“Always so sad, Debra: it’s not good for the brain, you should take a break,” a brutal assassin is told in the first story in the anthology, the inauspicious “Saving Tiamaat” by Gwyneth Jones). Of course, this impulse is spectacularly “retro,” hearkening back to the origins of space opera in the early 20th century. As a lurid offshoot of the larger tree of adventure fiction, characterization was fast and loose, but it was a subgenre that was inquisitive as to its own metaphysics. In the current day, however, the metaphysics seem to come from the minutes of a transhumanist conference.
What’s more disappointing is that in almost no cases is this disassociation from emotion made part of the story (something, ironically, that literary realist stories are often decried for in some genre circles); as an unexamined baseline, the affectless life forms plod through adventures whose outcomes appear meaningless against the larger backdrop of thousands of worlds, hundreds of civilizations. As Ian Macdonald’s meandering narration in “Verthandi’s Ring” tells the reader, “war was just another game to entities hundreds of thousands of years old, for whom death was a sleep and a forgetting.” Again, this galactic void could be part of the observable texture of the narrative, picking up on how the enclosed space of a story—much like the sealed hull of an interstellar spaceship—can only contain so much prose.
In short, if science fiction is to be a vital vessel for tackling larger issues of transhumanism and empire, it has to start in the prose. Alas, for the most part, the prose in The New Space Opera is not up to the task. Serviceable, workmanlike, even drawn at times to compelling new frontiers of the sentence in order to capture elusive futures—but not nearly enough to think that it’s part of a deliberate design. One of the worst offenders is Peter Hamilton’s “Blessed by an Angel,” a long back-and-forth about human choice and technology bookended by an alien impregnation narrative. The inability of middlebrow science fiction writers such as Hamilton to craft even moderately interesting sentences rears its ugly head too often throughout the anthology.
This continual flatness is especially curious since the introduction and the book packaging promise “fun,” a convivial spirit and recklessness that could mask, for a time and in the right conditions, a leaky hull of a story. But even in the stories that have a quickened pace, the narratives prove to be too careful, too bound in their own self-imposed limitations. Mary Rosenblum’s “Splinters of Glass” is a long chase scene under the surface of Europa that is a series of desultory, monochrome twists. Walter John Williams’s “Send Them Flowers” at least has some actual space-time hijinks and knavery, and a protagonist who actually has a meaningful and complicated relationship with a friend—it’s not an interesting relationship in the end, but beggars can’t be choosers. It should be possible—shouldn’t it?—to return to the anything-is-possible vibrancy of early science fiction without the baggage.
One such ugly sea chest of baggage involved stories of human extraordinariness—that humans were wilier and at their core better than every other race in the galaxy. This was often, to use modern parlance, a form of “dog-whistle politics.” Robert Silverberg’s story “The Emperor and the Maula” is replete with these smug tropes of the colonial era; in it, a human woman takes on an entire empire of alien overlords and wins, merely because she is human. What makes this type of story discomforting is that, in the past, human beings stood for white, male human beings, with alien races standing for pretty much anyone else. Countless adventure stories from the first half of the 20th century, not just space opera, reveled in these tales of ultimate supremacy, and yet Silverberg’s story is not able to give this “golden age” dynamic a fresh coat of paint. Although it’s hard to imagine the story had malicious intent, it’s equally hard to give its sheer clumsiness the benefit of the doubt when the villain of the piece is called “the Most Holy Defender of the Race.” Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” doesn’t make quite as many stumbles, and the unreliable narrator adds some welcome texture, but the “civilizing the savages” tropes—no matter how cleverly reimagined—are drops of poison spoiling the broth.
After all of this disappointment and cast-off deflation, the exceptions in this book are so, well, exceptional that it makes the entire book worth reading—if for nothing else than to map out how the tired and unambitious stories put the gems in high relief, like settings in a crown. There’s a birthday party in space (“Dividing the Sustain” by James Patrick Kelly) with a genetic twist that I won’t spoil here; there’s also an extraordinary love story and a quizzical but affecting father-son relationship in Tony Daniel’s “The Valley of the Gardens,” where the emotional kernels intersect with fascinating physics and ecology. But the signature story in the anthology is the last, Dan Simmons’s novella “Muse of Fire.” Anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction (or Shakespeare—more on that later) should read it; perhaps most surprising is that it utilizes a series of traditional tropes that, on the surface, are nothing spectacular. But Simmons uses them fearlessly. Rather than putting together his building blocks to create an ultra-knowing, weary narrative like the Egan story, or a shallow recapitulation of colonialist impulses like the Silverberg story (the literary equivalent of putting the toothpaste back in the tube), Simmons uses space opera to explore the conditions in which human relationships—humanity itself—can endure when its culture has died: “Those are the only two public institutions that have survived the end of all human politics and culture after our species’ hopeless enslavement—pubs and churches.”
The literary vehicle Simmons uses to accomplish this is Shakespeare, and “Muse of Fire” is like an experiment in seeing how large of a stage the ideas and language in Shakespeare can contain. Stories about small cadres of “knowledge workers,” keeping the flickering flame of culture alive during a dark age, are nothing new. The troupe aboard the Muse—a spaceship that travels from world to world performing Shakespeare to huddled masses of humans—find that they have to perform in unfathomable, alien conditions, predicated on a bizarre gnostic cosmology that everyone assumes as a given. And the ante goes up after every performance—not only with the weird worlds the players find themselves in, but also the plays themselves (from Much Ado About Nothing, all the way to Hamlet, and with a performance of Romeo and Juliet as a coda that has to be read to be believed). After the second performance, the story pretty much explodes in scope and risk; the troupe has to journey through a series of gnostic mysteries that mirror their cosmological upheaval. Simmons literally uses the fabric of space and time to try to comprehend what subjugation, as an idea, means—and what subsequent liberation could mean.
“Muse of Fire” is a stunning example of what space opera, at its best, has to offer. Ultimately, the question asked at the beginning of this review—why doesn’t space opera receive more currency?—might be an irrelevant one. There are few stories as good as “Muse of Fire” out there in the world today, period. It’s all the more affecting because it’s a story about how categories and affectations can fall away under the right conditions, the right tests. Space opera certainly has the capabilities to provide those rigorous tests for fiction, that stage where characters can confront awful voids and sublimities. The question becomes whether those rigors—not of science but of human complexity—are roundly bypassed under the auspices of escapism from mundane concerns. More than anything, “Muse of Fire” gives itself the permission to lament—something many other stories in the anthology, for all of their bluster, aren’t brave enough to do.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008