Posts Tagged ‘The Space Opera Renaissance’
So having just started to sketch out my own definition of New Space Opera, I turn the page to discover Paul McAuley has already done it for me:
New space opera – the good new space opera – cheerfully plunders the tropes and toys of the old school and secondary sources from Blish to Delany, refurbishes them with up-to-the-minute science, and deploys them in epic narratives where intimate, human-scale stories are at least as relevant as the widescreen baroque backgrounds on which they cast their shadows. There are neither empires nor rigid technocracies dominated by a single Big Idea in the new space opera; like cyberpunk, it’s eclectic and pluralistic, and infused with the very twenty-first century sensibility that the center cannot hold, that technology-driven change is continuous and advancing on a thousand fronts, that some kind of posthuman singularity is approaching fast or may already have happened. Most of all, its stories contain a vertiginous sense of deep time; in the new space opera, the Galaxy is not an empty stage on which humans freely strut their stuff, but is instead a kind of junk yard littered with the ruins and abandoned wonders of earlier, more powerful races.
It is a fascinating definition and one that I will return to when I write my conclusion. However, the editors pick a story from his Confluence series which I’m not sure fits the bill. Deep time certainly but perhaps too deep; this is eschatological SF. On its on merits, it faces the same issue as the previously discussed stories by Banks and Greenland in that it is painfully cut adrift from the mass of other story that gives it weight.
A lovely bittersweet story about seeking romance and adventure in the face of deep space and deep time. ‘The Remoras’ has crystallised for me what I now think must be the defining feature of New Space Opera: it is space opera that has fully absorbed post-cyberpunk SF. Of course, that just risks introducing another undefined term but I do think it explains the difference between two types of contemporary space opera.
On the one hand, we have authors like Peter F Hamilton who are writing a type of space opera that stretches back in a direct line to the likes of his namesake Edmond Hamilton. There is no old/new divide here, it is simply a continuum; Brian Aldiss’s guilty pleasures have become today’s bestsellers and it is fashion rather than content that has changed. On the other hand, authors like Reed and Alastair Reynolds are writing a fundamentally different type of space opera: harder, fiercer, gnarlier and fascinated by post-human possibility. It is this – rather than nationality or political philosophy – that I would say represents the schism in contemporary space opera.
‘The Shobies’ Story’ is part of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and represents the antithesis of the military science fiction of someone like David Weber. The test pilots for the universe’s first faster than light spaceship are not military superheros but but rather a group of unexceptional volunteers which includes several children. They prepare for this momentous mission by sitting around on the beach for a month, telling each other stories. It is a wonderful sympathetic portrait of what a consensual, hierarchical future might look like. Dan Simmons used a similar but weaker idea in ‘Orphans Of The Helix’ but as background for his story; here, it is the story. It is exactly the sort of story – the sort of thinking – that Gregory Benford is apparently unable to comprehend.
It goes without saying that it isn’t space opera, although it does make a fascinating contrast and provide the weary pallet of this reader with a welcome sorbet.
As always, Hartwell and Cramer’s introduction provides me with a quote that calls the whole enterprise into question:
She is not referred to as a space opera writer, although this story is clearly set in the far future in space, and we bring this example into the discourse on space opera because we think its importation of anthropological ideas is causing pressure on some of the most ambitious writers of space opera to abandon or modify the military and hierarchical modes… Whether the Le Guin influence we begin to discern in such ambitious space opera writers as John Clute (Appleseed) and M John Harrison is real, and will spread, remains to be seen.
The beginning of the first sentence is merely an incompetent mix of the redundant and irrelevant but it soon explodes out into a bold claim. A bold claim that is utterly unexplored. Now, I’m slightly dubious as to whether LeGuin’s 1990 story caused significant pressure on the space opera novels Clute and Harrison produced a decade later but there is the seed of a fascinating essay there. Since Hartwell and Cramer give themselves neither time or space to examine any of the critical judgements they litter the book with, the seed remains ungerminated. The Space Opera Renaissance is, in a word, half-arsed.
In the future, all spaceships will be issued with a fool. Apparently the presence of a jester reduces the risk of mental illness and violence. I would have thought the opposite would be true. Anyway, there is some cobblers about an escaped AI with is quickly wrapped up by our fool with no need to trouble the reader with things like characterisation or drama (this is, after all, a story originally published in Analog). At least it doesn’t outstay its welcome; I turned the tenth page over to discover that the story had in fact just finished.
In the introduction, the editors return to a theme from earlier in the book:
It is one of the few space opera stories with a woman central character – and it is worth noting, as we remarked in the Asaro note earlier, that women writing space opera, and space opera with women as central characters, is a characteristic of US space opera. British space opera does not have many women authors or sympathetic, heroic women central characters.
So which is it? Are there “few space opera stories with a woman central character” or is “space opera with women as central characters” characteristic of US space opera? Since Hartwell and Cramer can only find room for five stories by women in an anthology of thirty two stories presumably the latter. I will also note that so far in the book there have only been three stories by British authors and two of these have had female protagonists. Perhaps the editors do not consider these characters to be sympathetic or heroic, although I notice these criteria weren’t applied to the characters of US authors. (This wonderfully enlightened American attitude to women doesn’t seem to have spread to the editors treatment of Zettel herself: she only gets a half page introduction, the shortest in the book, and half of this is devoted to irreverent quotes from her about the “new challenge” of writing fantasy and the awesomeness of Stan Schmidt.)
Previously, the only thing I’d read by Kingsbury that I had read was this. Expectations were further lowered by the fact it is a sharecrop story, part of the Man-Kzin Wars series set in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. It was enough to scar me for life. But Hartwell and Cramer say that John Clute described it as one of the best SF novels of 1991 so I tried to approach ‘The Survivor’ with an open mind.
The Kzin are a martial race of giant cat people. Short-Son of Chirr-Nig is a runt, a coward in a society where being a coward is not just disgrace but death. But ‘The Coward’ would make a good alternative title since it is this that makes him the survivor. By embracing his cowardice he becomes Eater-of-Grass, beneath contempt to these carnivores and hence . In his exile, he learns the way of the other creatures in hunting forest he hides in and becomes Trainer-of-Slaves (and, to the slaves themselves, Mellow-Yellow). By the end of the novella, he has become Lord Grraf-Nig; through he survival he has achieved the greatest honour, a full name. So, to my surprise, ‘The Survivor’ is a fascinating character study of an outsider within a well-observed alien society.
Unfortunately, the novella weakens as it progresses through its three acts. The first act confines to the claustrophobic confines of his home planet and is commensurately intense. In the second, he is drawn into the war against humanity and travels with the fleet to a captured Earth colony. For some reason, Alpha Centauri has been settled by Germans who have given the habitable planet the name Wunderland; presumably Niven set this back story decades earlier but knowing this doesn’t make it any less bizarrely incongruous. Inevitably, the story takes on the flavour of military SF and, whilst Kingsbury is not an obsessive like David Weber, the rigidity of the military still has a tendency to crush the life out of space opera.
But it all goes really wrong in the third act when the first woman speaks. This is a deliberately uncharitable characterisation but does point to a fairly fundamental issue with the novel (and, I now have to assume, Kingsbury’s work in general). The Kzin are a patriarchal society; in fact, their society is called the Patriarchy. Female kzin are considered by male kzin to be non-sentient with no rights and only bastardised language. Now, the kzinrreti are undoubtedly cleverer then the arrogant and self-deceiving menfolk believe but we are still told – outside of the scope of our unreliable narrator – that they are genetically inferior. So it is no surprise that there are hardly any women in this story. The first human woman we meet is quickly eaten. It is 70 pages until we get the first female character, UNSN Lieutenant Nora Argamentine. She is the main alternative view point to Trainer-of Slaves but unbalances the novella by being introduced two-thirds of the way through and being conspicuously badly written. For example, we have this scene immediately after her capture:
She wasn’t crying anymore. She was grinning. “Lots of kzin killing in that one. I loved it! You monsters killed my beloved Dad. That holo won an award for its acting. Passion, the spirit of mankind that you’ll never crush”
Awful stuff. Kingsbury would have never given Trainer-of-Slaves dialogue like this; it is as if when he writes from the female perspective, he deliberately drops his IQ. She is also constantly twiddling one of her curls in a Robert Jordan-style character tic. And what is her character arc? It starts promisingly with her executing an escape plan when Trainer is put into hibernation for insubordination. As soon as Trainer is defrosted, the narrative weight swings back to him, however, and Argamentine is lobotomised and genetically altered to become his sex slave. The final words of the story are: She snuggled up to Mellow-Yellow. “My Hero,” she purred-spat in her charming human accent.” What are you meant to make of that?
This appears to be Benford’s attempt to write a Captain Tabitha Jute story. He isn’t very good at it. His quirky ship TALKS IN CAPITALS and annoys his feisty heroine but I use the word ‘feisty’ advisedly since it conveys the pro forma manner in which he attempts to make her roughly real. What Benford is good at – and clearly has much more interest in – is writing hard SF. In this instance, he even includes a diagram showing how a negative mass object can cause light deflection. It is unnecessary for the story and, I would suggest, orthogonal to the concept of space opera.
The editors note that “Benford is developing a novel in this setting”. Did this happen? I can’t find any reference to it, although he did publish another short story, ‘The Worm Turns’, set in the same universe. That story is collected in The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I feel a horrible need to read that book too.
Hartwell and Cramer have cannibalised their previous Benford introduction from The Ascent Of Wonder so we get to once again boggle at their description of him as “the first among the hard science fiction writers to have mastered and integrated Modernist techniques of characterization and use of metaphor.” But we also get quotes from his “recent contribution to the New Space Opera discussion” which is “an essay on space opera and economics”. I’m quoting the introduction directly since that is all the reader is told; the editors don’t bother to mention that the essay is entitled ‘The Real Future Of Space’ and can be found in the Summer 2004 issue of the fanzine Challenger. Now, I knew it would be wrong to expect sensible literary criticism from Benford but even forewarned, this essay is pretty startling. Take, for example, this eye-catching paragraph which Hartwell and Cramer describe as “poking at the new British enthusiasm”:
The British have acquired a taste for the recent style of space opera – note Ian M. Banks’ series, Ken Macleod, Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty, Peter Hamilton’s popular mega-scale space operas, and more recently Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross – all working with futures fragrant of gargantuan techno-sizzle. Interestingly, all these authors and futures are somewhat vaguely socialist. In this they contrast with the sober, often nostalgic near-future looks at the spaced program by Stephen Baxter, notably Titan.
Benford is writing 17 years after Consider Phlebas and 14 years after Take Back Plenty so this British enthusiasm isn’t exactly what I’d describe as new. The editors do at least ensure they spell the names of the authors under discussion correctly, although bizarrely they excise the mention of Greenland. But the substance – my god, the substance. Even though Benford hedges his bets with “somewhat vaguely”, the idea that the work of these authors can be badged as socialist is barking. Peter F Hamilton is not apolitical but he certainly isn’t a fucking socialist. Is it something they put in the water over there?
Having snagged myself on this passage, I went and read the whole thing. The main problem is that it is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding:
Yet space opera boasts giant spacecraft and huge space colonies. Who pays for them?
Another way to pose the problem is, what would a viable, economic space program look like at the end of the 21st century?
No, that isn’t another way of posing the problem; there is a yawning chasm between the two scenarios. Space opera is a genre of faster than light travel, free energy and ancient alien technology, it positively revels in Clarke’s Third Law. Benford completely ignores this and so he spends the majority of the essay on a wild goose chase concerning the mechanics of near future space expansion. Interesting stuff in its own context but irrelevant to a discussion of New Space Opera. Is this just the myopia of a hard SF “partisan” (as the editors describe him) who truly believes that “tennis with the net up” is the only game in town? That is certainly plausible but there seems to be something else going on here, namely a vestigial fear of the Evil Empire.
In order to understand Benford’s critique of British space opera, you need to understand his politics and he isn’t shy about sharing his views: “In some ways, popular socialist thinking parallels Creationism.” This is a pronouncement of Godwinesque proportions coming from a scientist. Of course, socialism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Here he is explicitly talking about Soviet-style command economies: “the belief that advanced societies must come from top-down direction – often, in practice, from a sole master thinker, the Chairman-for-life so common in totalitarian states.” I’m not sure I would describe that as current popular thinking but it is helpfully indicative of how little Benford knows about the subject; if you want sophisticated political analysis, you aren’t going to find it here.
As you might expect, he is setting up this strong definition of socialism in order to knock it down and there follows the traditional criticism that “markets provide far greater information flow than do top-down, directed economic systems”. This section is piously and patronisingly introduced with the words: “In politics, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But everybody is not entitled to their own facts – especially not in economics.” And here is that key ‘fact’: “Money measures economic matters. Without it, we can’t see what works and what doesn’t.” It goes without saying that this is not a fact but rather a failure of imagination. Benford uses this “simple truth” to dismiss not just all socialist societies but also all post-scarcity societies without need of any further evidence. He does not appear to have grasped any of the implications of a post-scarcity society and certainly doesn’t explain what it could not “work”, perhaps because he believes that as a hard SF writer this “economic dodge” is beneath him.
So that’s step one, show socialism is bad – not for political reasons, you understand, but because of good, solid economic facts. In the world of hard SF, the dangerous political philosophy of socialism can be defeated with a slide rule. This means he can move onto step two: show that British space opera is socialist.
If you have read any of the authors Benford lists, you will know that none of them depict societies anything like the command economy societies that he criticises. In fact, despite setting up this strawman, he is happy to use far weaker definitions of socialism when it suits his purpose. For example, we are told that “real-world moderate, welfare-state socialism, as seen in Europe, can afford no grand space operas.” Even if we accept that dubious characterisation as true, it bears no relation to the “popular beliefs” he hinges his argument on. Socialism can, according to Benford, be entirely compatible with capitalism thus sweeping out from underneath him his sole argument against socialist futures. In fact, “somewhat vaguely socialist” turns out to cover pretty much everything:
Politics does not offer simple maps, but one should distinguish between the Banks/Reynolds/Stross pole and the Macleod pole. The BRS pole seems Libertarian/anarchist, and by Libertarianism I mean anarchism with a police force and a respect for contract law. Macleod is the closest thing to a true classical socialist, as in The Stone Canal. But even Macleod is all over the board. Though socialism was his earliest fancy, he experiments with multiple social structures. In later works he espouses variants of libertarianism and anarchism, and even occasional capitalism.
So from a blanket description of British space opera, Benford is actually only able to find one author who meets, even partially, his criteria. You will note that Greenland and Hamilton have mysteriously disappeared entirely, presumably because they both have capitalist settings. (This is a shame because it would have been nice to discuss Hamilton’s work since it is represents such a wonderful counter-example of the economic problems of capitalist space opera. A huge flaw of the Night’s Dawn trilogy – beyond the writing – is the translation of global trade to the galactic level, despite the vastly higher costs associated with it. Hamilton goes so far as to invent unique and highly valuable commodities that are planet-specific in order to balance the books.)
Yet despite blowing a hole in his own argument, he concludes with this revealing non sequitur: “The whiff of welfare socialism in these novels contrasts with the bright, energetic atmosphere.” I’ve managed to get through the whole of this post without using the word “American” but I feel I can hold back no longer. The welfare state is not fucking socialism and only an American could possibly think it was. Regardless of this, Benford has failed to point out where this whiff he smells is coming from. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the welfare state playing a major part in Alastair Reynolds’s space opera. And what on earth is that “contrast” doing in the sentence? Does Benford truly believe that welfare states are so dark and depressing that they crush the society? Not content with packing so much madness into a single sentence, he immediately doubles down with a further non sequitur: “This calls into question whether advanced socialist societies could plausibly support grandiose space-operatic futures.” The causal chain here that Benford believes to be self-evident is non-existent.
Which brings us to step three: show that British space opera is bad. With both of Benford’s premises in tatters, it is no surprise that his conclusion is unpersuasive. What is surprising is how spectacularly he manages to implode:
However odd the future will be, it surely won’t be a repeat; economics evolves. The leftish space operas of recent years have plenty of quantum computers and big, Doc Smith-style planet-smashing weaponry, but the hard bits of real economics they swerve around. Maybe because they haven’t any real answers, or aren’t interested. Opera isn’t realism.
It isn’t realism? Well, no shit. I’m glad that Benford has finally noticed that space opera isn’t simply hard science fiction and his whole enterprise is therefore deluded. But what is truly astonishing is the lack of self-awareness in the previous sentences. He tells us that “economics evolves” despite the fact he has spent the whole essay arguing the opposite: that capitalism is the pinnacle of economic evolution and that no other model can compete with it. This means he manages to criticise the authors both for exploring alternative economic systems and not exploring alternative economic systems. A nice trick. It also makes it pretty rich for him to describe those individuals taking an active interest in economics as uninterested when he is the one with the ideological blinkers down. You can certainly describe MacLeod as “over the board” but uninterested in economics? I don’t think so.
And, on that bombshell, Benford gives up on space opera and instead focuses on the “real future” of space. This is obviously his true interest. He concludes with an exhortation that “staying the course will require leadership” because the essay has morphed entirely into being about the US space programme.
The four Hyperion books cover more than thirteen centuries in time, tens of thousands of light-years in space, more than three thousand pages of the reader’s time, the rise and fall of at least two major interstellar civilisations, and more ideas than the author could shake an epistemological stick at. They are, in other words, space opera.
So Simmons describes his own work and he’s not wrong. When he published the Hyperion Cantos (1989-90), he was the space opera don. His poorly received Endymion sequels (1996-7) and a re-evaluation of the more problematic aspects of his horror fiction have somewhat tarnished his reputation but ‘Orphans Of The Helix’ (1990) is as good an example of space opera at this length as you are going to get (certainly within the pages of The Space Opera Renaissance).
It starts in the way of all the best stories: a distress signal deep in space.
The great spinship translated down from Hawking space into the red-and-white double light ogf a close binary. While the 684,300 people of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix dreamt on in a depp cryogenic sleep, the five AIs in charge of the ship conferred. They had encountered an unusual phenomenon and while four of the five had agreed it important enough to bring the huge spinship out of C-plus Hawking space, there was a lively debate – continuing for several microseconds – about what to do next.
We have artificial intelligence, we have aliens, we have posthumans with hundred kilometre electromagnetic wings and baseline humans with radically different cultures to anything currently in existence. We have vast ships and habitats that are dwarfed by the awesome scale of space. It also has a “threshing machine from hell” and it is a shame Hartwell and Cramer don’t explore the idea of the gothic as an integral part of the New Space Opera:
The Helix was a kilometre long. The base of this other spacecraft was at least a thousand times as long. The monster was huge and broad, bulbous and ugly, carbon black and insectoidal, bearing the worst features of both organic evolution and industrial manufacture. Centrered in the front of it was what appeared to be a steel-toothed maw, a rough opening lined with a seemingly endless series of manidibles and shredding baldes and razor-sharp rotors.
If there is a weakness to ‘Orphans Of The Helix’, it is that it is part of a massive future history which threats to burst the seams of the story, particularly at the conclusion. Also some of the characterisation is very cursory, perhaps not surprising given the number of players in such a small space; for example, one woman is only ever described as some variation on young, attractive or flaky. But really, the editors couldn’t have picked a better story for their purpose.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to spend some time on the introduction again.
The fiction of Ken MacLeod, noted space opera author, was not included in this anthology. He is, however, repeatedly quoted for his contributions to the August 2003 issue of Locus which was devoted to the New Space Opera. The editors here select a longish quote that begins: “Colin Greenland eased space opera’s limbs out of the contorted shape in which Harrison had left them, visibly drawing on him whilst lightening his tone, in Take Back Plenty.” If I have to tell you who Harrison is then you are reading the wrong blog (Hartwell and Cramer seem to subscribe to a similar view since they don’t bother to name him either). Anyway, MacLeod’s description sounds pretty reasonable to me and indeed the editors interview Greenland himself and quote him to identical effect. And yet they respond to the MacLeod quote thus:
This assertion entirely ignores the existence and evolution of American space opera between 1970 and 1990, much of which was either not reprinted in the UK or was not recognised as space opera, a continuing problem in clarifying the tradition… [Take Back Plenty] made much less impact in the US because there was so much popular space opera available in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wow! There is much to unpack here but let’s start with the direct connection: MacLeod does not ignore American space opera, rather it is irrelevant to his point. As the editors themselves show immediately after saying this, Greenland was working firmly in the nascent British tradition and of which he describes M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device as the “exemplary work”. Hartwell and Cramer are reacting – overreacting – to some perceived slight on their nationhood that simply doesn’t exist.
But let’s move on to their factual claims about American space opera. The third section of The Space Opera Renaissance is entitled “Transitions/Redefiners [Late 1970s To Late 1980s]” and notionally covers half the period of evolution they are talking about (the other half truly is ignored because Hartwell and Cramer don’t include a single story from the Seventies in their anthology – those in glass houses, etc, etc). This section contains only four stories, one of which is by Iain M Banks who was known to Greenland but not a direct influence. The remaining three stories are by American writers but only one is actually published in the relevant time period: David Drake’s story was published in 1986 whereas Lois McMaster Bujold’s story was published in 1990 (the same year as Take Back Plenty) and David Brin’s story most of a decade later in 1999. So in defence of their nonsensical assertion of MacLeod’s ignorance, the editors can only muster a solitary story and it goes without it isn’t bloody space opera.
Which brings us to the next issue, that lovely little phrase “not recognised as space opera” which, we are piously told, is “a continuing problem in clarifying the tradition”. The clear implication is that the inhabitants of Britain, including award-winning space opera novelists like MacLeod, couldn’t tell space opera if it slapped them in the face. No such doubt seems to have troubled the editors despite the fact they allow the passive voice to elide the fact they don’t have a counter-argument.
For completeness’s sake, let me address the final point. As we’ve just discussed at length, it is not at all obvious on the evidence provided that there was a surfeit of US space opera in the Eighties. I accept there was much more in the Nineties but that is hardly relevant since it postdates the publication of Take Back Plenty in 1990. Even if America was groaning at the seams with space opera before Take Back Plenty appeared, would that automatically account for its impact? I can’t see any logical reason why it would. Perhaps a more plausible explanation would be the lack of Transatlantic publishing synchronisation that the editors refer to and that I discuss here since my understanding is that Take Back Plenty wasn’t published until two years after its original UK publication. (As an aside, check out that cover depicting the protagonist of the novel – she is actually black and I’m pretty sure she’d never a wear a catsuit quite that shiny.)
Towards the end of their main introduction to the book, the editors unhelpfully compress the Eighties and Nineties into virtually a single paragraph before concluding: “Together such works formed not one cutting edge but many.” This is a pretty big cop out, casually abrogating the duty of critic and historian to trace the connections. After all, Hartwell and Cramer keep telling us that there was little interchange between the two countries that have produced the majority of the works under discussion. Given this, it seems only sensible to conclude that there were, in fact two separate national traditions during most of this period (traditions that I would suggest only started to merge in the third wave of space opera flowered into the 21st Century, much later than the editors would have it). Indeed Greenland’s comments in this introduction set out the causal chain of the British tradition very clearly:
1) A single revolutionary text – M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device (1974).
2) A pair of apostles who produced a quite influential series (Colin Greenland (1990-1998)) and a hugely influential series (Iain M Banks (1987-)).
3) A mature and rehabilitated subgenre that produced Britain’s current bestselling SF novelists – Peter F Hamilton (1996-) and Alastair Reynolds (2000-) – as well as countless others.
(All dates given are for novel length space opera publication rather than active career.)
Hartwell and Cramer fumble this progression both in their critical comments and in the structure of the anthology but the picture does at least emerge. The same cannot be said for the US tradition. There is no such direct chain (although it is fun to imagine a counter-factual world where Samuel Delany’s Nova (1968) became a similarly revolutionary text) and the editors are far more concerned with how US editors used the term than what US writers actually produced. The result is a jump straight from the original space opera to the new space opera with no discussion of how the work (rather than the word) evolved. I would guess that the Greenland/Banks stage is filled in the US by the emergence of CJ Cherryh and David Brin at the beginning of the Eighties but you wouldn’t know it from the anthology (and Cherryh’s fiction isn’t included). It is strange that the editors are so quick to rebut claims about the character of new space opera whilst being so reticent in exploring its roots. To take another example, nor to they make much of the undoubted (and international) influence of visual space opera during this period, particularly the debuts of Star Trek (1966), Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). There is clearly a history to be written of the evolution of space opera but you won’t find it here. This wouldn’t be a fatal weakness for an anthology if not for the fact the book is so clearly intended to be definitive.
I feel a bit sorry for Colin Greenland because my thoughts on his story are inevitably going to be somewhat buried by my preamble. I’m sure he’ll get over it though. ‘The Well Wishers’ makes a compelling contrast to ‘Escape Route’, Hamilton’s story in the anthology, as do the two protagonists. Captain Marcus Calvert is an old-fashioned WASPy space hero who believes his glorified white van is the herald of free enterprise. Captain Tabitha Jute, on the other hand, knows she is just a errand girl: “Tabitha checked an impulse to kick her. She had lost a job once before, for refusing to be treated like dirt.”(p. 354) Her life is resolutely and hearteningly unheroic:
Captain Jute slept again, woke, ate, bathed at great length in real water, got drunk, watched some porn, called reception, called the ship. (p. 357)
Jute is one of the great space opera captains, perhaps the greatest, but this is a short story anthology so we face the recurring problem that there only being room for an aria. She briefly takes to the air in this story but her wings are soon clipped. The plot sees her implicated in a crime but there is never any suggestion this will stick so really she is just hanging around. Refreshing but not exactly operatic. Still, the cops are blue-faced space dogs so that’s got to count for something, right?
A very odd story, this. ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ is dedicated to Edmond Hamilton (who opened the anthology) and is a sort of tribute to his Captain Future stories. In the introduction, Steele is quoted as taking pains to point out it isn’t a lampoon or a parody but rather an exploration of “what a ’90s version of an SF pulp hero would look like”. The answer turns out to be a mentally ill, physically grotesque fantasist. Hence “sort of” tribute.
Bo McKinnon is a rich idiot who gets his stepfather to buy him a spaceship. Cosseted by this wealth, he comes to believe that he actually is Captain Future, the shining cover star of the priceless pulp magazines he collects. Our protagonist, who has unwillingly signed on as Second Mate, has a rather different perspective on the man: “Squat and obese, he filled the chair like a half-ton of lard… There were old food stains on the front of his worn-out sweatshirt and dark marks of his crotch… he smelled like a fart… a butt-ugly, foul-looking son of a whore… He had little respect for personal hygiene and fewer social graces.” There is no empathy or sympathy in the story at all; Steele makes McKinnon the butt of an unpleasant joke and I can’t work out why. The story concludes with McKinnon catching space plague which gives him space madness (tragic) on top of his existing madness (comic), our protagonist sends him to his death in a way that saves Mars from catastrophe and ensures he actually does become a hero. The legend of Captain Future lives on.
How does this meet Steele’s stated aim of producing “a pulp-fiction story for the 90s, one that reflected upon the classic space-op of the past while, at the same time, reworking it for the present”? I can’t find any reflection in this nasty little story and perhaps the only way in which it sticks to the pulp brief is in its treatment of women. The only female character is a beautiful, intelligent, highly competent woman. Obviously, she used to be a prostitute. She once propositioned McKinnon in a bar and he turned out to be her white knight, declining sex and instead installing her as his First Officer. He has been the perfect gentleman and showed no sexual interest but “if he ever asked, I’d do so without a second thought. I owe him that little.” Obviously, our protagonist fancies her; obviously squared, he gets her in the end (he just needed to kill her employer and saviour).
The true punchline to the story is that ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ won the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novella and was shortlisted for the Nebula. In-jokes, warmed over nostalgia, bluntly bad prose and unexamined sexism are always a winning combination.
So, not a good story. I’d also quibble about whether it is space opera, rather than being the sort of near-space hard SF which Steele made his name with and never leaves the Solar System. The author himself describes space opera as “the adventure-oriented category of hard SF” which seems to be a fundamental mistake. Space opera is not a category of hard SF; it can come in any flavour of hardness from Alastair Reynolds to Star Wars and is defined by its scale and sweep. Having a spaceship in your story is not enough. Steele’s definition does, however, explain the constant slurry of exposition.
Hartwell and Cramer Political Commentary Watch: “his fiction has been called “working-class hard SF,” because of his regular choice of ordinary people as characters, and because of his generally left-leaning politics.”
So we move from puppy loves to a 13 year old hitchhiker sucking off a space trucker. The tonal shift from Asaro’s story is presumably intentional but it is still jarring. ‘Ring Rats’ has a veneer of grimness rather than realism, however, and this ludicruous story of white slavery actually shares some of the same properties as ‘Aurora In Four Voices’. Namely, action crap, idiot plotting and unbridled escapism. I mean white slavery? Seriously?
I promised myself I’d ignore Hartwell and Cramer’s chopshop intros but I can’t help quoting the vital information they opening their piece with: “He’s one of the few SF writers who does not thus far own a computer.”