Archive for January 2013
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 was this. It was enough to scar me for life. Expectations were further lowered for this story by the fact it is a sharecrop story, part of the Man-Kzin Wars series set in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. 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 safe. 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?
If you’ve followed step one that you should have the most important thing a reviewer can ask for: an unblank page. Of course, these typed notes will be unintelligible so you’ll need to tidy them up a bit. Before and after:
At this point, I have 750 words of thoughts that have been bunched together but in no way resemble a review. Time to get the pen out and impose a bit of order:
A few arrows later and I’ve managed to block out the structure of the review. This consists of eight rough sections: an introduction to the characters; a discussion of the type of work; depiction of the real London; depiction of fantastical London; plot and capitalism; imagery and strengths; tone and audience; virtually non-existent conclusion.
Now the hard work begins.
My review of The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is up now at Strange Horizons.
So debut novelist Tom Pollock is telling a story with a familiar shape, a story of secret London. The daddy of such books is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), adapted from the BBC drama he devised with Lenny Henry, and it still casts a long shadow. Once I would have said that there was perhaps a need for this sort of story to be retold every five years or so, but now, of course, urban fantasy is ascendant and every city has a secret soul. The City’s Son may ride this wave but it fits more comfortably into a slightly more specific tradition. After all, London is a bit special. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I went to an interview with slipstream writer Nina Allan. At one point, she mused on her distance from the core of the science fiction genre and rather wistfully remarked that she’d like to be a space writer but always seemed to end up as a time writer. Listening to her I was struck by how perfect London is as a setting for such fiction. After all, the city is a type of time machine; the past and the future sandwiched against each other. This history—this density—imbues the city with a crushing psychic weight. It is virtually a singularity.
Niall Harrison recommended the novel to me which should have been a warning sign since our tastes so rarely converge. It is a novel with intelligence and flair but it needed either flawless execution or far more ambition. I can see why it made the Golden Tentacle shortlist for the Kitschies though. (I should also reinterate that it is a debut novel so perhaps my standards are unrealistically high – I certainly feel like taking a break from reviewing them.)
I end my review with a bit of wishful thinking about where the series might go next. Well, it turns out Pollock was thinking along similar lines:
For an ordinary girl from a nice British Pakistani family, Pen’s been through a lot in the last few months. She was kidnapped by a barbed wire demon, rode at the head of an army of scaffolding wolves and fought in a war against a demolition god, all in the name of her best friend. Now back at school, she wears the scars of that war on her face, and the only person who knows what that’s like is her mirror-sister Parva: a doppleganger who only exists in London-Under-Glass, the city of London’s reflections. Parva’s her own person, but she shares all of Pen’s memories and she understands.
When Parva goes missing, Pen ventures into London-Under-Glass to find her. It’s a strange city, where it rains brick and concrete as well as water, where beauty is currency and a well-turned eyebrow is worth killing for, a city dominated by the dangerous politics of the Mirrorstocracy. At its heart though, this story’s about something very simple, the search of a scarred, scared, brave girl for the soul in all the worlds that’s closest to her own.
I probably won’t read The Glass Republic – I’m increasingly thinking that new genre writers should just get their first trilogy out of their system and move on – but I imagine I will be returning to Pollock in the not too distant future.
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.