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Archive for January 15th, 2013

‘The Well Wishers’ by Colin Greenland

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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?

Quality: ****
OOO: ***

Written by Martin

15 January 2013 at 20:10