Posts Tagged ‘The Space Opera Renaissance’
This story is actually from the earlier ‘Draftees (1960s)’ section of the anthology (despite being published in 1972). I skipped over it at the time because I didn’t really have anything to say about it. It still don’t but it seems appropriate to return to it immediately after Michael Moorcock’s contribution. It is a three page compressed novel that is satirical where Moorcock is sincere. The editors quote Brian Aldiss to the effect that this story finished off the up until now endless saga, written finis to those mighty tomes, killed the entire literature dead.” Well, nice try. Still, as a nail in space opera’s coffin, it is considerably more impressive and effective than Michael Kandel’s attempt.
Published in 2002, this story has nothing in common with contemporary space opera and, as the title suggests, instead harks back to the science fantasy of Leigh Brackett and Clive Jackson. So the first sentence is: “They came upon the Earthling naked, somewhere in the Shifting Desert when Mars’ harsh sunlight beat through thinning atmosphere and the sand was raw glass cutting into bare feet.” The protagonist is referred to by his full name through out, imbuing it with an air of Chuck Norris-esque comic bombast: “To call Captain John MacShard a loner was something of a tautology. Captain John MacShard was loneliness personified.” Silly, romantic, obsolete, it is not a pastiche but a slice of time-slipped pulp straight from the source.
What better way to return to The Space Opera Renaissance than with a story entitled ‘Space Opera’? Except, of course, it isn’t space opera. Instead, it is an obvious joke: what if, like space opera was opera about space? So Kandel gives us a lengthy synopsis of an imaginary opera with occasional critical asides, as if one were reading a tedious entry in a poorly written overview of the field.
Hartwell and Cramer describe Kandel as “the sort of SF writer who perceives the odors of contempt and literary class prejudice that still hang in the social air when the term space opera is used in literary circles, and leaves the room.” An arse, in other words. They go on to say that the story “poke[s] fun at the absurdities of opera and of space opera” but I didn’t notice this. The only thing I found enjoyable about this story was Kandel’s ill-advised name for his aliens which gives rise to lines like this: “A chorus of bints sings of the forthcoming invasion of the Dalminian Empire.”
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.)