Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Empire Star

There are elements of space opera which definitely appeal to me: it is the most expansive type of science fiction, ranging across solar systems and even galaxies, involving colorful future humans and aliens, as well as exotic worlds and cultures, both human and alien. At its best space opera provides more sense of wonder than any other forms of sf; at its worst it is pre-occupied with space wars and battle scenes, which do not particularly appeal to me. But when the wars remain in the background, or are nonexistent in the story, space opera can be truly exhilarating.

This past summer I read Alastair Reynold’s Galactic North trilogy which was truly wonderful. Its only weakness was being a bit light on characterization, but how many writers truly handle both ends of the sf spectrum equally well? The trilogy convinced me to seek out more space opera, so my Recommended Reading list currently includes the following:

> Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebus, the first of his Culture novels;

> The New Space Opera, co-edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. According to Strahan’s blog Notes From Coode Street, its list of contributors includes Robert Reed, Peter Hamilton, Ken Macleod, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford, Nancy Kress, Walter Jon Williams, and Dan Simmons, including “major new short novels” by Reynolds, Silverberg, and Simmon;

> Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois has six novellas by an equally-exciting cast of authors: Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Peter F. Hamilton, Ian McDonald, Robert Reed, and Alastair Reynolds;

> Alastair Reynolds’ new collections Zima Blue and Galactic North.

Without waiting for those books, I recently bought David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer’s The Space Opera Renaissance, their latest huge overview of the science fiction field (including The Ascent of Wonder, The Science Fiction Century and The World Treasury of Science Fiction, among others). This latest thousand page book begins with dinosaurs such as Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, but quickly moves into the 60s with Cordwainer Smith and Samuel Delany and progresses from there.

The first story I read was Iain Banks’ “A Gift From the Culture,” since I have read so many positive comments about his space opera being both literary and thought-provoking in addition to being expansive and wondrous (sounds like everything I would like, doesn’t it?). This was a strong story without any space battle in its pages. Besides being exceptionally well-written, its main character was both well-defined and sympathetic. The basic situation involved his being mired in such deep gambling debts that he is offered a dire choice: destroy an arriving spacecraft containing an important general and ambassador from the Culture or serious damage will be done both to the protagonist and to his lover.

The story’s ending was a bit predictable, and seemed somewhat of a literary trick of following the logical conclusion rather than doing something unexpected, but the story’s merits overall affirmed my decision to dip into Banks’ Culture novels sometime soon.

The next story I read was written by one of my very favorite authors during the 60s and 70s, Samuel R. Delany. “Empire Star” was one of his earliest stories, a short novel originally published as half of an Ace paperback. It is the tale of Comet Jo, an uneducated boy on a simple, low-tech world, who finds an intelligent jewel which he must deliver along with an important message to Empire Star, which is the heart of the galactic empire. However, Jo has no idea what the message is or to whom he must deliver it to.

This story features all the hallmarks of early Delany: it is basically a quest novel combined with the coming of age of its young protagonist. Reading it, and most early Delany, I cannot help wondering what the author himself was seeking during the years he was repeating this motif in his novels. As Jo travels to Empire Star, he begins growing intellectually, from “simplex” at the story’s outset to “multiplex” as he begins questioning people and examining situations from various viewpoints. Not surprisingly, as Jo becomes multiplex, so does the story. What began as a straightforward quest soon develops overlapping strands which weave together like a moëbius strip. Unlike “A Gift From the Culture,” the story’s ending is both surprising and satisfying.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the story were the Lll, a race who serve as slaves in the empire. To protect them, the Lll are altered so that anybody who enters their presence feels an overwhelming sadness. One of the strongest scenes in “Empire Star” is when Jo and another “shuttle bum” play music for 7 Lll slaves for an hour to entertain them while they are being transported to a distant planet. Jo basically cries from sadness through the entire concert, at the end leaving totally emotionally drained from the experience.

Even more traumatic is owning Lll slaves, since the sadness is both more powerful and increases geometrically the more slaves one owns. Delany shows the effect this has on San Severina, one of the story’s main characters who owns the 7 Lll slaves.

Reading “Empire Star,” I was impressed both by the fact that such a multi-faceted story was written by a twenty-year old youth, and also at how it more resembled a late 90s “New Space Opera” than the simplex stuff being published in the early 60s. It reinforced my long-held belief that Delany was one of the most talented writers science fiction has ever known. What a shame it is that his fiction voice has been mostly silent the past 20 years, after he reinvented sword & sorcery with his Neveryóna series in much the same way “Empire Star” and its successors Babel-17 and Nova reinvented space opera.

This review will be continued as I read more of The Space Opera Renaissance.