Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The New Space Opera, part 1

Traditional science fiction in modern clothing has become increasingly popular the past decade, a welcome change from the near-future emphasis which dominated the 80s and early 90s. What most critics and writers consider new “space opera” actually ranges all across the far-future, including space opera, planetary romances, and even Earth-based adventures. So long as it is wondrous and thought-provoking, I’m all for it.

That’s why I pounced on Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan’s original anthology The New Space Opera recently, and am now enjoying it immensely. While not all the stories maintain the same high level of quality, isn’t that typical of any anthology, original or reprint?

“Saving Tiamaat”, by Gwenyth Jones, is a planetary romance about a planet on which the Ki rose up against their masters the An, nearly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Apparently the An and Ki are subdivisions of the same race, which makes the An cannibalistic since they “raise” some of the Ki for food.

Humans are trying to mediate the war between the Ki and the An. The focus of the story is Pelé and Dubra who are serving as escorts for the An delegates to the negotiations. They are obviously woefully ignorant of An nature though, as a killing by one of the An delegates of–-what? An intruder? A suicide bomber trying to wreck the negotiations?–-shows their ignorance. This is a strong story, its primary interest being how Peleé and Dubra try to forward the negotiations while learning the true nature of the An and Ki at the same time.

Robert Silverberg’s “ The Emperor And the Maula” is a strong tale about an alien race which has conquered most of the galaxy, including Earth, and claim to be benevolent rulers. An Earth woman named Laylah travels to the aliens’ homeworld where she should be killed since maula (non-aliens, barbarians, beings of low intelligence) are forbidden to go there. But, as Laylah anticipated, she is brought to the attention of the emperor where she delays her death by telling him the story of why she came to him, stretching the story out night after night after night, a la Sheherazade. Her story both teases and intrigues the emperor, as it does the reader, providing glimpses into life under the alien rulers and an understanding of how such an invasion, peaceful or not, would affect Earth’s inhabitants. This story proves yet again that Silverberg has lost none of his talent over the years, and I wish he would write more fiction than he currently does.

Just as the constant in a Robert Silverberg story is a strong historical foundation, the constant in a Stephen Baxter story is a strong philosophical foundation. I do not recall any Baxter story which did not leave me thinking about the moral issues he raised, which is why he is one of my favorite current writers. “Remembrance” tells of a group of Earth explorers who find a Squeem colony near Saturn. The Squeem were a hivemind race which conquered Earth several centuries ago, controlling it until a revolution overthrew them. But apparently not everything about their era is known. A self-described Rememberer steps forward, claiming to be the latest in a long line of rememberers who have passed on important secrets about the Squeem dominance of Earth, secrets which might affect how the Earth authorities will deal with the newly-found colony. But there are actually two questions the authorities must consider: is this Rememberer what he claims to be, and does his secret merit consideration? The dual mystery makes the story stronger than either single mystery alone could have done.

Alastair Reynolds is, like Stephen Baxter, a strong storyteller steeped in the hard science tradition. But where Baxter’s stories tend to range across space and time, Reynolds generally limits himself to local regions in a moment of time. And where Baxter’s stories are philosophically-thought-provoking, Reynolds’ stories generally raise more emotional issues. “Minla’s Flowers” tells the story of Merlin, a lone space pilot whose ship is damaged. He seeks landfall on the nearest planet where he finds a huge life-supporting shell surrounding it, a shell which has been damaged by alien attack, huge chunks of which have fallen groundward. The people living on the shell are engaged in a brutal, senseless war with a nation on the ground.

Before his ship is repaired and he leaves the planet, Merlin discovers that the same cause of his ship’s damage will likely cause worse devastation to the planet’s sun in 70 years. In an attempt to save much of the planet’s population, Merlin shows the shell-bound natives sufficient technology to begin development of jet flight and, eventually, rocket flight to undertake a massive exodus from the planet before the disaster occurs. But he learns that sometimes people are not capable of following their own best interests, so even as the natives prepare for escape they still engage in petty selfishness which might doom those efforts. While the story is a bit glib, and some events happen too easily, the story is well-told and interesting.

Kage Baker is a delightful storyteller, combining local color, fascinating offbeat characters, and outstanding storytelling. Think of Poul Anderson without the scientific core. While her “Company” stories are universally-acclaimed, I prefer her stories set on newly-colonized Mars, including “Empress of Mars” and “Where the Golden Apples Grow”. “Maelstrom” is another story in that series, which concerns the creation of the first Martian life-performance theater. Its owner is infatuated with Edgar Allan Poe, so the first performance will be a newly-written version of “Descent into the Maelstrom.” The story involves the typical roadblocks a new theater faces, such as seeking suitable talent for the production, and truthfully most of the story could have been set in some backwater on Earth. But it was still great fun and I was pleased she set it on Mars where characters from the saloon Empress of Mars, could participate. Highly-recommended.

To be continued...


  • Well, there you go... I thought the Silverberg story was a poor rip-off of Scheherezade, and couldn't find anything in Kage Baker's story that was even space opera. Oh, and her Brits had all the verisimilitude of Dick van Dyke's Cockney chimneysweep...

    By Blogger Ian Sales, At 2:25 AM  

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