Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The New Space Opera, part 2

Dan Simmons is a frustrating author, capable of writing the most wondrous far-future science fiction (highlighted by the Hyperion series) but spending more time writing horror and mysteries than sf. “Muse of Fire” is set in a far-future in which humans are under the thumb of a race called the Archons, who themselves are the lowest in a series of three-controlling alien races, topped by Abraxas, the ultimate ruler of life. Humans have been reduced to grunt workers doing the Archons’ bidding with no “culture, politics, arts history, hope, and sense of self.” Apparently what they have retained though is a love of Shakespeare, since the story concerns a planet-hopping dramatic troupe Earth’s Men (which includes both men and women) which puts on Shakespearean plays for the workers. It is a bit hard to believe that such a downtrodden race which remembers none of its ancient past would still revere Shakespeare, and that such uneducated grunts would actually understand the bard’s language, much less the plays themselves, but I was able to swallow my disbelief for the sake of the story, especially since stories about artists of any type are right near the top of my personal pyramid of favorite topics.

Somehow Earth’s Men come to the attention of the Archons who demand a private showing themselves, so the troupe performs “the Scottish play” for them (whose real title is never used, a popular affectation about MacBeth) which creates a domino effect in which the troupe is shunted up the line to perform King Lear for the next highest alien race, then Hamlet for the penultimate aliens, leading to a series of events which culminated with the story’s narrator and his unrequited love performing scenes from Romeo and Juiliet for Abraxas him–it?–self. These events stretched disbelief beyond the breaking point, but it was all wonderful fun and led to some philosophical revelations straight out of Isaac Asimov’s “The Mule.” If you can avoid getting hung up in the logical gaps, this is a fine story to end the book.

I think I made a major mistake when reading The New Space Opera in that I read all the authors who most appealed to me first–Gwenyth Jones, Robert Silverberg, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Kage Baker, and Dan Simmons, leaving all the others for later. Because the next four stories I tried–Paul J. McAuley’s “Winning Peace,” Greg Egan’s “Glory,” Peter Hamilton’s “Blessed By An Angel,” and Ken MacLeod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” were all saturated with long descriptions of science and technology which so overwhelmed the stories themselves that I quickly lost interest. While I have no problems with futures far advanced beyond our own level of technology, do I really need to learn every final detail about it? Our current world is deeply technologized, but I no little about it and don’t need descriptions of every marvel I use. The same with the future. Leave the technology in the background and write a story around it, not a story which is almost buried beneath it.

So I abandoned both the McAuley and Egan stories, finishing both Hamilton’s and MacLeod’s, but coming away from them with the opinion that both authors were concerned more with pushing an agenda than actually telling stories. Next I tried Tony Daniels’ “The Valley of Gardens,” which started out more promisingly. It was a love story between two people whose races had descended from and apparently evolved away from a single race. Each one lives on a different side of a stone wall, one in a lush valley, the other in a harsh desert. This interesting story was interwoven with scenes of a war between humans and an alien entity which had conquered most of the human galaxy. It was an unbelievable entity, some mindless evil more in tune with H.P. Lovecraft than space opera, and just as humanity’s ultimate defeat seemed inevitable, some incomprehensible deus ex machina defeated it. The rest of the story combined the aftermaths of the war with the interlocked love story in a series of mostly auctorial intervention rather than a coherent story. The ending itself was mostly nonsensical, the main characters seemingly not knowing why they performed the actions they did, and I certainly had no idea how or why it had any effect on the Lovecraftian entity. I am still not sure why Gardner Dozois accepted this story without considerably revision.

Next came James Patrick Kelly, not my favorite author since he tends to jump on every current bandwagon. When cyberpunk was popular, he wrote cyberpunk. Now he has hitched his star to space opera. And the first sentence of the story filled me with politically-correct dread: “Been Watanabe decided to become gay two days before his one-hundred-and-thirty-second birthday.” Then followed a page of technobabble which convinced me enough is enough, and I put the book down and turned to Leigh Brackett’s Sea-Gods of Mars, a massive collection of her important fiction. I’ll go back and finish The New Space Opera sometime, but for now the first 6 stories were good enough that I recommend the book, especially for those readers not afraid of a little technobabble.


  • You seem to know a lot about space opera. I recently wrote a booklength fantasy epic poem called The SkyPath Crusade, which some of my friends claim is space opera. I know very little about space opera. Since you like to read, I was hoping maybe you'd be willing to critique it for me if you have time. Thanks.
    The SkyPath Crusade is posted at

    By Blogger Schildan, At 10:15 PM  

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