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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.

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The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds.
(2009 Eos, $15.99, 544pp)

When Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” in 1941 to refer to “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn”, he can’t have imagined the sub-genre would still be going strong sixty-nine years later. Or indeed that it would be considered one of the more successful forms of science fiction. That’s not to say that the “outworn space-ship yarn” no longer exists. There are plenty of examples of it being published in the twenty-first century. Some of them are even space opera.

According David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer in The Space Opera Renaissance (2006), space opera never went away and merely evolved over the decades into the form we now call New Space Opera. Which is, of course, to completely ignore the British re-invigoration of the sub-genre in the 1980s and 1990s. Before there was New Space Opera, there was New British Space Opera. Of the nineteen authors in The New Space Opera 2, only three are British. Since this anthology is a successor volume and its publisher is American, this is not unexpected. Likewise the fact that eleven of the authors are from the US, with only three Canadians and two Australians. Science fiction is a US-dominated genre.

But is space opera?

It is, if you extend its definition to include some of the stories in The New Space Opera 2. Because from this anthology, the only possible conclusion is that the new space opera has not only morphed back into the old space opera, but it has also expanded to include a great deal more of science fiction. How else to explain the stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch or Elizabeth Moon in The New Space Opera 2? Both are the sort of sf CJ Cherryh was churning out by the yard in the 1980s. Or Mike Resnick’s spoof tale, which may riff off Tucker’s original definition, but seems to miss the point of new space opera. While John Scalzi’s ‘The Tale of the Wicked’ may be space opera, inasmuch as it features spaceships, AIs and humanity at war with an alien race, it has neither the vigour, scale, nor inventiveness of new space opera. And Bill Willingham’s ‘Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings’ is pure pulp sf, although its ending does drag it into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps this is the way of things. A new movement injects vigour into a moribund genre, and is then subsumed by it. Which is not to say that science fiction was entirely moribund, nor that it has been wholly re-invigorated. There is still a whiff of corruption from some areas of sf.

Happily, The New Space Opera 2 is mostly a good read. With contents provided by, as the back-cover blurb has it, “some of the most beloved names in science fiction”, the stories are readable and mostly entertaining. But naming any anthology after a movement – however arguable its definition – is a hostage to fortune. There are some good stories in The New Space Opera 2. There is some new space opera in The New Space Opera 2. There is even a small overlap between those two groups. But there are a number of pages which do not belong in either group.

The New Space Opera 2 scores best at presenting a snapshot of science fiction in 2009. It is not an all-inclusive snapshot – for that, one of the many “best of the year” anthologies is needed. The New Space Opera 2‘s contents lean in a specific direction. But the good stories in it show what’s been good in sf during the past couple of years – those stories, for example, by Robert Charles Wilson, John Barnes, John Kessel, John Meaney, Justina Robson, Sean Williams and Bruce Sterling. No anthology will ever be perfect, no matter how “beloved” its contributors. The New Space Opera 2 improves its chances with its titular theme. For most readers it will have a higher than average hit-rate. But as part two of a manifesto for new space opera, its title does it few favours.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #226, January-February 2010.