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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.

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7 Comments

The laden mantlepiece

I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I must not buy so many books. I tell myself this every day, but it doesn’t seem to work.

See:

Some mainstream fiction. Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow, the second book of the series of the same name (although the first written). I read the first, Time of Hope, a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. Fielding Gray, Simon Raven, the first book of his Alms for Oblivion series, which I was told is similar to Snow’s. The Boat of Fate, an historical novel by Keith Roberts, an excellent sf writer best-known for SF Masterwork Pavane. The Rings Of Saturn, WG Sebald, a writer I admire much. My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, Liz Jensen – a charity shop find, which I picked up because I enjoyed her The Rapture (my review here). And Underworld, also a charity shop find, because I’ve been meaning to read some Don DeLillo for ages.

Some science fiction: Stained-Glass World, Ken Bulmer, a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s. A bit of a hack, by all accounts, but we’ll see. JG Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, Engineering Infinity, Arslan, and More What If? I’m looking forward to reading. The last one was a charity shop find, the other three were birthday presents.

Some first editions. The Universe of Things is for the Gwyneth Jones collection. Down to the Bone is the last of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series. Back of Town Blues is for the DG Compton collection. Heat of Fusion and Other Stories, John M Ford, because he is apparently a writer of excellent sf short fiction.

A bit of a mix. Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, David Pringle, which is sort of not the companion volume to Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, because the actual real companion volume to that is Fantasy: The 100 Best Books by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn (which I also own). Red Plenty, BSFA Award-shortlisted non-fiction/fiction, which many folk have told me I will like (I was going to wait for the paperback, but what the hell). And Cigar-Box Faust and Other Miniatures, a signed and numbered limited edition chapbook of Michael Swanwick short stories.

Three space books. Seven into Space, kindly donated to the Space Books collection by Adam Roberts. The Space Station and Island in the Sky were both bargains from eBay.

Finally, a pair of coffee-table books. Spomenik, Jan Kempenaers, is the book of his photographic exhibition. The title refers to WWII monuments in the former Yugoslavia. Many have been destroyed, or left to fall into ruin, but Kempenaers’ book contains photos of twenty-two of the best-preserved ones. Strange, but quite beautiful, stuff. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Frédéric Chaubin, is a ginormous book of photographs of many gloriously modernist buildings from the former USSR. Also strange, but quite beautiful, stuff.