|The Space Opera Renaissance |
edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
TOR, 2006, US$39.95, 941pp
|This review first appeared on The SF Site|
A confession: before reading The Space Opera Renaissance I honestly thought that space opera came to be called space opera because ‘opera’, in my blissfully uninformed opinion, was the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster from before they had Hollywood - big, brash, wide screen entertainment full of fickle gods, exotic foreigners, passionate lovers and mighty warriors, all mashed up into stories of inspired, over-the-top mayhem and exhibitionism, and topped with bellowing divas howling like Hurricane Katrina in a ball gown.
As I said, ‘stunningly uninformed’.
My naive assumption was that space opera was simply the madness of opera transferred onto the broader modern canvas of outer space. Fortunately for me, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer are here to try and set straight idiots such as myself, and kudos is due to them both that, for the most part, they serve as knowledgeable and engrossing guides to this once-derided area of the genre. I found their commentaries on each author to be invaluable to my enjoyment of each piece in this hefty anthology, whether I agreed 100% with their assessments or not; and if I occasionally found a very slight US socio-political bias then it’s at least in part because your humble reviewer hails from the UK, and the new space opera from this side of the pond is practically defined by its opposition to the US genre hegemony.
The Space Opera Renaissance is quite correctly laid out in chronological order and grouped into loose categories. The first is that of ‘Redefined Writers’, beginning with Edmond Hamilton, whose 'The Star Stealers' is at times remarkable, albeit as often for the wrong reasons as the right ones. It’s all too easy to chuckle at quite how monstrously wrong our literary forebears can be’ though; perhaps in 75 years sf fans will howl with laughter at Charlie Stross’s hopelessly inadequate understanding of ‘basic’ physics, or his patronising attitudes to artificial intelligence – who knows? With this proviso, I hope Mr Hamilton’s ghost will forgive me if I quote one single sentence from 'The Star Stealers' that, with 21st century wisdom, made me laugh out loud.
Following the successful resolution of a thunderous galactic menace, in which Second Officer Dal Nara, ‘descended from a long line of famous interstellar pilots’ (p.25), has played an important role, we are told that she ‘after the manner of her sex through all the ages, sought a beauty parlor’ (p.44).
The next story is Jack Williamson’s 'The Prince Of Space' (an operatic title if ever there was one!). It’s not one of Williamson’s best, although it improves somewhat upon Hamilton’s effort.
It’s the next story, Leigh Brackett’s 'Enchantress Of Venus', that takes the genre a significant step forward, not merely because of the vastly improved writing, but also the intriguing diminution in the setting and the weaponry (although, scientific verisimilitude is still apparently missing in action, allowing Clive Jackson, writer of the next story, 'The Swordsmen Of Varnis', to have some fun).
If Hamilton emphasised the ‘space’ then it was Brackett who brought the ‘opera’ to the fore, and it’s regarding these early days that the editor’s notes really come into their own, discussing the somewhat arcane genesis of the ‘space opera’ label: who said what to whom about whoever else’s work and why. Just because these early stories are politically uncomplicated doesn’t mean there’s no politics behind them.
I could go on through each story the book, but it would take a long time. This is a very large book, perhaps unnecessarily so, since there’s a fair bit of repetition, especially of the military sf tropes. Midway through the 900+ pages of quite small print, it has to be said that I was finding myself distinctly more sympathetic to work from ‘my’ side of the Atlantic; not from jingoistic pride, but a combination of mil-sf fatigue and because UK authors seem to have been the ones to have taken this rather moribund corner of the genre and run with it, whilst too many US authors (and, apparently, their large audiences) seemed perfectly content exactly where they were, thank you.
I’m pleased to be able report that the ripples of the UK space opera invasion have since then obviously spread and rebounded back across the Atlantic - possibly quite a few times, presenting quite a complex interference pattern of influences: Gregory Benford, Robert Reed, Tony Daniel, Scott Westerfeld and John C. Wright’s contributions all sit easily amidst those of the more recent UK writers such as Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Paul McAuley.
Oddly enough, one of my favourite stories was Donald Kingsbury’s 'The Survivor'. I say ‘oddly’ because not only is it the longest story here and it also comes at a point when I was beginning to exhibit distinct signs of space opera burnout, but it is set in ‘someone else’s universe’ - Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ - a device the purist in me sees as somehow antithetical to the central pillar of science fiction, the ‘novum’, or the invention. But amongst these 900+ pages 'The Survivor' had over a hundred that stood out due to a well-crafted story that examined some neglected dusty corners of the genre.
Elsewhere, Ursula Le Guin’s 'The Shobies’ Story' took space opera somewhere thoughtfully new; Michael Moorcock’s 'Lost Sorceress Of The Silent Citadel' led us straight back to Leigh Brackett without passing Go, but definitely collecting the $200; and Tony Daniel’s 'Grist' sent me straight to Amazon.co.uk!
Perhaps the least satisfying choice here is Iain M. Banks’ 'A Gift From The Culture'. Not because it’s a bad story – far from it – but, I would argue, because it’s barely space opera at all. It’s a pretty intractable problem, however, because Banks simply doesn’t write short fiction - 'A Gift From The Culture' being the sole exception to this rule. But this is an author who, for me, single-handedly rescued sf from the crumbling brink of irrelevance, and who I consider would have been far better served by the inclusion of an excerpt from a novel such as Consider Phlebas, which – again, for me – personifies everything that is good and clean and pure about space opera.
If you straightforwardly enjoy quite a lot of space opera then The Space Opera Renaissance may not be the ideal book for you: it’s a lengthy, often quite demanding read; some of the stories are plain silly, some are anything but plain, and it does engage exhaustively with just a limited number of themes. However, if you’re interested in science fiction as a whole, and sometimes read and enjoy some space opera (and who doesn’t, eh?) then you’ll get a lot more from this anthology, and will probably be grateful to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer for expertly ‘..showing how literary politics and other factors worked over the decades to deconstruct and alter it into something significantly different.’ (p.9).
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