The New Space Opera 2
(ed. by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan)
“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson
“The Island” by Peter Watts
“Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” by John Kessel
“To Go Boldly” by Cory Doctorow
“The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes
“Defect” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” by Jay Lake
“Shell Game” by Neal Asher
“Punctuality” by Garth Nix
“Inevitable” by Sean Williams
“Join the Navy and See the Worlds” by Bruce Sterling
“Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings” by Bill Willingham
“From the Heart” by John Meaney
“Chameleons” by Elizabeth Moon
“The Tenth Muse” by Tad Williams
“Cracklegrackle” by Justina Robson
“The Tale of the Wicked” by John Scalzi
“Catastrophe Baker and the Canticle for Leibowitz” by Mike Resnick
“The Far End of History” by John C. Wright
Reviewed by Robert E. Waters
Volume 2 of The New Space Opera offers up nineteen stories from some of the best authors in the field. The editors didn’t even have to re-use authors from Volume 1, which to me was a pleasant surprise. And after reading this volume, I’m very glad they didn’t. What we get here in this second helping is a very diverse and unique blend of speculative voices. Not every story hits the mark, but that’s to be expected in such a large mix.
We begin with “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson. Carlotta Boudaine is your typical non-descript, run-of-the-mill, middle-American girl fleeing a broken home. On the eve of the end of the world, she is visited by Erasmus, an entity from The Fleet, a cosmic organization that “raptures” up doomed civilizations to protect them from the evil Invisible Enemy. The story is told from Carlotta’s viewpoint, after having lived with Erasmus and The Fleet for millions and millions and billions of years. She has now transcended space and time and has returned to tell her story to herself, and the back and forth between the present and the past keeps the tale moving along at a brisk pace. Some readers may cringe at the story’s religious underpinnings, but pay no mind to those non-believers. This is a marvelous story that tells us that even the most unimportant, insignificant person has value, and that we all can take part in the death and rebirth of the universe. Sign me up.
Hot on Wilson’s heels comes “The Island” by Peter Watts. It’s a truly splendid story and one that (in my opinion) typifies the editors’ definition of “new” space opera. Here we have post-humans who serve a galactic empire by building star gates. These missions can often take thousands of years, and all seems to be going reasonably well, until our protagonist and her newly acquired son discover a biological Dyson Sphere which is, unfortunately, in the way of their mission’s progress. There’s really nothing wrong with this piece. It’s got it all: big ideas; good, compelling characters; hard science; tension; drama; humor; philosophy; etc. etc.
Next we have John Kessel’s “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance.” Brother Adlan is on a mission to recover a set of so-called Foundational Plays, which are not only important to his monastery, but to his race as a whole, as they document the re-birth of humanity after its “long extinction.” Told in the first-person, it’s a nice espionage tale with lots of running around, fighting, and ass-kicking. It does not quite embody the big ideas that the first two stories possess, but Kessel is a fine writer and keeps the plot moving along nicely.
Cory Doctorow ’s “To Go Boldly” is a kind of humorous tip-of-the -hat to Star Trek and its ilk. Using such terminology as “transporters” and “sensors” and “shields up!”, Doctorow tells a first-contact story where humans meet an alien race that not only can travel through space with virtually a blink of the eye, but is strong enough to conquer planets individually. Short and sweet.
“The Lost Princess Man” by John Barnes is about a con-man named Aurigar who convinces girls that they are lost princesses and lures them away from their homes, only to (more often than not) wind up in the sex trade. It’s a big galaxy, and poor families are all too willing to go along with the scam for the insurance money. But cross and double-cross puts our protagonist in dire straits as the plot thickens and motives are revealed. It’s a little hard to follow at times, but in the end, Barnes pulls off the twists and turns.
Perhaps the easiest read in the book is “Defect” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Halina Layla Orlinskaya is an ex-Kazen Intelligence agent on the lam because she refused to complete an important mission. She goes to a segment of space called the NetherRealm in order to surprise her estranged family. But when she gets there, she discovers that her husband’s crew has been massacred, save for her son Misha. She not only has to figure out who could have done the killing (was she the real target?), but she’s suddenly thrust into motherhood… a role that she is not well-suited to perform. Through some very deft writing, Rusch breathes life into our protagonists. My only complaint is that the story resolves a little too easily at the end.
Jay Lake’s “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” is a complex story and one that, if you’re not careful, can easily get away from you. We have a raging mutiny on the starship Polyphemus. The mutiny has been prompted by the captain herself, who happens to be a so-called “Before,” a human that lived before the fall of the Polity thousands of years ago. She’s challenged by another Before, social engineer and ex-lover Michaela Cannon, who struggles to regain control of the ship and figure out why its captain would dare mutiny. In the middle of this power-struggle is the ship, a self-aware and highly intelligent piece of machinery that carefully plays both sides in order to maintain its own control. In many respects, this is a wonderful and very mature story and at its heart, a quality character study; the cat-and-mouse game between the Befores and the ship is done very skillfully. But the scientific jargon used throughout can be overwhelming, and therefore patience is required when reading this one.
Neal Asher’s “Shell Game” reinforces the old adage: Beware Greeks bearing gifts. But if you’re the Lild, highly evolved crustaceans who believe that they are chosen by God to rule the galaxy, it’s beware complacency. Humans have been captured by their watery overlords and taken deep into the Lild homeworld to meet the high lord. But what they “carry” could, in good time, alter the direction of Lild society and the political, social, and religious course of the universe entire. Asher weaves a story with big, interesting ideas. Some may conclude that the resolution comes too easily and that the Lild are a bit too foolish, but I argue that a society, so wrapped in its own self-righteousness, very often has difficulty believing that inferior peoples pose any grave threat. It’s happened before on Earth; it will certainly happen again.
“Punctuality” by Garth Nix is one of the shorter pieces yet one of the most interesting as well. We have here the Punctuality Drive, a device that keeps the Empire’s mighty cruisers moving swiftly and on-time. Without this drive, the Imperial worlds and its peoples would be cut off from one another. How this drive functions is that the current emperor (or empress), when his/her time is up, must give himself/herself to the drive and join the previous rulers in a kind of after-life happiness circle, which somehow refuels the flight schedule. It all sounds kind of silly, I admit, and the story itself reads more like fantasy than science fiction. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nix is a good writer and this softer, more light-hearted tale came at the right moment after so many harder – and dare I say – grittier, science stories.
Sean Williams’ “Captive” brings us Braith Kindred, a terrorist with designs on destroying an artifact called The Structure. He’s captured by a government official named Bannerman, and they clap hands in a tenuous alliance to seek out and (potentially) destroy the device. Why would a government official want to destroy that which the government has been protecting? Well, Bannerman has her own personal and professional reasons to determine the artifact’s true purpose. And what is that purpose? It’s a kind of time travel chamber wherein you can move back and forth in time, arrive at places before you ever leave them, etc. etc. Though Williams is a good writer, I had difficulty following the characters’ motivations, plus I’m still not sure exactly how The Structure worked.
“Join the Navy and See the Worlds” by Bruce Sterling is a story about Joe Kipps, astronaut and pilot. His job is to explore our solar system’s moons. He also serves as a tour guide to fat-cat Indians with millions to burn on interstellar junkets. He’s also a hero, having earned credit for killing the world’s most renowned terrorist. And in a world where many of its largest cities have been hit with dirty bombs, a hero is a welcome commodity. But is he truly heroic? There is some dispute as to the events leading to the terrorist’s death. Joe Kipps does not consider himself a hero, but he plays the game, smiles, waves at the crowds, and does what he can to make everyone happy. On its own merits, this is a fine story. Sterling is excellent at describing a near-future Earth where India is a super-power and where terrorism and global catastrophe is putting great pressures on survival. But I don’t really think this story belongs in this anthology, despite the fact that the editors themselves have expanded (and somewhat loosened) their definition of what space opera is from Volume 1. A story set a mere one hundred years or so into our future cannot possibly sit side-by-side conceptually with the likes of Wilson and Watts, no matter how far you cast the net.
In Bill Willingham’s “Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings,” First Mate Danny Wells is a rare thing indeed on the Merry Prankster: He’s human and there aren’t many of those in the hostile trades. But when his captain is killed in a mad dash to claim booty on a recently captured merchant ship, he finds himself promoted to top dog, much to the chagrin of many of the crew. He’s given a choice: Leave peacefully or suffer the consequences. So he and his sidekick, the tall and lovely Kyal, decide to return to earth and make it as crime-fighters. This was a fun read, which combined the classic pirate yarn with superhero adventure.
A major highlight in this anthology is “From the Heart” by John Meaney. Both an espionage and love story, it tells of Devlin Cantrelle, a spy working both sides in an intergalactic struggle between humans and Zajinets. Devlin gets entangled with thugs carting a very nasty weapon and must jettison himself out to space to await rescue. The story moves back and forth between the present and the past, as we see how Devlin becomes a spy. Meaney effortlessly blends in so many cool gizmos and gadgets that his future truly seems magical. The most impressive part is when Devlin is graduating from the Academy. Each student must be selected by a “ship” to become a Pilot, or not be selected, and become something else entirely (like a spy). This pairing of pilot to ship creates a bond that is near impossible to break. Meaney doesn’t really explain this connection, but it’s not that important in my opinion to the overall enjoyment of the story.
One of the longest stories is “Chameleons” by Elizabeth Moon. Bryce is a security officer in charge of escorting his young nephews back to school, but when their connecting flight is delayed, he does what he can to keep the boys entertained and out of trouble. Problem is: the boys’ father is a rich and powerful man whose sons are always under threat of abduction. As you might expect, things spiral out of control, and our trio is put into a very dangerous situation. Though well-written, it takes far too long for things to resolve, and when they do, they resolve too easily.
“The Tenth Muse” by Tad Williams reminds me of Dan Simmons’ “Muse of Fire” from Volume 1, in that they both showcase theater in very original ways. Here, language scientist Balcescu has been charged with trying to contact an amoeba-like alien craft killing everything in its path. There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it. But when our narrator challenges the good sir to delve further, we find that this “thing” is some kind of automated theater from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Strange, but quite good.
Justina Robson ’s “Cracklegrackle” (besides being the most uniquely titled story) re-writes the rules of crime scene investigation. Mark Bishop has hired a post-human creature known as a “Forged,” which has the ability to detect energy patterns in and around human activity. Its detection skills are so strong that it can see/sense these patterns years after the fact. Thus, Bishop takes it to Mars where he tasks the creature to investigate the disappearance of his daughter. Their investigation takes a real bizarre turn as the clues lead them to the clouds of Jupiter. Good writing with good characterization, Robson lays out her far-future in a very compelling manner.
Arthur C. Clarke is dancing in his grave over John Scalzi’s “The Tale of the Wicked.” It’s HAL a hundred times over as the Confederation ship Wicked gets a new “brain,” and decides that its nip-and-tuck battle with the Tarin ship, Manifold Destiny, is not good for itself, its crew, and for the alien ship. Isaac Asimov appears as well, as his Laws of Robotics are debated while the humans try to figure out how to circumvent their weapons lock-down. Though not written in a particularly humorous style, it’s one of the funniest stories in the book.
Mike Resnick ’s “Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz” is about as crazy as the title suggests. Resnick makes no bones that this story is about the “funny.” Catastrophe Baker has been hired to retrieve a canticle that’s been stolen from a play right before production. With a name like that, you figure he’d be the strangest character in the tale. Not so: wait till you meet his female companion. Having read Walter Miller’s excellent book, I got the joke. Those who haven’t may not.
At last we come to “The Far End of History” by John C Wright. Reading like a recitation from a history book, it tells the tale of Penelope and Ulysses, two artificial planets that fall in love with each other in the midst of sweeping galactic change. Penelope is one of several “Earths” that have been reconstructed in homage to the real Earth destroyed many millennia ago; Ulysses is looking for a little companionship in the vacuum of space (and a little advice on how to geo-form himself into something as divine and wonderful as Penelope). The scope of this story is staggering, and the ability for Wright (or any writer for that matter), to forge a meaningful love story in the midst of such brutally hard science and cosmic upheaval, is brilliant. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this one finds its way on many short lists for best of the year. It’s that good.
So there you have it: another round of high quality fiction from editors’ Dozois and Strahan. This series is stacking up to be a classic, and one that I suspect we’ll be talking about for many years to come. I’m already looking forward to Volume 3.