Ah, the advantages of time travel. Fresh back from the future I've been able to read the imaginatively titled sequel volume "New Space Opera 2".
In the introduction to part deux the editors try to hang a lampshade on the main weakness of this first volume. They disingenuously declare that, oh no, they had no intention to create "a moment-defining book". The "ink spilled" by anyone who felt the stories didn't meet their personal definition of "New Space Opera" was clearly an unfortunate side-effect of the publisher's attempt to soak excess cash from gullible fan-boys by cynically re-branding what was probably originally and innocently called "Just A Bunch of Rockin' Stories By Us Mates" with a more zeitgeist-y, meme-y title.
The stories are, indeed, generally rockin' and come from a solid set of A-list sf writers.
I originally started to read the book years ago, flushed with gullibly exploited enthusiasm, but gave up when I realised what was ostensibly a New Space Opera collection was actually "not so much". Years passed, and I picked it up again in Spring 2015 with only faint and foggy memories of the reason I'd put it aside. I skimmed the first half quickly, because all but one of the stories were strong enough to jump back into clear focus within a paragraph or two. (If you're asking, "Saving Tiamatt" was the one that didn't quite ring a bell, because there's quite a long tail past the initial hook.)
The sad truth, though, is that the stories feature few if any of the core memes of New Space Opera. There's no Deep Time, no FTL, not an awful lot of Deep space, no anti-heroes in the interstellar void, no ship Minds, no ultra-violence, no personality downloads, no gothic, and the single Big Dumb Object story comes right at the end with a strong drive but weak finish.
There's some adventure, it's just not exactly "high". And don't get me wrong, I love the Trek as much as anyone, but I didn't shell out hard earned cash for what turns out to be a selection of planet-bound away missions.
It's not that it's not worth reading. The stories, especially from Alastair Reynolds and Kage Baker, are fine. It's just that ... well ... Trades Descriptions and all that. If you're going to call something The New Duck, and spend time on an introduction that says how great the New Quack sounds, at least have the good grace to make sure the contents do the New Walk.
This collections is meaty, varied, variously fun and clever.
There are so many good stories that listing highlights seems a bit futile, but for me these would be Ian McDonald's surreal high concept "Verthandi's Ring", Tony Daniel's semi-fantastical, far-future romance "The Valley of the Gardens", Alastair Reynold's "Minla's Flowers", a decades-spanning tragedy with a strangely Lilliputian feel, Robert Silverberg's addictive and perceptive "The Emperor and the Maula", and the excellently paced, caddish romp "Send Them Flowers" by Walter Jon Williams, whose the character who at first might be taken for the comic relief, Tonio, quickly steals the show.
"Muse of Fire" by Dan Simmons deserves special attention. It features an old-fashioned travelling Shakespearian troupe somehow surviving in an empire of human slaves devoid of all other culture and stripped of their homeworld, as they climb a hierarchy of alien powers to perform a series of the Bard's works with escalating importance to the future. It walks the line between ridiculous and sublime with absolute and expert poise, and serves beautifully as a climactic championing of the human spirit in a science fiction world, and a defence of great poetry in the broadest sense.
I liked the plot but ultimately found the mother in Nancy Kress's "Art of War" offputtingly one-dimensional. Stephen Baxter's "Remembrance" was good and will probably mean more to those who've read the Xeelee series (it's early in that timeline, apparently).
Obviously there has been science fiction in short story form for a very long time. However, I tend to think of the label "space opera" as applying to a longer format: novels, or multiply franchised TV series, for example. An opera is not a single musical piece, after all. This collection really demonstrates that the epic tale, "told on an enormous stage" as the Introduction puts it, can fit just as nicely into a short story, thankyouverymuch.
In fact, it did lead me to thinking that in many ways the short form can encapsulate an epic view while cutting down on long-form description which can sometimes drag (as I often find in "old space opera" novels).
It might just be me, but I also think the short form for space opera is best suited to something in between the serious and the fun. While I love the darkness of Iain M Banks' SF novels, for example, here I found the murder and moral wrangling of Gwyneth Jones' "Saving Tiamaat" (the opening story) and the bleakness of Robert Reed's "Hatch" a little unmoving. And on the other hand I didn't find Kage Baker's cutesie "Maelstrom" very funny, personally, (and it's theatrical theme is clearly outdone by the climactic "Muse of Fire"). I wonder if the short form, in space opera, doesn't have time to develop a really dark feeling, and on the other hand feels throw-away if the intention is merely a cosy, comedic character study. Maybe getting somewhere in the middle is what makes the short form so difficult, especially in science fiction: you need to avoid being too trivial, and on the other hand to establish your "operatic" feel without undermining it with the short length.
All in all a highly recommended collection and the presence of lots of big series authors makes it a great pointer to who to read next.
"The New Space Opera", jointly edited by Asimov's Science Fiction magazine editor Gardner Dozois and Australian science fiction editor Jonathan Strahan, is a vivid reminder that the classic science fiction subgenre of space opera, perhaps best known to millions via "Star Trek" and "Star Wars", remains alive and well. In this assembled volume are fast-paced, often enthralling, tales from long-time masters like Robert Silverberg, Gregory Benford, Walter Jon Williams and Dan Simmons, joined by the next generation of great science fiction writers like Robert Reed, Paul J. McAuley, and Alastair Reynolds. Many of these stories could count as superb examples of science fiction literature, with exquisitely written prose, crisp dialogue and fine depictions of characters and their settings. One of the most captivating is Reynolds's "Minla's Flowers", an especially haunting tale about first contact which disastrous consequences for both the visiting alien and the inhabitants of the world he's crash-landed. Another memorable one is Gregory Benford's near future interplanetary space opera tale, "The Worm Turns". All told there are eighteen tales demonstrating that this is not the space opera of yesteryear, but instead, one replete with consistently elegant prose and to wonder and to dream about the human condition set against the vast canvas of space itself, with far more subtlety than seen in space opera's "Golden Age" in the first half of the 20th Century; without question both Dozois and Strahan offer a most persuasive case that the science fiction subgenre of space opera is enjoying its true "Golden Age" now.
This collection of short stories has been sitting half-read next to my sofa for months, but I've finally finished it. That it sat around for so long without being finished made me think that I'd write a fairly critical review, and I do indeed have some criticisms. However, the last few stories were excellent and so the collection as a whole gets 4 stars.
There's no real stinkers in this volume at all. However, quite a few, especially earlier in the book, left me frustrated - frustrated that there wasn't more, frustrated at the wonderful ideas not fully developed. Wanting more is a clear sign of good writing, but when we're given so little in a short story that I am frustrated instead of just wanting to buy the author's other books, that takes away from the enjoyment, and when I review books, enjoyment is the most important aspect.
But the next most important aspect in my reviews is "literary merit". Something supremely enjoyable will get high marks from me even if of dubious quality, but something of high quality but not particularly enjoyable will only rarely get my praise. But excellent writing will sway me even if I don't enjoy reading it. Combine excellent writing with excellent entertainment and I will praise it to the stars. The last few stories in this book were of such high quality as well as being enjoyable that what I thought would be just another middle-ranking book gets within sniffing distance of the top rank. They combine fine enjoyable story telling with bold ideas, and excellent writing and structure.
The standout story is The Emperor and the Maula by the ancient Robert Silverberg, which steals its framing device from the Thousand Nights and a Night to tell a fine story in bite-size chunks perfect for reading on the bus. Also worth mentioning are Nancy Kress's Art of War and Dan Simmons's Muse of Fire which brilliantly combines space opera with Gnosticism and Shakespeare.