19 September 2010

The New Space Opera 2

Editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan continue their efforts to encapsulate and forward the state of SF space opera today with The New Space Opera 2 (EOS, 2009). Their 2007 collection The New Space Opera provided a very strong selection of stories from top SF authors such as Dan Simmons, Ian McDonald, and Alastair Reynolds. The New Space Opera felt fresh and at times exhilarating, with even the substandard stories tapping into the sense-of-wonder and the vastness of scale (in ideas, actions, settings) at the heart of the subgenre. In the introduction to The New Space Opera 2, Dozois and Strahan observe, "The true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story" -- a form they believe is "where much of the cutting-edge work in today's genre is being done" (1). Except for a couple of stories, however, The New Space Opera 2 overall falls short of the fresh, "cutting-edge" feel of the first collection, the sense-of-wonder strangely a bit flat and muted.

        In fact, many of the pieces don't push far in terms of inventiveness and scope, for ideas and aesthetically. Some pieces proved oddly boring for me, such that the collection as a whole was underwhelming. I am not alone in this response: Rich Horton, for The SF Site, writes, "Many of the stories are, truth be told, a bit routine, or a bit too arch in their attitude towards the genre"; Richard Larson, for Strange Horizons, suggests that several stories "suffer from being too long" and so some "monotony," which led him to "wishing I had more of a visceral reaction to what I had just put myself through." This sense of the "routine" and of "monotony" that Horton and Larson identify describe fairly well my experience of the bulk of the collection. I rarely reacted viscerally to many of the stories, whether owing to the ideas or to the writing, or both. Instead, I found myself puzzled at the relative poverty of imaginative reach and aesthetic daring. That said, as a whole the collection supplies more competent and good stories than decent or outright poor stories, and so I rate it at 3 out of 4 stars.

        Here are the stories and my ratings of them (out of four stars), with the five best stories in bold:
1. Robert Charles Wilson, "Utriusque Cosmi"  ** 1/2
2. Peter Watts, "The Island"  ****
3. John Kessel, "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance"  ** 1/2
4. Cory Doctorow, "To Go Boldly"  ***
5. John Barnes, "The Lost Princess Man"  ** 1/2
6. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Defect"  ** 1/2
7. Jay Lake, "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves"  **
8. Neal Asher, "Shell Game"  **
9. Garth Nix, "Punctuality"  ** 1/2
10. Sean Williams, "Inevitable"  ***
11. Bruce Sterling, "Join the Navy and See the Worlds"  ***
12. Bill Willingham, "Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings"  **
13. John Meaney, "From the Heart"  ***
14. Elizabeth Moon, "Chameleons"  ***
15. Tad Williams, "The Tenth Muse"  ***
16. Justina Robson, "Cracklegrackle"  ***
17. John Scalzi, "The Tale of the Wicked"  ***
18. Mike Resnick, "Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz"  **
19. John C. Wright, "The Far End of History"  *** 1/2

13 September 2010

Asimov's Science Fiction (Apr./May 2010)


This double issue is overall a rather strong one, offering a variety of themes/subjects and styles, as well as a few real surprises. I count one truly excellent story and three extremely good stories, with the rest being average to quite decent. With nine stories, I won't comment extensively on all of them -- just the ones for which I have something to say. Ratings are out of four stars.

1. Gregory Norman Bossert, "The Union of Soil and Sky" (pg. 10-39)  ** 1/2
This one is an "alien archaeology" story, a subgenre that I tend to like as the archaeologist and/or archaeological dig on an alien planet affords an effective frame through which to present alien cultures and histories. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Spires of Denon" from the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space are good examples of this subgenre for me. Here, Bossert creates an intriguing world in Aulis and alien people in the Aulans, who are represented by Henry (on the dig team) and who communicate through metaphor and simile by a series of hand and finger gestures. The revelation of what Winnifred and her team actually discover deep underground proves intriguing, as Bossert has ancient Aulan history literally come alive in a definitely alien way.
        Yet I found myself unsurprised, in the end, for as a whole the narrative feels too familiar and predictable, particularly in the plotting. Also, the writing is noticeably awkward in places, with some odd grammar hiccups at times. For example, "'[...] Like biology. And physics; the varitropes move, and that means a source of energy. [...]'" (15): this is inattentive proofreading and unwieldy grammar, especially the mixing of the sentence fragment "And physics" with the semicolon and then a complete sentence following, this entire clause already coming after a sentence fragment (though an appropriate one in the context of the dialogue). Such moments are distracting and reduce the quality of the story.

2. Molly Gloss, "Unforeseen" (pg. 40-48)  *** 1/2
A wickedly biting satire of the insurance/benefits industry, narrated by Forbes Kipfer, a claims investigator for Remediable Death Insurance -- in a future when people can be revivified/restored after dying, but only if the insurance claim is not denied. Gloss metes out the details of this future carefully, using the case of the recent death of Madison Truesdale's mother as the window into Kipfer's job and so the politics and economics that govern remediable death claims.
        Kipfer's voice and perspective are distinct and consistent throughout: edgy, jaded, expert, intelligent, exhausted, punchy. He equally well rants cuttingly about the foolishness of people in making their claims ("You have to wonder what in hell people are thinking when they file a claim for their eighty-nine year old grandpa with a history of emphysema or congestive heart failure ..." [41]), and reaches moments of existentialist insight ("What you're left with is people minding their own business and the sky falls on their head" [43]). He can also adjust his preconceptions if necessary, as Madison Truesdale consistently does not fit into what he expects of her situation, in that her mother's death truly was an accident.
        What Goss communicates most engagingly through Kipfer is a sort of postmodern ennui and cynicism, a coldness formed by too much experience of a cynical word but with faint hints of a warmth that might make it to the surface if perhaps not for the industry in which Kipfer works. Kipfer appears to be developing not quite a death wish, but certainly an apathy about death: "[...] I began to think of taking up smoking. Smoking plus living in Thousand Oaks under that cloud of dirty air might take some randomness out of the equation. Anyway, that's what I was thinking" (48). In the end, then, this story is fundamentally one of horror. It affords no happy ending or clear resolution, and the consequences of the literal control over life (or, resurrection) by insurance companies take to a logical extreme the situation we see today, particularly with medical insurance in the US.