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

General Comments
The best five stories in order are (1) Watts, (2) Wright, (3) Meaney, (4) T. Williams, and (5) Robson; the next several best would be the stories by Sterling, S. Williams, Scalzi, and Doctorow.

        Watts and Wright, far and above all the other stories, deliver pieces that represent what constitutes the defining qualities of what I see as the new space opera: a hard-SF perspective and foundation; taking advantage of and extending key cyberpunk tropes and concerns (i.e., mixings of body and machine, technological transcendence, machine/artificial subjectivities); communicating the vastness of the temporal and geographic scales of (life in) interstellar space; fascinating, complex characters. Both pieces are challenging, aesthetically and intellectually, requiring concentration -- and some work -- from the reader. Both pieces support the scope of their ideas with poetry in the writing: Watts in the edgy, abrasive, weary voice of the narrator, Sunday; Wright in the careful, atmospheric narrating of a far-future mythic romance.

        The stories by Meaney, T. Williams, and Robson possess these qualities as well, only not as consistently or to the same degree. There is the wonder of the centre of the galaxy in Meaney, the opinionated yet empathetic viewpoint of Mr. Jatt in T. Williams, and the devastation of Mark Bishop at the consequences of a horrifying kind of cynical black market in human abduction and smuggling in Robson.

        In contrast, the poorest stories, by Asher, Willingham, Resnick, and Lake (somewhat in order, from poorest to least poorest), don't very much challenge the reader aesthetically or intellectually, or both. They either make questionable narrative decisions, such as the strange and jarring POV shifts in Asher; read as unsophisticated and generic, such as in Willingham; come across as basically a gimmick with little of substance, such as in Resnick; or aim for something intricate structurally, thematically, and with the setting but miss bringing everything together successfully, such as in Lake. Of these four stories, Lake's most directly attempts to tap into the character of the new space opera, and does so honestly, earnestly, but the technical execution makes accessing and getting situated in his story's world and mood difficult for the reader.

        As with any anthology of original stories, responses will vary between different readers, which is certainly the case here. My ratings of several stories, for instance, diverge significantly from those of Liviu Suciu in his review of the collection for Fantasy Book Critic. Suciu assigns 5 or 5+ stars to the following stories: Wilson, Watts, Barnes, Rusch, Asher, S. Williams, Willingham, Meaney, Moon, Robson, and Wright. Moreover, stories by Kessel, Lake, T. Williams, and Resnick receive 4 or 4.5 stars from Suciu. On one hand, his ratings cause me some concern, for they -- in my mind -- potentially misrepresent the quality of certain individual stories and of the entire volume. He praises Asher for his "trademark ultra-high octane sf adventure"; Resnick's story is "pure fun to read and chuckle"; Willingham's story is "Big time fun!!" For me, these positive responses lack a more considered critical approach, in the sense of really evaluating the stories' thematic goals and aesthetic execution.

        On the other hand, Suciu's ratings and reactions speak to an issue I've previously written about and continue to ponder: namely, that readers look for stories to give them a particular experience, an experience in accord with their tastes and the reasons why they read SF in the first place. While I firmly believe that the success of a short story or novel can be judged on objective criteria, and that more attention could be paid to such matters in the assessment of SF literary works, I also acknowledge that one of SF's attractions is the entertainment, even escapism, it can provide. I like being entertained and escaping as much as any reader of SF. Yet I persistently see a kind of overhyping or mishyping of certain works and authors, and I remain perplexed as to why this occurs and intrigued by its consequences.

        In the end, The New Space Opera 2 definitely shows the vibrancy and health of space opera today, especially in the stories by Watts and Wright, which fit the bill of "cutting-edge work" as noted by Dozois and Strahan. With space opera, its the ability truly to go boldly out there into the universe and unleash the imagination that makes the subgenre exciting and, at its best, inspiring. Many of this collection's pieces need more boldness and imagination, I think, but Dozois and Strahan have assembled an anthology that clearly asserts space opera's centrality to what we define as "true . . . science fiction."


Reviews/Commentaries
Fantasy Book Critic (Liviu Suciu, June 2009)
Goodreads
io9 (Christopher Hsiang)
SF Signal (John DeNardo, Oct. 2009)
SF Site (Rich Horton)
Strange Horizons (Richard Larson, Aug. 2009)