Reviewed by Tehani Wessely (this review was first published in January 2008)
I am not a huge fan of science fiction. Let’s get this out right at the start. The reason I don’t often like it is because I’ve found that science fiction can easily become bogged down in jargon and, well, science, at the expense of engaging characters and comprehensible plot, both of which are very important to me. Lately however, I have found myself absorbed by a number of science fiction books and stories that have flat out appealed to me, and a great percentage of stories in The New Space Opera certainly met the high bar.
In The New Space Opera, two highly regarded editors, Gardner Dozois and local boy Jonathan Strahan, have drawn together a deeply satisfying collection of stories that meet the space opera criteria. As laid out in the introduction to the book, space opera is “…romantic adventure set in space and told on a grand scale.” Impressively, the majority of the stories in the collection presented believable possible futures combined with realistic and finely drawn characters participating in action-packed and emotion-charged exploits that did not overwhelm this reader with technobabble or bog her down in science. To me, the lay reader of science fiction, the highly refined craftsmanship of the stories – drawing these worlds and characters with such elegance and style but not failing to entertain and provoke – meant that I devoured each story and raced on to the next, often pausing to digest the depth of theme and message, but always keen to taste the next piece. Equally powerful was the ability of each author to write in such a way that the depth and breadth of story contained in the word length was such that most authors could not develop or contain in even a full length novel. I will not attempt to itemize the contents individually, but will remark on a few stories that stood out to me, for various reasons.
Alastair Reynold’s novella, “Minla’s Flowers” was one highlight. The protagonist, Merlin, a solitary spacefarer from a highly evolved future empire, comes across a long lost colony of humans and discovers them to be on the brink of a planet-changing natural destruction. He attempts to offer them hope, and then, over a 70-year span where he periodically awakes from frostwatch (cold sleep), he sees what he has wrought by this interference. I’m only a novice in science fiction, but it seems Reynolds has elegantly captured the precept of non-interference in developing cultures, but succeeds in doing so in a manner that neither preaches nor condemns. Rather, it is the story of the achievements and failings of a man, and that makes it all the more poignant.
Gwyneth Jones’ “Saving Tiamaat”, which opens the anthology, is a compact and moving tale of alien interaction and inherently human nature, even when it is not humans exhibiting the trait! This theme of intervention is echoed by other pieces in the collection, such as “Minla’s Flowers”, yet none were similar enough for the theme to grow stale or feel overdone. Rather it was only a gentle thread plied by a number of different architects to produce vastly different results, all of outstanding quality.
“Glory”, Greg Egan’s contribution to the collection, was another standout for me, showcasing the alien interaction theme again, this time drawn against a rich tapestry of alien culture and unique insights into history and war.
The final story I will mention, is the utterly gorgeous “Muse of Fire” by Dan Simmons, and this story closes the collection. Centred around a space-wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors from an enslaved human race, the story spans universes, enacting and underpinned by Shakespeare’s works. The narrator Wilbr offers us a naively mature insight to the workings of his universe, and the delightfully intricate plot is reminiscent of the very best of Shakespeare’s own work. A fine conclusion to a very fine collection.
While I’ve only mentioned a small number stories specifically, there were very few stories in this book I was not engrossed by, and even in those I could appreciate the excellence of writing and style exhibited by the master storytellers encompassed in the pages.
Buy this book. Read it. You will not be disappointed.