August 30th, 2009

Dhalgren
  • ed_rex

Review: The New Space Opera 2

The New Space Opera 2

Opera or string quartet?

A review by Geoffrey Dow

(Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.)

"The true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story; the thrilling adventure tale of powerful rocket ships, dashing heroes, and far frontiers — stories of immense scope and scale, color and action, taking us to the ultimate limits of both time and space [...]"
— From the introduction to The New Space Opera 2)</p>

There really is no such a genre as "science fiction". Unlike whodunnits or romances, SF1. is a genre more by marketing fiat than by standard tropes or formulae2.; there is no fixed plot, character-arc or even place or time required to define a work of science fiction as science fiction. Indeed, such a definition has been a matter of debate within the field for decades and I'm certainly not going to essay my own here.

How about space opera, then? That term too has a long and controversial history and for a long time it was used mostly as a pejorative, to indicate stories that were, essentially, mindless action-oriented adventures not to be taken seriously by anyone much over the mental age of 14. (Think Star Wars: wonderful to look at but dumber than a shuttle-load of trans-dimensional circuit-breakers.)

The "new space opera" then, presumably includes the "thrilling adventures" and "far frontiers" quoted above, but with the addition more sophisticated characterizations and technological and political backgrounds.

If only The New Space Opera 2 had lived up to those introductory words, or to its excellent predecessor (The New Space Opera) this would have been an easy review for me to write. As it stands, the volume contains few thrills, frontiers that feel about as far a trip to the end of the subway line, and socio-political speculation springing right out of 15th century Europe or even 1st century Rome.

With only a very few exceptions, in The New Space Opera 2, the "sense of wonder" for which science fiction — and especially space opera — is famous is pretty much absent. If The New Space Opera 2 tells us anything about the field in general, it suggests one that sees our future as one constricted by centuries-old political structures, threatened by eternal warfare and, perhaps paradoxically, one in which space travel is about as comfortable — and about as interesting — as a series of rides on space-going subway cars.

Half-way through my first read of this substantial anthology (Neal Asher's "Shell Game"), I felt as if the editors had opted for adventure in subway cars, whether or not that particular train was heading to the ends of time and space. Unlike the first volume in this series, which I thought a very good representation of the varieties of "new space opera",3., The New Space Opera 2 feels less like a celebration of the far horizons to which SF can take a reader than it does a repudiation of same.

Not that it's all bad, of course. Read more!Collapse )