The first New Space Opera in 2007 [review] was a classy anthology, and this new volume starts with a doozy.
Robert Charles Wilson. Utriusque Cosmi.
Carlotta, once human, a long, long time ago, is revisiting her earlier self – the young girl is in a trailer, living out a mean life on an Earth with bear hours left.
There is an urgency in Carlotta’s visit, as she recalls the nocturnal visit from a ghostly figure which urged her earlier self to leave the trailer, and to take the opportunity to join the rapture that will be offered later.
It’s a plot device that gives an added layer to the story, as we hear of the long, long journey that Carlotta has undertaken/will undertake, but with the young Carlotta not waking before her drug-addict mother’s latest, violent, partner finds his cash stash raided by her.
Carlotta’s journey is one to the end of the universe, and beyond, as the nature of those who will destroy Earth, and their reasons for doing so, are unveiled with a twist at the end of story, matching the twist in the urging to flee that the young Carlotta receives.
It’s a powerful and human story from someone at the top of their form.
Peter Watts. The Island.
Some ultra-hard sf, ultra-far future, as with the previous story by Wilson. However, Watts’ is slightly less successful in taking on the challenge of presenting the story from a female protagonist, not quite getting an emotional depth of character.
Earth is long-dead, but humanity lives on, albeit in the service of those less than but more than human, constantly expanding the sphere of galactic conquest by building wormholes. Having created a wormhole, the humans have to flee to avoid being caught up by those hard on their heels.
As in the Wilson story, the humans achieve longevity by spreading their lives across centuries by living in short bursts – both authors using the term ’saccade’. Whilst Wilson’s protagonist is uploaded (but is able to retain and sustain emotional needs), Watts’ protagonist has physical needs which she is able to satisfy both by herself (having her ‘jill off’ comes across very strongly as a female character written by a male) and with her son.
The son is only partly such, a creation of ‘the chimp’, the AI which controls the construction ship. There’s an interesting troilistic relationship here, with the chimp directly linked to the son, who has been created in order to spy on his mother.
The drama is set up when the system in which the latest wormhole to be built has a very, very anomolous entity. So anomolous that it is beyond the AI’s coding to incorporate into its decision making, and the mother has to find ways to persuade it not to start a destructive build near a colossal, biological, sentient creature – less an Island but more a Dyson Sphere.
John Kessel. Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance.
Tight drama, as we follow a young monk was has carried out an audacious raid to steal some priceless items from an oppressive regime, and who has to return to his home planet to use them as a means of ensuring the freedom of his people.
The action is given an interesting background, with humanity restored, after failing, by gods, and these gods are ever-present and able to offer advice to their believers. Others have less belief in these gods. And there is a final twist in that, having found his way back to his monastery, there has been a change of plan..
Cory Doctorow. To Go Boldy.
A lighter tone from Doctorow to the opening stories in this volume, in a homage to Star Trek (The Original Series), its tropes and characters, bringing it up against a much more hi-tech MMORPG/sim future, in which the ship’s captain is required to land on a planet to defend humanity, only to find that what they have been believing is reality, is anything but.
John Barnes. The Lost Princess Man.
A clever story that has a couple of sly twists towards the end. In a future in which humanity has spread across the galaxy, there remains class division, and when Aurigar is confronted by an aristo he fears the worse. Aurigar is the lost princess man of the title, someone who earns a living through tracing the many female heirs kidnapped from their wealty families and sold into slavery on distant planets.
The aristo approaches him with a very important contract – to find the missing daughter of the Emperor. But it’s not quite as simple as that, as Aurigar finds to his cost, as there are matrioshka-type realities in play.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Defect.
A bit of a disappointment from Rusch – a fairly routine thriller-cum-locked-room-mystery set in space. The lead is an ex-special operative, the ex- due to her deciding that mass murder was not something she was willing to do. She is also an ex-wife, and ex-mother, as he had previously left her husband and son behind to carry on with her duties. We learn this quickly, as she finagles her way into a recently-docked spaceship, where her son is found near-death. He is saved by the spacestation medics, and is soon able to join her in hunting down the person who attacked him, and murdered the rest of the ship crew and passengers – including her father.
Stretched out over a novella, or even a novel, there could be plenty of scope for building on this short story to give depth, and to get to know the characters better. However, it’s rushed through at breakneck speed, with little mystery, as things happen very quickly and progress the story with almost indecent haste.
Jay Lake. To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves.
Set in the same ‘post-Mistake’ setting of Lake’s ‘Torquing Vacuum’, which appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine a few weeks back, and which impressed me. The story has more detail on the backhistory, the nature of the Mistake (thread-needle devices proving FTL travel, flying in the face of laws of physics, which reasserted the strength of their law), and has as the two leading characters a pair ‘Befores’, humans who date back to the Mistake, who have undergone massive genetic tweaking to live extended lifetimes, and who are hardened, both physically and mentally, to the rigours of deep space travel.
The two are ex-lovers, the same sex relationship handled tactfully by Lake, who go back many centuries. On the starship Polyphemus (whose AI is a strong third character in the story), the Captain, The Before Raisa Siddiq, has set in place a mutiny against the ship, the better to replace the AI with another brought in to replace it. The Before Michaela Cannon has to find out who is behind the mutiny, and, more importantly, why.
It’s an excellent story crying out for more background, more detail, more action, but probably the better for not having it. I’d much rather see Lake producing an ongoing series of stories and shorter novels (like Baxter’s XeeLee sequence), rather than moving on to a sequence of very fat novels (as Alastairy Reynolds has done). But I’m guessing Lake would go for the £1m Gollancz contract of Reynolds over a series of cheques for short fiction!
And having read this pair of ‘post-Mistake’ stories, it’s good to see an author producing far-future, deep space SF which succesfully merges hardware, society, and human emotions.
Neal Asher. Shell Game.
Not very convincing tale of interspecies conflict. Humans discover the a remnant of an alien invasion force, creatures who believe that the identical nature of their shells to that of the galactic spiral make them God’s chosen creatures. The captain has a plan to use another alien race to introduce into the shell-creatures a virus that will make future generations develop shells in another pattern, and introduces this virus by having his spaceship transform into the same format as the alien vessel, and to head onto the alien planet with crew disguised as aliens, to introduce the virus.
The tone of the story doesn’t work for me, with one of the aliens given the name Brian, and the story as a whole doesn’t convince and doesn’t engage.
Garth Nix. Punctuality.
Six-pager in which the mystery of the Punctuality Drive is revealed to a potential Empress, who realises that she may however have a more hands-on role to play in the maintenance of the Drive.
Sean Williams. Inevitable.
Far future conflict, from two perspectives. Master Bannerman of the Guild of Grand Masters has captured Braith Kindred of the Terminus. He has just successfully destroyed the only known gateway to the mysterious Structure. Or has he?
The pair head off to the other side of the galaxy, he confident that he can take her to another gateway to the Structure and survive. When she finds out the true nature of the Structure, and his belief in his own immortality, until such time as the temporal loop he has set up is closed, she is dismissive. But as the return, hopping between gateways on a number of planets, she begins to understand the nature of the Structure. However, he has missed one clue to the closing of his temporal loop, and it is a fatal mistake, which leaves her to take actions in an unexpected way.
It’s an intriguing setting and setup, from an author I’m not that familiar with.
Bruce Sterling. Join the Navy and See the Worlds.
Sterling’s protagonist states that spaceflight and ergo space opera is ‘romantic crap predicated on the work of roughnecks who were willing to do the hard stuff’. That protagonist, Joe Kipps, is a space hero, internationally lionised. The reality is somewhat different – he did bring around the death of a terrorist responsible for nuking several cities, but rather than pulling a trigger, it was his analysis of satellite surveillance reconaissance that indicated the hiding hole of the bomber. And his exploring the outer limits of space, but those limits are within our solar system, and he is remotely controlling exploration vehicles moving very slowly on Saturn.
So with American recovering from the war, the world order shifted, and Joe Kipps limited to ferrying space tourists into orbit, himself little more than a tourist as everything is controlled from base, what price space opera? Who are the roughnecks on whose sweat space opera be built?
The solution for Sterling is to look for our salvation as a space-faring race to the sub-continent. Kipps finds himself in the very vibrant city of Bombay. It too has been nuked, but there is no trace of that event, and the teeming multitudes have the vibrancy and the desire to succeed that is no longer there in the West. And in a very unassuming location, he is about to come face to face with the new face of space opera.
Bill Willingham. Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings.
Willingham is evidently famous as a comic-book writer and illustrator, but this is the first time that he’s appeared on the Best SF radar. The story is an entertaining gonzo-ish yarn, with some clever touches for someone new to writing SF. A pirate ship lies in wait for a cargo vessel to pass by, and after a brief combat, the prize is there to be grabbed. The ship’s captain is a massive third-stage Plentiri male, showing his excitement at the chase with his brightly jewewled grappling hoons reflexively extruded and rectracted in a steady rhythm. The ship is crewed with a variety of aliens, and the sole human on board is First Mate Danny Wells.
Danny and the captain challenge each other to be first to board the captured vessel, and we follow Danny and his boarding crew as they make a risky entry into the vessel.
The variety of alien characters, and having a human as a rare and consequently intriguing crew member, works well. The only slight issue is the ending, in which, having assumed the mantle of ship’s captain following the demise of the Plentiri, Danny and his right-hand man (a 7foot golden-skinned amazonian sort of humanoid female) are victims of a mutiny and sent back to Earth, where, disappointed in humanity not having taken to the stars, they take on the role of comic book superheroes. It’s an ending slightly out of kilter with the rest of the story.
John Meaney. From the Heart.
Taut, far-future thriller. The main protagonist starts the story floating at the galactic core, left stranded in the vastness. He is feeling the loss of his love, and the need to warn humanity.
We then step back to follow him through the events that led him to this state – travelling incognito to an embargoed planet. There are several fellow passengers, some very shady, and an old flame of his, from Pilot school sets off some flashbacks to Graduation Day, a day of huge success for her, but public failure for him.
Except that, whilst his failure was a public one, it was a mask for his undercover career, and for abilities which he has to draw on as another’s hidden identity is revealed. He finds out some dark secrets, which threaten humanity, but is stranded in space. However, he is far from helpless, and the true love of his life is on hand…
The story works well, and the technology is a treat.
Elizabeth Moon. Chameleons.
A thriller set on board a spaceport, when a lengthier than planned stopover puts at risk a man and his two nephews. When he and one of the boys is identified and captured, it’s down to the remaining boy to step up to the plate, solve the mystery and free the captured pair.
It’s a story that with the minimum of fuss could be rewritten to a historical, contemporary, fantasy or whatever setting you fancy. One thing that does bug me is when writers don’t even both to make any changes to basic settings. At the port, a visit to a 24hr diner sees them sitting down to baked potatoes, steak, salad and stir-fried vegetables, followed by fruit cobbler. So, we’ve mastered intergalactic travel, but they’re still eating 20th century food?
One of the weaker stories in the volume.
Tad Williams. The Tenth Muse.
A genetically-modified prepubescent 40-year old cabin boy with a penchant for Hollywood movies, strikes up a relationship with an opera-loving passenger on the Confederation Starship Lakshmi. There is a -very- alien vessel threatens them at a wormhole transfer station, but the resolution of that threat lies in their interests, expertise and motivation. It’s an interesting take on space opera, with unusual and intriguing characters.
Justina Robson. Cracklegrackle.
Excellent story. After an inconclusive investigation into the disappearance of a group of terraformers on Mars, of whom his daughter was one, Mark Bishop takes on a job that requires him to work with a post-human. The story gets into his head, one that is reeling with the loss of his daughter, and a very gut-level, primeval reaction to the totally alien creature whose claims of being in touch with a powerful force embedded across our galaxy he has to explore.
The writing is excellent, displaying Bishop’s confusion, alienation, and struggle to come to terms with the situation, which gets increasingly bizarre. In particular, the story finishes show him spiralling into mental distress.
John Scalzi. The Tale of The Wicked.
Asimovs Three Laws of Robotics get a dusting off deep in space in a story that’s more Golden Age SF than New Space Opera.
Mike Resnick. Catastrophe Baker and A Canticle for Leibowitz.
The volume’s penultimate story is a light romp, with tongue in cheek, as Resnick looks at space opera of bygone times, with the titular protagonist, all 6′9″” of him, swaggering across the galaxy like a cross between John Wayne, Dirty Harry and The Undertaker. He pretty much meets his match with Voluptua von Climax.
John C. Wright. The Far End of History.
The hefty volume finishes with a mind-bogglingly bravura piece of far future, galactic-spanning adventure. Here’s the description of one of the two lovers (lovers who are on a planetary scale) :
So: here ws Ulysses Recursive Hierarch Four, Linear Step-Down Kenosis, Base Neurform (with Secondary Template for Isolation Psychology (Cold Duke) in Potential), housed in a Human-Modified Phenotype.
With the original Earth a thing of almost legend, but re-created over the thousands of following millenia, the two lovers come together, and with more detail and creativity in a single paragraph than a lot of stories have in total, Wright follows a love affair that reveals more about the lovers than even they expected. To be read slowly, and savoured.
A big book, with a huge amount of top quality SF. There are a few weaker stories, true enough, but the majority of stories do just what SF should do – take you to places (inner space and outer space) that are far, far distant from where we are now.