I have to admit starting this anthology of new stories with trepidation. Two of my favourite anthologists, and out of the list of 18 authors, 14 were those whose stories regularly hit the spot for me. How could the anthology possibly satisfy the high expectations I approached it with? Would it fail to meet them, and lead to a bitter taste in the mouth? Expectation or expectoration? Gentle reader, it exceeded those expectations. (But there’s a quibble, more of which at the end…)
Gwyneth Jones. Saving Tiamaat.
A clever piece weaving together politics, both large-scale and sexual, against a backdrop of a galaxy with a human diaspora. Warring factions from a relatively newly discovered planet are seen through representatives of two of the races, and as deep-seated urges come to the surface, the humans charged with the care of the two representatives come to find that overlaying their own cultural and sexual stereotypes can of course be problematic. It’s a subtle and believable piece, so far ahead of the mostly run of the mill xenolinguistic tripe that often appears in even the august SF mags.
Ian McDonald. Verthandi’s Ring.
If you’re given an opportunity to do space opera, and to eschew mundane SF, then one option is to give full rein to the imagination, and McDonald does just that, describing humanity’s various waves of expansation and colonisation, and at a more human level, reactions of some humans when faced with the loss of one of theirs and the appearance after all those millenia, of Another.
Robert Reed. Hatch.
Reed has kept up his voluminous output of late with appearances in the sf mags often featuring neat little stories based on personal experiences. Whilst these are generally fine and dandy, after a while stories based around going for a run, or talking the dog for a walk can pale just a tad. Here he lets rip with both barrels in his Marrow sequence. The Great Ship he has created is such a humongous beast that the opportunities for adventures on and around it are potentially endless. Huzzah!
Here he uses the propulsion system at the rear of the ship as a base for an exploration of the aftermath of a very alien attack of such intensity that the ship is threatened. We get the personal perspective as well, and the only problem with the story is that you ending up wanting more.
Paul J. McAuley. Winning Peace.
Against a backdrop of war, a young pilot indentured to a particularly unpleasant businessman finds himself playing for very high stakes, and has to use all his cunning to ensure that he comes out on top.
Greg Egan. Glory.
The opening pages describes a mind-bogglingly hi-tech means of interstellar travel, which results in two humans being downloaded into freshly minted bodies the better to communicate with the indigineous inhabitants of a far distant planet. The two lands in the territory of opposing factions, and have to overcome suspicions about who they are before the can endeavour to explore the scientific conundrum on the planet.
Kage Baker. Maelstrom.
I have to own up to Baker being one of those rare writers who regularly appear in Asimovs, and gets plaudits from lots of others, but who pretty much leaves me stone cold. I started this story, and hadn’t warmed up after a few pages, so skimmed the remainder of the story. It’s set on Mars, and from my skimming it isn’t clear how it counts as Space Opera.
Peter F.Hamilton. Blessed by an Angel.
Hamilton is one of a number of authors who I prefer not to see writing short SF. This is simply from a selfish point of view, as his stories reminds me that he has written a lot of novels which I would probably enjoy reading. Again, perhaps not quite as Space Opera as it could be, but it’s set far in the future and far away, with a galactic backstory supporting it. It’s a neat story with a twist in the tail, involving a very alien race making a very tricksy attempt to gain a biological foothold in the human base.
Ken Macleod. Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?
A slightly more light-hearted story as a young man caught in flagrante finds himself with no option but to accept a mission to Wolf 359. He is required to report back on the inhabitants, and such is their society that the ultimate sanction is likely to be levied against them. However, in the time it will take for a decision to be made and enacted, he has a window of opportunity…
Tony Daniel. The Valley of the Gardens.
A while back now, Daniel’s stories ‘Grist’, ‘ A Dry, Quiet War’, and ‘The robot’s Twilight Companion’ all impressed me greatly. I haven’t see much of his recent stories – in face, according to the editorial intro, he hasn’t been writing much short SF, although there is reference to his ongoing ‘extreme and inventive’ space opera trilogy, started with ‘Metaplanetary’ back in 2001, and that little piece of information is going to be whispered into my ear every so often by the little red devil on one should that implores me to read sf novels.
Here he creates a particularly strange setting, with a young man tending the land one side of a fence, on the other side of which hi-tech nastiness ever threatens to encroach. An ill-starred romance takes place, with only the top of the fence being the neutral territory on which he and the girl from the other side of the fence can consummate their relationship. The story then takes off into a bigger picture, and impresses.
James Patrick Kelly. Dividing the Sustain.
I was a little nonplussed with this story until I realised that Kelly was being a bit tongue in cheek, and offering a New Space Opera based on some Golden Age perspectives, and current mores. A group of posthuman near-immortals are thrown into a quandary when one chooses to become a homosexual, enabled by hi-tech adjustments to the chemicals and brain structures necessary to be such a person (!!). The group dynamics are thrown off-kilter, and Watanabe finds out more about the Ship’s captain and the ship’s captain’s wife, and himself en route. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that there’s even more going on in the story than I picked up!
Alastair Reynolds. Minla’s Flower.
It’s great news that Reynolds continues to write short SF, and of this standard. It’s a sort of prequel to ‘Merlin’s Gun’ (is it really seven years since it appeared in Asimovs?). As part of his using the Waynet on his search for the aforementioned gun, Merlin stops off to affect some repairs on his ship. There some interesting world-building, with the opening scences including one-man dirigibles attempting to avoid fire from enemies as they head back for base. Then follows a story which uses the mechanism of Merlin going into cold sleep for periods of time, after deciding to stay on planet to help the warring factions achieve the level of technology to escape the impending doom of their world.
We are thus able to watch the young girl Minla turn into a tyrant willing to make any sacrifice in pursuit of her beliefs.
Mary Rosenblum. Splinters of Glass.
Stretching the Space Opera brief somewhat, the icy caverns of Europa are the setting for a dramatic chase. It’s zips along nicely, but doesn’t really make any attempt to grasp the opportunity that the theme of the collection offers and which others have grabbed with both hands.
Stephen Baxter. Rememberance.
Another in the ‘Xeelee’ story sequence. One of the treats for me in SF these days is the regular appearance of stories in this sequence, as with Reed’s ‘Marrow’ sequence, Reynolds’ ‘Merlin/Rev Space’ sequence and so forth. This in contrast to the ‘not a-fucking-nother in the Coyote/Company sequence!’.
What Baxter does here is provide not just New Space Opera, or Big Space Opera, but what here in the UK would be described as ‘Big Fuck Off Space Opera’. He’s quite happy at putting together stories where Earth is reduced to dust, or, in this case, has all the water removed from the planet as a result of a small number of people rebelling against alien overlords. Baxter seems to have the stamina and the will to continue to write a lot of SF (if only Iain Banks had done the same!)
Robert Silverberg. The Emperor and the Maula.
A bit of a meh for me. If you read Silverberg’s editorials in Asimovs, you’ll see that he’s spending quite some time now looking back, rather than looking forward. Here he provides a sort of update of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, but other than there being sfnal background, it doesn’t really do much beyond simply rewriting something previously written.
Gregory Benford. The Worm Turns.
Originally in Analog in 1995, and in Hartwell’s #1, I noted of the predecessor story ‘Hard SF, to the extent it slips into Diagram Supplied Territory, but the characterisation of the lead absolves Benford’. Similarly hard sf, and similarly nicely offset by the female protagonist, who once again comes up against a wormhole and gets more than she bargained for.
Walter Jon Williams. Send Them Flowers.
A bit of light relief as a couple of ne’er-do-well cargo haulers get up to some high jinks in avoiding, and turning the tables on people after their sorry asses.
Nancy Kress. Art of War.
A young historian in the space navy finds some unpalatable evidence in searching alien archives. He has been hampered by his mother, a very senior military figure whose very presence invariably brings on a stress-related seizure. He has to get his advice taken on board – if not, the cost will be high.
Dan Simmons. Muse of Fire.
Simmons is another writer whose novels tempt me from time to time, and those few short stories that I read of his invariably tempt me further so to do. This does the same. The first few pages are bogglingly good as he paints a galactic backdrop, alien planet, and drops a group of human protganists into the mix. The humans are a wandering troupe of actors, specialising in Shakespeare. And there performance catch the attention of some of the all-powerful alien races under whose yoke we humans live. But there is a hierarchy of intelligences, and the actors have to perform to increasingly higher-levels of creatures, with perhaps our very existence as a race at stake. But who better than the Bard himself to defend us?
This has quite simply got to be the strongest original collection in SF in recent years. If you are a regular visitor to Best SF and tend to concur with what I see as being the best in short SF, then this volume is a must have. It’s a big, fat, meaty book, and the cover has even got a big spaceship in orbit around a planet, just the kind of thing that grabbed my fancy as a teenager in the 1970s, and with enough kick in it to re-enervate a potentially jaded palate.
And the quibble? Well, the collection highlights that there are a number of novels of the space opera ilk by Hamilton/Daniels/Simmons that I feel I really ought to find the time to read….