Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: The Space Opera Renaissance

I love speculative fiction anthologies. Whether they're historical retrospectives, cultural collections, awards anthologies, a year's best, an author's best, or highlights of a sub-genre, anthologies are the sampler platters that satisfy and educate SF appetites. They not only entertain and highlight the zeitgeist within the genre or larger culture, they frequently contain essays and introductions that provide valuable critical perspectives on their contents, the people who wrote them and the times when they were crafted. I owe my education in the classics of the Golden Age and New Wave to anthologies like Greenberg & Asimov's The Great SF Stories books and nowadays I find the best way to learn about what's happening in the genre around the world is to look for collections from particular countries, like Jack Dann's Dreaming anthologies of Australian SF (one of my biggest disappointments when travelling in Hong Kong this past spring was being unable to find any collections of HK/Chinese SF that had been translated and made available in English language bookstores). One of the highlights of VCon every October is being able to go to the Edge Publishing table in the dealers' room and pick up an advance copy of the year's Tesseracts anthology. The testament to how much I love anthologies is that every few years when I'm forced to go through my book collection and cull the herd to make room for new items, I never remove anything from the anthology shelf. Even the bad ones are kept.

The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer is no exception. As a collection offering a perspective on the evolution of a major sub-genre, it's an important book that deserves to be kept, even if its contents are, on the balance, mediocre.

On the up side, TSOR is an enormous volume packed with a large selection of authors from Edmond Hamilton in 1929 on up to present day figures like Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross. With a selection like this, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something you'll enjoy, whether it's an author/story you already know, or a new acquaintance. Some of my favourites include Leigh Brackett's Burroughsian adventure "The Enchantress of Venus", Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (read before but still enjoyed), "Orphans of the Helix" by Dan Simmons (a nice return to the Hyperion universe that I was pleased to read again), Allen Steele's "The Death of Captain Future", and "The Survivor" by Donald Kingsbury (something I'd read years ago when going through the Man-Kzin Wars books - a long one, but well worth the time). Many of the other stories included, at least in my opinion, were, if not great, good enough and worth reading. Some, like David Brin's "Temptation" or Iain M Banks' "A Gift from the Culture" weren't favourites, but grabbed me enough to make me interested in reading the Uplift (Brin) or Culture novels at some point.

In addition to the stories, Hartwell and Cramer offer well-researched and interesting commentary on the evolution of space opera from the "shit" of the early days (at least in terms of its reputation) to the current "shinola". Their introductions to each story offer not only the authors' bios, but opinion on the writers' impacts on the genre and where their tales stand in relation to it - either building space opera up along its classic lines or satirizing it or offering a more realistic interpretation. I also enjoyed reading, in the case of more recent authors, comments the editors solicited from the writers themselves for the purposes of this anthology. Great to hear the author's own take on their story's place within the genre.

On the down side, one of the anthology's greatest strengths is also its biggest weakness: in nearly a thousand pages, there are more than a few stories that tanked, and some of these were too long. Edmond Hamilton's "The Star Stealers" and Jack Williamson's "The Prince of Space" were prime examples of this. Others I found so tedious that (and I really hate to admit this), after suffering through a few pages I called it quits and skipped ahead to the next story. The one that comes most readily to mind here was David Weber's "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington". Far too boring to justify nearly 80 pages (true, Kingsbury's "The Survivor" was pretty fat too, but at least it was an engaging story with that explored the relationship between cowardice, survival and adaptation, and played games with the reader about whether the protagonist was really all that sympathetic). The amount of stories that didn't work for me got to be enough of a problem that TWICE I put the book down to go off and read something else. Granted, to some extent this has to do with personal taste, but I'm sure I'm not the only reader who got bogged-down trying to get through this thing.

For a book of this bulk, Hartwell and Cramer should probably also have included more entries from the early days of space opera. While the title does describe it as the Renaissance of the sub-genre, rather than a complete history, it does span a period from the end of the 1920's all the way up to the early 21st Century, and thus does almost constitute a complete history of the genre. Why not include entries from some of the other early giants of space opera like EE "Doc" Smith, AE Van Vogt or John W Campbell?

That being said, while The Space Opera Renaissance didn't hit the ball out of the park, it is a comprehensive look at the sub-genre that's generally good enough to be worth adding to anyone's collection.

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