Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Reading List for September/October

The Space Opera Renaissance. Edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

This is a collection of shorts. The stated goal of the work is to offer a definition of the term space opera by way of example.

The opening volley consists of these four stories:

The Star Stealers. Edmond Hamilton.
The Prince of Space. Jack Williamson.
Enchantress of Venus. Leigh Brackett.
The Swordsmen of Varnis. Clive Jackson.

I suppose because I am just a little kid, the first two of these nearly turned me off the entire book. They are absolutely typical of the worst stereotypes conjured to my mind by the label of space opera. The names are strange. The plots are contrived while being uninteresting recasts of stories from other genres of fiction. The characters are flat. To be fair, these are stories from 1929 and 1931 respectively. They are pioneering works in the genre of science fiction overall. Still, literary precedents and contextual considerations aren't enough to save them for me. Fortunately I pressed on. Brackett's story, written in 1949, is much more enjoyable. It has a historic feel similar to that of the previous two, and the setting is completely implausible as a science fiction setting, but the writing is well done and the story is actually interesting. It feels like a space adventure. The Swordsmen of Varnis is short and silly, more an extended joke than an example of space opera, or even science fiction. I'm not sure why it was included. However, at a page and a half it's not much of a disruption.

The next three stories are taken from the 60s:

The Game of Rat and Dragon. Cordwainer Smith.
Empire Star. Samuel R. Delany.
Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead. Robert Sheckley.

Just moving forward a decade or two gives a striking change in the level of refinement of the science involved as compared to the first four. The Game of Rat and Dragon has quite an interesting premise and carries it through in an enjoyable style, but doesn't have much of a story. On the other end of the spectrum, the much longer Empire Star involves a very involved sequence of events and follows three characters over a much longer span of time. The universe Delany reveals is subtle and not fully explained, which is certainly part of what grabbed my interest as I read it. Shekley's story is as mystifying as the title might suggest. Perhaps he was making references which simply went over my head, but I basically found the story, if it can be called that, incomprehensible.

The 70s and 80s are carried by the following:

Temptation. David Brin.
Ranks of Bronze. David Drake.
Weatherman. Lois McMaster Bujold.
A Gift from the Culture. Iain M. Banks.

Temptation, Weatherman, and A Gift from the Culture each share their setting with at least one full length novel by the same author. Many people, I'm sure, are familiar with the Uplift and Culture series. I haven't read either of them myself but I suspect I will in the near future. The characters in Temptation were not particularly appealing (they weren't even humanoid, which always makes it tough to decide if their motivations are nonsensical or just incomprehensible - not fun either way, really), but the setting seems interesting. In stark contrast, Weatherman's character development, though brief, was very good, and made more interesting by the fact that the protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan is not a particularly likable fellow. I've heard a lot about Banks' Culture universe, so I would have gotten around to his novels eventually. The Culture doesn't appear much in this short, at least not directly, so I'm not sure how it compares to the rest of the works in this universe. The story was enjoyable though, and well written. Ranks of Bronze is a stand-alone, and has the distinction of being the only science fiction I can think of which includes a legion of Roman centurions (Hmm, Dr Who must have visited the Roman empire at some point, but I can't recall a specific episode).

The 90s is much more of a mixed bag:

Orphans of the Helix. Dan Simmons.
The Well Wishers. Colin Greenland.
Escape Route. Peter F. Hamilton.
Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington. David Weber.
Aurora in Four Voices. Catherine Asaro.
Ring rats. R. Garcia y Robertson.
The Death of Captain Future. Allen Steele.

If you like Hyperion, I guess you'll like Simmons' short story set in the same universe, post-Aeneanism. I mostly found Hyperion to be frustrating, confusing, and often pointless (though perhaps not entirely without redeeming virtues). Orphans of the Helix is okay, but also strikes me as similarly pointless. The Well Wishers also doesn't do much for me. The setting is strange but very uninteresting (which is somewhat intentional, I think, but that doesn't make me enjoy it any more) and the characters fairly flat. Little action takes place during the story as well, which one ultimately learns is a mystery (just in time to learn the resolution). Escape Route is somewhat hard scifi, reminiscent of some of Niven's work. Unfortunately, some of the prose is as obtuse as Niven's. About half the characters are also truly stupid, to a degree which stretches credibility (hmm, another similarity to Niven). It is enjoyable in the way that many hard scifi stories are enjoyable: some cool gadgets makes up for most or all of the other shortcomings. The Death of Capture Future might be more interesting to someone who has read anything about Captain Future before. Since I haven't, it didn't interest me too much. I related to roughly none of the characters, particularly the protagonist, who catches some unlucky breaks and deals with this by being a completely unlikable jackass.

Weber's story reminds me very strongly of Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall. They are both serious space opera territory: big fleets zooming through space, classic naval military organizations, battles fought over vast distances between major stellar empires. This is the other kind of story which space opera often summons to my mind.

Ring Rats also has some of this feel to it. The story and setting are totally different from those of Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington, but it has the same feel of big events happening around individual people. In space.

I'm going to skip the last 15 stories since this post is pretty long already. There is some good stuff towards the end, though. If you haven't guessed, the collection is ordered chronologically, so the later stuff is from the late 90s up to the present. One of the stories features a monk, an anthropomorphic (literally) ferret, and the psychological equivalent of a VLA telescope. Another follows most of the life of a cowardly Kzin (set in known space, not by Niven) and his rise to power. Another about the love affair between an adolescent girl and the fledgling AI she (first unintentionally, then intentionally) helps raise to the level of sentience and self-awareness.

There's definitely some good stuff in here. I heartily recommend it to any scifi fan. If you think you may be a space opera junkie, then this is a must read.

3 comments:

  1. I've only read a few Culture novels, but generally speaking none of them (with the possible exception of Excession) really feature much about the Culture itself, which seems to be the point. It always seemed to me that the premise of the whole Culture universe is "Here's a perfect, eternal, flawless civilization, where everyone is happy. That is obviously boring and insipid, so let's have a look at what happens when it interacts with X." X can be people within the civilization who don't fit in, crappy civilizations on its border, or mind-destroyingly great and/or horrible cosmic phenomena. The interesting thing is the interaction, not the Culture itself. Sort of like a grown-up version of "Be a Perfect Person in Just 3 Days".

    I'll have to borrow this collection, though. Sounds like a lot of fun - even the historical-perspective stuff would be interesting from an academic point of view.

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  2. I like the Uplift novels, not particularly for the characters or even the setting but because it actually has weird aliens in it, not just humans in furry cat suits.

    And I'm a bit of a Banks fanboy, so go and read all of his books tomorrow.

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  3. The Roman legion thing has been used a few times, IIRC. Apparently during the time of Julius Caesar, a legion actually went missing. I seem to remember various speculative fiction playing with the idea of what happened to them.

    Unfortunately, the only one I can recall is _Prince Caspian_, by C. S. Lewis, which hardly counts as sci fi.

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