Monday, August 24, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

I'll be frank. There are stories which are engaging because they stimulate the mind with its big ideas or amaze us with the author's literary technique. And then there are stories which are simply fun to read, provoking a reaction from the reader because it evokes our sense of wonder and adventure. Space opera has a special place in my heart because while sophisticated readers might look for the former, there'll always be room for the latter, and The New Space Opera 2 doesn't disappoint. Not that the former is excluded in this anthology (and some stories do fall under both categories), but expectations are set (and convey a certain bravado) when your table of contents include titles like "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves", "Join the Navy and See the Worlds", and "Catastrophe Baker and A Canticle for Leibowitz".

This anthology is surprisingly thick and features nineteen stories. While admittedly not every story won me over--I found Garth Nix's "Punctuality" too short for example--there's more than enough to invigorate readers who are lost in a literary fugue. Perhaps another quality that bears mentioning is that these stories aren't your grandfather's space opera, and while they may include familiar tropes and formulas, they feel modern and updated.

One of the stories that caught my attention is "The Lost Princess Man" by John Barnes. The author dives immediately into the supposed conflict and it's not everyday that you run into a story which includes a character named "Lord Leader" that remains credible. In fact, there's a certain ludicrousness to the piece that serves to emphasize the drama when we encounter it. The narrative is compelling all throughout and despite my quantification of what space opera is, there's a solid, social science fiction element beneath all this. I had so much fun reading this that the impressive literary techniques Barnes utilizes got lost in the details (which doesn't mean they're not there).

As much as I want to avoid metafiction, I can't help but applaud Bill Willingham's nod to his comic book roots in "Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings". But that aside, this is, in many ways, classic space opera, with larger than life characters and off-the-top action. It's the tone that carries the narrative, and the ability of Willingham to carve out interesting characters from cardboard caricatures. This is simply one of those guilty pleasure readings that's cheesy but exciting nonetheless.

John Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked" is very Asimov in more ways than one. On one hand, you have an I, Robot scenario where the computer is behaving mysteriously and part of the thrill is unraveling this unlikely mystery. The author's language is upbeat and the piece isn't longer than necessary. Scalzi covers all the beats and manages to sprinkle humor along the way.

For me, space opera is important because it's a reminder that hey, science fiction doesn't have to be hard science fiction and that the genre is actually fun. The New Space Opera 2 could easily be the gateway drug to new readers, or a gentle reminder to veteran readers not to lose their sense of wonder.

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