David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s The Space Opera Renaissance may be the best anthology I’ve read. Not only is it chock-full of fun stories, but it also provides (in the introduction to the book, and the introductions to the stories) context and history for the evolution of space opera. After reading this book, I actually feel like I better understand the history of science fiction in general, and space opera in particular.
But it’s not like the book is a dry educational exercise. It’s full of, well, space opera. Stories in the book include:
- Stories from the ’20s and ’30s from Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson. They’re objectively primitive stories, but they’re amazingly vivid and primal. It’s like reading early Lee/Kirby comic books, all full of primary colors and exclamation points.
- “Enchantress of Venus,” by Leigh Brackett. I’d never read a Brackett story before this, and I was impressed by her planetary romance. Knowing that she co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, it’s very easy to see her influence there.
- “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” by Cordwainer Smith. I read this in the NESFA Press Smith collection, but this is still a good story.
- “Empire Star,” by Samuel Delany. I’d never read Delany, due to being scared by Dhalgren, but I’m going to have to remedy that. Sure, it’s literary, but it’s also fun and accessible.
- “Temptation,” by David Brin. This is one of the rare missteps of the book. I can appreciate why Cramer and Hartwell wanted to have an Uplift book in here, as that’s one of the defining spopera series of the 1980s. But this is late-period Brain-Eaten Brin (it’s set on Jijo, and written after his second Uplift trilogy), and it sucks. It’s pretty much his monarchy vs. democracy rant, which you may recognize from his Star Wars reviews, put in the mouths of dolphins. Horrid.
- “Orphans of the Helix,” by Dan Simmons, which made me think that maybe he’s not been as brain-eaten as I’d been led to believe. It was a perfectly good short story, maybe not Hyperion quality, but what is? Is Endymion really as bad as I’ve heard, or have I been misled?
- “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington,” by David Weber. This is the sort of story that objectively may not be great, but which I nevertheless love a lot. Imagine a Miles Vorkosigan story with the Mary Sue dial cranked up to 11, and you’ve got Honor Harrington.
- “The Survivor,” by Donald Kingsbury. This is a weird choice for the big long 100-page novella, inasmuch as it’s a story from those Man-Kzin Wars books, the ones that are basically Larry Niven fanfic. Why not have an actual Niven story? He’s written tons of ‘em, and surely one of them would work. Oddness aside, this is actually a very good story, and I’m interested in reading more of Kingsbury’s work (which oddly appears to be primarily fanfic — seriously, Psychohistorical Crisis?).
- Stuff by Alistair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Tony Daniel, which reinforced my desire not to read more of their stuff. (In fairness, the Tony Daniel story was actually okay, in a Dan Simmons sort of way. But I don’t want to read any more of it.) Fuck the New Space Opera, I say, except...
- ... John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” was actually pretty good. I was expecting this to be more of the technotopian crap, but this was very straightforward, old-fashioned space opera. I hear his books suck, but this didn’t.
And more, including Iain M. Banks, Bujold, Benford, Le Guin, David Drake, and... oh, hell, go read the contents somewhere else. To sum up: Lots of stories, primarily ranging from good to great, all embedded in a historical context that makes this collection much more than just a bunch of stories in a single binding. If you like space opera, buy this book. If you don’t, I don’t get you.