The New Space Opera 2: All-New Stories of Science Fiction Adventure. Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Eos. $15.99.
Days of Little Texas. By R.A. Nelson. Knopf. $16.99.
It is only by encountering the “other” that we can truly know ourselves – this is one of the major precepts underlying science fiction. Stories of the far future, of alternative histories, of wonders previously unknown, and of alien contact are all ultimately stories about us puny earthlings and the ways in which we rise to difficult occasions or are overwhelmed by them. “Otherness” may be found in unexplored parts of our own planet, within the depths of our own minds, or – of course – in the form of alien creatures from somewhere “out there.” One particular form of SF, disparagingly called “space opera” until some of its creators appropriated the term and turned it positive, has long had a strong “out there” focus: space operas are essentially adventure stories, and many of them were extraordinarily crude and xenophobic during SF’s so-called Golden Age (hence the poor longtime reputation of the subgenre as a whole). Nowadays, though, many high-quality SF authors have developed adventures filled with subtlety and genuine wonder, in which the huge events and gigantic time spans long favored in space opera are merely background for the smaller, more intimate and more affecting stories of human beings – individually or as a species – discovering what they really are. The second New Space Opera collection from Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan contains 19 stories that span…well, just about everything. Realities collide in Cory Doctorow’s “To Go Boldly.” Con artists risk their lives at every step and with every word in John Barnes’ chilling “The Lost Princess Man.” Motherhood and human-machine competition are but two of the elements facing a galactic construction crew building transport portals in Peter Watts’ “The Island.” Failure is the start of something very interesting indeed in John Meaney’s “From the Heart.” The concept of hiding in plain sight gets some twists in Elizabeth Moon’s “Chameleons.” The entire future – and past – of our universe and other universes is the macrocosmic backdrop against which Robert Charles Wilson’s “Utriusque Cosmi” plays out the microcosmic story of a frightened 16-year-old girl. Each of these stories – and each of the others here – handles world-spanning and time-spanning themes differently. Not all work equally well: Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Defect” is predictable, Bruce Sterling’s “Join the Navy and See the Worlds” is unnecessarily obscure, and Bill Willingham’s “Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings” thinks it’s funnier than it is. Academics may even want to argue whether all the tales in this book fit the “space opera” subgenre. Yet despite their differences in both style and substance, nearly every story in The New Space Opera 2 is well written and well paced, and all are ultimately focused less on the sheer adventurousness of their characters than on what happens within and between them – that is, what in their outré experiences makes them more or less human. As a result, this is a book that is every bit as thoughtful as it is thrilling.
One expects fiction with a scientific orientation to push boundaries and think about the world creatively, but this is not what one expects of stories about faith. Faith is revealed truth, capable of being tested by circumstance and thus strengthened or diminished (or lost altogether), but not capable of being developed or molded into something new, except in subtle or marginal ways. Wholesale changes in the meaning of faith undermine its foundation, which consists largely of unquestioning belief. This makes what R.A. Nelson does in Days of Little Texas quite remarkable, for this is a novel that starts and ends with faith, but what emerges at the end is not what was there in the beginning. This is also a mystery and a ghost story, and although nominally for readers ages 12 and up, it is filled with themes that are likely to make plenty of adults as well as teenagers uncomfortable. “Little Texas” is a faith healer, a 15-year-old boy who has been preaching since he was 10, when he survived a lightning strike and revived a man thought to be dead. This happened in Texas – hence the name adopted by young Ronald Earl King. Nelson takes Little Texas and the others on the revival circuit at face value: their professions of faith are by and large sincere, their wish to do good is genuine, and their human flaws are seen within the context of a close-knit group held together by worship. Besides, Little Texas really can heal people, but not all people – and that is where the book gets interesting. For it is Little Texas’ stirring but ultimately failed attempt to heal a young girl named Lucy that leads to a series of increasingly bizarre occurrences in which the healer – whose faith forbids him to believe in ghosts, much less benign ones – is tested again and again, both as a vessel of the Holy Spirit and as a teenager approaching manhood. The connection between Little Texas and post-death Lucy (whatever she or it may be) grows both physically and psychologically; and Lucy’s certainty that she remains near Little Texas so the two of them can accomplish a specific thing together deepens the mystery of what she is and what Little Texas himself is capable of becoming. The book’s events become increasingly strange as Little Texas and Lucy move toward their shared destiny, but there is an underlying sense of solidity to the story that helps anchor its more fantastic elements. The climactic confrontation with a thing that is scared and vulnerable, for all its evil, is highly unsettling, and the way in which Little Texas responds to the event – both within himself and in his relationship with the adults who have been the only family he has known – strikes a chord of reality. It is only the last three of the book’s 84 short chapters that button things up a bit too neatly and betray Days of Little Texas as designed for younger readers. Taken as a whole, this exploration of faith and of some of the people who make a living at it is a powerful foray into an area where fiction has not often gone since the days of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, published in 1927. But Little Texas, unlike Gantry, is no fraud: he is a true evangelist with genuine power – who, like a character in good science fiction, comes face to face with his own innermost being only after being forced to confront things beyond his understanding.