July 05, 2007


The New Space Opera. Edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Eos. $15.95.

DarkGlass Mountain, Book One: The Serpent Bride. By Sara Douglass. Eos. $26.95.

      A not-so-long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, all science fiction was space opera – a description used derogatorily of the churned-out tales of heroes and half-dressed women (human or alien) in the pulp magazines, and applied even to the extremely good writing that found its way into the pulps and helped produce science fiction’s “Golden Age.” So what age are we in now – silver, bronze, plastic, nanotech? However we might describe it, it’s an age as much in need of heroes (and, now, heroines) and vast canvases and a certain degree of na├»ve optimism as any earlier time. And that is what you will find in The New Space Opera, in which 18 of today’s top SF writers take on the action-adventure approach that used to be just about all there was to science fiction – and twist it in some new and interesting ways. In fact, editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan had to stretch the traditional notion of “space opera” a bit to accommodate everything here. Although some of these stories pack all the short-form punch of Golden Age tales (for example, Peter F. Hamilton’s “Blessed by an Angel” and Ken Macleod’s “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?”), others are too complex in style and plot to fit even an expanded space-opera definition (notably Ian McDonald’s “Verthandi’s Ring”). Still others, including Robert Reed’s “Hatch” and Tony Daniel’s “The Valley of the Gardens,” feel as if they really want to be novels. And many of these tales contain far more humor than Golden Age space opera tended to include, although such a work as “Send Them Flowers” by Walter Jon Williams recalls some of the tales of Northwest Smith and some Asimov heroes. A few stories seem a little too thinly disguised as political statements, such as “Art of War” by Nancy Kress, in which the question is whether the military will ignore intelligence that it does not want to hear. To be fair, this was a Golden Age theme as well; but some tales here tackle subjects that would never have made it into the pulps: “Dividing the Sustain” by James Patrick Kelly starts with a character deciding to become gay. What all these very different stories have in common is how well-written they are – Dozois and Strahan have selected some really fine authors for this book. Among the most interesting tales are ones using old adventures to make space-age points. Robert Silverberg’s “The Emperor and the Maula” retells the tale of Scheherazade; Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” is about an attempt to perform an adaptation of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” on Mars; and Dan Simmons’ superb “Muse of Fire” focuses on space-wandering actors’ personal concerns as they travel about the galaxy performing Shakespeare. Not all these stories are space opera in the old sense – but all of them indicate that in a new sense, the pulps such as Thrilling Wonder Tales still survive, transmogrified.

      The old days of the works of Sara Douglass still survive, too – in The Serpent’s Bride, the first book in her new series, DarkGlass Mountain. This is a book for existing Douglass fans, preferably ones familiar with her prior works, The Wayfarer Redemption, Threshold and Beyond the Hanging Wall. Characters from these books reappear in The Serpent’s Bride, which takes place in some of the same places as the earlier books but after all the other stories have ended. This is a big novel – 627 pages of unusually small type – and a well if conventionally paced one, earning a (+++) rating for its style and plotting even though it may be confusing to readers not familiar with other work by Douglass. The plot is fairly typical by heroic-fantasy standards: Ishbel Brunelle is Archpriestess of a Serpent cult, foretelling the future by examining the entrails of human sacrifices (and yes, she is the heroine). Alliances, a possible royal marriage, the return of former god Axis Sunsoar from the Otherworld, and the escape of the Dark God Kanubai from prison, are some of the currents and countercurrents here. There is exoticism aplenty in the descriptions of competing kingdoms and characters, and writing of the sort that heroic-fantasy lovers crave: “Can you imagine what would happen to the Star Dance as it filtered through DarkGlass Mountain? Stars, it is a nightmare! …I think that whatever is wrong with DarkGlass Mountain is far older than the pyramid itself, although that damned pile of glass is cursed enough. There’s…something beneath the pyramid, a part of the very soil on which the Magi built. It is very ancient and very powerful.” And so it goes, and goes and goes, as Douglass spins a large and finely wrought web of intrigue that her fans will surely enjoy, although non-fans will likely be thoroughly exhausted long before the end.

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