Friday, June 24, 2011

New Space Opera?

Since the first rumblings came out of the British science fiction magazine Interzone, I have been curious about the New Space Opera movement.  The phrase “space opera” holds many different meanings to various people.  Would the New Space Opera be different than the old?  What promise did it hold for the field?  Where did it come from?

In the early years of my science fiction reading, I heard about the legendary authors.  Names like E. E. “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell Jr., Jack Williamson, and many others were always being mentioned.  My heart skipped a beat the first time I saw one of the classic book reprints.  It was “Children of the Lens” by E. E. “Doc” Smith.  This edition featured a psychedelic vision of a spaceship exploding through a bizarre region of space.  To be honest, the cover meant little to me.  I was excited to finally get my hands on a Lensmen book.  Even though it was a later book in the series, I had no trouble following the story.  Smith hooked me with the opening chapter.  Did the story have it’s problems?  It sure did.  The characters were mostly cardboard cutouts.  No moral ambiguity existed in this series.  Good guys stayed good.  Bad guys became cannon fodder.  The heroes were always right.  But something caught my interest.  Part of it was the fast paced action.  The other was the big concepts being thrown at you so fast that the reader did not have time to think about whether or not it was logical.  The sense of optimism was all through the book.  Then science fiction started growing up.  Writers wanted to take the stories in a more literary direction.  The stories started looking inward instead of to outer space.

Many fine stories were written during this time (known as the New Wave).  Some writers adapted.  Robert Silverberg went from being one of the average writers to being one of the best in the field.  According to what I have read, this happened when Fred Pohl became an editor and made a deal with Silverberg.  But that is a story for another day.

Getting back to the subject at hand, I think that the New Space Opera movement is a blending of the two phases of science fiction with some parts of the horror writers’ handbook thrown in.  Based on the Alastair Reynolds stories I have read, it appears that he is trying to combine the writing style of a Robert Silverberg with the concepts of E. E. “Doc” Smith.  The combination creates something that is different from either of the other writers.  The horror aspect comes into the picture with the level of suspense and the fear of the unknown that fills the pages of “Revelation Space”.  The other fear aspect that plays into these stories seems to be the fear of loosing one’s humanity.  In many of the reviews I have read of other New Space Opera books, it seems that the conflict between machines (or machine enhanced humans) and the biological based beings is at the heart of the conflict.  Iain Banks’ Culture series is based on this idea.

Is New Space Opera really new or has it been around for longer than it usually gets credit?  One of the books that inspired the movement is “The Centauri Device” by M. John Harrison.  It appeared first appeared in 1975.  This is on my review list for this year.  I want to read the book that is credited with inspiring this movement.  Personally, I think an older book can be part of it’s history. 

I think that “Dune” by Frank Herbert also looks like part of the inspiration.  The pilots of the spaceships have become mutated creatures that are in a similar vein to the captain of the ship in “Revelation Space”.  The “Dune” pilots are different forms of mutations but they appear to be headed in a similar, non-human direction.  Although “Dune” is a classic space adventure, Herbert devotes much of the book to the inner space journey of Paul.  The horror elements arise when the sandworms appear and when Paul is tested by the Bene Gesserit.  So we now have a classic planetary revolution combined with New Wave retrospection and elements of suspense.  It sounds like the New Space Opera to me.

In my opinion, this form of space opera has been around longer than most people realize.  I would consider it a new movement since this group of mainly British writers are focused on writing this type of story.


adamosf said...

I think space opera first achieved respectability during the New Wave era when writers such as Samuel R Delany (Babel-17, Nova) and Poul Anderson (Tau Zero) began combining the traditional sense of wonder with modern writing and characterization. It stayed popular through the 1970s (Niven, Haldeman, Cherryh, Martin), but faded in the 1980s when Cyberbunk became the dominant trope. I don't really see much "new" about it since then, but I am glad it is back, since I have never been fond of near-future dismal sf.

Jim Black said...

Good point. My only problem with the "New Space Opera" is the length of the stories. I think book sales are hurt by the massive size of the novels. I know that I still prefer the shorter length novels we grew up reading.

Delany is an another author I need to try. I remember reading one of his short stories in a World's Best SF collection(either 1967 or 1968) edited by Wollheim. I never read any of his novels. Which one would you recommend reading first?