A Billion Eves

There are three obvious things to say about Robert Reed, and they get said all the time. One: he is prolific. Two: he writes (mostly) traditional science fiction stories. Three: his work is highly competent. In isolation, none of these qualities is particularly remarkable, but the combination marks him out.

To take the question of productivity first, for instance, there are plenty of sf writers who produce a book a year, and more than a few who seem to manage a book every nine months or so; and of that cohort, there’s a depressing number I can’t help wishing would slow down a little. Not because it’s hard work trying to keep up, although it can be, but because there is often a sense that such productivity—whether driven by the market or by the writer’s own need to get their stories told—comes somewhat at the expense of the final product. There are a lot of sf books (to be fair, probably a lot of books in general) that feel as though they have escaped from their writers’ desk just a little too early, that seem to have needed just one more draft, just that extra bit of care. But that’s almost never the case with Reed’s work. He is, admittedly, most visible a writer of short stories. In twenty years or so of writing, he’s produced eleven novels, but more noticeable is the fact that it seems barely a month goes by without him cropping up in some magazine or other (“The Cure”, in the December 2005 F&SF, was his fiftieth story for that venue), not infrequently with substantial novellas. The stories I’ve encountered have been, almost without exception, smart, tidy, well-put-together—competent—work.

And to my mind, at least, the most interesting of them have been science fiction. I was recently involved in a discussion about what current sf it would be best to recommend to someone who used to read in the genre, drifted away a decade or two ago, and now wanted to try it again. One immediate problem with the question, of course, that a lot of the high-profile writers at the moment (China Mieville, Kelly Link) are best-known for recombinative, border-case work, which may not be the most effective starting point. Reed’s work was suggested as one way in, which makes sense to me: although the settings and themes of his stories vary widely, they tend to work like traditional sf, being usually either idea-driven, or on a grand scale, or both. In 2004, to pick a year more-or-less at random, Reed stories included “A Plague of Life” (Asimov’s, March), which is essentially a family saga, but set in a world where humans are vastly longer-lived than us; “Hexagons” (Asimov’s, June, later Hugo-nominated), which reveals an alternate history through its depiction of a strategy game and real political machinations; and several entries in his “Marrow” sequence (“River of the Queen”, F&SF, February; Mere; and The Well of Stars), which relates the story of a Great Ship, an environment so vast it contains a planet at its centre.

“A Billion Eves”, in the October/November issue of Asimov’s this year, is one of the aforementioned substantial novellas. It works in a similar way to “A Plague of Life”, which is to say that it opens on a recognisable, even familiar scene (a family preparing to go on holiday, their daughter sceptical, expecting things to go wrong) with a few odd details (character names like Kala, the daughter, and Sandor, her brother; place names like the Mother Ocean), and then pulls back by stages to reveal how drastically the story’s world differs from our own. In the foreground, though, sure enough trouble strikes the holiday: they leave on Friday, but the family car soon breaks down. Luckily, it’s not too far to the nearest garage.

Despite its being the Sabbath, the traffic was heavy—freight trucks and tiny cars and everything between. Traveling men and a few women bought fuel and sweet drinks. The women were always quick to pay and eager to leave; most were nearly as old as Mom, but where was the point in taking chances? The male customers lingered, and the fix-it man seemed to relish their company, discussing every possible subject with each of them. The weather was a vital topic, as were sports teams and the boring district news. A glum little truck driver argued that the world was already too crowded and cluttered for his tastes, and the old gentleman couldn’t agree more. Yet the next customer was a happy salesman, and, in front of him, the fix-it man couldn’t stop praising their wise government and the rapid expansion of the population.

As prose, this paragraph is not particularly special, but what’s nice about it is that it raises questions and provokes assumptions through its choice of details, without stepping outside the scene. Friday is widely accepted as the Sabbath; there is either a specific or general situation that’s putting women in danger; population growth is encouraged by the government; and sports and local news continue as usual. Before too long, a repurposed school bus pulls in for fuel. Sandor interrogates the driver about his intentions. It is a tense scene, but we don’t quite know why—in fact, it’s a tense scene because we don’t quite know what’s going on, and its resolution evokes a complex mix of relief that the family are ok, and horror as the implications of what’s just happened become clearer. The driver is a member of something called the Church of Eden, and planning to leave (where to, we don’t know). When Sandor asks him how he’s going to maintain his gene pool, the man replies, “You think I should take along another? Just to be safe?” Kala starts to wonder who else is on the man’s bus, and whether they’re there voluntarily. But though it’s clearly a fate to be avoided, it also appears to be business as usual. It may not be a practice officially endorsed by the government, but the abduction of women isn’t very actively policed against, either.

For a while after this, the story devotes itself to making such a situation plausible, and exploring how things got this way. We learn that, despite the apparently twentieth-century levels of technology, we’re a long way in the future: at least 20,000 years. We learn that we may not be on Old Earth, but we’re certainly on An Earth: humanity has been expanding sideways, into parallel Earths uninhabited by humans or other intelligent species, using machines known as “rippers”. We learn that the man from the Church of Eden was on his way to finding a new Earth of his own, using a stolen ripper only powerful enough to relocate the bus and a few surrounding metres; bigger rippers can move whole city blocks. And we learn how it started: a young man named Owen, from our Earth, stole one of the larger rippers, loaded up three trucks with essential supplies, and transported them, himself, and a local sorority house to another world. Kala and Sandor’s world is just one of hundreds of worlds downstream of that initial shift, and Owen’s story—the story of the First Father—has long since become myth, forming the basis of a whole spectrum of religions.

The most devoted wives left behind written accounts of their adventures on the new world—the seven essential books in the First Father’s Testament. Quite a few churches also included the two Sarah diaries, while the more progressive faiths, such as the one Kala’s family belonged to, made room for the Six Angry Wives. Adding to the confusion were the dozens if not hundreds of texts and fragmentary accounts let behind by lesser-known voices, as well as those infamous documents generally regarded to be fictions at best and, at worst, pure heresies.

The worst of those heresies is The First Mother’s Tale, which relates the story of Claire, the fifty-something widow who had overseen the sorority house. No major church recognises Claire’s existence, but we are given every indication that her testament is, in fact, the closest to the truth. In the aftermath of the shift from Old Earth, Claire confronts Owen. In every official testament, Owen unlocks the supplies in the trucks he’d brought through, and his new wives give themselves to him willingly; in The First Mother’s Tale, Claire rejects Owen’s demand of three women out of hand, offering only herself instead, and pointing out that “You don’t know us […] Everyone here is going to realize that you’re just a very ignorant creature. If they don’t know it already, that is. And if you think you’ve got power over us … well, let’s just say you have some very strange illusions that need to die.” But despite the fact that she gets her way—and in fact seems to be instrumental in the survival of the colony, and its establishment as a functioning society—history has swept her under the rug. Owen has a tomb; Claire does not.

Relating all of this takes time, during which Kala is growing up. But it’s the former rather than the latter that drives the story. We don’t turn the pages to find out what happens to Kala (which is just as well, because Reed’s characterisation of her is only serviceable); we turn them to find out what has already happened to her world, and how. The answer to that second question is that a sort of memetic Founder Effect holds sway: uprooting civilisation and starting from scratch every couple of thousand years doesn’t just restrict genetic diversity, in Reed’s model of history, it restricts the ideologies that people carry with them. This is clearly an arguable premise, at best, but much like the conservation of the path of progress in a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, it makes for an interesting story. There is progress, but of a limited kind, and heavily dependent on starting assumptions. So by Kala’s time, establishing new colonies is part of religious practice, and the founders are equal numbers men and women, who undergo formal group marriages the day before they depart; but it’s still accepted that some men will kidnap some women, because that’s the way things are. When Sandor saves his younger sister from just such an abduction, and castrates the would-be kidnapper to boot, the reaction of the family’s friends and colleagues is incomprehension: Kala’s friends can’t understand why she would stand by her brother, when he’s committed such a horrible act.

At about the half-way mark, then, the story seems to be headed for the neat ending, to wit that Kala and her brother will find a way to Do It Right. There would be nothing wrong with this, as such, but it wouldn’t be doing anything we haven’t seen before; and given Reed’s commitment elsewhere in the story to the logic of his premise, it would have the mark of contrivance. To have Kala go all the way, by herself, would seem (I think) too much. So Reed throws another idea into the mix, with the result that what we more-or-less expect is more-or-less what happens, but it doesn’t happen entirely for the reasons we think it’s going to happen. Kala is concerned about the oppression of women in her world, but she’s even more concerned about something else: the fact that her world is dying.

“Computer models point to the possibility,” she explained. “Low diversity means fragile ecosystems. And it’s more than just having too few species. It’s the nature of these species. Wherever we go, we bring weed species. Biological thugs, essentially.
Do you ever wonder why so many earths don’t have decent air for us? Do you?” Kala gave [Sandor] a rough pat on the shoulder, asking, “What if a lot of pioneers have been moving across the multiverse? Humans and things that aren’t human, too. And what if most of these intrepid pioneers eventually kick their worlds out of equlibrium, killing them as a consequence?”

It’s a theme that could easily become heavy-handed, but Reed balances it against the already-established conservative nature of the story’s setting. Both the social and the environmental elements of the story underscore Reed’s basic argument—that human nature really doesn’t change, even across thousands of years; that thinking outside your immediate world really is hard, even when you know for certain that your world is only one of an infinite number of possible worlds. The scale of the story exposes the bleakness of the sentiment.

Kala’s world, like all the other worlds descended from the First Father’s colony, is inherently out of balance. So, not unlike the early garage scene, the end of “A Billion Eves” plays two emotions—what we feel, and what we know the characters feel—against each other. The joyous release provided by the fact that Kala and her brother eventually do escape from history (perhaps) is tempered by the knowledge that they are not really doing it for (what to us are) the obvious reasons, even if they’re doing it for perfectly good reasons. “I don’t want virility and stupidity,” says Kala. “I want wisdom and youth.” There is something comfortable in this, too, because all the strategies Reed has used in getting to this point—the initial use of strangeness as a hook, the narrative emphasis on uncovering history, the clean but unadventurous prose, the viewpoint character who grows to understand the world at the same pace as the reader, the generation of story through the collision of two different speculations—are classic science fiction strategies. But in the end, they still work. Robert Reed knows how to make them work.

Bold As Links


So it turns out I’m useless as a blogger. This blog has basically been all Niall for the past couple of months, so it’s about time I made it official and gave up pretending I’m still a contributor here.

This is probably also an opportune moment to mention that I’ll shortly be standing down as co-editor of Vector. The official announcement will be made in the editorial of the forthcoming issue 249, so this is just a heads up that after that issue I’ll be leaving the magazine in Niall’s capable hands.

You will now be returned to your scheduled broadcast.


An Open Thread

I’ve set up a static page as a forum for general comments; you can find it here.

This is something of an experiment. I don’t know if anyone will feel inspired to use it (or, indeed, if anyone will even notice it, though it is right at the top of the sidebar), but it seems like it can’t hurt to have the option available. So there it is.

Twenty Years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

It’s that time again: there’s a new BSFA mailing out. Vector 248 is a celebration of 20 years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. As usual, we’ll be posting some articles and reviews from the issue on the website over the next couple of weeks, but for now here’s the table of contents:

Torque Control — editorial
Finding Tomorrow’s Futures — Angie Edwards on the history of the Clarke Award
Twenty Years After — a retrospective by Paul Kincaid
A Brief Survey — perspectives on the Clarke
Preface to The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology — by Neil Gaiman
Air by Geoff Ryman — an extended review by Andy Sawyer
The Clarke and Me — by Geoff Ryman
Clarke Award Has Winner Written All Over It — by Tom Hunter
Archipelago — reviews of short stories by Clarke-winning authors
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger
Particles — by Paul N. Billinger
The New X: All Shall Have Prizes — a column by Graham Sleight

As the editorial of Vector and an article in Matrix explain, we’ve been having ongoing problems with printing and distribution, so this issue is appearing somewhat later than originally planned. (I don’t want to tempt fate by saying that everything’s ok now, even if it is.) As chance would have it, though, that means it’s appearing at more-or-less the same time as The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (alternate link), a collection of essays about Clarke-winning books that should be well worth your time and money. (Much like the BSFA.)

Another result of the delays is that this issue is the first to announce the existence of this blog. So if there are any BSFA members checking in for the first time, welcome! Feel free to have a poke around. Some things you may find of interest:

The RSS feed for entries is here, and for comments is here; if you have a livejournal, the feeds are syndicated here and here, respectively.


The Velcro City Tourist Board wants to know your thoughts on libraries:

Over the last week we’ve been doing a survey of library users – I’ll leave my thoughts on the methodology employed to the side, as I’m not a sociologist (or indeed a ‘proper’ librarian). The survey is designed to uncover people’s ’satisfaction levels’ with the service we provide. Which is all well and good, but it strikes me as intrinsically limited in that it only covers people who actually come into the building.

I assume that most regular visitors to VCTB are regular readers of books, of whatever type. What I want to find out is what people who are passionate about books (to the extent that they read websites about books) think of the modern library service, as they have experienced it. So I’d like to ask you all a few questions:

And here are my answers.

Do you use your local library, or any national libraries (eg British Library)?

I barely use my town library. I occasionally still use Oxford’s libraries.

If you do use libraries, how often and what for? What do you feel would make your local library even better than it already is, as far as fulfilling your own personal needs is concerned?

I use libraries for reference, rather than for fiction. I have used my town library to look up local history, when researching holidays, and for other similar matters. What I would like to have access to a library for is more specialised material: scientific journals (both work-related and non-work-related), american and other non-British sf, and non-fiction about sf. None of which are particularly well-served by my local library. On the other hand, I don’t think my local library necessarily should be trying to serve those needs, because I’m probably the only person in town that has them.

If you don’t use libraries, why not? (Don’t be afraid to be seriously critical here, I want to know the truth – do the buildings suck, are the staff rubbish, do they never have what you want, do you prefer to buy your own books?)

I don’t use my local library either because it doesn’t have the material I’m interested in (scientific references, american sf) or because I don’t need to (pretty much any sf, which I can usually get for review if I put my mind to it), or because I don’t want to (most other fiction, including sf that I don’t review; I like owning books).

The staff have seemed friendly and capable whenever I’ve used my local library. The building itself doesn’t seem terribly friendly — it’s big and brown and seventies — although that may be a hangover from visiting it as a child, and being overawed by it.

What do you feel libraries represent? Or to put it another way: what is the prime function of a library, in your opinion?

To provide public access to as much information as possible as easily as possible. Libraries are good things.

What would you like to see change in the way library services are provided for you?

Online subscriptions to journals and the provision of cheap printing would be one way of providing me with access to the scientific materials I want, without making absurd demands on storage space, even more so if they could provide library members with some way to remotely log in; but I suspect it would still be prohibitively expensive. For reasons noted above, though, I’m probably not typical of users of my local library.

Now it’s everyone else’s turn. If you’re going to take it as a meme for your own blog (and please do!), please remember to also email your responses to info[at]velcro-city.co.uk.

Forty Signs of Links

  • The Science Fiction Foundation will be launching an annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2007:

    The first Masterclass will take place from June 19-22, 2007 at the University of Liverpool. Each full day of the Masterclass will consist of morning and evening classes, with afternoons free to use the SFF Collection. Class leaders for 2007 will be Andrew M. Butler, Joan Haran, and Brian Stableford. Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation; accommodation (at a local hotel) will be booked through the Masterclass with current rates being £59.50 (single)/ £79.50 (twin).

    Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf[at]gmail.com . Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Paul Kincaid, Andy Sawyer, and Roger Luckhurst.

    Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2007.

    Spread the word.

  • A review of Helix issue 2. Be sure to check out the charming letters column
  • What is the uncanny?
  • Benjamin Rosenbaum writes about AI and sparks an immense comment thread
  • New blog: biology in sf
  • On reading new books or old books: one, two
  • The shape of the litblogosphere


Rarely have I approached a new tv show with as much goodwill as I approached Heroes. My desire to see it succeed can basically be attributed to one thing: the sense that most of the recent glut of superhero films, and in particular the Bryan Singer (and, latterly, Brett Ratner) X-Men films, good as they have often been, are still irretrievably hobbled by their medium. Superhero stories, especially superteam stories, as told in comics, do not fit neatly into 90- or 120-minute installments arriving once every two or three years. They are serials. They sprawl. They should be a natural fit for tv, yet in recent years we’ve had to make do with shows like the fits-and-starts Smallville, or the frankly dire Mutant X. It has been frustrating, to say the least: a good superhero epic reaches parts that other stories just don’t.

So it is with a certain caution, and the knowledge that my glasses may be somewhat tinted, that I say that on the basis of the first two episodes, Heroes, which I heard about a couple of months ago and have been looking forward to ever since, seems to actually be what I want it to be: a naturalistic ensemble show about the first people to develop superpowers. Like all superhero stories, it begins with a Beginning. The first episode (or the first chapter, “Genesis”, as it is inevitably labeled) is essentially a collection of origin stories, set mostly in America, but with occasional visits to other continents to convince us we’re watching a global event.

Admittedly, the beginning of the beginning is not terribly auspicious. Series creator Tim Kring seems to be trying just a little too hard. Not only do we get a poorly-written opening crawl (“In recent days, a seemingly random group of individuals has emerged with what can only be described as “special” abilities … Volume One of their epic tale begins here”), immediately afterwards we get an almost-as-poorly-written voiceover (“Where does it come from, this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries? … perhaps we would be better off not looking at all, but that’s not human nature. Not the human heart”), to one of the great visual cliches of superhero stories: someone stepping off the edge of a building. And it turns out to be a dream sequence.

The rest of the episode is not without its limitations, either. There is some cringeworthy dialogue, notably from Professor Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy, trying his best), as he enthuses to his class about the potential “next step” in human evolution, and between the dreamer, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), and his pragmatic, running-for-office-and-proud-of-it older brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar). Some of the characters seem to be low-watt bulbs, or at least have their motivations unfortunately shorthanded: mother-turned-stripper Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), for instance, has borrowed a large sum of money from the mafia to pay for her genius son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey)’s education, with (a) no apparent means or plan to pay it back, and (b) predictable consequences, at least until her superpower, which appears to take the form of a death-dealing mirror twin, asserts itself. The web of connections between the cast is at times, inevitably, somewhat contrived, and the convenient solar eclipse that looms over all the threads of the story is a rather heavy-handed way of giving them unity.

But on balance, within the constraints of a plot that’s darting back and forth between various locations (which looks likely to be a temporary constraint, since most of the characters are rapidly gravitating towards New York), it’s nowhere near as incoherent as might be expected. Particularly enjoyable are the introductions of invulnerable Texan cheerleader Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) and teleporting Tokyo salaryman Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka). Bennet we meet through camcorder footage filmed by her friend, as she climbs up on top of some abandoned mining machinery, and throws herself off to land with an all-too-convincing thud. After standing up and wrenching her dislocated shoulder back into place, she looks into the camera and says, with a cool detachment that seems inappropriate to her years, “This is Claire Bennet, and that was attempt number six.” Not test: attempt. The irony is clear and black: she found about her invulnerability because she was trying to kill herself. She wants to self-destruct, but can’t, which is not exactly your stereotypical cheerleader character arc. By contrast, Hiro is endearingly excitable, and the comics geek of the bunch to boot (even if it’s a little improbable that he’s a fan of Western comics, rather than the home-grown variety). It’s Hiro who makes the obligatory X-Men reference, Hiro who babbles about “breaking the space-time continuum”, Hiro who is eager to grow into his powers. He’s the opposite end of the spectrum to Claire. “You don’t understand,” he tells his colleague, “I want to be special.” (“We are not special,” his colleague retorts, “We are Japanese!”)

Moreover, the show looks the part. We’re not talking Unbreakable levels of moodiness here, but the aesthetic is pleasantly subdued. You sense that costumes are and will remain off-limits, that being able to teleport won’t also miraculously make these characters olympic athletes, and if they get hurt, they will bleed. Dave Semel’s direction is good; the camerawork, particularly in its framing of New York City, is stylish without being obtrusive. And if the powers are somewhat off-the-shelf, the depiction of them isn’t always, and mostly knows when to nudge the viewer: the futures that Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) finds himself painting while high, for instance, are the scenes of death and destruction that might be expected, including an apocalyptic conflagration that looks like being the Heroes’ first job to prevent … and are captured in the bold strokes of comic-book panels.

The cliffhanger that ends episode one is another example. Peter stands on top of a building, recapitulating the dream sequence we saw fifty minutes earlier. Everything we’ve seen throughout the episode leads us to believe that he’s going to step off the building and soar — one of Isaac’s paintings seemed to capture Peter in mid-flight — but when he does, it’s Nathan, the one who doesn’t care, doesn’t believe — the one who already has everything — who catches him. It works because it seems so wonderfully, tremendously unfair, which should (I think) be one of the show’s key messages: life ain’t fair. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when, half-way through episode two, the show goes back on what it seemed to tell us. It turns out that Peter flew as well. I suppose it would be genetic.

Actually, the end of the beginning (“Don’t Let Go”; the best that can be said for the titles is the way they’re plastered on bits of scenery) is a bit of a mess all around. This is not unexpected, given its genesis — by all accounts, the pilot was originally 75 minutes long, a third of which was later chopped off and shunted into what was episode two — but it’s hard not to feel it should have been better than it ended up. Between repeating material from the pilot to reintroduce the existing characters and introducing two new ones (Matt Parkman, a genial, telepathic cop, based in LA; and Mohinder’s father’s perky neighbour), the episode’s actual plot development is pretty vestigal.

Claire’s adoptive father — who at the very least has been keeping an eye on Mohinder and his father, and may have had something to do with the latter’s death — gets his hands on the tape she’s been making of her suicide attempts. Niki’s mysterious twin provides her with an escape route from Vegas in the form of a car, a map, and a mutilated corpse. Various characters stumble on references to “Sylar”, who appears to be a mutant serial killer with a taste for brains: Mohinder discovers a voicemail suggesting that his father somehow ‘activated’ Sylar; Parkman overhears a detective speculating that a gruesome crime was Sylar’s work. As for Hiro, on arrival in New York he is, predictably, deliriously happy, at least until he discovers a comic book that tells exactly the story he’s just lived (no prizes for guessing the artist), stumbles into another crime scene with Sylar’s apparent MO, idiotically picks up the gun lying nearby on the floor, and promptly gets himself arrested by roughly half the local police force. Despite the contrivance involved, it’s Hiro story that saves the episode, just about, by providing a second killer ending.

And this time it’s not a cliffhanger. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like the natural end of the pilot, and you get the sense that everyone would have been better off if they’d stuck with the original 75-minute version and not tried to chop it and stretch it into two unequally weighted but more-or-less equally long parts. So I’ll be watching on, probably at least up until Christmas, because a lot of what’s bad about Heroes feels like teething troubles, and what’s good about it — some of the characters, some of the acting, the general premise — could be enough to make something special. It hasn’t used up my goodwill yet.

In The Forest of Forgetting

A couple of weeks ago, Abigail Nussbaum reviewed Theodora Goss’s debut collection, In The Forest of Forgetting, for Strange Horizons. I’d also just read the collection (and written a review, for Vector, which won’t appear until 2007), and we ended up having a discussion about our differing reactions to the book. Abigail’s now posted the conversation over at Asking The Wrong Questions. As she says, it’ll make more sense if you read her review first. And I’ve just realised that there is a bit about why I like one of Goss’s stories, “The Rose in Twelve Petals”, in my review of Feeling Very Strange:

What about “The Rose in Twelve Petals” (2002) by Theodora Goss? That’s a retelling of a fairy story—Sleeping Beauty, to be precise—and surely fairy stories, even twice-told ones, have to be considered traditional?

Here comes the Prince on a bulldozer. What did you expect? Things change in a hundred years. (p. 239)

Guess again. Goss’s tale is astonishing; it would be worth slogging and hacking through the overgrown bramble of every other reimagined fairytale out there to get to, but here it is served up on a plate. As the rose has twelve petals, the story has twelve parts, and though they start traditionally enough—a witch, a king, a queen, a princess—that doesn’t last. While the Beauty sleeps, time really passes. Things change. The transition to now is vertiginous, almost harrowing: we are forced to watch the old world thinning, and our modern world coming into being. These days we have to find our own ending, Goss is telling is; may we all be lucky enough to escape from our own pockets of time.

If you were wondering, I had a few reservations about the collection as a whole, but I think it’s very much worth reading.

Also, I can neither confirm nor deny that I fight crime.

What is space opera?

Here’s a thought: there’s no such thing as the new space opera. — Jonathan Strahan

Of all sf’s subgenres, “space opera” seems to attract the most definitional fervour. Everyone seems to have an intuitive sense of what the term means, and no two people seem to have the same intuitive sense — as demonstrated in the comment thread on Jonathan’s post, where Ellen Datlow says

I find the current use of the term “space opera” exceedingly annoying and confusing.

To me “space opera” was and always will be simple adventures in space.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, of course, have argued, in an essay and in their recent mammoth anthology, that most of the confusion comes from the fact that the meaning of the term has shifted.

Space opera used to be a pejorative locution designating not a subgenre or mode at all, but the worst form of formulaic hackwork: really bad SF.


Many readers and writers and nearly all media fans who entered sf after 1975 have never understood the origin of space opera as a pejorative and some may be surprised to learn of it. Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action [this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms] and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone.

Not everyone accepts this historical account (notably Brian Stableford in his NYRSF review of The Space Opera Renaissance), but the idea of a “new space opera”, which probably started either with Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas (1987) or with Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1991) (and with M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device [1975] as an ancestral text), has gained enough currency for there to have been an issue of Locus that focused on the topic a couple of years ago. But among other things, this version of NSO seems to get conflated with the so-called “British Boom”.

In a second post, Jonathan asks for other peoples’ definitions of space opera. My own previous attempt at wrangling with some space operas, from a couple of years ago, can be found here, but it sort of sidesteps the question of definition. I like the definition that Jonathan quotes in the comments — “lovesongs to the way the future was” — since an awful lot of modern space opera does seem to have that sense that we can’t get there from here. But he also lists “[Alastair] Reynolds, [Iain M.] Banks and [Stephen] Baxter” as definite space-opera writers, and while I think the first two are probably fair associations (granting that both have also written non space-opera work), I’m not so sure about the third.

In fact, Exultant is the only Stephen Baxter novel I’d really call space opera. The majority of his output is something else. An awful lot of his books certainly take place in space — Timelike Infinity or Titan, for instance — or have a vast cosmological scope — The Time Ships, Time, Space. But he’s also written a lot of less expansive books, from Voyage and Coalescent to this year’s Emperor.

I think you could make a case for Ring as a space opera, but I don’t think I’d be convinced by it myself, and thinking about why leads me in the direction of a definition of space opera I’m more comfortable with. Ring deals with a group of last humans touring the far-future ruins of the galaxy. It probably qualifies, just about, as “epic space adventure”, although that implies a rather more upbeat tone than I remember the novel having.

But I wouldn’t call it space opera because of how the setting is handled. One of the thumbnail definitions of hard sf that’s sometimes used is that in a hard sf story, the universe is a character. Ring fits this definition: the nominal “bad guys” in the story are the enigmatic and extraordinarily powerful Xeelee, but they never come on-screen, and there’s every indication that they pay as much attention to humans as humans pay to ants. In fact, what the characters in Ring are struggling against is the cold infinity of the universe. You could say that there is a space opera story going on — the Xeelee have their own enemies, the photino birds — but we’re not a part of it.

Exultant, though set in the same sequence, is much more a space opera, to my mind. For starters, it has space battles. Lots of space battles. Space battles that have been going on for thousands of years on fronts hundreds of light-years across. There’s lots of gosh-wow physics, and some nods to how big and unfeeling the universe is, but the universe isn’t a character in Exultant: it’s a stage set. At heart Exultant is a human drama, in exactly the way that Ring isn’t. So space opera, we could say, cuts the universe down to size.

None of which, of course, tackles Jonathan’s original suggestion, that there’s no such thing as the new space opera. I’m not sure I buy that; at the very least I think that the post-Banks or post-Greenland British space opera is new, if only because, Harrison, Dan Dare, and Journey Into Space aside, I have real trouble thinking of British space opera written before about 1980. Suggestions are, of course, welcomed.