The New Space Opera 2, eds. Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois, and Open Your Eyes by Paul Jessup
Reviewed by Richard Larson
24 August 2009
For all their godlike aliens operating autonomously in some mysterious beyond, serious matters of faith are addressed less often in space operas than readers might expect. Quite often, in fact, such stories shy away from religion entirely, the topic being treated instead as antiquated and archaic, a notion better left to history texts and nostalgia for simpler times. Neal Asher's argument in "Shell Game," his contribution to the second installment of Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan's The New Space Opera anthology series, underlies many tales: "Religion, a vicious and hardy meme at best, usually collapsed as civilizations became spacefaring, for most such belief systems, initiated when the world was still flat and thunder was the bellowing of the gods, usually could not survive the realities of the universe and the steady abrasion of science" (p. 219). In this volume, however, Asher's stance is challenged by a number of stories that directly address the place of faith in a world in which science has provided plenty of reasons not to believe, and in the process such stories demonstrate how rich and complex—not to mention exceedingly relevant—the genre of science fiction can still be.
Right at the beginning of the anthology, Robert Charles Wilson's "Utriusque Cosmi" offers a wonderfully articulate and thoughtful look at the idea of faith in a science fictional context. Carlotta is a girl running from troubled family circumstances and given, if she chooses to "believe" an alien voice belonging to a character called Erasmus, the opportunity to be "raptured" before the supposed end of the world. With nothing to lose, Carlotta accepts the offer and enters into the Fleet, a collection of other beings who chose to believe Erasmus before their own worlds were destroyed. The story is ultimately about the perception of layers, both within our own memories and within the world as a whole; at the same time as Carlotta realizes that she doesn't understand the things that happened to her on Earth as well as she thought she did, the world itself also opens up for her in ways previously inconceivable.
The title of Wilson's story refers to a drawing that Carlotta sees in a book which "was supposed to represent the whole cosmos [in the Elizabethan era], the way people thought of it back in Shakespeare's time, all layered and orderly: stars and angels on top, hell beneath, and a naked guy stretched foursquare between divinity and damnation . . . But it doesn't stop at the angels . . . Even angels have angels, and devils dance on the backs of lesser devils" (p. 21). Wilson offers a startlingly vivid narrative which flirts with religion by exploring worlds within worlds, the ability of things to become bigger and bigger, incomprehensible at first but then gradually revealed over time. The humanity of the piece lies in its exploration of ideas of memory and history, and the science fictional aspects serve to highlight and exaggerate Carlotta's very real experience of discovering the world, becoming aware of the true way of things. But "memory plays tricks that history corrects" (p. 24), and even though Carlotta remembers escaping her mother's abusive boyfriend and then being saved by a mysterious alien being, she discovers later that memory has in fact failed her and that things actually happened a bit differently; thus we are shown, as readers as well as human beings, that we can never be sure of the truth.
Wilson's story sets up a conversation about faith which is continued by the next two stories. In "The Island," by Peter Watts, a mother and her son (who, thanks to a clever device within the story, have just met) do the bidding of an anonymous higher power to an end that they cannot possibly predict. "Why have you forsaken us?" (p. 29) the narrator, the mother, asks of her invisible leader. She is much more cynical than her son. " . . . I'm not quite ready to believe in gods" (p. 39), she notes early on—but she becomes forced, by the story's end, to believe in something, even as she assists in its destruction.
"It's the history of the species . . . We think we've worked everything out, we think we've solved all the mysteries, and then someone finds some niggling data point that doesn't fit the paradigm. Every time we try to paper over the crack, it gets bigger and bigger, and before you know it, our whole worldview unravels. It's happened time and again. One day, mass is a constraint; the next, it's a requirement. The things we think we know—they change . . . " (p. 49)
The story is almost a parable about faith and cynicism, and both this story and Robert Charles Wilson's contribution deal with the idea of grappling for a belief in something greater than ourselves—for in this story, even science itself begs a certain kind of faith and is represented as a belief system all its own. And then, in John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance," a delightful adventure story with grave overtones, the protagonist is apparently spoken to directly by his gods before being led to question whether what he has experienced is actually real or is perhaps, instead, a result of his own subconscious having been guiding him all along. His companion is a non-believer. At first he is non-plussed by this—"We were both the products of the gods. She did not believe this truth, but truth does not need to be believed to prevail" (p. 77)—and then later this question becomes a much more severe distraction from his stated mission.
Not all of the stories in the anthology are as thoughtful or as provocative as these early ones, however. Cory Doctorow, John Barnes, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch offer solid contributions which are ultimately not very memorable, and Jay Lake's "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves" is occasionally breathtaking, if ultimately a bit sprawling. But the monotony of certain of these longer stories is excused by the power of stories like "Inevitable," by Sean Williams, which displays a very controlled and intensely explored narrative with undeniably cinematic qualities: fast-paced and snappy, but with hidden depth. "The universe had . . . become a maze with a multitude of paths and only one exit" (p. 250), and Williams explores the maze in intricate and exciting ways. And then Bruce Sterling's "Join the Navy and See the Worlds" offers a soberly familiar look at a future all too similar to the one we currently inhabit: more disastrously wounded, yes, but still fractured, caught up in a grand charade of mass manipulation and a history being constantly rewritten. Centering on a contrived war-hero protagonist who is treated as a celebrity and used as such by his government, the story is jaded about the validity of fictional exploits: ". . . in the same way that spaceflight was space opera. In other words, it was all romantic crap predicated on the work of roughnecks who were willing to do the hard stuff" (p. 284). The romance of space adventure, in the context of the story and the point of view of its protagonist who views himself as a fraud, has undermined the legitimacy of its practitioners.
Bill Willingham's "Fearless Space Pirates of the Outer Rings" begins as a fun, lively, somewhat tongue-in-cheek narrative, old-fashioned but with modern flair; but what seems just vaguely silly at first becomes a thoughtful meditation on the science fiction genre itself. The protagonist, abducted from a life in the United States of the ‘60s and introduced to alien worlds beyond his wildest imagination, reflects on the notion of possible futures—typical fodder for the science fiction genre—as he realizes, much later, that the future that was previously imagined for Earth has not taken place at all:
"We were in a space race! First we were going to put a city on the moon and then spread out to fill the planets. But somehow, for no reason I can find, they just stopped. And look at all these broadcasts. If these are at all up to date, then none of what they'd always promised ever happened. No jet packs. No flying cars. It's a good decade past the year 2000, according to their calendar, but where did the future go?" (p. 316)
Our faith in science fiction itself, then, comes into question here: for a genre that unabashedly believes in the possibility of its dreams, what happens when it wakes up? Willingham creates and fully exploits a device that allows for a science fiction story that doesn't really go into the future at all, but is still fully able to address and discuss our contemporary moment in the context of the "future" of fifty years ago—and also, of course, acknowledges the idea that science fiction may often be overly romantic in its notions of what the future may hold for us.
But romance, incidentally, is what space opera is all about: epic adventures without the restrictions of time and space, characters doing (mostly) things that no one will ever really be able to do. If Elizabeth Moon's "Chameleons" gets off to a slow start (when the characters are bored on the 11th page of the story—"He couldn't really blame the boys for their boredom; he was bored too" [p. 364]—it's likely that the reader is also going to be bored), it ends up being a satisfyingly brisk narrative discussing the implications of first impressions, of people not being what they seem while also possessing the ability to surprise us in unexpected ways. The romance of space opera is fully brought to bear in Moon's story as the characters navigate secret identities and sordid pasts all while trying to hide their true selves, even while they never really know, until the end, what they are hiding from.
Many of the stories collected in The New Space Opera 2 suffer from being too long, and do not have enough backbone to sustain their weight. Perhaps the genre begs longevity, with characters participating in grand schemes in fully explored alternate worlds, the writers of such stories trying to balance the development of a rich setting with the creation of a fun and interesting narrative. But with so much space devoted to one story, I often found myself wishing I had more of a visceral reaction to what I had just put myself through. However, in this case, tenacity is justly rewarded. Justina Robson's "Cracklegrackle," found late in the hefty book and set in territory familiar to readers of Robson's novels, is an absolutely brilliant story entirely about the concept of faith, inspiring a willingness to believe in something greater than what we scientifically know to be true (not necessarily in a religious sense) in spite of doubt and cynicism. Mark Bishop is on a quest to find his missing daughter, but he must allow himself to suspend his previously held worldview in order to believe his new guide, Greenjack Hyperion, who leads him through parts unknown via mysteriously magical sensory perceptions. There is a direct conversation here about the clash between science and faith when Mark tries to reconcile new information within the limits of his understanding, asking, " . . . but just because you can detect these things, why aren't they verified by machines?" (p. 438) Mark must find a way to believe in Hyperion's abilities, in the face of his own personal tragedy, in order to heal his wounds and find the answers he seeks. Robson deftly navigates discussions about the philosophy of faith and we feel Mark's struggle to believe in Hyperion's abilities, even as his world gets stranger and stranger, carrying him further away from everything that he once knew to be true. The question of whether or not Mark will ultimately surrender himself to belief in the unknown is what keeps the narrative tense and provocative.
John C. Wright closes the anthology with a beautiful and epic inter-planetary romance, decidedly experimental and easily one of the most original pieces collected here; but as a whole, The New Space Opera 2 is an anthology which tends toward the traditional side of science fiction's current spectrum of offerings. This traditionalism is highlighted even further by a smattering of references to seminal authors of the genre, or to specific works which have been important to its development, such as a nod to Asimov's Laws of Robotics in John Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked" and a handful of references to A Canticle for Leibowitz in Mike Resnick's contribution (even if its piggybacking on Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s classic novel is about the only thing worthwhile about Resnick's story).
Something like Paul Jessup's space opera novella, Open Your Eyes, published recently by Apex Publications, is thus likely too avant-garde to have found a place within Dozois and Strahan's anthology, but is still an exceedingly worthwhile contribution to the sub-genre. Jessup begins his story with a sex scene between a woman and her supernova lover before the woman, Ekhi, gets picked up by another ship and is ultimately caught up in its passengers' politics, betrayals, and personal melodrama, along with a quest which none of them really understand. The characters exist in a wounded, war-torn world and are struggling to find reasons to hope for a better future. Sex provides a release, and is also a central preoccupation, an activity which could potentially lead to personal salvation: "A spark of connection, a sadness flowed through the three of them like an open circuit. They saw the nova, felt the rising force of orgasms, and shivered intimately. The death of a star. The birth of a galaxy" (p. 28). One character becomes obsessed with a girl from a pornographic magazine who eventually ends up holding a particularly strong power over him ("She had infected him with her thoughts, with her emotions, and it felt so vaguely alien, so strangely unreal. As if his existence until this moment had been a dream and she was his true thought, his true mind, his true master." [p. 55]) and the narrative also flirts with S&M as one character becomes "a slave to the thoughts and emotions of her keeper" (p. 103). Sexual jealousy also plays a major part in the dynamics of the characters' relationships to one another, leading them to mistrust and betray each other in horrific ways.
There is also a dark, other-worldly magic at work in Open Your Eyes which provides a lovely blend of fantasy and science fiction, fully exploring the possibilities inherent to the space opera sub-genre and begging readers, once again, to have faith—faith in a writer who is willing to leap past genre boundaries and show us what's waiting in the great wide world beyond. Jessup distances himself from space opera's more traditional practitioners by using language in inventive, startling ways, even as language itself is revealed to be what enslaves these characters to their mysterious mission. There is a great momentum to the writing, an energy so raw and immediate; when Ekhi undergoes a transformation, she begins to explode with blueness:
She was light, became that blue light, and knew that it wasn't just a birth. Creation, in a strange sense. Combination. Building between two bodies, destroying the old. She was going supernova herself, her belly an exploding star, taking out the planets of her flesh, the suns of her eyes, the cities of her bones. Bursting, blowing, sucking in, spitting out, collapsing, fire, fire, fire, blue lightning. . . . A mirror of ghosts, walking through her, burning through her. Turning her, taking her. She felt so much. (p. 121).
And while Jessup's project sometimes suffers perhaps from too much ambition—the prose often over-explains the narrative, a symptom of things having become a bit too complicated—this is an affliction which I wish more contemporary fiction would endure. Jessup's novella ends up being notable specifically because it would never have appeared in The New Space Opera 2, as the pleasures it offers are so incredibly unique and different. Open Your Eyes shows us just how much possibility exists in the sub-genre of which Dozois and Strahan have only just begun to scratch the surface.