Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What’s Opera, Buck

(Yes, I’m consciously stealing from a classic WB cartoon title.) 

The whole universe?
Space opera is back. On the screen it never entirely left. When I was a youngster the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s still played on Saturday morning TV. My friends and I knew they were ridiculous and we laughed at the special effects including the model rockets with sparklers. (Side note: My mom later in the decade commented that 1960s women’s fashions – notably miniskirts and boots – were exactly what appeared in 1930s/40s scifi comics and serials; she was sure one had inspired the other.) We didn’t mind the cheese though. Hey, the serials still were high adventure in outer space with alien civilizations, evil emperors, daring princesses, dogfighting rocket ships, and hand-to-hand derring-do. They satisfied my 10-year-old soul, but the times they were a-changing. With Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey scifi became consciously higher concept. While this was a very good thing overall, Star Wars showed there was still a place for rousing old-fashioned space opera, too, this time with stunning fx.

The printed word was another matter. By the 1960s the big name authors had more than just adventure on their minds. Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein and others had messages. Their protagonists still zipped around the galaxy on occasion, but they tended to leave space battles and evil emperors on alien planets to lesser lights. Scifi definitely benefited from this and the authors’ messages often were thoughtful, e.g as a random example Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment, which painlessly encapsulates much of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. In recent years, however, a number of topflight scifi authors have returned to space opera with an entirely good conscience. It’s not all they do, but they don’t outright avoid it. It is hard to argue that the results are often deep, but they are generally entertaining and the quality of the writing certainly helps. Two examples worth a scifi fan’s time are Revenger and The Collapsing Empire.

**** ****

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
As an author, Reynolds somehow manages to be imaginative, literate, and prolific all at once. Published in 2016, Revenger is a solid addition to his impressive bibliography.

The setting is unspecified thousands of years hence. The solar system has been abandoned and reoccupied many times. Presumably it is this solar system; this is not definitively stated, but there are references to the original sun, which would seem to indicate the Sun. Civilizations have come and gone. The current one exists mostly on terraformed asteroids (there are answers to the reader’s technical objections to that) but the ruins of the earlier civilizations are scattered everywhere. The central characters are the sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, who despite their father’s objections joined the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, a salvage space ship designed to exploit those ruins.

It’s a tough universe out there, however. The ship is attacked by a raider captained by the legendarily ruthless Bosa Sennen. Bosa orders a massacre of the Monetta’s Mourn crew except for Adrana whose talents she can use. Arafura escapes by hiding in the bulkhead and surviving until rescued by another salvager. The rest of the novel is Arafura’s quest to recover her sister and take revenge on Bosa. In the process she develops from innocence to harshness. Her chances of success depend on tapping into darkness within herself.

It’s not a typical heroine’s journey: though Arafura develops the character and skills she needs to do what she has to do, she clearly loses much in the process. Her pre-revenge self was less impressive but much more likable.

**** ****

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Scalzi is one of my favorite contemporary scifi writers, and he doesn’t disappoint in The Collapsing Empire, which was released earlier this year. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series should be on the shelf of any serious scifi fan, but his new novel has an entirely new setting and milieu.

Once again we are in a distant future. This time civilization spans the galaxy in a particularly hodge-podge way. This has to do with the Flow, which is a natural phenomenon that exists outside of normal space and effectively permits faster than light travel. The Flow, a kind of web shaped by the (gravitational?) features of the galaxy, doesn’t extend everywhere, so most of the galaxy remains inaccessible. Ships cannot travel FTL without the Flow. Even the most far flung star systems are reachable, however, if the Flow happens to pass near them.

The youthful Cardenia Wu-Patrick becomes the new Emperox when her brother is killed in an accident that might not have been an accident. It is not an elevation she expected or wanted. She has to deal with a council of oligopolistic Merchant Houses who form a nobility. (Future interstellar empires nearly always have medieval politics.) Cardenia learns a frightening secret: the Flow’s shape is not permanent. The galaxy changes and the Flow changes, too, and soon will strand populated star systems and fracture the empire. Meantime one of the Merchant Houses has caught wind that something is up with the Flow and is betting that a currently unimportant distant mudball of a planet will be the center of a reshaped web. Throw in ruthless traders, space pirates, and ambitious suitors of the new emperox and we have elements for intrigue and action. Scalzi’s prose is both literary and effortless to read, which is a rare combination.

**** ****

We all like to escape now and then, and both books are fine escapist fare: fun without being simplistic. And, hey, they are high adventure in outer space. They satisfy the soul of the 10-year-old boy inside this…um…somewhat older fellow.

t.A.T.u. – Космос (Outer Space)


  1. Both books sound pretty good to me. I loved to watch the old serials too. I can overlook a lot of special effects or a little bad acting as long as it makes sense (without having to go to the web to explain it). That's one of my faults with the new Dr. Who reboot. I did like the Eccleston era pretty much, but after that it really got silly and spotty. There was just some really bad writing imo.

    2001 & Trek were a game changer, and I'd add Planet of the Apes too in some aspects.

    1. I’m happy to make allowances for budgets and venues, too. The Vlogger I appended to my “Buffy” blog last month makes the point by saying that one doesn’t go see a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” and say, “That totally doesn’t look like Venice; this play sucks.” If we adjust our expectations to the realities of the production, we can enjoy a show, play, or movie on its other merits.

      Neither book ever will be assigned in school as a must-read classic, but both are fun and smartly written.