Why Is Space Opera Unsung?

The New Space Opera, a recent anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, was supposed to testify to the resurgent vitality of the space-opera sub-genre. Instead, it showcases a new space-opera canon that's listless and cut off from the mainstream, argues reviewer Alan DeNiro in Rain Taxi. Find out why the space-opera renaissance doesn't make DeNiro want to sing, and why his review sparked a soul-searching discussion among the authors, below the fold.

DeNiro's review starts out by asserting that space opera hasn't crossed over to the mainstream as much as other subgenres of science fiction have. Cormac McCarthy may have made the post-apocalyptic dystopia story respectable with The Road, but nobody's writing literary epics about "hyperactive starships."

And then DeNiro launches into his actual critique of The New Space Opera: most of the stories are actually about posthuman characters who have been modified to survive in deep space. They've given up so much of their humanity to become spaceworthy, it's made them emotionally inacessible to readers. And they're tiny, against the massive scale of galaxy-wide intrigues and thousand-year wars. (I definitely found this to be a problem with some of the stories in the volume as well, when I read it last year.) Contrast this with old-school space opera, which was comfortable putting regular old humans in charge of its starships.

But the stories fail to engage with the fact of their characters' emotional dissociation as part of the narrative. And if you're going to write alienating mini-sagas about transhumanism, DeNiro suggests, you need masterful prose instead of the merely serviceable writing in this anthology. Most of all, the anthology promises "fun," but delivers careful, hide-bound stories instead. DeNiro does pick out a few exceptions, including James Patrick Kelly's "Dividing The Sustain" and Tony Daniel's "The Valley Of The Gardens."

DeNiro's bracing critique gave rise to an interesting roundtable discussion, which he participated in, over at SF Signal, which mostly dealt with the meta-question he raised: why hasn't space opera crossed over to the mainstream the way other SF sub-genres have? Authors from the anthology tried to answer, or refute, DeNiro's question.

Kage Baker asks why space opera needs to be relevant anyway. Paul McAuley attempts to claim that Doris Lessing's Canopus In Argos series was mainstream. (It's probably the least mainstream of all her works.) Tobias Buckell cites the popularity of Star Wars as proof that space opera really is mainstream. Anthology co-editor Jonathan Strahan argues that you shouldn't think of space-opera as entrenched within the science fiction field, but rather as at the center of the SF field. Gwyneth Jones says space-opera is more versatile than people give it credit for, and it's a good vehicle for asking questions about statecraft.

In the end, though, none of them addressed DeNiro's question of whether "new" space opera has to gain its newness by jettisoning the humanity of its characters. And whether that might be part of the reason why it's not relatable for readers who aren't die-hard science fiction fans. [Rain Taxi] and [SF Signal]