Interstellar Fiction, With A Human PerspectiveS

The two volumes of the New Space Opera anthology left many unsatisfied: Where were the humans in interstellar space? If posthuman spaceploits turned you off, then another new anthology, Federations, will thrill you with human-sized adventures in a vast cosmos.

Oh, and there will be vague, mostly nondescript spoilers here.

Federations aims to be an anthology of short stories about interstellar civilizations — think Star Trek, Star Wars, or Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. But really, most of the stories in this collection are just classic space opera, with only a little discussion of the challenges and joys of multi-planetary collaboration. There's quite a lot of space war, a fair bit of first contact, and a dash of deep-space exploration. And that turns out to be a more thrilling experience, in many ways, than a more tightly thematic collection of stories about deep-space alliances might have been.

For one thing, along with that wider range of stories, the anthology spans a wider variety of time periods, from our present day to a distant future. Some stories contain the merest glimmer of hope that humans will form alliances at some point in the future with other worlds.

For example, one of the best of the book's many space-war stories is Lois McMaster Bujold's lovely, melancholy "Aftermaths," in which a woman and her assistant collect the dead bodies from a deep-space war with the Barrayarans. And the woman, MedTech Boni, insists on collecting the enemy dead bodies as well as the friendly dead, treating them both with the same compassion and respect, even though we discover she's lost something closer to home in this particular war.

But still, my favorite stories in the collection are the ones which engage directly with the theme of federations. The ones which show different planets (and in most cases different intelligent species) colliding, either in war or in diplomacy, and trying to understand each other. The ones which take apart the idea of a confederacy of greatly different interstellar cultures, and what kind of shape it would take. Those are the stories which are most likely to stick in your mind after you're done reading the whole thing.

For example, there's Genevieve Valentine's "Carthago Delenda Est," about a ship full of humans, in a rendezvous point with a bunch of alien ships, all waiting hundreds of years for a super-advanced ambassador from a distant planet called Carthage to arrive – and while the gathering of different species sits in one place and waits, they create a kind of incidental peace, punctuated with bickering, cooperation and even a bit of interspecies nookie, and you sense they're creating the first tentative links in what could become a real alliance.

There are also a few delightfully snarky stories which deconstruct, and in some cases satirize outright, the idea of a civilization made up of civilizations, and these are among the book's standout stories. Jeremiah Tolbert's "The Culture Archivist" mashes up Star Trek's Federation and Borg into a single civilization that's cybernetically enhanced via nanotech and goes around trying to assimilate other cultures into its rapacious capitalist sameness. K. Tempest Bradford's "Different Day" imagines the Earth being contacted by not just one, but three different alien races within the same interstellar group, each with its own agenda. And James Alan Gardner's "The One With The Interstellar Group Consciousness" recasts all of the romantic-comedy cliches into a story of a vast interstellar society trying to find another interstellar society or federation to "mate" (i.e., join) with.

The most upbeat story, and one of the most amusing, is probably Alan Dean Foster's "Pardon Our Conquest," in which a petty alien dictator finds out what happens when you tangle with the vastly more advanced galactic Commonwealth — the Commonwealth is incredibly nice to you and showers you with kindness, until you have no choice but to give in.

And then there are the stories that look at interstellar commuincation from a more idiosyncratic, and hence more fascinating, vantage point — like S.L. Gilbow's "Terra-Exulta," which talks about the linguistic challenges involved in terraforming alien planets — and shows, in a very Orwellian way, how you can justify genocide against countless alien species if you just create the right terminology for it. (Like "Ecoviscerate." Or "retoration," which means "the removal of all life from a planet in order to repopulate it with other life forms to create a more balanced ecology.") And then Catherynne M. Valente's "Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War Elegy" reflects a whole swath of interstellar history through the lens of a wine glass, by walking us through the different vintages that an illicit winery on an alien planet created.

Federations is definitely one of those anthologies that offers something for everyone, including some more traditional space-war stories, and a few rollicking space adventure tales, like "Warship" by George R.R. Martin and George Guthridge, and Harry Turtledove's mildly amusing "Someone Is Stealing The Great Throne Rooms Of The Galaxy." If (like me) you harbor nostalgia for Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, then you'll be happy to revisit Helva in "The Ship Who Returned."

Whether they're taking us to deep-space battles, showing us uneasy collaboration between vastly different races, or satirizing the very idea of a benign interplanetary alliance, the stories in Federations mostly keep a very human perspective on the hugeness and strangeness of a galaxy teeming with life. And that's reason enough to sign on to its galactic charter. [Amazon]