Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Der Meistersinger von Alpha Centauri

Here's an update on what I've been reading as part of my space opera obsession:

:: Galactic Patrol, by E.E. "Doc" Smith. I bought the entire Lensmen sequence five or six years ago when the Science Fiction Book Club had it in a two-volume set. At the time, I read Triplanetary, but never read farther into the series. Triplanetary is billed as the first book in the sequence, but it really isn't: it may be set prior to the events of Galactic Patrol, and it might have been initially written prior to GP, but it was only reworked by Smith to take place in his Lensmen saga after the rest of the books were done.

When confronted by a series of books, folks, it's almost always preferable to read them in the order in which they were written than in the order in which the events take place.

Galactic Patrol pretty much starts without any preamble: Kimball Kinison is "initiated" into the "order" of the Lensmen, fitted with his Lens, and then sent on his first assignment, which involves tracking space pirates who strike from a secret base, and returning to Earth with the information. Having already read Triplanetary and remembering the glacial pace of the opening in which Smith took his sweet time getting things going as he related millions of years of Galactic history, GP is refreshing in the way it gets things going almost immediately.

Smith also has quite an imagination for alien worlds: the planet Trenco, whose equatorial regions receive exactly forty-seven feet and five inches of rain every single night, comes off as a remarkably hellish environment. Plus, Smith's universe feels nice and big, which is what I want in a space opera. GP tells a fairly tight story, but Smith still makes it clear that he's only scratching the surface.

:: Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds, by Brian Daley. I remember seeing Daley's books a lot on the shelves when I'd shop at various WaldenBooks or B. Dalton's when I was a kid, and I read a few of his media tie-in books and film novelizations, but never his original work, until now. I made a mental note of this title a while back when Will Duquette mentioned it favorably; eventually I tracked it down on eBay (along with its sequels, Jinx on a Terran Inheritance and Fall of the White Ship Avatar. I read Requiem a month or so ago.

I hate to describe books as breezy fun reads, because that makes them sound like less than what they are. Truth is, Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds is as good an entertainment I've found in a book in a long while. No, this isn't deep and insightful fiction, but it is SF adventure backed with lots of nifty ideas, such as Earth having turned away from the stars after they've been colonized. The book is a classic "buddy" story, pairing the stiff-laced Hobart Floyt (it can't be coincidence that the name is so close to "Heywood Floyd") and the rogueish Alacrity Fitzhugh as they travel across the galaxy to learn why Floyt has been named in the will of the ruler of a distant interstellar Empire. Hijinks, derring-do, and some actual hilarity ensue.

After tracking this book down, but before reading it, I decided to do a bit of research as to what Brian Daley's been up to. Turns out he died ten years ago. Damn. All that time I've been following the SF genre, and I never knew. It's amazing how we can be so in tune with something and out of touch with it as the same time.

The next two are shorter tales, either novelets or novellas depending on our definition, from the new anthology The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by david Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer (who may be the finest anthologist duo in the F&SF genre, possible excepting Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow). This anthology provides a historical overview of the entire space opera sub-genre, via thirty-two short selections. (The term "short" is something of a misnomer, actually, since this anthology weighs in at over nine hundred pages. Lots of space opera goodness here.) Since the book is arranged chronologically, I'm reading the tales in that order, although I won't be reading the entire anthology at once. (Reading an anthology straight through is a different practice for me; I'm almost always one to just dip at will into anthologies. But I like the idea of the historical perspective afforded by this book, especially since I'm not making much of an effort to read space opera novels in historical order.)

:: The first story in this book, after a terrific preface on the history of the term "space opera", is "The Star Stealers" by Edmond Hamilton. I'd never read anything by Hamilton before; indeed, I'm not certain I've heard of him before, which is odd since he was married to Leigh Brackett, whose work is essential to anyone wanting to learn about space opera in all its varieties. In the introductory piece to "The Star Stealers", Hartwell and Kramer note that Hamilton's work was influential in its day, but while E.E. Smith has achieved some kind of "classic" status, Hamilton's work is mostly forgotten.

This story has its moments, but it reads more as a historical curiosity than as a good story. I can see why it's included in this book, but reading it felt like a bit of duty. The idea of the tale is a wild and whacky space opera notion, that a race of aliens whose star has died will instead of trying to move to a different star literally attempt to steal another star, in this case, our own Sol. The rest of the tale depicts the efforts of a plucky band of human heroes to thwart this plot.

I always find that reading very old SF ("The Star Stealers" was published in 1929, right around the time H.P. Lovecraft was writing his Cthulhu tales) requires a lot of forced suspension of disbelief. Here we have the main interstellar spaceport of our Solar System being located on the surface of Neptune; here we have a star going dead and the aliens who call it home living on its surface, erecting cities on its cold stone. I'm usually able to get past things like this, but each successive hit of the "Huh-whuh?" button requires me to work to get back into the story. So does an infodump early on that actually uses the dreaded words of SF hack writing, "As you know....". And the science isn't all: there's a moment of surely unintended sexism on Hamilton's part, at the end of the story, when we're informed that following the conclusion of the adventure, the tale's sole female character decided to do what women do and open a beauty parlor. I couldn't help laughing out loud at that one.

:: Next came Jack Williamson's "The Prince of Space". Williamson is probably the last living link to the Golden Age of SF; he was born in 1908 and as of this writing is still alive, and his most recent novel came out in 2005. Talk about longevity! "The Prince of Space" came out in 1931. The plot here is surprisingly convoluted, beginning with a mystery involving a pirate called "the Prince of Space" who may have murdered everyone aboard a spaceship, and ending in a war between Earth and Mars. There's also a fairly ham-handed romance in there as well, of the "You cannot love me, so I shall wander off into the wastes and die!" variety.

The difficulties of early 20th century science come into play here as well; we have a Mars with a breathable atmosphere, for one thing. Again, that doesn't bug me all that much, but it does take a little effort to remind oneself to go with the flow. Williamson's storytelling is stronger than Hamilton's, as is the general sense of place he's able to capture. This is one of those art-deco futures so common to very old science fiction: in the opening scene, a character needs to get a newspaper, so he steps off the moving sidewalk and puts a coin into a vending machine, whereupon a newspaper freshly printed to order is whisked to his location via pneumatic tube. A society of moving sidewalks and pneumatic tubes, forecast for the year 2131.

:: Currently I'm starting Andre Norton's Star Soldiers (which is a Baen Books repackaging of two separate Norton novels, Star Guard and Star Rangers). After that, I will probably leave off the space opera for a bit, as I have quite a few review books to read for GMR and then there's some epic fantasy I've been leaving neglected for far too long (GRRM's A Feast for Crows and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, chiefly). And although it's still four months away, I still have to plan to have my reading decks cleared for the February 6 release (according to Amazon, anyway) of Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel.

:: By the way, I'm not enforcing a rigid definition of "space opera" versus "planetary romance". Just in case anyone's wondering. As always, reading suggestions for space operas are welcome!


LC Scotty said...

Hi Jaq!

I don't know if I read Requiem, but I know I read the next two books in that series and loved them. I'm not one for remembering quotes, but there was a line where Floyt and Fitzhugh, down on their luck, were examining their finances. Fitzhugh says something like "If we have to ditch the wine, women and song, I vote we cut the song loose first."

I never did make the connectiopn between Floyt, and Floyd, however. I don't recall Floyd being the timid bureaucrat that Floyt was, though.

Great to see you the other day.

Anonymous said...


I'm reading Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall at the moment -- chewy space opera with some neat twists. Almost done with the middle book and it's really kept my interest.

Brian Daley -- wrote two fantasy books: The Doomfarers of Coramonde and The Starfollowers of Coramonde. About a Vietnam-era APC conjured by a wizard to take down a dragon. VERY enjoyable stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'll second the recommendation for the "Coramonde" books - I have those as well as the other Daley books you mention, and I think they're all pretty good.

It doesn't appear to be to your taste, but I happen to like early SF. If you're interested, there's an anthology titled, "Science Fiction by Gaslight" that ISTR has a pretty good selection.