Overdrive is the poor man’s Audible. It’s a cell phone program that allows you to check out books from your local public library. You can even listen to audio books which you can download from Project Gutenberg’s Audio Books section or through the local library branch.
The local library branch on the other hand…
There are bright spots. A smattering of Burroughs’ titles are on the list, but these are generally books that sit, well worn, on my shelf. My most recent listen, Out of Time’s Abyss is a fun little romp if not quite up to Burroughs’ finest. Aside from the few diamonds in the rough, for the most part it’s the same dreary literary chaff one finds on the shelves of the big box book stores.
How about taking a deep breath, opening up your mind, and giving some recent work a shot? A collection of short stories called The New Space Operapresents an excellent opportunity to dip one’s toe into the relatively current state of fantasy and sci-fi. After all, if you never experience what the current market has to offer, how can you complain about it? And so it was with some trepidation that I gave some modern sci-fi a listen.
|Some of us just never learn.|
|Photoshopped for more accurate portrayal.|
Before we do, let’s dispense with the need for a concrete definition of ‘space opera’ that clearly demarcates it from other genres. We all know what it requires, big dang spaceships, multiple planets, adventure, romance, and colorful characters, and it should all operate on a grand scale. This is opera, but in space. It’s right there in the name. It should be a little bombastic, a little over the top, and evoke big feelings in the reader. These are general rules, of course, and there’s room on the margins to quibble. The point here is that my disappointment from the stories in this collection stems from their quality as stories, and how space operatic they feel, rather than whether or not they meet specific criteria for ‘space opera’.
First in the docket, Saving Tiamaat, by Gwyneth Jones, is one long lament by an assassin working as an odd combination diplomat and security officer for a space UN. It’s written in the heavy gimmicky style favored by the right people these days. I couldn’t finish this story because it was far more concerned with the main protagonist’s gloominess and clever prose that only ever hints at what the hell is going on than it was with establishing any sort of conflict or stakes or reason for the reader to care about any of this. The full story is available online for free, right here, if you want to verify for yourself. Strike one.
Second up, Verthandi is Rising, by Ian McDonald, also left me bored. It starts out with an intergalactic war fought over millennia by soldiers grappling with time dilation, but the meat of the conflict is just set dressing for the real tale. That story features two members of a three person crew searching for the third member of their triad. That third member went awol in order to allow the galactic empire’s defeated enemy to flee through a wormhole to a parallel universe, in order to spare them from genocide.
Again, this is a writer more enamored of literary tricks and poetic license than he is with presenting a story. The MFA students and professors might lap this up while on the clock, but there’s nothing appealing about it for casual readers looking for an enjoyable slice of entertainment. Strike two.
Let me say that again. This is a story about a planet-sized generation ship. It’s engines were knocked out. During a war. With a sentient space-blob. Robert Reed made that boring.
Let me give you one example of how Robert Reed stuffs great ideas into the background in order to focus on tedious relationship drama. The main protagonist and best friend meet in a vaguely described location. It sounds pretty epic, some form of massive cliff overhanging a cloud of space-blob remnants that contain the rare earth metals and ooze-encrusted machinery that allows the small refugee settlement that survived the Space-Blob War to survive, or on the cusp of a city-sized dead thruster? It’s not entirely clear, but it sounds like it might be awesome. Reed glosses over it to get to the important thing – the friendship of a young man and his mentor. That mentor, we learn after reading two full conversations with him, is actually an ancient trilobite-like alien. Reed doesn’t just bury that lede, he forces it to drive itself out into the desert, dig its own grave, and then shoot itself in the head. And that’s just one example out of many. Strike three.
Bear in mind, this is not to say that these stories am too smart for me simple brain. Quite the contrary, these stories are far too clever for their own good. They fall all over themselves engaging in high-brow literary signaling that they forget the point of the exercise – to tell an evocative story. They are like the guy who successfully signals his wealth by buying a high maintenance and flashy sports car that he can’t drive in the rain. Yeah, everyone knows he’s rich, but he can’t go anywhere – he forgot that the whole point of a car is to get you from one place to another, in much the same way that the authors of these stories forgot that the point of a story is to tell a story.