L'introduzione: Space Opera by Rich Horton (english)



Space Opera: Then and Now

by Rich Horton

The term space opera was coined by the late great writer/fan Wilson
(Bob) Tucker in 1941, and at first was strictly pejorative. Tucker used
the term, analogous to radio soap operas, for “hacky, grinding,
stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The term remained largely
pejorative until at least the 1970s. Even so, much work that would now
be called space opera was written and widely admired in that
period . . . most obviously, perhaps, the work of writers like Edmond
Hamilton and, of course, E. E. “Doc” Smith. To be sure, even as people
admired Hamilton and Smith, they tended to do so with a bit of
disparagement: these were perhaps fun, but they weren’t “serious.”
They were classic examples of guilty pleasures. That said, stories by the
likes of Poul Anderson, James Schmitz, James Blish, Jack Vance, and
Cordwainer Smith, among others, also fit the parameters of space
opera and yet received wide praise.


It may have been Brian Aldiss who began the rehabilitation of the
term with a series of anthologies in the mid70s: Space Opera (1974),
Space Odysseys (1974), and Galactic Empires (two volumes, 1976).
Aldiss, whose literary credentials were beyond reproach, celebrated
pure quill space opera as “the good old stuff,” even resurrecting all but
forgotten stories like Alfred Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr,” complete
with barbarians transporting horses in spaceship holds. Before long
writers and critics were defending space opera as a valid and vibrant
form of SF.

By the early 1990s there was talk of “the new space opera” at first
largely a British phenomenon, exemplified by the work of Colin
Greenland (such as Take Back Plenty) and Iain M. Banks (such as Use
of Weapons) - both of those novels were first published in 1990. “The
new space opera,” it seems to me, was essentially the old space opera,
updated as much science fiction had been by 1990, with a greater
attention to writing quality, and a greater likelihood of featuring
women or people of color as major characters, and perhaps a greater
likelihood of leftwing political viewpoints. Once one noted the
existence of “the new space opera” it was easy to look back and see
earlier examples, such as Melissa Scott’s Silence Leigh books
(beginning with Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985), M. John Harrison’s
cynical The Centauri Device (1974), and Samuel R. Delany’s Nova

Nova is my personal choice as the progenitor of space opera as a
revitalized genre, but that’s probably a largely personal choice. (Nova
is one of my favorite novels). Others could certainly point to something
different: perhaps Barrington Bayley’s The Star Virus (1970 in book
form, but a shorter version appeared in 1974). Even more sensibly one
could say that space opera never went away—what about Alfred
Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956), to name just one seminal
earlier work?

Perhaps, then, The Centauri Device is in retrospect the key work.
Harrison conceived it explicitly as “antispace opera,” and it was 
a reaction not just to the likes of Doc Smith, but to Nova, which 
Harrison had called “a waste of time and talent.” To quote Harrison 
himself, from his blog: 

“I never liked that book [The Centauri Device] much but at least 
it took the piss out of sf’s three main tenets: (1) The readeridentification
character always drives the action; (2) The universe is knowable; 
(3) the universe is anthropocentrically structured & its riches are 
an appropriate prize for people like us.”

Even if The Centauri Device verges on parody, and explicitly
disapproves of its subgenre, those three principles do suggest an
alternate path for space opera, perhaps a truer definition of the “new”
space opera: less likely to be anthropocentric in approach, less likely to
accept that the universe is knowable, less likely to have the main
character succeed (if he or she still does drive the action). And,
anyway, Harrison returned to space opera with his remarkable recent
trilogy, Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012).
Those books certainly read like space opera to me, but they also
certainly tick the boxes Harrison lists above (Harrison also, less importantly 
perhaps, started a trend for clever ship names in The Centauri Device
using phrases from the Bible and Kipling for spaceships named 
Let Us Go Hence and The Melancolia that Transcends All Wit
That led, it would seem, to Iain M. Banks’ famous names for his 
Culture ships, and to similarly cute names in the work of many other writers.)

At any rate, once established as an essentially respectable branch of
SF, space opera has continued to flourish. Some of it shows aspects of
Harrison’s model, at least in parts, other stories are as triumphalist as
anything that came before, more often we see a mix. A good recent
example might be Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series, beginning with
Crystal Rain (2006) - featuring heroes and heroines from nontraditional
cultures, and somewhat ambiguous about the place of
humans in a hostile universe, but also most assuredly featuring main
characters with tons of agency and ability to drive the plot, and a
general sense of cautious and perhaps conditional optimism.

The list of enjoyable space opera novels in recent years is long -
notable practitioners include Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder,
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, John Barnes, and James S. A.
Corey; and I could go on for some time.

This book collects short fiction, however. One of the neardefining
characteristics of space opera is a wide screen, and this seems to drive
longer works. It’s not nearly as easy to evoke the feeling of vastness, of
extended action, that we love in space opera over a shorter length. But
it can of course be done. Two of the best books of the past few years are
original anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan:
The New Space Opera, and The New Space Opera 2. These are packed
with delicious stories, undeniable space opera of a variety of modes
and moods, and they show that you don’t need five hundred pages for a
good space opera. I’ve chosen a piece or two from each of these books
for this volume.

I also must mention one newer writer in particular: the remarkable
Yoon Ha Lee. She has yet to publish a novel, but an array of striking
stories has already established an impressive reputation. She has
written work in multiple subgenres, but one of her continuing themes
is war, and often war in space, between planets . . . which means, more
or less, space opera. And in the briefest of spaces she can evoke a war
extending across centuries and light years.

So, this book, which collects twentytwo outstanding stories, some
traditional space opera in flavor, others which looks at those themes
from different directions; some set across interstellar spaces, others
confined to the Solar System; some intimate character stories, other
actionpacked; some (perhaps most) concerned with war and the
effects of war, but others more interested in the grand spaces of the
universe. But all, above all, fun.

Nella raccolta sono contenuti i seguenti racconti:

The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee
The Wreck of the Godspeed by James Patrick Kelly
Saving Tiamaat by Gwyneth Jones
Six Lights off Green Scar by Gareth L. Powell
Glory by Greg Egan
The Mote Dancer and the Firelife by Chris Willrich
On Rickety Thistlewaite by Michael F. Flynn
War Without End by Una McCormack
Finisterra by David Moles
Seven Years from Home by Naomi Novik
Plotters and Shooters by Kage Baker
The Muse of Empires Lost by Paul Berger
Boojum by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
Lehr, Rex by Jay Lake
Cracklegrackle by Justina Robson
Hideaway by Alastair Reynolds
Isabel of the Fall by Ian R. MacLeod
Precious Mental by Robert Reed
Two Sisters in Exile by Aliette de Bodard
Lode Stars by Lavie Tidhar
Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
The Tear by Ian McDonald
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