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Exchanging email with Charlie Stross the other day, it was very clear that we've both been thinking the same thing: that the big movement in modern SF is back to the space opera.

But this isn't the space opera we've known and loved, for the modern space opera isn't the E.E. Doc Smith romps of old. Instead it builds on the 90s radical hard SF movement to give us something that, while still epic in scope, still on the scale of the wide screen baroque, has the oily, dirty feel of engineering in the real world. This isn't warp drives (if there is FTL, then it's based on something on the edges of modern physics), nor is it ray guns (you're more likely to see all manners of exotic weaponry that's just on the drawing boards of DARPA or QinetiQ). It's space opera where the root tales are Sterling's Schismatrix and Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers rather than Hugo Gernsback, it's space opera where we ask the big questions about humanity's place in a dark and empty universe, rather than pulling out the blasters and letting those filthy space pirates have it...

One of the first writers to take this approach to space opera was Walter Jon Williams, in his novels Angel Station and Aristoi. Since then he's written strange high tech urban fantasies, a disaster novel, and some of the best short stories of the last 5 years. Now, his forthcoming book The Praxis (not due until October - I was lucky enough to come across an advance reading copy for my proof collection) takes us back to the dark and empty skies. The first of a series, Dread Empire's Fall, The Praxis is a tale of politics and rebellion in an urbane, and highly constrained, static multi-species galactic empire, held together by a network of naturally occuring wormholes. Unfortunately the last member of the race that founded the empire is about to die, and chaos is waiting in the wings.

With a milieu that feels like a much darker version of Williams' earlier Drake Maijstral divertimenti (The Crown Jewels, House Of Shards and Rock Of Ages, this is a world where everything is goverened by the titular Praxis, a system of law and custom that controls everything from the direction of scientific research to the number of guests at a party. And the penalties for failing to follow the Praxis are dire... As events come to a head, Williams focuses on two characters: one a minor noble from an outlying world, the other a cadet in the military. Their paths cross in a daring rescue mission, and they seem destined to both be at the heart of the wave of change that is about to sweep through their world.

One thing to remember: this is a first volume, and you will have to wait for the rest to arrive, especially as you're left at the end of the book feeling like a surfer poised on the top of the largest Hawaiian wave, waiting for the rush. Williams has built you up to the heights, and it's time to watch it all crash down, and for you to hope that you'll be left safely on the beach (together with the lead characters) once it's all over.

Highly recommended. This, like Permanence, is a sign that the SF renaissance is not just confined to these shores.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 28th, 2002 09:13 am (UTC)
Aristoi good
Yep, Aristoi was very good, but I haven't read much else WJW.

And yes the modern space opera movement is happening.

It might have its roots in Iain M Banks' work.....

Jun. 28th, 2002 09:44 am (UTC)
Re: Aristoi good
No (sez Charlie), it isn't Iain's fault. In fact, Iain is likely to be seen as the high peak of the first wave of space opera. This stuff, this new not-a-movement-really -- which Cory Doctorow calls the Emergents -- is descended from different roots. It's what you get when Generation X'ers, now in their mid-thirties, have matured enough to write publishable fiction rather than strumming guitars. (Cyberpunk was largely a boomer thing; the authors who invented it were getting started in the late seventies and early eighties, and it's a truism that most writers don't really get going until they hit thirty.)

We're seeing SF by a generation who witnessed the end of the cold war, who saw one giant leap for mankind do a U-turn and dive back into NASA's bureaucracy, while the incomprehensible and pointless hummming white boxes with tape drives (called "computers" or "babbage machines" or some such) mutated unexpectedly into a ubiquitous and earth-shatteringly important technosphere. The axioms that drive their world view are different from those of the sixties generation, or the eighties generation. And the result is that the thud-and-blunder of the Doc Smith era, and the hacking-the-mainframe technocluelessness of the 80's, are being replaced by a new sensibility.

The "Neuromancer" of this movement has not yet been written, but when it is, I suspect it'll be obvious in retrospect.

-- Charlie

Jun. 28th, 2002 10:03 am (UTC)
Re: Aristoi good
I think it has its Neuromancer, and it's Vacuum Flowers. We just haven't realised it yet.

All the tropes are there - fragmented, space bound humanity, in decaying habitats and ships. Technology that's not un-imaginable. A Quest. And ineffable background machinations that end up changing everything we'd expected.

Who needs a Case, when you have a Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark?

(And then he remembers some early Benfords, and a pile of John Varley's Eight Worlds stories...)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )