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gary gibson
Posted on Monday, July 26, 2004 - 11:02 am:   

"Quick question--since you write "space opera," I wonder if you might start a thread about any under-appreciated space operas we might check out? I love Banks, for example, but everybody knows about him. Any under-rated classics in your opinion?" - JeffV

Which is an interesting question, since I found it so hard to answer. Under-rated usually equals obscure in my measure, and although there are many obscure and under-rated classics in sf (Krugg Syndrome, again), I find it hard to think of anything describable as space opera on my bookshelves that could be seen as either obscure or under-rated: some years ago I had a severe clearout by which I got rid of a lot of old stuff I'd had since I was a kid with less discernment of quality than I have now. It's possible I got rid of some gems back there, but if I did, I can't remember them.

Another point I want to make relates to my own tastes. It's my *personal* feeling that space opera got a whole lot better in the Eighties, partly due to Iain Banks, and partly due to Interzone. Yes, there's John Varley in the '70's, but that feels more like the exception than the rule to me. Also, like Delany (with Nova, etc), he's far from obscure and under-rated. But in the main, I found that stuff written from the early Eighties on was of far greater quality than the majority of what went before. Prior to the Eighties, quality of writing tended to lie in the New Wave and other areas of endeavour, with 'space opera' (depending on exactly how you define it) trailing a poor second. Banks/Interzone/Varley/ and others changed that. It became far better written, with far more attention to characterisation, and shades of grey as opposed to simplistic bold strokes of black and white.

But in terms of stuff that demands more attention, Acts of Conscience by William Barton springs to mind. Someone bought it for me at a convention several years ago and demanded I read it. It sat on my shelf for months before I got round to it. In short, it deals with exactly the same themes as Mary Doria Russell's 'Sparrow' which was out at about the same time, which in turn shares certain themes with HG Wells' 'The Time Machine' (specifically in terms of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks). It's a well written novel with a distinctly unsavoury, somewhat maladjusted hero, who through stroke of fortune finds the means to affect a conscious moral choice regarding an intelligent alien species.

Mind you, whether it qualifies as space opera depends, as I implied earlier, on how you define space opera. 'Left Hand of Darkness' is set on an alien planet, and involves a study of an alien race, but I find it hard to think of it as anything like space opera. On the other hand, Banks's sf frequently constitutes a metaphorical love letter to the sf tales of his youth.

Looking over what I've written above, I suspect it might sound like I'm suggesting there's no such thing as space opera which fails to get the utmost attention. Of course there is, I just don't seem to have any ... so apart from Banks/McLeod/Stross/Benford/Bear/Vinge/McDevitt cluttering my shelves, I'd be kind of curious myself to know if anyone can suggest anything I've been missing out on?

Oh yeah. I should also mention 'Vast' by Linda Nagata. (Very) superficially similar to those old 'Berserker' stories, out a couple of years ago. A very complex, well-imagined work.
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Posted on Monday, July 26, 2004 - 10:37 pm:   

I have never read SKYLARK OF SPACE, but a guy I work with recently read it and emailed me a scathing, hilarious rant about it. I must ask his permission and post it somewhere here. He was trying to track space opera to its source, and I recommended Asimov's BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE collection as a great starting point and wonderful compilation of pure pulp. But he had already sprung for a bunch of recent editions of Doc Smith's work, and was starting into them. At the opening of the Science Fiction Museum, I saw that they had an original manuscript of Skylark, and mentioned it to my co-worker...which prompted his inspired rant.

E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of those writers whose influence I feel all the more keenly for never actually having read the works for which they are remembered.

I am a fan of Iain Banks, but not of his Culture novels. I've tried to dig into them a few times but always hit some wall I couldn't get past. On the other hand, books like CANAL DREAMS do for me now what stories like "Tumithak of Shawm" did for me when I was 12.
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Posted on Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - 11:41 pm:   

Hi Gary,
Since you're already taking about defining genre in broad terms here, d'you mind if I ask you about a JV post on the same subject? You said: 'To give a collection of work a name is to define it: to identify common characteristics. To define it (name it) is thereby to limit it.'
I was just wondering if you felt the limitations (and why is it a limitation? Doesn't knowing the so-called boundaries of a genre make it easier to use and by-pass them?) of definition apply to the author, reader, or both equally?

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