There are, or at least were, a few readers/fans of science fiction who got their undies in a knot upon hearing Margaret Atwood dismiss science fiction as ‘squids in space’. Those people seemingly more patronized by Atwood’s literary leanings than willing to be open to understanding the context of her comment, a minor rift was born in the science fiction community. Or so it seemed at the time. Many had forgotten Jonathan Lethem, who in the 80s openly lamented the Nebula Award’s unwillingness to award a literary work of genre rather than the entertaining work of genre it actually did. Everyone seems to have forgotten Brian Aldiss, who in the introduction to the 1974 anthology he edited entitled Space Opera, openly dismisses the content that follows, calling the sub-genre low brow by default. The whims—ahem, winds of science fiction blow, and in which direction nobody knows…
Aldiss describes Space Opera as an anthology of sixteen stories which are lesser-known, i.e. not widely re-published (if at all) but yet retain the flavor of what readers expect seeing the words ‘space opera’. The likes of E.E. Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs set aside for the moment, Aldiss instead looks to writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Daniel Galouye, Thomas Scortia, and many others, not all of whom are typically associated with the sub-genre.
An excerpt from George Griffith’s Honeymoon in Space, it tells of a newlywed couple arriving in the helenic skies of Venus. Though published in 1900, and is somewhat simplistic for it, the story nevertheless offers a clarity of vision and an effervescence that many contemporary authors fail to capture, leading one to understand why Aldiss included it in an anthology published seventy-four years later. Initially feeling like a precursor to Charlie Stross, “The Red Brain” by Donald Wandrei takes the reader into the deep future of time, at the death of the universe, to discover what remains, making for a vignette with impact.
The opposite of what most readers would consider space opera, “Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead” by Robert Sheckley nevertheless is a bit of the medium. Peering through the cracks and putting the pieces together, one comes upon a classic, pulp era tale, deconstructed for the modern (New Wave) reader, and is thus sure to raise the hackles of the tried-and-true Gernsbackian reader looking for fluff, but pique the interest of the next generation’s reader looking for more substance. A strong precursor to Philip K. Dick before there was Philip K. Dick, Daniel F. Galouye’s “Tonight the Sky Will Fall” tells of an up-and-coming executive who seems to have strangers around him, preventing evil from befalling him. But why? Galouye stringing out the mystery nicely, the resolution actually becomes for Le Guinian than Dickian.
As classic as classic can be, “The Star of Life” by Edmond Hamilton tells of a space mission gone wrong. Later expanded into a novel, the short story is packed with character interaction that ends on a surprise note. Another classic premise resolved in classic fashion, “Breaking Point” by James E. Gunn tells of a space crew who land on an alien planet, only to have their expectations of reality take a left turn—several in fact. Getting to the bottom of the mystery requires a 50s sf mindset. Pulling a cheap trick but written superbly, “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury tells of a very special school day on Venus, and the misfortune of one of the kids. Again, beautifully written—with an emotional cheap shot.
Man vs. robot in super-space opera technicolor, “The Storm” by A. E. van Vogt tells of the universe’s greatest space ship and its encounter with an enclave of robots bent on remaining hidden, all the while a massive galactic storm bears down on the inevitable conflict. Suffice to say, the story is a small slice of a wide-angle angle sub-genre, written in van Vogt’s shotgun diction.
A three-chapter excerpt from Leigh Brackett’s famous novel, “The Sword of Rhiannon” gives readers a taste of David Karse, and the fantastical, wild west of Mars he becomes entangled in. While derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Brackett’s prose, lucid story vision, and imagery make for compelling, albeit pulp, reading. One of the most singular stories Vance ever wrote, “The Mitr” is the short tale of a young girl stranded on an alien planet amongst beetle creatures. The story bears Vance’s name, but if it didn’t, one would be hard pressed to attribute it to him. Hard and cynical, it takes the standard male planet exploring hero Vance is so famous for and puts him on his head—much the same as Tiptree Jr. in Houston, Houston Do You Read?.
An unintentional (on the authors' part) pair of stories, “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov tells of a supercomputer who, over eons of time, crunches the world's situations, dilemmas, circumstances, happenstances, coincidences et al and distills it all into the titular question. Trouble is, what's left to respond? As an exercise in philosophy, it is one of Asimov's most successful stories. Picking up what Asimov put down in perfectly subversive fashion, “Answer” by Frederic Brown is only a few paragraphs long, but proves a wonderful counter-point, as well as point on which to close the anthology.
In the end, Space Opera is a very odd anthology. From the meta-perspective, it is a collection of space opera semi-willingly pulled together by an author who is the antithesis of the sub-genre. His introductory comments outright bashing space opera, the back cover, publisher comments glorifying it clash mightily. And the stories themselves are, in what almost seems a paradox, obscure space opera. The genre seeming to live or die by popularity, anything that isn't “known” might almost by default be considered of poor quality. And indeed a few of the stories in the collection, are. But Aldiss being Aldiss, and fundamentally having an eye for story, the majority of the pieces anthologized are of at least some interest to the most jaded science fiction fan, making for the following recommendation: if you are interested in a random selection of science fiction predominantly of the from the 40s, 50s and 60s, some of which aligns with the common perception of space opera, and stories which move perpendicular, this is for you. Aldiss' commentary in itself may just be worth it.
All re-prints, and published (interestingly) between 1900 and 1974, the following are the sixteen stories anthologized in Space Opera:
[Essay] Is Everything an Illusion? by Brian W. Aldiss
Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead by Robert Sheckley
Honeymoon in Space (excerpt) by George Griffith
The Red Brain by Donald Wandrei
Tonight the Sky Will Fall by Daniel F. Galouye
[Essay] "Precipices of Light That Went Forever Up ...." by Brian W. Aldiss
The Star of Life by Edmond Hamilton
After Ixmal by Jeff Sutton
Sea Change by Thomas N. Scortia
[Essay] Exile Is Our Lot by Brian W. Aldiss
Breaking Point by James E. Gunn
The Sword of Rhiannon (excerpt) by Leigh Brackett
All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury
The Mitr by Jack Vance
[Essay] The Godlike Machines by Brian W. Aldiss
The Storm by A. E. van Vogt
The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness
Time Fuze by Randall Garrett
The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
Answer by Fredric Brown