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Grand Adventure Strikes Again: A Paen to Space Opera

Article by Avi Abrams, 2006

Are we seeing a renaissance of the space opera genre today, or is it a superficial return to the '40s, the time of grand-scale storytelling? Are we more cynical in our tastes and society in general? Measure your sense of wonder and scale with some prime examples from the Golden Age of SF Pulps.

In this universe the night was falling,the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered: and along the path he once had followed, man would one day go again.

Here is another quote from the same book:

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert's face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came.

Such were the words, times, and concepts that Arthur Clarke unveiled before awestruck readers in "Against the Fall of Night" (expanded into The City and the Stars) in the Forties — still one of the most poetic and soaring examples of the fantastic Grand Adventure. I will go out on a limb here and say that modern cynical society is convinced that it does not need such pure unadulterated adventure fare any more. We are more than glad to trod along our daily paths shrouded in sophisticated worldliness. But for those who wonder if there is more, there is a book to discover — Against the Fall of Night.

First published as a novella in "Startling Stories", November 1948, it was later expanded into the novel "The City and the Stars" in 1953. It did not win any major SF awards. In fact, here is the list of how it fared since its publication:

1956 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll /22nd place
1966 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll /7th place
All time novel: 1975 Locus Poll /17th place (tie)
All time SF novel: 1987 Locus Poll /32nd place
Best SF novel: 1998 Locus Poll /34th place

Well, in my heart it certainly won many more awards, and here is why: "The mystique and glamour of this book is going to recede into eternity, passing occasional black holes of critique and publishing oblivion, and finally coming to rest in the center of the Galaxy, enigmatic and unbearably bright." (Hmm... did I pick up this cosmological language from that novella somewhere along the way?)

Getting back to the review — Arthur C. Clarke's youthful enthusiasm (he was under 30 when he wrote this) spills over the pages with the most tastefully appointed coming-of-age/end-of-times revelation kind of story in the history of pulps (even though it was Clarke's first novel, and a rare appearance in the pulp, Startling Stories, complete with a gaudy cover).

Hardly anything has approached the sheer audacity of its scale in SF ever since, mostly because the pulp constraints dictated it to be of minimal length, so Clarke's concepts had to be concentrated in a novella! Granted, it has been expanded into a novel, and not just once (I have not read Gregory Benford's version as yet), but this singular chunk of wide-eyed adventure reads better, perhaps, in a novella form. Brevity is certainly a virtue. Your mind's imagination can expand upon the vista, if you so desire.

The IMAX-large narrative consists of escaping the closed, stagnated world of the last City, undertaking the quest for Universal meaning and the uncovering of stupendous artifacts, the conflict between urban and pastoral ways of life, and many hints of Something Larger than yourself or your world. Edmond Hamilton might've written it. Leigh Brackett might've written it (in less optimistic tones, perhaps). Clarke however did it at the beginning of his career, with grace and a surprisingly "non-stuffy" style. This novel could benefit from a more fluid style of writing and more polished prose, but it remains a splendid canvas on which your imagination can fly — short, of course, of some Dante, William Hope Hodgson's or Tolkien's world-building.

Critics note that the space opera is undergoing a modern renaissance as a genre. True, we have a veritable British Invasion of fine writers (Reynolds, Stross, Hamilton, Banks, Asher, to name a few) and we may safely say that Grand Adventure is alive and well (maybe it just feels different among the endless "door-stopper" trilogies in Chapters, you know). One good example is Alastair Reynolds' recent gritty and sweeping in scale "Pushing Ice", where a planet gets abducted into an alien cosmological structure, which in turn is a part and a mechanism in an even bigger super-structure of it all. We live in fortunate times indeed, able to sample such cool new epics together with the older classics of space adventures (and even some rare pulp stuff).

I hesitate however to broadly apply the term "modern space opera". Many books remain "adventures" only, and may be all the better for it. Stanley Weinbaum’s sophisticated planetary romps were definite Golden Age space adventures, but to graduate to the “opera” status, one has to shift the focus from the characters and single ideas to the “concepts” and “principalities and powers”. Yes, it is essentially a scale shift, and not always for the better. My personal preference would be toward scaled-down but more wondrous stories… simply because it is much harder to do it properly on a larger scale (it tends to dull your sense of wonder). It’s hard to write poetically about civilizations perishing in a blink. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to write a monumentally engrossing thriller (with some grandiose and smart ideas) happening on a single spaceship, or a submarine (Frank Herbert did that in Under Pressure).

One more point. Space opera is all about epic plot and magnified sense of wonder, and if you look close enough you can even find it in the Bible. (After all, that's what the Higher Powers do — wage epic battles, which humans are just too fragile to write about.) As for the Space Opera in science fiction, may it live long and prosper, as it requires first and foremost a child-like heart. Compare the thirties' and forties' wide-eyed innocence with the modern "been there, done that" attitude, and you will understand why many readers are left to seek out collectible pulps on eBay, instead of going to the chain bookstores. Classic science fiction was brief, to the point, inventive, and simply grand. Do we have a similar trend in high-quality fiction today? I'd like to be convinced that we do. It'll be great to hear about your suggestions of writers and stories which still carry on in a grand and wondrous adventure tradition.

Comments, reading suggestions? I'd love to hear from you.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

...first, kudos for
reviewing some sc-fi. Always Appreciated. Next, I love your use of
language, as in when you say "The IMAX-large narrative" and you made
me think a bit about space operas and the bible. Personally, I would
be interested in reading a novel (or a graphic novel) about Lucifer
and his rebellion against heaven.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Killah Mate said...

Well, here's one massively late comment.

I'll just note that, in a way, you might say everything from Olaf Stapledon onward was a slow diminishment in scale and, perhaps, sense of wonder. We (or rather he) started so big, there was nowhere to go but down.

To Anonymous: there are a bunch of novels about Lucifer, and even an eponymous Vertigo graphic novel series, a truly wondrous work written by the wonderful Mike Carey, which I heartily recommend. However, it's set in a modern context (within the Vertigo 'Sandman' universe) and lacks quite the cosmic feel I think you're looking for (though it has some of that).

8:27 AM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Great observation about Stapledon, though Alastair Reynolds and Peter Hamilton may come close to such cosmological scale today - still his work was pretty much a blueprint...

3:17 PM  

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