I started a new book of short stories this week called The Space Opera Renaissance. This is an interesting subject for a book. At least to me. Space Opera, to me has always meant grand adventure in space. Sort of like normal opera – large, sometimes epic – only in the future. I didn’t really have a clear definition of what it was, I just knew it when I saw it.
Little did I know the term was originally meant as a pejorative for poorly written, poorly conceived trash. The term was a derivation of the colloquial (at the time) phrase ‘horse opera’ for westerns that were just another shootout between good guys and bad guys, or ‘soap opera’ that is still used today.
Sometime in the seventies – due mostly to the influence of Lester and Judy Lynn Del Rey and the work of some brilliant writers that were way ahead of the curve (Samuel R. Delaney) – the meaning of the term changed to become complimentary. Authors that would have been offended to be told that their work was ‘space opera’ were suddenly writing space opera, on purpose. From that the genre retroactively changed so that writers who had previously been considered ‘good’ and therefore ‘not space opera’ were rebranded as the new space opera. Authors like E. E. “Doc” Smith and others found themselves suddenly referred to as space opera pioneers, where they previously would have been offended to be associated with such a term.
Now space opera implies something that is very well written and planned out, otherwise it wouldn’t work, as complex as it usually is.
The Space Opera Renaissance has a collection of stories that starts at the beginning of space opera (in the 1920’s) all the way up to today.
I thought it would be fun to write about each of the authors and their stories as I get to them. We’ll see how this goes. If I find I don’t have the time I might skip some.
The first story is by Edmond Hamilton. Edmond Hamilton wrote what was probably considered space opera even when he was writing it. His stories appeared in the cheapest of magazines and were usually dismissed by his peers. He was born in 1904 and his stories were published mostly alongside Robert E. Howard (Conan) and H. P. Lovecraft (the ‘father’ of horror). He was nick-named ‘world destroyer’ because of the common theme of his stories.
His story, “The Star Stealers”, is almost unapologetically bad. The idea is that a huge, dead star, a million times the size of our own is approaching the galaxy at just the right angle and distance that when it passes it will suck our entire system into its orbit. Ran Rarak, captain of a military cruiser, and Horus Hol (you can already see that he’s a natural for the comics – which he did later in life – with his alliterative names) set out to turn that huge star aside. When they arrive they find that the star is peopled by aliens who need to capture our system to survive. This is where things get hoaky. First they land on the surface of this dead star which has enough gravity to suck our entire solar system out of the galaxy from 3 billion miles away and they walk around on it without any problem at all. Then they sneak into the alien city, kill hundreds of them before being captured and talk about how monstrous the aliens are because they vivisected ONE of their captives. After the hero sleeps for ten weeks, without any ill effects to his health or stamina upon waking, they escape, by pure luck and send the star on its way, dooming the aliens to a sure and slow death of cold and darkness in the space between galaxies. There is never a question of, is this right or wrong. It is simply, ew they have tentacles.
The story made me long for the Star Trek solution where Captain Kirk would certainly have turned the dead star aside to save Earth and it’s system but he would also have negotiated a place for the aliens to live in our galaxy where they wouldn’t be doomed to die because they got in our way, or we got in theirs as the case may be.
The science is sort of hit or miss but I feel somewhat forgiving of this – after all this story was written when physicists still believed that light traveled through the ether and relativity was a wild speculation, not accepted as science. However even forgiveness for the times doesn’t account for the fact that the laws of gravity have bee well understood since Newton bumped his head. (Yes, I know Newton didn’t really have an apple fall on his head, but it makes for some nice prose and great imagery.)
Constructively this story is written well enough. There is proper foreshadowing of things and it is appropriately subtle. The ending is a little bit of a disappointment by todays standards where we believe that the hero has to be the solution but that is merely a product of our times. The characters and descriptions are about as flat as an original series Star Trek backdrop. The description of the aliens and their building and their weapons and their ships is summed up with a simple word, ‘pyramid’, everything is shaped like a pyramid in the fashion of low budget silent movie science fiction. I guess those things are fitting since the story was written in the twenties, maybe since the world wasn’t in color yet things didn’t have details yet either.