Not so long ago I reviewed a collection of stories that were billed as "new space opera." The problem, as I saw it, was that the things that made the stories 'new' were precisely those things that stopped them being space opera. In fact, the insistence on reinventing the form left me wondering whether or not there is still a place for space opera in modern science fiction. It is, after all, a form that dates back at least to the 1920s, and a form whose concentration on scale and spectacle dashed off with minimal literary quality was peculiarly suited to the high-turnover low-paying markets of the pulp magazines.
But then, writers as varied as Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton have successfully employed the old models of space opera without in any way compromising their modern sensibilities. And now we can add Tobias S. Buckell to that list.
Tobias Buckell has managed to ring some note-worthy changes on the basic format. Some of these are fairly obvious when you take on board current ideas: making his main protagonist female and black is hardly original, though set against memories of the invariably white male space opera of old it still feels surprisingly fresh. But it is the harbinger of a rather more subtle and interesting shift in the cultural dynamic of space opera. No longer is the scenario automatically one in which bold humanity overcomes all obstacles on their way to conquering the universe; the scenario in which aliens fall into one of two camps, the embodiment of evil whose nastiness must be destroyed, or the faithful Tonto to humanity's Lone Ranger (and yes, the racist overtones in that are deliberate). In fact, with a lot of the humanity we meet here, you are hoping that they don't become kings of infinite space. Rather, they are the outcasts of the spaceways, the lowest of the low, ill-regarded, ghettoized, afforded the sort of "freedoms" that any master race (in this case the unseen alien "satraps") will allow to lesser beings. (Sorry, we keep coming back to those racist clichés, don't we? I wonder why that might be.) Again, none of this is exactly new, but cumulatively it seems to be shifting outmoded space opera in a direction that, if not "new" in the sense of that anthology, is at least a fresh lease of life.
And then, in the middle third of the novel, Buckell springs his surprise. The alien Teotl, who perfectly fitted into the ecological niche of implacable, bloodthirsty evil in his previous novel, Crystal Rain, re-appear. But this time they are in the guise of supplicants, not conquerors. Their own world lost, their race driven to the edge of extinction by something higher in the universal food chain, they must seek help from the very beings they had only recently tried to enslave in their turn.
All of a sudden you sit up and take notice, because this is interesting. A pleasingly breakneck adventure has all at once acquired layers of complexity and challenge that we don't normally associate with this type of story.
To be honest, Buckell doesn't do a great deal with it. Indeed he seems totally oblivious to some of the moral issues this scenario raises. Instead, in the red heat of incessant action that characterises the novel (I don't think you will find a passage of as many as five pages in which a life isn't lost or threatened), he allows the whole question to be largely and unsatisfactorily settled by third party gunfire. Nevertheless, the question does change the dynamic of the book in subtle ways that make it about more than just how many people can be killed, and how many ways can our heroes find to escape death at the last minute. Nor is there any reason to suppose Buckell won't return to this issue in another book, since this whole scenario seems big enough to support more novels yet unwritten.
We open with Nashara escaping the grimy, run-down human ghetto where she has been trapped for years. She is aided by a human resistance group, and the price they have extracted is that she assassinate an alien panjandrum. She has done this so effectively that now they want to keep her there as a weapon in their fight. A bad move, since Nashara is that old-fashioned mainstay of space operas, a superhero engineered for warfare. She has a remarkable ability to fight off any attacker, and at one point escapes pursuers by simply crossing a vacuum unprotected with no more than momentary discomfort. She is, indeed, so complete a fighting machine that one wonders how come she was trapped in the ghetto for so long. So it comes as no surprise that before too long she is threading wormholes aboard a battlescarred spaceship with only a skeleton crew surviving; rescuing two children from a habitat that has suddenly descended into civil war; and fleeing the more powerful ships of the Hongguo, the human enforcers for the satrapy.
And this brings us to the nub of the matter. For the Hongguo have hitherto been concerned simply with restricting technological development that might threaten the power of the satraps. But now they are destroying habitats, a genocidal programme that, we gradually learn, is not restricted to humans. Which means Nashara must convey this news to the Ragamuffins, the rag-tag space navy of the free human worlds of New Anegada and Chimson, which have been cut off from the rest of the universe since their wormholes were deliberately closed by the satraps.
All of that, breathlessly told, takes us only through the first third of the novel. Now there is an abrupt change of scene to Nanagada, where an uneasy peace reigns after the war between the neo-Caribbean and the neo-Aztec peoples who have divided the planet between them. There's an awful lot of back-story running right through this novel, but in the first part Buckell layers in just enough explanation between the action that there is no need to have read the previous book. But on Nanagada, where the pace is slightly less hectic and the characters less well differentiated, a familiarity with Crystal Rain would be useful just to help tell the names apart.
Peace, of course, is not what this novel is about. War is what keeps (most) space operas rolling along, and Buckell has no intention of being an exception to that rule. So barely a handful of pages go by before blood is being spilled, the good guys are fighting for their lives, and mayhem is let loose. Even so, by the end of this section we are back in space, wormholes are being miraculously re-opened, and our heroes from section two are meeting up with the Ragamuffins from section one ready for the epic space battle that takes up section three. There isn't a great deal to say about the battle, except that there are lots of flash-bang special effects. Nashara reveals yet another new super power, and the most interesting character in the book, who has been mysteriously trailing Nashara right from the start without ever being given very much to do, suddenly reveals his true colours.
That synopsis of the plot is over-long simply because there is so much jammed into the book. I toyed for a while with the idea of writing it all as one long, unbroken sentence just to give a flavour of the breathlessness of the whole thing. Buckell certainly has no want of invention where the plot is concerned. Of course, such concentrated action comes at a price. The characters are sketchy at best; but this is space opera, we expect that. What they have is a colourful ability to get themselves into and out of danger, usually accompanied by a fireshow of bullets and explosions, and for that we are probably willing to forgive the fact that they consist of no more than a few surface tics and traits. Even the sex of the central character is far less important than her ability to carry massive guns and maim an opponent with the flick of her wrist.
In the end this is a rollicking, toys-for-boys adventure; but that's what space opera ever was. Buckell's ability to maintain the hell-for-leather pace without let-up from first page to last is worthy of our admiration at least. And if you wouldn't choose to recommend this book as a representative of the intellectual or literary heights that science fiction might achieve, it is at least a damned good example of something at the very core of the genre. This is where we grew up from, and if science fiction has gone off in many different directions since then it is still good to know that something so basic to the genre still has this much life in it. And the life is there because of how much Buckell clings to the traditions of space opera without trying to reshape it into something new.