Paul Weimer Review: New Adventures in Space Opera

  • New Adventures in Space Opera edited by Jonathan Strahan (Tachyon, 2024)

Review by Paul Weimer. The Jonathan Strahan-edited New Adventures in Space Opera places a big marker on the definitive anthology heralding the newest iteration of New Space Opera.

Space Opera, as Strahan notes in the introduction, has gone through a number of iterations, evolutions and attempts at definition, some more serious than others (Norman Spinrad’s description of Space Opera as “straight fantasy in science fiction drag” is not quite as far off the mark as one might think). But the amusing thing is that, there have been several times that there has been a next crest of space opera, another “New” Space Opera. The previous New Space Opera hit the field in 2003, and Strahan edited The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2 at that time.  

Here, now, in the 2010s and the 2020s, we have yet another new iteration of a “new” Space Opera, another stop on the journey of the subgenre. Strahan notes that this is a time where “the fascination with empire faded and its terrible impact was more deeply interrogated.”  He thus marks Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice as a herald of this latest iteration of space opera, and also notes the “pulpy energy” of works such as Guardians of the Galaxy.  

It is in this spirit, and this mode, and this energy that Strahan seeks to chart the New Adventures of Space Opera in this volume. And we get a strong set of stories by a wide variety of authors exploring this latest set of dimensions of Space Opera.

I’ve always thought an anthology like this (or any anthology, really) needs a strong opener and a strong closer. The first story is going to dictate whether you are going to continue on to the next story or start randomly skipping stories or go off and play Balatro instead. The last story in an anthology works like the anchor in a relay race. Done right, it leaves you in a good place for the anthology as a whole, and you are far more likely to remember. “Hey, Strahan is a good editor. What’s his next anthology? Or one I missed?” 

So with that in mind, the opener for the anthology is Tobias Buckell’s “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”. It is, as one might suspect, set in his diverse and wild Xenowealth space opera universe, and centers around the relationship between a robot and a CEO. It’s a story about the rich and powerful trying to escape punishment and retribution, and willing to try and manipulate a robot and its rules and laws in order to do it. The robot’s solution to the dilemma raised by Armand is ingenious and clever. 

For a closer, Strahan picks Karin Tidbeck’s “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir”. The conceit of putting fake television shows, series, podcasts and other media as codified by Martha Wells in the Murderbot Chronicles is now standard furniture in the new space opera. In this story, the story of the Andromeda Station tv show’s narrative is point and counterpoint to the story of the titular ship Skidbladnir, a living biological ship which itself feels like a callback and a call out to Farscape’s Moya. It’s a story in rapturous and joyous reference and dialogue with recent space opera. It’s a story that is designed to get you “dancing out into the streets” after you have finished the story, and thus the anthology.  

 And there are a meaty set of stories in between these two. Some of the highlights include:

“Extracurricular Activities”, a Yoon Ha Lee story set in the Machineries of Empire, following the story of a special forces operative/spy. It’s funny, it’s sexy and it is queer, and paints a corner of their Empire verse in the familiar colors of the novel. T Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) comes in with a story, “Metal like Blood in the Dark”, that feels like it is as much in dialogue with fairy tales (particularly Hansel and Gretel) as it is with the new space opera, as a pair of constructed sentient machines learn some harsh life lessons. 

 “The Justified”.  Here we have an Ann Leckie story, and a corker of a one. It is NOT set in the Ancillary Justice universe and instead borrows from Mesopotamian and Egyptian myth and religion as much as space opera and science fiction tropes. And it definitely fits the mission of the new space opera as outlined by Strahan in critiquing and analyzing the consequences and problems of Empire.

Charlie Jane Anders’ “A Temporary Embarrassment of Spacetime” is a sexy and funny story of an unusual pair of aliens that start off trying to escape a giant space blob. And things get really weird. And yet it is also a heartwarming story of found family that has resonances with a lot of other found families in space opera. And it definitely has the pulpy energy of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Aliette de Bodard comes in with a Xuya story, “Immersion”, that is a devastatingly powerful story about colonialism, language, customs, cultural assimilation and assumptions and much more. It has a sharpness that can be missed in some of her other stories and novels. The story cuts its themes into a reader, ruthlessly, even through its veneer of politeness. 

These and the other stories in the volume together are an excellent representation of what space opera is doing in the short-of-novel space. Space Opera is hard to do at short lengths, and short fiction in general these days has a lot of challenges in publication and reaching readers. This anthology brings together a set of stories that you may have missed. New Adventures in Space Opera gives you another chance to become part of the continuing genre conversation within Space Opera.

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2 thoughts on “Paul Weimer Review: New Adventures in Space Opera

  1. I loved “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir.” Not just liked it a lot. It went immediately on my list of favorites.

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