Junk Yard Universes

David Pringle's and Colin Greenland's notorious editorial in the Summer 1984 issue of Interzone, calling for radical, hard SF stories that would be 'critical and investigative, facing up to the science and technology of the present and future', may not have kick-started the new space opera, but it did (as Stephen Baxter and I admitted to each other a few years later) codify a feeling that science fiction - not just hard science fiction but all science fiction - was overdue for reinvention. One manifestation of that early '80's Zeitgeist was of course cyberpunk; another, more nebulous because they were essentially cyberpunk's antithesis, were the so-called Humanists. The new space opera is a mostly British response to the same impulse, emerging without the benefit of a prophet or a manifesto, less than a movement than a coincidence. Given that writers are wilfully idiosyncratic, if you scratch half-a-dozen practitioners of any particular trend, you'll probably get half-a-dozen different rationales. As far as I recall, my own motivation for getting into space opera back in the late '80's/early '90's was a mildly revolutionary fervour to refurbish the kind of stuff that inspired me at an impressionable age, the logical artistic requirement to include the sentence She was clinging by her fingertips to the edge of a docking hatch, five light days above the black hole at the center of the Galaxy. in a novel, and a reaction against the then extant American perception that British science fiction was gloomily literate and more interested in the soft sciences than the hard stuff, which was about as accurate as the British perception that American science fiction is dominated by right-wing, militaristic neocolonialists.

Old school space opera was all about scale. Everything in it, from the lushly romantic plots and the star-spanning empires to the light-year-spurning space ships, construction of any one of which would have exhausted the metal reserves of a solar system, was big. But while it may have been stuffed full of faux-exotic colour and bursting with contrived energy, most of the old school space opera was, let's face it, as two-dimensional and about as realistic as a cartoon cel. New space opera - the good new space opera - cheerfully plunders the tropes and toys of the old school and secondary sources from Blish to Delany, refurbishes them with up-to-the-minute science, and deploys them in epic narratives where intimate, human-scale stories are at least as relevant as the widescreen baroque backgrounds on which they cast their shadows. There are neither empires nor rigid technocracies dominated by a single Big Idea in the new space opera; like cyberpunk, it's eclectic and pluralistic, and infused with the very twenty-first century sensibility that the center cannot hold, that technology-driven change is continuous and advancing on a thousand fronts, that some kind of posthuman singularity is approaching fast or may already have happened. Most of all, its stories contain a vertiginous sense of deep time; in the new space opera, the Galaxy is not an empty stage on which humans freely strut their stuff, but is instead a kind of junk yard littered with the ruins and abandoned wonders of earlier, more powerful races.

Since the new space opera is most closely identified with a new generation of British writers, this isn't surprising: one thing the British are famous for is their history. We have a lot of it. If you dig down anywhere in the central square mile of London, you'll pass through layer upon layer of history, through Victorian and Elizabethan and Norman rubble, through the black horizon line where the original Roman settlement was burnt to the ground by Boadicea, all the way down to the flint hand axes and mammoth tusks of the Stone Age. Many of the stories of the new space opera are, like London, built upon the remains of older civilisations (the opening scenes of my own Eternal Light and Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space are both set in archaeological excavations), and the ancient alien artifacts that litter their pages are not merely plot coupons, but also wilfully encode traces of ancient genre DNA.

New space opera wears its influences with postmodern pride. From the new romanticism of Iain M. Banks, Ian McDonald and Colin Greenland to the hardcore technogoth of Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross, its authors are painfully conscious that much of what they're doing has already been done; that the trick is to do it better, bring the kind of stuff you loved when you were younger and more innocent bang up to date and push it harder and faster and further, and most of all have fun with it.

If it's not to become fatally arteriosclerotic, science fiction, like all genres, needs to undergo periods of radical refurbishment. The new space operas are merely the latest manifestation of this necessary process. What's next? I have no idea. But very probably some scarily bright and horribly talented teenage gigglingly grooving on what we fondly think of as cutting-edge stuff already has an inkling.

First appeared in Locus.

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