Reviews – Best New Space Opera 2, Childhood’s End, Stories from the Northern Road

One of the primary barriers to science fiction is its perceived impenetrability. Unlike fantasy, which we’re all exposed to through children’s literature, it’s possible to grow up without ever having read a science fiction novel. As a result, the preponderance of made-up worlds, names, and terminologies can be intimidating to the uninitiated. And it’s also kind of nerdy.

I’m cool with nerdy, but I sometimes find the genre exhausting. Case in point, The New Space Opera 2 is packed with short stories that take place in futures that are almost unrecognizable. Neal Asher’s “Shell Game” is the book’s highlight, a dark, weird story about an alien plot to overthrow a ruling class of space snails. Sean Williams’ “Inevitable” also takes place in unique scenic locales, but the time travel aspects entwined with the protagonist’s mission result in an ending that feels a bit pat. Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel fable “Utriusque Cosmi” suffers from the same dilemma. Both stories play by the rules, which is refreshing, but it also means the reader knows what’s coming long before the main characters realize their fates.

I didn’t make it through much more of the collection. But for those keeping track at home, I found Cory Doctorow’s Star Trek parody “To Go Boldly” smug and intolerable. Like many of the stories presented within, it aims for poignancy but falls flat when the entire exercise is revealed to be the punch line to an awkward joke. That’s typical of genre short stories, and The New Space Opera 2 had more than enough examples to turn me off. Even “Shell Game”, which I liked, suffered from an ending that spelled out the titular pun.

A briefer collection of short works, Stories from the Northern Road is being marketed as book 2.5 in Tony Ballantyne’s Penrose series. That’s the one with the planet full of robots that I keep bringing up. Unfortunately, the stories brought together here have more in common with Ballantyne’s first Penrose novel Twisted Metal than its successor Blood and Iron. As such, it reads more like a collection of appendices and is completely irrelevant to the saga of the robot wars thus far.

The first five stories are variations on the didactic myths the robots of Penrose tell each other to justify their ways of life. Since all myths on Penrose are about robots doing things because they’re wired to do so, then explaining to each other that that’s how they’re wired, they’re also very repetitive. The most intriguing mysteries (“Why are there robot horses?” “Where do the spontaneously generating underground robots come from?”) are never addressed, and I understand why. The point is that the robots don’t think about these things too much. But that’s a point Ballantyne has already hammered home in previous novels, and in comparison to Blood and Iron, these robot folk tales are predictable and regressive.

The back half of Stories from the Northern Road collects five tales from another setting, the AI-dominated universe Ballantyne first described in Recursion. And though the first three are forgettable, “Seeds” and “The Last VNM” are pretty great on their own. Ballantyne’s Recursion trilogy is a mess of unmemorable characters and demonstrates a stubborn disdain for linear narrative. Separated from that context, these two horror stories about humanity being manipulated by AIs that can predict our every move are surprisingly effective. And they prove what I’ve suspected since giving up on the Recursion series, which is that those novels would be a lot more engaging if they weren’t told from viewpoints hundreds of years apart.

Finally, on the topic of Earth being guided by manipulative alien overseers, that’s a trope that goes back at least sixty years. In Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, the Cold War (against the Germans) ends prematurely when alien spacecraft appear over the world’s major cities. Watched over by unseen eyes, Earth is molded into a Utopian society where there’s not much to do but have multiple affairs and continue going to college well into your forties. All the while, the alien Overlords refuse to answer any of our questions while secretly awaiting the next step in human evolution.

Clarke’s novel is the most approachable of the stories I’ve described here. The only dissonance comes from the technologies we now take for granted that never appear in what’s retroactively an alternate history. But it’s longer than it has any need to be, and the mid-book reveal of the Overlords’ physical attributes signals a chain of events that are hard to take seriously. After reading too many books recently where the aliens are described as indescribable, but turn out just to be tentacles, it’s refreshing to encounter a simpler approach. But the depiction of the Overlords as giant black gargoyles wearing sunglasses has aged about as well as the book’s focus on parapsychology.

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