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When Galaxies Collide

“Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding; or, rather, were passing through each other,” is the first sentence of E E ‘Doc’ Smith‘s Triplanetary, the first in his Lensman series. I read it at an impressionable young age and that sentence has stuck with me ever since, probably because the concept struck my young mind as awesome. (Awesome in the British sense and not as our USian cousins use the term, almost as a throwaway.)

Smith wasn’t the greatest stylist (he wasn’t a stylist at all) and his characterisation was rudimentary but he more or less invented space opera. About the only things I can remember about the Lensman series is that first sentence and the frequently repeated call sign (no doubt modelled on William Joyce as “Lord Haw-Haw“) “This is Helmuth, speaking for Boskone.”

Anyway, this, from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for 23/5/18, is a picture of two galaxies (NGC 4038 and NGC 4039) colliding; or, rather, passing through each other, not two thousand million years ago but for the last 100 million at least.

NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 Colliding

The two galaxies are known as the antennae. A wider angle (which was featured on APOD on 29/4/2011) shows why.

The Antennae

A Different Top Ten Space Operas

In response to Gareth Powell’s list Ian Sales has posted his own. Typically of Ian his choices are idiosyncratic. I note he sneaks in more than ten too.

My strike rate here is much lower.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (1967 – present)
The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985 – 1990)
Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, Phillip Mann (1986 – 1987)
Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgement, Susan R Matthews (1997 – 1999)
The Prodigal Sun, The Dying Light and A Dark Imbalance, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (1999 – 2001)
The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld (2003)
Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Top Ten Space Operas

Another list.

According to Wikipedia “Space Opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.”

Partly as a comment on the sub-genre and also as an attempt to subvert it I provided my own novel A Son of the Rock with the tagline “A Space Libretto” mainly because – while it roamed the spaceways and deployed technology – advanced abilities and weapons were largely, if not completely, absent.

As to Space Opera itself, Gareth Powell has posted a list of what he considers a Top Ten of Space Operas on his website. It leans heavily towards relatively recent works.

As you can see I’ve read all but three of them.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton
Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey
Space by Stephen Baxter
Excession by Iain M. Banks

The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson

Tor, 2012, 359p.

After a strange encounter with a renegade, when a dangerous piece of technology, an instantiation lattice, is forcibly inserted into his brain, information specialist Luc Gabion is called in to investigate the murder of a member of the Temur Council, one of the Thousand Emperors of the title, rulers of the Tian-Di, half of the two parts into which humanity had split after the events of Gibson’s previous novel Final Days.

Thereafter we are plunged into a mix of power politics, interstellar intrigue and action sequences with all the attendant skiffy stuff – armed insect–like machines called mechants, jump gates, books that release their contents on contact, enhanced humans with disseminated consciousnesses – of which devotees of Space Opera are fond.

I have a feeling that Gibson may have rushed this one; or else was squeezing too much into his word count. Quite a lot of the background information was revealed through dialogue and as a consequence seemed unnatural. (Yes, no-one in novels actually “talks” as in real life; but even so.) The mayhem count will please those who like that sort of thing though

Curiously a crime was “perpetuated” at one point but “perpetrate” was used later in an appropriate fashion. Compared to Final Days there was an increased span count of 5 here – though there was one “spun.”

The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley

Orbit, 2011. 467p.

 The Ascendant Stars cover

This is the third and final part of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy which I have reviewed previously here and here.

The Ascendant Stars follows the template set out before, a multi-stranded narrative which tends to break up the story’s flow. Indeed, Cobley’s fertile imagination has stacked his tale with so many alien races, so many strands, that sometimes it is difficult to keep track – even with a glossary and a dramatis personae.

As in Humanity’s Fire’s part 2, The Orphaned Worlds, the focus is not so much on the Scots/Scandinavian/Russian world of Darien and its attendant moon Nivyesta – though the Legion of Avatars is finally loosed from its long imprisonment in the warpwell – and yet another new race, the Imisil, pops up to play a bit part. The Darien Scots are occasionally allowed to speak broadly but this dialogue, when it appears, somehow seems too out of place in all the intergalactic mayhem. Paradoxically if all the speech were in this vein it would perhaps be less noticeable.

Two writerly tics were particularly in evidence here. Quite often our viewpoint character is in danger of some sort – of imminent death even – only to be saved by the intervention of a companion/third party and, as in The Orphaned Worlds, the formulations “seconds later” and “minutes later” abound. There is an almost breathless rush to pack in all the incident. And incident there is aplenty. There is so much plot going on here that in many cases it has to be told rather than shown.

It may be that Cobley’s canvas is just too broad. Scaling down the action of a Space Opera is perhaps counter intuitive but doing so might have enhanced the human aspects of the story. With so much going on the characters do not get enough time to breathe as people. As a result the emotional pay-off of the dénouement lacks the impact it might have had.

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