Book Review: Three Space Opera Novellas from Tor.com Publishing

8 Nov

In the evolution and growth of the Novella program from Tor.com Publishing, an innovation that they have hit upon, as their lineup has grown and they have expanded their horizons, is the idea of thematic seasons. Instead of a welter of novellas of all kinds as they did in their initial phases, starting with 2017, the publisher has focused on themes. In Summer of 2017, the focus was on Space Opera.

I’ve previously discussed All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells, which kicked off the Summer of Space Opera. I’ve since gone on to read three of the four other novellas in the set.

Killing Gravity by Corey J. White tells the story of the “voidwitch”, Mariam Xi, better known as Mars. A heroine unsure and unclear about her own burgeoning and developing psychic powers, Mars’ story is one of self discovery, even as she is on the run from forces intent on controlling her, and her own desire to get vengeance on the person who left her for dead. Mariam’s story is also one of trust, as Mars’ prickly and uncertain relationship with the crew of the Nova, the ship that has saved her, is an extremely tenuous and fragile one as they learn how to deal with each other, even as government and black ops organizations hunt the lot of them.

This relationship also has a strong theme of “found family” in the crew of the Nova. We see how they react to each other, treat each other and protect their own. Mars is on the outside of this set of relationships at the beginning, a face pressed against the viewpoint of a world alien to her. Her coming to terms with what it would mean to connect with such a group of people, and how that works, is a strong point of the novel. This makes Killing Gravity a very personal story even in the midst of a wide open space opera universe.

The first-person point of view gives us a deep and rewarding dive into Mars’ personality, outlook and ethos. She’s been battered and battered around, changed, engineered and left for dead. The first-person POV here allows us to empathize and understand Mars in a way that I think another point of view might not render her story quite as effectively. I grew to empathize with Mars, even if about the first thing she does when she meets the crew of the Nova is to try and hijack it. To say that she has trust issues is understating the case. In some senses Mars doesn’t even trust herself, given that she doesn’t quite know what she is capable of, when pressed to the wall.

But she also grows and changes, and that’s a strong theme in the novella, too. I also particularly liked Seven, Mars’ equally strangely engineered pet. Seven is about as much as a cat as Mars is, really, human. Which is to say absolutely not, and absolutely yes.

Starfire: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth jumps us into the far future, and into a completely different galaxy. After a period of dominance of local space by humanity, a revolutionary movement led by John Starfire has just toppled the Emperor at his palace on the planet of Irirthessa. John is  half-human, half-Jorian, an engineered cross of human DNA with a now-extinct race called the Jorians, a race with prodigious powers as Navigators and Warriors. These half-Jorians have decided that the tyranny of the “bluebloods” of humanity must come to an end. But how far can a revolution go? Should go? And how far will a revolution go to overthrow a tyranny?

Starfire: A Red Peace has two main characters, both of whom are also half-human, half-Jorian, but from completely different backgrounds. Their stories wind up intertangled, whether they will it or not.

Jaqi’s story starts, amusingly enough, because of a tomato. Jaqi, even as a half-Jorian itinerant Navigator for hire, is on the outside of this revolution, touched by it and what it is doing, but definitely not part of it in any way, shape or form. Jaqi’s concerns, hopes and fears are far more localized and direct. Food, shelter, making a living. Maybe getting something better to eat than the crap that she normally gets. A chance encounter with those who hold a mysterious heirloom, a package with something strange and unusual inside (but what that is, is part of the reveal) that many would kill to obtain. Including the forces of the revolution.

On the other hand, Araskar is firmly within the apparatus of that revolution, part of the forces helping to liberate planets from the tyranny of the Emperor.  Complete with a soulsword that steals the life force of its victims, Araskar would normally be someone that no one sane would want to stand up against in a battle. And yet he is interestingly flawed. He is a drug addict, trying to get through what he has done and who he is with the aid of pharmaceuticals of various kinds. He has a relationship of some sort with one of his fellow officers, who has secrets of her own. Araskar finds himself quickly drawn into John Starfire’s counsels, and then sent to retrieve that mysterious package that Jaqi has stumbled onto. And so the chase is on, as Jaqi seeks to discover what she truly has and survive, and Araskar doggedly pursues her. All of this is the foreground to a fascinating universe full of aliens, space stations, strange vistas and crunchy goodness.

In some ways, Starfire reminded me of Joseph Brassey’s Skyfarer (see my review here) in that entangled destiny of main characters in conflict with each other, complete with macguffin, chases, fights, revelations, secrets and betrayals. Like that novel, Starfire: A Red Peace relies on the strength of the two main characters and their stories in order to work. Just as those characters were interesting, complicated and appealing in Skyfarer, the stories of Jaqi and Araskar here make the novella work.

And the touch of science fantasy in Starfire, particularly in the form of the soulswords, and other strange powers and elements of the world (Necrowasp!), ties in SARP with Killing Gravity’s Mars’ touch of science fantasy strange voidwitch powers. Space Opera is a very large galaxy, with a variety of styles, modes, and motifs. Both SARP and Killing Gravity hew closer toward the Star Wars quadrant of the Space Opera galaxy.

With that in mind, Acadie by Dave Hutchinson goes in a completely different direction, eschewing the more science fantasy elements of Space Opera for a very different, high tech sort of feel.

Centuries ago, a group of would-be posthumans left a restrictive, oppressive earth to found a colony around another star. A motley group of people wound up with them, some of them almost charmingly behind the times compared to the more experimental of the lot.  One of them, Duke, just so happens to be celebrating his 150th birthday. Other than that, he’s much more relatable to you and me than some of his brethren. He also happens to be President of the Colony, and so when there is an incursion into local space, birthday hangover or not, it’s time for Duke to lead and deal with the problem. While one hopes it’s just another comet from the Oort cloud or something else drifting into system, this time, it seems that Earth has found the Colony. What has to be done, and what should be done, is the heart of the story.

Acadie goes for the high tech posthuman quadrant of space opera. Humans evolving beyond their usual boundaries. Artificial intelligences are common. Hyperdrives. Quantum transceivers for communication. Space Habitats that are generations beyond the old conception of L’Neill colonies. Acadie goes for the gusto in the story of a colony with superior technology, facing the old world that has unexpectedly shown up on the doorstep. Tie that in with the story of Duke, possibly the most unlikely person to be President of this colony, and explore his history with some flashbacks, and you have the ingredients for a solar-system wide space opera with space ship hijinks, AI networks, and a mystery at the heart of it all—why has Earth come calling again, and come calling now?

There is a giant, reassess-everything-that-occurs-twist that happens in the novella’s last ten pages. The novella does not rely on this twist to work. Right up to its ending, a reader might have a suspicion that something is not as it seems, and the reveal to be an “aha” moment. I personally had an inkling something was off, and yet the surprise twist hit me right in the gut. Like a good twist ending where the rest of the novel, or movie, or work holds up on its own, this made me reassess what I had just read. I thought back and flipped at a couple of passages and saw just where Hutchinson had laid groundwork for the twist. It hangs together, it makes sense, it completes and elevates an interesting world, an interesting work into something even more. It’s audacious and it works.

I have to declare, although I have not completed the novella set (I have not yet read Ghost Line by Andrew Neil Gray and J. S. Herbison), that based on the four novellas I have read, the Summer of space opera that Tor.com Publishing has put together is an unquestioned success. Although Acadie is not set up for subsequent novels in its universe for reasons that would be amazingly spoilery, the other novellas are clearly designed for sequels, and sequels are in the works for them. I definitely am on board with these authors, their universes, and their characters.

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