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Authors: Gardner Dozois

The New Space Opera 2

BOOK: The New Space Opera 2
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The New Space Opera 2
Edited by
Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan

For Jessica and Sophie,
who are far more likely to see the stars than me

Contents

 

Utriusque Cosmi
• Robert Charles Wilson

The Island
• Peter Watts

To Go Boldly
• Cory Doctorow

The Lost Princess Man
• John Barnes

Defect
• Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Shell Game
• Neal Asher

Punctuality
• Garth Nix

Inevitable
• Sean Williams

From the Heart
• John Meaney

Chameleons
• Elizabeth Moon

The Tenth Muse
• Tad Williams

Cracklegrackle
• Justina Robson

The Tale of the Wicked
• John Scalzi

The Far End of History
• John C. Wright

 

T
he true heart of science fiction has always been the space-opera story; the thrilling adventure tale of powerful rocket ships, dashing heroes, and far frontiers—stories of immense scope and scale, color and action, taking us to the ultimate limits of both time and space. Two years ago, when compiling the book that became
The New Space Opera
, we looked to present a snapshot of how the space-opera story had evolved from what Bob Tucker had in 1941 contemptuously defined as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn” to one of the most popular forms of science fiction of the eighties, the nineties, and the oughts, and one where much of the cutting-edge work in today's genre is being done.

As we noted in the introduction to that book, starting in the early 1970s, writers on both sides of the Atlantic (Iain M. Banks, M. John Harrison, Barrington Bayley, Samuel R. Delany, Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge), building on the work of earlier eras, from the twenties to the sixties, by such great pioneers as Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, A. E. van Vogt, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and many others, started experimenting with what had in some ways by then become an old and threadbare form, investing it with a much more rigorous approach to science, a greater depth of characterization, better writing, and an increased sensitivity to political realities. While “old space opera” continued—and continues—to be written, part of the established spectrum of science fiction, this “new space opera” caught the imagination of the reading public, and to this day many writers identified with the form are among the bestselling authors in the field.

Our intention with compiling
The New Space Opera
was not to assemble a movement-defining book—a task that still remains to be done, in our opinion—but to map at least some of the territory covered by this
sprawling (and sometimes contradictory: the line between New Space Opera and Old Space Opera, and just plain science fiction, for that matter, is often subjective and hard to draw, and no two people draw it in the same place) new form, providing a broad range of stories by some of the best writers working in the field at the time. And, of course, to provide as entertaining an anthology as possible in the process, one that would make the readers think that their money had not been ill-spent. Much ink was spilled over the result, with some critics drawing lines in the sand and declaring that some of the stories in the book were not really New Space Opera by their definition, while other critics drew other lines in the sand and came to exactly opposite conclusions about what was canonical and what was not.

No doubt the book you hold in your hand will provoke a similar range of arguments.

The subgenre of New Space Opera has become broad enough that we were able to provide a completely fresh slate of contributors for this anthology, not needing to reuse anyone from the first book—and coming along behind
them
is yet another entirely new rank of New Space Opera creators who may yet someday also get a shot of their own.

We're proud to say that the book at hand compiles new work from eighteen of the best current practitioners of the New Space Opera, from relatively new writers to experienced veterans of the field: Robert Charles Wilson, Peter Watts, John Kessel, Cory Doctorow, John Barnes, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Neal Asher, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Bruce Sterling, Bill Willingham, John Meaney, Elizabeth Moon, Jay Lake, Tad Williams, Justina Robson, John Scalzi, Mike Resnick, and John C. Wright—as good a list of authors, we think, as you're likely to find in any other science-fiction anthology this year.

We think there's something here for everyone, with the stories ranging from cool, cutting extrapolation on the extreme edge of cosmology to baroque romanticism to the swashbuckling adventures of space pirates. There's variety and breadth, color and life, scale and scope, drama and conflict, romance and glory—and not a little humor. While it's a completely different book than its predecessor, we think that it's nonetheless a worthy successor to
The New Space Opera
. We can only hope you'll agree.

—Gardner Dozois/Jonathan Strahan

ROBERT CHARLES WILSON
UTRIUSQUE COSMI

Robert Charles Wilson made his first sale in 1974, to
Analog
, but little more was heard from him until the late eighties, when he began to publish a string of ingenious and well-crafted novels and stories that have since established him among the top ranks of the writers who came to prominence in the last two decades of the twentieth century. His first novel,
A Hidden Place
, appeared in 1986. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel
The Chronoliths
, the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel
Mysterium
, and the Aurora Award for his story “The Perseids.” In 2006, he won the Hugo Award for his acclaimed novel
Spin
. His other books include the novels
Memory Wire, Gypsies, The Divide, The Harvest, A Bridge of Years, Darwinia, Blind Lake, Bios
, and
Axis
, and a collection of his short work,
The Perseids and Other Stories
. His most recent book is a new novel,
Julian
. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

Here he tells the compelling story of a young woman faced with the most significant choice she will ever make in her life—after which,
nothing
will ever be the same.

 

D
iving back into the universe (now that the universe is a finished object, boxed and ribboned from bang to bounce), Carlotta calculates ever-finer loci on the frozen ordinates of spacetime until at last she reaches a trailer park outside the town of Commanche Drop, Arizona. Bodiless, no more than a breath of imprecision in the Feynman geography of certain virtual particles, thus powerless to affect the material world, she passes unimpeded through a sheet-aluminum wall and hovers over a mattress on which a young woman sleeps uneasily.

The young woman is her own ancient self, the primordial Carlotta Boudaine, dewed with sweat in the hot night air, her legs caught up in a spindled cotton sheet. The bedroom's small window is cranked open, and in the breezeless distance a coyote wails.

Well, look at me, Carlotta marvels: skinny girl in panties and a halter, sixteen years old—no older than a gnat's breath—taking shallow little sleep-breaths in the moonlit dark. Poor child can't even see her own ghost. Ah, but she will, Carlotta thinks—
she must
.

The familiar words echo in her mind as she inspects her dreaming body, buried in its tomb of years, eons, kalpas.
When it's time to leave, leave. Don't be afraid. Don't wait. Don't get caught. Just go. Go fast
.

Her ancient beloved poem. Her perennial mantra. The words, in fact, that saved her life.

She needs to share those words with herself, to make the circle complete. Everything she knows about nature of the physical universe suggests that the task is impossible. Maybe so…but it won't be for lack of trying.

Patiently, slowly, soundlessly, Carlotta begins to speak.

 

Here's the story of the Fleet, girl, and how I got raptured up into it. It's all about the future—a bigger one than you believe in—so brace yourself.

It has a thousand names and more, but we'll just call it the Fleet. When I first encountered it, the Fleet was scattered from the core of the galaxy all through its spiraled tentacles of suns, and it had been there for millions of years, going about its business, though nobody on this planet knew anything about it. I guess every now and then a Fleet ship must have fallen to Earth, but it would have been indistinguishable from any common meteorite by the time it passed through the atmosphere: a chunk of carbonaceous chondrite smaller than a human fist, from which all evidence of ordered matter had been erased by fire—and such losses, which happened everywhere and often, made no discernible difference to the Fleet as a whole. All Fleet data (that is to say, all
mind
) was shared, distributed, fractal. Vessels were born and vessels were destroyed, but the Fleet persisted down countless eons, confident of its own immortality.

Oh, I know you don't understand the big words, child! It's not important for you to hear them—not
these
words—it's only important for me to
say
them. Why? Because a few billion years ago tomorrow, I carried your ignorance out of this very trailer, carried it down to the Interstate, and hitched west with nothing in my backpack but a bottle of water, a half-dozen Tootsie Rolls, and a wad of twenty-dollar bills stolen out of Dan-O's old ditty bag. That night (tomorrow night: mark it) I slept under an overpass all by myself, woke up cold and hungry long before dawn, and looked up past a concrete arch crusted with bird shit into a sky so thick with falling stars it made me think of a dark skin bee-stung with fire. Some of the Fleet vectored too close to the atmosphere that night, no doubt, but I didn't understand that (any more than
you
do, girl)—I just thought it was a big flock of shooting stars, pretty but meaningless. And, after a while, I slept some more. And come sunrise, I waited for the morning traffic so I could catch another ride…but the only cars that came by were all weaving or speeding, as if the whole world was driving home from a drunken party.

“They won't stop,” a voice behind me said. “Those folks already made their decisions, Carlotta. Whether they want to live or die, I mean. Same decision you have to make.”

I whirled around, sick-startled, and that was when I first laid eyes on dear Erasmus.

Let me tell you right off that Erasmus wasn't a human being. Erasmus
just then was a knot of shiny metal angles about the size of a microwave oven, hovering in midair, with a pair of eyes like the polished tourmaline they sell at those roadside souvenir shops. He didn't
have
to look that way—it was some old avatar he used because he figured that it would impress me. But I didn't know that then. I was only surprised, if that's not too mild a word, and too shocked to be truly frightened.

“The world won't last much longer,” Erasmus said in a low and mournful voice. “You can stay here, or you can come with me. But choose quick, Carlotta, because the mantle's come unstable and the continents are starting to slip.”

I half-believed that I was still asleep and dreaming. I didn't know what that meant, about the mantle, though I guessed he was talking about the end of the world. Some quality of his voice (which reminded me of that actor Morgan Freeman) made me trust him despite how weird and impossible the whole conversation was. Plus, I had a confirming sense that
something
was going bad
somewhere
, partly because of the scant traffic (a Toyota zoomed past, clocking speeds it had never been built for, the driver a hunched blur behind the wheel), partly because of the ugly green cloud that just then billowed up over a row of rat-toothed mountains on the horizon. Also the sudden hot breeze. And the smell of distant burning. And the sound of what might have been thunder, or something worse.

“Go with you where?”

“To the stars, Carlotta! But you'll have to leave your body behind.”

I didn't like the part about leaving my body behind. But what choice did I have, except the one he'd offered me? Stay or go. Simple as that.

It was a ride—just not the kind I'd been expecting.

There was a tremor in the Earth, like the devil knocking at the soles of my shoes. “Okay,” I said, “whatever,” as white dust bloomed up from the desert and was taken by the frantic wind.

Don't be afraid. Don't wait. Don't get caught. Just go. Go fast.

Without those words in my head, I swear, girl, I would have died that day. Billions did.

 

She slows down the passage of time so she can fit this odd but somehow necessary monologue into the space between one or two of the younger Carlotta's breaths. Of course, she has no real voice in which to speak. The past is static, imperturbable in its endless sleep; molecules of air on their fixed trajectories can't be manipulated from the shadowy place where she now exists. Wake up with the dawn, girl, she says, steal the money you'll
never spend—it doesn't matter; the important thing is to
leave
. It's time.

When it's time to leave
, leave. Of all the memories she carried out of her earthly life, this is the most vivid: waking to discover a ghostly presence in her darkened room, a white-robed woman giving her the advice she needs at the moment she needs it. Suddenly Carlotta wants to scream the words:
When it's time to leave
—

But she can't vibrate even a single mote of the ancient air, and the younger Carlotta sleeps on.

Next to the bed is a thrift-shop night table scarred with cigarette burns. On the table is a child's night-light, faded cutouts of SpongeBob SquarePants pasted on the paper shade. Next to that, hidden under a splayed copy of
People
magazine, is the bottle of barbiturates Carlotta stole from Dan-O's ditty bag this afternoon, the same khaki bag in which (she couldn't help but notice) Dan-O keeps his cash, a change of clothes, a fake driver's license, and a blue steel automatic pistol.

Young Carlotta detects no ghostly presence…nor is her sleep disturbed by the sound of Dan-O's angry voice and her mother's sudden gasp, two rooms away. Apparently, Dan-O is awake and sober. Apparently, Dan-O has discovered the theft. That's a complication.

But Carlotta won't allow herself to be hurried.

 

The hardest thing about joining the Fleet was giving up the idea that I had a body, that my body had a real place to be.

But that's what everybody believed at first, that we were still whole and normal—everybody rescued from Earth, I mean. Everybody who said yes to Erasmus—and Erasmus, in one form or another, had appeared to every human being on the planet in the moments before the end of the world. Two and a half billion of us accepted the offer of rescue. The rest chose to stay put and died when the Earth's continents dissolved into molten magma.

Of course, that created problems for the survivors. Children without parents, parents without children, lovers separated for eternity. It was as sad and tragic as any other incomplete rescue, except on a planetary scale. When we left the Earth, we all just sort of reappeared on a grassy plain as flat as Kansas and wider than the horizon, under a blue faux sky, each of us with an Erasmus at his shoulder and all of us wailing or sobbing or demanding explanations.

The plain wasn't “real,” of course, not the way I was accustomed to things being real. It was a virtual place, and all of us were wearing virtual
bodies, though we didn't understand that fact immediately. We kept on being what we expected ourselves to be—we even wore the clothes we'd worn when we were raptured up. I remember looking down at the pair of greasy secondhand Reeboks I'd found at the Commanche Drop Goodwill store, thinking: in heaven?
Really
?

“Is there any place you'd rather be?” Erasmus asked with a maddening and clearly inhuman patience. “Anyone you need to find?”

“Yeah, I'd rather be in New Zealand,” I said, which was really just a hysterical joke. All I knew about New Zealand was that I'd seen a show about it on PBS, the only channel we got since the cable company cut us off.

“Any particular part of New Zealand?”

“What? Well—okay, a beach, I guess.”

I had never been to a real beach, a beach on the ocean.

“Alone, or in the company of others?”

“Seriously?” All around me people were sobbing or gibbering in (mostly) foreign languages. Pretty soon, fights would start to break out. You can't put a couple of billion human beings so close together under circumstances like that and expect any other result. But the crowd was already thinning, as people accepted similar offers from their own Fleet avatars.

“Alone,” I said. “Except for
you
.”

And quick as that, there I was: Eve without Adam, standing on a lonesome stretch of white beach.

After a while, the astonishment faded to a tolerable dazzle. I took off my shoes and tested the sand. The sand was pleasantly sun-warm. Salt water swirled up between my toes as a wave washed in from the coral-blue sea.

Then I felt dizzy and had to sit down.

“Would you like to sleep?” Erasmus asked, hovering over me like a gem-studded party balloon. “I can help you sleep, Carlotta, if you'd like. It might make the transition easier if you get some rest, to begin with.”

“You can answer some fucking
questions
, is what you can
do
!” I said.

He settled down on the sand beside me, the mutant offspring of a dragonfly and a beach ball. “Okay, shoot,” he said.

 

It's a read-only universe, Carlotta thinks. The Old Ones have said as much, so it must be true. And yet, she knows, she
remembers
, that the younger Carlotta will surely wake and find her here: a ghostly presence, speaking wisdom.

But how can she make herself perceptible to this sleeping child? The senses are so stubbornly material, electrochemical data cascading into vastly complex neural networks…is it possible she could intervene in some way at the borderland of quanta and perception? For a moment, Carlotta chooses to look at her younger self with different eyes, sampling the fine gradients of molecular magnetic fields. The child's skin and skull grow faint and then transparent as Carlotta shrinks her point of view and wanders briefly through the carnival of her own animal mind, the buzzing innerscape where skeins of dream merge and separate like fractal soap bubbles. If she could manipulate even a single boson—influence the charge at some critical synaptic junction, say—

But she can't. The past simply doesn't have a handle on it. There's no uncertainty here anymore, no alternate outcomes. To influence the past would be to
change
the past, and, by definition, that's impossible.

The shouting from the next room grows suddenly louder and more vicious, and Carlotta senses her younger self moving from sleep toward an awakening, too soon.

 

Of course, I figured it out eventually, with Erasmus's help. Oh, girl, I won't bore you with the story of those first few years—they bored
me
, heaven knows.

Of course “heaven” is exactly where we weren't. Lots of folks were inclined to see it that way—assumed they must have died and been delivered to whatever afterlife they happened to believe in. Which was actually not
too
far off the mark, but, of course, God had nothing to do with it. The Fleet was a real-world business, and ours wasn't the first sentient species it had raptured up. Lots of planets got destroyed, Erasmus said, and the Fleet didn't always get to them in time to salvage the population, hard as they tried—we were
lucky
, sort of.

So I asked him what it was that caused all these planets to blow up.

“We don't know, Carlotta. We call it the Invisible Enemy. It doesn't leave a signature, whatever it is. But it systematically seeks out worlds with flourishing civilizations and marks them for destruction.” He added, “It doesn't like the Fleet much, either. There are parts of the galaxy where we don't go—because if we
do
go there, we don't come back.”

BOOK: The New Space Opera 2
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