Guardians of the Galaxy 2 arrives in theaters this week, and it promises to have the cosmic adventures, spaceships, and action that made its predecessor a surprising success. If you leave the theater wanting more, there are two new science fiction anthologies that you should consider picking up: Galactic Empires and Cosmic Powers.
Space opera (defined by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “colorful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict”) is experiencing a bit of a boom lately. We’ve seen reboots of Star Wars and Star Trek in the last few years, not to mention films such as Prometheus, Jupiter Ascending, and Guardians of the Galaxy; spaceships have returned to television through shows such as The Expanse, Dark Matter, and Killjoys.
There’s no shortage of space opera novels being published now, but these two anthologies are fantastic playlists curated by two of the genre’s leading editors, Neil Clarke and John Joseph Adams. (Disclaimer: I’ve written for the publications of both editors, Lightspeed Magazine and Clarkesworld Magazine.) Cosmic Powers goes for the pulp action, with fantastic stories of spaceships and their crews, while Galactic Empires takes a slightly more serious approach to galaxy-spanning civilizations. Between the two, there’s a whole range of fantastic stories, from shorter adventures to longer and more thoughtful tales.
Both of these books cheerfully ignore the hard science that can sometimes make SF a bit pedantic. (Go to any science fiction convention, and you’ll likely find at least one person complaining about how Star Wars is unrealistic because there’s no sound in space.) They opt instead for galaxy-spanning civilizations, crews of starships encountering fantastic phenomena, and quite a bit more. Moreover, they’re fun. In John Joseph Adams’ Cosmic Powers, io9 co-founder Charlie Jane Anders opens her story “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” with the following description:
The Vastness was a ball of flesh in space, half the size of a regular solar system, peering out into the void with its billions of slimy eyemouths. It was orbited a blue giant sun, Naxos, which used to have a dozen planets before The Vastness ate them all. That ring around The Vastness wasn’t actually a ring of ice or dust, like you’d see around a regular planet. Nope — it was tens of thousands of spaceships that were all docked together by scuzzy umbilicals, and they swarmed with humans and other people, all who lived to serve The Vastness.
The rest of Cosmic Powers is loaded down with similar stories from a bunch of authors known for their fantastic space operas: Becky Chambers, who wrote the fantastic Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, Kameron Hurley, author of The Stars Are Legion, and Yoon Ha Lee, who’s recently gained some acclaim for his novel Ninefox Gambit. These authors capture the spirit of fun in their stories, and I couldn’t help but grin as they carried me along through space. Even the cover, illustrated by space opera legend Chris Foss, pops with colors and practically screams “here be adventures.”
Where Adams’ anthology is fun and entertaining, Clarke’s takes a bit more serious approach — but it is no less entertaining. In his introduction, he runs through the history of space opera in film, television, novels, and video games, saying that the galactic empire “continues to be one of the most visible motifs in science fiction today.”
Clarke’s anthology focuses on the mighty empires that hold the people of the galaxy together. Like Adams’ book, there’s plenty of heavyweight talent present in the table of contents, including Ann Leckie, who wrote the critically acclaimed Ancillary trilogy; Neal Asher, author of the Transformation series; and Ian McDonald, who wrote one of my favorite novels about lunar civilizations, Luna: New Moon.
While both anthologies differ a bit in tone and approach, they share quite a few similarities: they contain stories of mercenaries, starship pilots, scientists, beings beyond our comprehension, and everything in between. The stories span galaxies, our Solar System, and, sometimes, our home planet. Most of all, both editors noted in their introductions that one of the primary goals of their respective books was to channel a sense of nostalgia for the authors like Isaac Asimov, E.E. “Doc” Smith, or Frank Herbert, who helped make space opera a thing back in the day. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, these two anthologies do just that. Not to mention, they make for a wonderful trip out into the darkness of space while you search for the next adventure.