Verthandi’s Ring (2007)

The New Space Opera 2/18

Ian McDonald’s story is pretty close to what I consider space opera, though it shares the same problem as the previous entry in The New Space Opera, in having the right scope when it comes to the setting and the backstory but with a plot that doesn’t cover the same scale. Honestly, I think the main problem is size. Space opera is a mode of narration that needs (massive) space, whereupon short stories by their very nature don’t have it. It’s like squaring the circle.

I don’t think you can do space opera well (or at all) with these size limitations, the closest you end up with is a story that is a highly compressed info-dump, which Verthandi’s Ring constitutes. As a story, it reads pretty cold and detached. You don’t really feel any connection to the characters, nor their culture. The best I could muster was little bit of rage at how McDonald presented the whole situation and the solution to the whole conflict.

The depiction of interstellar conflict as something inevitable, something that would have happened anyway, whoever shot the first shot, is pretty debatable, even in the context of the story. To depict life as a struggle in tooth and claw, something beyond morality, an absolute that never changes, isn’t just morally questionable, it’s not even supported by facts. There are no extinctions campaigns in nature, and there’s no need for them among intelligent beings. If they actually arise, they aren’t inevitable, but the consequence of stupidity, arrogance and malice. If a writer sizes this type of argument, I always see it as a cheap short cut to not properly develop the backstory, which in this case brings us back to size. If you have to write space opera at short stories lengths, you have to compress, both the content and the setting. Saying that war between interstellar cultures is a given, is just such a compression artifact.

This might read like I didn’t like the story, but you would be wrong. Despite my qualms with the underpinnings of the story and with solving a problem by dumping genocidal aliens on another universe, I like the scale on which the story operates and the future culture depicted. But it feels too much like there’s a longer novel trying to crawl out of this story, one that could have been much better given the right amount of space to grow and mature.