Most geeks love ’em; some find the pleasure a little guilty. Gleaming silver ingots of engineering poetry reaching up out of gravity’s mud carrying humanity’s sparks into space’s blackness... and blowing each other up! I’m here to recommend the work of “James S.A. Corey”, but the genre deserves a little survey.

Kid stuff · Yes, I grew up on E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen books. That’s a horribly long time ago and I remember almost nothing, except for huge fleets of space battleships arranging themselves in surprising new attack formations: the Wedge, the Cone, the Cylinder. The price is down to free on Kindle for some of ’em; I suspect they haven’t aged well, but maybe I’ll take one on a vacation someday.

Mid-life · Space opera doesn’t strictly require spaceships; one the favorites of my youth was Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which manages to make a conflict between Earth and the Moon credible; interesting, even.

And of course a lot of Space-Opera connoisseurs feel the genre’s finest achievement is The Mote in God’s Eye. Which has your spaceships, your chase scenes, your manly-but-sensitive protagonist, and a conflict with lethal but not unsympathetic aliens. Yeah, it’s sexist. But just great, great fun.

Stross Opera · In middle age, I haven’t sought space operas out, but a few have found me and I’ve enjoyed them. Worth particular attention are two from Charles Stross: Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, which I wrote about in this space here and here; Iron Sunrise in particular is a peach.

Unfortunately, Mr Stross knows a little too much about science for his own good, and thus got his knickers in a knot about causality, having convinced himself that stories involving faster-than-light travel were necessarily inconsistent and shouldn’t be written. So Iron Sunrise never got a sequel.

Fortunately Stross couldn’t let the genre go entirely, so in 2008 he gave us the very likeable Saturn’s Children, which features a cyborg sex slave (gotta love that) and is kinda sorta post-human, and terrific fun. It and its sequel Neptune’s Brood both suffer from a violation of the old sci-fi principle that stories should be about ordinary people in unearthly situations, or unearthly creatures in mundane circumstances. Here we have very weird critters in very weird places; which makes them a little hard to identify with, sometimes.

I really liked Saturn’s Children and sort of enjoyed the sequel, but Charlie kind of got tied in knots because he wanted out of the Solar System which means either FTL, which he won’t do, or centuries of travel to get anywhere, which causes real plot challenges. It would also cause real economic challenges, so he had altogether too much fun dreaming up an alternative-future-macroeconomics and despite the fact that he spent too much time explaining it I never quite got it. Still, some of the characters will grab you.

Note: All these Stross Operas pass the Bechdel test.

Pseudonym Opera · It turns out that “James S.A. Corey” is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (here’s a nice interview with Mr Franck). I seem to recall that I found Leviathan Wakes in a recommendation from Amazon’s relentless you-might-like-this engine. I got sufficiently sucked in that I had to push a couple of other pieces of life on the stack. As soon as I finished I purchased the sequel Caliban’s War, and am now reading the follow-on Abbadon’s Gate; they call it the Expanse series.

First-rate space operas for your twenty-first-century aficionado, these are. Spaceship battles and evil corporates and menacing aliens and vomit zombies and true love and twisty politics, oh yes.

The clever trick is that the action is limited to the Solar System, with three political centers of power: Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt. The backdrop is well-painted, a really plausible future. The only really radical invention they had to cook up was a drive that moves things in a way that gets you from the Belt to the Moon in only a few weeks, and maneuvers when necessary in battle at tens of Gs (the technology they use to keep rocketeers alive while doing so is interesting).

OK, I’m not gonna claim that this is deep, deep stuff. But it’s skillful and in places thoughtful and passes Bechdel and is just huge fun.

I fearlessly predict that when humanity takes its first stumbling permanent steps out of the Solar System, they’ll still be reading space opera. They might even be reading some of the ones I’m writing about.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Stuart Dootson (Nov 27 2013, at 23:19)

My favourite? Iain M Banks 'Consider Phlebas' - a master at work, IMO... His death still stings...


From: Tom Armitage (Nov 28 2013, at 05:50)

<i>Light</i> by M John Harrison. It is... not, really, your average Space Opera. Which is fine with me, because I don't get on with it much as a genre, despite enjoying SF. Harrison takes a lot of tropes and inverts them, bends them, mirrors them; stuffs them into a tripartite plot partly set in the present day - and ties it all up in some really very beautiful writing. His poetry is strong, and he imagines a space that is <i>weird</i>.

(I'm currently reading his <i>Centauri Device</i>, which he wrote in the 70s quite early and is apparently not fond of. In some ways, it's by the numbers, but god, the <i>way</i> he tells it and the weird he imagines - clearly shapes a lot of what's to come, such as Banks' visions of space travel).


From: John Cowan (Nov 28 2013, at 08:51)

Vernor Vinge's _A Fire Upon The Deep_ and David Brin's Uplift books are classics of the genre to my mind. The Fall of Relay is a wonderful set-piece of the *literal* collapse of a space-going civilization, and Captain Creideiki (a dolphin) and Fiben Bolger (a chimp) are among my favorite sf characters. Ook ook.


From: Doug K (Nov 28 2013, at 13:49)

recommend Daniel Abraham's other books, The Long Price quartet in particular I thought a work of considerable art; not space opera, but good intelligent fantasy.

yes, I remember the Lensmen, like you have not been brave enough to revisit.. but they were great fun at the time.


From: Dave Walker (Nov 28 2013, at 16:13)

I'm with Mr Dootson, above; "Consider Phlebas" is about as good as space opera gets. Banks went on record, wondering if it could ever be filmed and if so, how completely insane the budget would have to be - the "Rimships of Vavatch" sequence was the most problematic. He was eventually convinced it could be done (and for less than the annual budget of a modestly-sized country) when he saw "The Fifth Element".

Incidentally, probably my favourite novel in *any* genre, is "The Player of Games" - still plenty of high space opera, but with sufficient philosophy and psychology as to make it unfilmable for other reasons - though it was finally done with "Tristram Shandy", so who knows?


From: Alan Hargreaves (Nov 29 2013, at 05:08)

Interesting you should mention Edward Elmer. I just finished re-reading Lensmen a few days back, Galaxy Primes today and have just started into Skylark again.

Lovely switch off your brain and enjoy stuff. Love a good bit of Space Opera.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my favorite Heinlein reads too.


From: Alan Hargreaves (Nov 29 2013, at 05:42)

and not forgetting Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat :)


From: Eric A. Meyer (Nov 29 2013, at 18:51)

You’re pretty much right about the Lensman series not aging particularly well, at least in certain ways. If you think “The More In God’s Eye” is sexist, well… and then there are the Terran Man’s Burden aspects that crop up here and there, to general wincing from the modern reader.

But it does have the whole Horatio Hornblower In Spaaaaace! thing going for it, especially in later volumes, with the massive fleet formations of dreadnaughts and ravening energy beams and ablative force fields and so on. You even get boarding parties, from time to time! And the later volumes are also where “Doc” does some smart (read: massively destructive) things with inertial nullification technology. From that side of things, they’re operatic like six Wagners running at once.

I second the kudos for Banks’ “Consider Phlebas” and “The Player of Games”. I actually like the latter best of all his work, though “Excession” comes a VERY close second, and I recommend it as another space opera well worth checking out.

I’ve read most of the books Tim listed, but “Startide Rising” continues to be my favorite space opera of all time, and would be my favorite sci-fi novel of all time if Robert Charles Wilson hadn’t written “Spin”.


From: pjm (Dec 02 2013, at 05:52)

Thanks for the heads-up on the free Doc Smith stuff on Kindle. I'm halfway through <i>Triplanetary</i> now, though I've never been much of a Kindle reader until now.


From: Simon Davy (Dec 02 2013, at 06:52)

Ah yes some nice stuff here, plus some new books to try.

For me, on of the best space operas is Stephen Donaldson's Gap series. It's based on an actual opera (Der Ring des Nibelungen), and it's in space, so I guess it would definitely qualify :)

First book is not for the faint of heart - it gets pretty dark.


From: (Dec 02 2013, at 11:48)

How can you mention Space Operas and miss the Honor Harrington Saga? It's what? 14 books or something now? Plus a recent YA-suitable prequel series.


From: Jules (Dec 04 2013, at 05:31)

'Saturn's Children', of course, being a riposte to Heinlein's 'Friday'. Difficult to say more without giving away plot details of both.

I enjoyed Banks, particularly 'Use of Weapons' and Player of Games'. More recently, Alistair Reynolds 'Revelation Space' sequence - 'Chasm City' definitely borrowed from Banks, and Banks seemed to return the favour with 'Matter'.

Hannu Rajaniemi's 'Quantum Thief' hits a spot that has the compressed-time battle sequences (and language) of M. John Harrison, but with a main plot thread that is probably right up the street of anyone interested in digital identity management.


From: Dan Guy (Dec 05 2013, at 08:57)

You might enjoy John C. Wright's "Count to the Eschaton" series, which begins with _Count to a Trillion_. It has all the ingredients of a good space opera and an epic scope.


From: kar (Dec 30 2013, at 23:16)

Not strictly space opera, but consider Andy Weir's "The Martian" - especially the Audible version.


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