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.