My Favorite Type Of Science Fiction: Space Opera

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This post has been a long time in the making. I first get the idea from reading Jeff VanderMeer’s blog entry on the Amazon blog a few weeks ago. Much like Jeff, I like Space Opera for its large sense of scale, larger then life heroics and unstoppable threats. Add in some cool science fiction gadgets and technology, and you ‘widescreen’ science fiction filled with action and adventure. For me, the modern day take on Space Opera is some of the best science fiction out there. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir with this list, but I’m going to put it down anyway. I know if you disagree, you’ll let me know in the comments…

  • Alastair Reynolds – The Revelation Space series. Reynolds has done a terrific job of worldbuilding with this series, creating a universe that is based on possible science (no FTL flight or communications) and has a ‘lived-in’ feel to it. Yes, the first book, Revelation Space, has a cold, clinical feel to it, but Reynolds has grown has a writer and the later books in the series have much more believable, and sympathetic characters. The threat the Inhibitors pose it the complete extinction of humanity itself. But things aren’t what they seem with the Inhibitors, and there is more going on than is apparent at first glance. The Revelation Space universe is comprised of a trilogy of books (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap), two stand alone novels (Chasm City, The Prefect) and two collections (Diamond Dogs And Turquoise Days, Galactic North). Quite possibly the best space opera available today.
  • Peter F. Hamilton – The Night’s Dawn trilogy focuses more on plot and action than on accurate science, and it delivers on both while also adding a large cast of interesting characters who are both good and evil. Throw in the dead coming back to life by taking over the bodies of the living and you’ve got as dire a space opera as you’ll find. The story starts off a bit slow as everyone is assembled and the dead gain an initial foothold. But as the story moves from planet to planet, encounter to encounter, humanity is sent reeling by the invasion of the dead. Hamilton does a great job of creating characters to root for and placing them in a unique and cool setting. Although not as grounded in hard science as other space operas, his story is filled with all sorts of neat SF stuff to marvel at. Night’s Dawn is space opera at its epic best.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson – Like his Covenant Chronicles, The Gap Cycle is dark, complex and challenging story, well worth the effort to read. Its a loose re-imagining of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, set in space, but with twist. The first book, called The Real Story, isn’t the real story, and Donaldson spends the next four volumes inverting the characters and storylines. If you thought the first book was too cliched and simple to read, then you probably missed out on one of the most challenging rewarding space operas out there. Even though it takes place in the vastness of space, Donaldson brings a sense of claustrophobia to the story that places the characters under enormous pressure and helps bring about an ending that lives up to the rest of the story.
  • Dan Simmons – One of my all time favorite book series is the two book set of Hyperion and The Fall Of Hyperion. They really blew my mind when I first read them and opened my eyes to what a writer with literary sensibilities could do for science fiction in general, and space opera in particular. Using the poetry of Keats as a jumping off point, Simmons weaves a tale of A.I.s, sentience, religion and war. I realize that Hyperion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It can be rather dense, and the first book ends very abruptly without resolving anything. The second book is completely different in tone, though it, too, can be dense. But the story Simmons tells is awe inspiring in grandeur and he packs it with more than enough SF-nal ideas to wow even the most jaded SF reader. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for intelligent SF, not just space opera. That’s just a bonus.
  • John C. Wright – John C. Wright’s The Golden Age does something I didn’t think was possible, it marries deeply philosophical ideas with a lively space opera tale. The hero, Phaethon, realizes that parts of his memory have been erased, most likely by himself. What follows is Phaeton’s attempt to discover why he would do that to himself. Along the way, we are treated to a philosophical treatise on initiative, self-reliance and risk taking. Phaethon becomes a ‘mans man’ in a society where the safe course of action is always taken, and his actions are looked upon as a form of insanity. But the magic of this story is Wright’s ability to deeply explore complex ideas without sounding pedantic and he makes it interesting to read. There is also quite a bit of action strewn around and there are a lot of really cool SF-nal ideas, especially Phaethon’s ship, the staggeringly huge Phoenix Exultant. Recommended for those who like to stretch their mind while reading.
  • Vernor Vinge – Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep is another space opera that I didn’t realize was space opera until later. But of course it is. We have very advanced societies at risk from a malevolent, virus-like entity that is threatening to destroy the civilizations of the Milky Way. All that stands in its way is the information on how to stop it that one damaged ship, crewed by a few luckless humans, unwittingly carries. A Fire Upon The Deep is positively overflowing with cool SF ideas: the ‘Zones Of Thought’, the galactic ‘internet’, and the Tines among others. It does tend to slow down a bit with the back and forth changes of stories, and I always found the ‘galactic’ storyline to be more interesting. But when they merge, look out. And all this leads to an incredible ending that you never see coming. Read this before reading A Deepness In The Sky. You’ll have a completely different view of the ending of that book.

You may notice some omissions from my above list. I thought quite a bit about what should be included and I had to leave some books out that are on the borderline. Such as David Brin’s Uplift Series, Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center novels and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. All have operatic elements, but either don’t put them together or seem to weaken with later books (I’m looking at you, Galactic Center). You’ll also notice a lack of ‘classic’ space opera. No Jack Williamson or E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. The reason is simple: I don’t like the writing style of these early books. I know some people absolutely love the casual ‘gee wiz’ technology and blithely casual attitudes toward seeming inescapable situations, but I’m not one of them. I find it a chore to read those stories, and the anachronistic seeming technology also bugs me. But if you like that sort of thing, I’d go with Smith’s Lensmen series, if for no other reason than for the impossibly huge destructive scale the Galactic Patrol is forced into to defend the galaxy. But one question leaps to mind: Where is the next space opera going to come from? I know Hamilton is working on another series set in his Commonwealth (Pandora’s Star) setting, but after that, nothing. I’ll be waiting for the next good space opera. Let us know if you’ve found it!

19 thoughts on “My Favorite Type Of Science Fiction: Space Opera”

  1. It is my favorite sub-genre of science fiction as well.

    And I think we are not in the minority. Of the widely held view of three best sf books of all time, all three are space operas. Here I am referring to Dune, The Foundation Series and Ender’s Game.

  2. Ender’s Game is more military sci-fi than space opera although the entire Ender series does become somewhat operatic, I agree though that Dune should be on the list although most of its sequels are pretty lame.

  3. The funny thing about space opera is that unlike soap operas or opera some how the universe has to be in jeopardy.

    as JP says:

    I like Space Opera for its large sense of scale, larger then life heroics and unstoppable threats

    For some odd reason when you put the word “space” in front of the word “opera” you are forbidden from ever telling a dramatic story set in space….as if the possibility is even possible.

    Yes, no story of redemption, survival or quest can ever happen in space unless the universe as we know it hangs in the balance.

  4. In some ways Simmons’ Endymion series is superior to Hyperion. Not so bogged down with overwrought sado-masochism and pretentious literary idylls. More of the “good stuff” — heroic action, undying love, glimpses of enlightenment. And terrificly skilled plotting.

    I thought Banks’ The Algebraist worked quite nicely as space opera. One of his best, IMO.

    Karl Schroeder’s Son of Suns and the upcoming Queen of Candesce also qualify, if you can accept an epic scale within a pocket universe.

    Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall series is full-blown space opera expertly executed. It was unfortunately overlooked, possibly because of its paperback release and lack of marketing. There were a few too many pages devoted to the social etiquette of the elite; a bit of editing would have helped. Regardless, it’s a very enjoyable example of the genre.

  5. In some ways Simmons’ Endymion series is superior to Hyperion. Not so bogged down with overwrought sado-masochism and pretentious literary idylls. More of the “good stuff” — heroic action, undying love, glimpses of enlightenment. And terrificly skilled plotting.

    I thought Banks’ The Algebraist worked quite nicely as space opera. One of his best, IMO.

    Karl Schroeder’s Son of Suns and the upcoming Queen of Candesce also qualify, if you can accept an epic scale within a pocket universe.

    Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall series is full-blown space opera expertly executed. It was unfortunately overlooked, possibly because of its paperback release and lack of marketing. There were a few too many pages devoted to the social etiquette of the elite; a bit of editing would have helped. Regardless, it’s a very enjoyable example of the genre.

  6. Donaldson’s The Gap series is hugely underestimated IMO. It’s so maliciously dark and violent that I think many people are turned off. Which is a shame because it’s such a good read.

  7. “For some odd reason when you put the word “space” in front of the word “opera” you are forbidden from ever telling a dramatic story set in space”

    Well, no, it’s just not space opera. Its good old fashioned science fiction.

    Is it just me, or did LA and Charles post the same thing? Hmm.

    Endymion didn’t do it for me. I felt it was too unfocused, but maybe it requires a re-read.

    The Algebraist is a good book, I don’t think its really space opera. It’s more in line with the Culture stuff.

    The Sun Of Suns may ultimately turn out to be space opera, but right now I’d call it more of a planetary romance, just set in a giant bubble in space.

    I read the first book in Dread Empire’s Fall and found it to be a ‘by the numbers’ space opera, as if Williams was just going through the motions.

  8. jp – Sorry you didn’t like Endymion and Dread Empire’s Fall.

    I tried twice to start The Reality Dysfunction. Once the zombie armies cropped up it was clear the story was headed for straight horror, so I gave it up. Also, the cast of characters grew too large too quickly, which also made me lose interest. I’ve liked Hamilton’s other series.

    Re: Banks and Schroeder, maybe it would help if you fleshed out your definition of space opera a little more.

    Is it just me, or did LA and Charles post the same thing? Hmm.

    That was my doppelganger.

  9. I think Williams’ Aristoi borders on space opera.

    I’m glad you made this post, as it snapshots a good portion of the state of the art when it come to current SF.

    It is sad that movie, TV and comic book SF haven’t even made the cursory attempt to keep up. Not even a little.

    I would love to see someone make a Star Trek fanfilm where the federation expands into the Beta Quadrant and discovers something akin to The Culture or The Ocumene, a super-advanced society that would view the singularity-sidestepping Star Fleet as a threat to galactic society and begin pruning their ambitions.

    It would be even better of this society was actually human in origin, the result of an earlier migration.

    Charles & LA: After the first book of Night’s Dawn I decided to treat it as if I was reading a Stephen King story from the far-future. Like The Stand, only on a galactic scale.

    I found Endymion to be a lovely travelogue of strange places to visit via farcasting, but it was a bit thin on story. Coulda been one book.

  10. I couldn’t finish John C Wright’s The Golden Age trilogy. David Herter’s Ceres Storm is far superior – and according to Herter’s blog, he’s working on more novels set in the same universe. I’m looking forward to that.

    Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds is also excellent space opera. It’s actually a single novel, but was published as two.

    Then there’s Colin Greenland’s trilogy of Take Back Plenty, Seasons of Plenty and Mother of Plenty – the first is the book that arguably kicked off British New Space Opera.

  11. First of all, great post and comments!

    As much as I love them both, I’d agree that the Foundation series (probably) and Ender’s Game (definitely) don’t really count as space opera. To the former, I think the serialized novella/short story format works against it, as does the somewhat ethereal main literary conflict of Man vs Myriad Quasi-Inevitable Forces of Psychohistorical Destiny. It certainly has operatic elements, though, especially when the Mule shows up.

    Ender’s Game takes place almost entirely inside a tiny, enclosed, cramped Earth-orbit space station–and then a tiny, enclosed, cramped asteroid space station. Amazingly told as it was, it pretty clearly falls short on the sense-of-scale / “sensahwundah” criteria.

    But if Banks’ “The Algebraist” isn’t space opera, then the term means nothing. :-P Trying to avoid spoilers, but just to choose one scene: in the middle of a gas giant, the wargame conducted by the ancient dwellers has gone horribly wrong: and then mumble mumble, something fist-pump amazing, involving an enormous planetary stormspot. Meanwhile, the B-Story (to take a summary I’m cutting and pasting at random): “the Ulubis system is under threat from a piratical invasion fleet led by the sadistic despot Archimandrite Luseferous, the self-appointed ruler of over 100 star systems…” Come on! :)

    My raging hetero-mancrush on Iain Banks notwithstanding, A Fire Upon the Deep has come to epitomize the modern Space Opera (sub-)sub-genre in my mind. Just plain amazing.

    Cheers,

    CJ

  12. I have to agree that FOUNDATION is not really a ‘space opera’ story. I always thought it was a ‘gadget’ story. In this case, the gadget is the Seldon Plan.

    The Seldon Plan is a machine that, if it works right, will minimize the Dark Ages and lead to the glorious Second Empire. Each short story in the collection is about what happens when either (1) the machine seems to be malfunctioning, but, no, we discover it was operating correctly all along (The story with General Bel Rose is the best one of these, and correctly identifies what might as well be a real rule of psychohistory: bad emperors cannot afford to trust good generals) or (2) the machine malfunctions and has to be set right again (The Mule).

    I am not sure if it counts as ‘Space Opera’ or ‘Planetary Romance’ but I strongly recommend and urge anyone who has not read it to pick up the ‘Planet of Adventure’ series by Jack Vance: the titles are CITY OF THE CHASCH, SERVANTS OF THE WANKH, THE DIRDIR, THE PNUME. It concerns the adventures of a downed space pilot on a world where the human serfs have imitated the cultures and psychologies of their non-human high-tech masters, four alien races locked in a stalemated war. The text is rich with all the inventiveness Jack Vance can bring to bear on societies intricate and strange–there is a strong theme of self-reliance and a yearning for liberty typical of Vance.

    Something more space-ish is ‘The Demon Princes’ series. The Demon Princes are five master criminals– easily the most memorable villains in spaceoperadom — who cooperated to raid, enslave and destroy the now-dead world Mount Pleasant. The one survivor of the raid has been raised and trained his whole life to be an instrument of vengeance.

    Part detective novel, part romance, part tour de force, all wonder, Vance paints a unique picture of galactic society. He postulates that, no matter how lawful the core stars are, in space there must always be a frontier, a ‘Beyond the Pale’ beyond which no law and order exists, and whole planets devoted to piracy and slavery will always linger. Expanding the sphere of civilization merely moves ‘The Pale’ a little further away.

    The five books are THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, THE PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE and THE BOOK OF DREAMS.

    You life will be missing something if you do not drink rose wine with Navarth, the Mad Poet, or listen in horror as the Sarkoy venefices explain the intricacies of their art to you, or discover why the henchmen of Howard Alan Treesong are more fearsome when dressed in white.

  13. I think that Sharon Lee and Steve Miller stand more to the old-style space opera but written in modern style and they are often missed as their books are not always easily available. Great post on this subgenre and very timely for me as Space Opera was the focus at my place this week.

  14. I came to this website by accident.Now one of my favorite space opera series is Polity series by Neal Asher.Polity series similar to Banks’ Culture novels with a galactic empire called Polity which is ruled by AIs.The hero is named Ian Cormac a 25th century James Bond. The series so far:

    Gridlinked

    Line of Polity

    Brass Man

    Polity Agent. The series combines violent action with futuristic weapons,AI, alien civilizations, cyberpunk, monsters straight out of

    nightmares.

  15. Space Opera is also my favourite genre, although what defines Space Opera is debatable. I’d place Iain M Banks firmly in the space opera genre, but opinions differ on that one. My current favourite is definately Alastair Reynolds whith his hard science and gothic sensabilities. But besides the books and writers mentioned earlier, I’m missing some of my other favourites…

    Charles Stross Singularity Sky / Iron Sunrise. This must be space opera as it has a galactic scale (although focusing on particular planets / ships most of the time) and at least different factions of humans, which should be considered aliens in everything but origin…

    Stephen Baxter and his Xeelee sequence of books is as galaxy-spanning and awe-inspiring as any space opera!

    Arthur C Clarke’s and Gentry Lee’s Rama books. Although this might be stretching the definition, it does span the galaxy and includes multiple alien races in later books.

    Greg Bears Eon and sequels

    Kevin J Andersons Saga of Seven Suns. It’s a bit too familiar and formulaic in some places (reminding me a bit too much of Dune and Star Wars; other universes Anderon writes in), but it’s a good story with memorable characters.

    Larry Nivens Ringword. Again, this stretches the definition of Space Opera as it takes place almost entirely on or around the Ringworld, but the story does have effect on a galactic scale and some segments refer to or take place in ‘outer space’. This point particularly makes sense if you place this story among all the stories in Known Space. The whole Known Space cantos must by Space Opera…!?

    There’s offcourse lots more out there, but these are (amongst other already mentioned) some of my favourites. About the concluding statement ‘what’s next?’. Reynolds and Hamilton continue to write rockhard space opera and Andersons Saga of Seven Suns keeps on going as well. But after that…I’m not sure…

    Pjotr from The Netherlands

  16. You have “classic” space opera, (i.e. pulp space opera as exemplified by C. L. Moore, E. E. Smith, and Edmond Hamilton, in the 1920s-1940s) and you have the “new” space opera (e. g. 1980s-2000s novels by the likes of Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Dan Simmons,etc.) on which the above discussion seems to focus. Yet very little has been said here regarding great space operas of the post-pulp era (i.e. the 1950s-1970s). Some of my favorites from this period are:

    Poul Anderson-the Flandry of Terra and (especially) the Nicholas van Rijn series; particularly those works from the ’50s and ’60s.

    Samuel R. Delaney-Nova and Babel 17from the mid-’60s; of particular note for the hip edginess of the galactic culture portrayed.

    Lary Niven-the Known Space series; apparently the only space opera from this period that anyone thinks worthy of mention.

    James H. Schmitz-the Federation of the Hub series; complex, tangled, plots worthy of machiavelli.

  17. Does anyone remember a novel (probably written in the 70’s or early 80’s) about a space station that was a paradise for earth dwellers.  The main character was some kind of investigator who was sent up there to investigate a murder (I think).  They had some kind of blue fruit that only grew up there that turned out to be some kind of radiation mutation.  I also remember some kind of bicycle-powered transportation vehicle for traversing the station.  I wish I could remember more details but I cannot. 

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  18. Looking for something new: Randolph Lalonde’s ebooks called spinward fringe, they grow into a space opera.

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