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!