MIND MELD: The Best Space Operas in Science Fiction
At SF Signal, we loves us some space opera, so we asked this week’s panelists:
Is your favorite listed below?
I belong to the generation who remembers when “space opera” was a defamatory term science fiction fans used to put down a writer’s work, and which no self-respecting SF author would have admitted writing. Anyone else who recalls those days probably has an AARP card in their wallet. Space opera has not only become respectable, but it can even be argued – for better or worse -that it has swallowed the rest of the SF genre. It is not only proudly used to describe novels by Alastair Reynolds, John Scalzi, Iain M. Banks, and other current practitioners, but it has also been retroactively applied to novels and stories by past masters like Samuel R. Delany, Poul Anderson, and Larry Niven.
Being of the old school, I prefer to have my space opera with plenty of pulp floating around in the glass. My boyhood favorites were the Captain Future stories of Edmond Hamilton. Along with Edward E. Smith, Hamilton is credited as being one of the inventors of space-op; his story “Crashing Suns“, published in 1928 (in Weird Tales, of all places) helped set the pattern for much that followed. In 1939, Hamilton was picked by Popular Publications editor Leo Margulis to write the adventures of Curt Newton, the two-fisted space hero better known as Captain Future. And for the better part of the 40’s and into the early 50’s, Hamilton would become best known for these novels and stories.
Unfortunately, Captain Future was published at the same time that SF’s Golden Age was happening in the pages of Astounding, so these stories suffered by comparison. Nor did it help Hamilton’s literary reputation when they were reprinted in paperback during the height of the New Wave movement of the 60’s (which is when I read them as a kid). So it’s taken awhile for these tales to be appreciated for what they are: rocket-riding, planet-hopping, ray-gun-slinging adventures from a time when men had cleft jaws, women wore few clothes, and aliens had holes in their heads. This is not great literature, but it is great fun.
I like to think that my 1995 novella “The Death of Captain Future” had something to do with the rediscovery of this character, but it’s probably inevitable that a new generation of readers would have found him again. In any case, Haffner Press is currently reprinting these stories as a series of hardcover omnibuses. Likewise, Adventure House has been putting out trade-paperback facsimiles of the magazines themselves, complete with the original illustrations. If you want to see what the term “space opera” was originally invented to describe – and what modern practitioners are emulating, albeit unwittingly – they’re worth reading.
In my opinion, the best space opera stories are adventure stories. They can be set in space or they can be set on an exotic planet, but each story needs a sense of adventure. Even better, they should also have a sense of wonder. Everything else is gravy. I don’t even care if the science works. The author should either wave his hands at the science or the author should just ignore it. Space opera is about the story, the characters, and most of all, the whiz-bang plot.
My current favorites are Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series (start with Seeker)…
…and Allen Steele’s Coyote series, particularly the earliest book, Coyote.
But when I think back on space opera-which is my favorite kind of sf (besides alternate history, which just really isn’t sf at all, but something else entirely)–I think of Andre Norton. I can’t recommend a particular book-I read her too long ago-but I spent summers reading everything she wrote. I still remember that experience fondly. I think it has a lot to do with my interest in sf. Andre Norton, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, of course. I didn’t much like Frank’s sequels, but that first book is magical and wonderful and one of my all-time favorites.
James Blish’s Cities in Flight series (They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home, and A Clash of Cymbals) is a future history whose arc spans the early twenty-first century to the (premature) end of time, and features flying cities, most notably New York, that are powered and protected by antigravity devices as they travel through the galaxy in search of work. The episodic nature of its storyline and the uneven quality of the writing betray its pulp origins, but it’s one of the first sf works to explore seriously and systematically the implications of space opera’s galactic stage, and its ending poignantly marries the enormous scales of space-time with its human narrative.
Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor series (the novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap, and the novellas “Diamond Dogs” and “Turquoise Days”) imbue classic space opera themes with a gothic noir twist. They’re set in a future history where several strands of humanity are fighting to find their place in a galaxy that’s littered with artifacts of ancient civilizations and patrolled by Inhibitors, alien killing machines, and are stuffed with eye-kicks, ruined planets, gigantic diseased cities, city-sized spaceships, star-sized weapons, and much more. Although their narratives are strung across centuries (Reynolds confronts head-on the problems of maintaining an interstellar civilisation without breaking Einstein’s rules, so journeys between stars take decades and centuries), the protagonists are most often ordinary working stiffs: this is history told from the underside, by people who caught up in huge events whose ramifications they can barely glimpse.
Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy (North Wind, White Queen, and Phoenix Café) described the rise and fall of an alien empire on Earth. A fourth novel, Spirit, or, The Princess of Bois Dormant, carries the story outward to alien worlds. A young girl becomes a servant in the household of the wife of the general responsible for the massacre of her father, travel to alien worlds and is imprisoned and impregnated, escapes, and returns to Earth as the fabulously wealthy Princess of Bois Dormant, seeking revenge. Crammed with adventure, exotic settings, and human-like but unsettlingly weird aliens, Spirit uses the Count of Monte Cristo as a template to explore, movingly, the roots and nature of human identity.
Finally, Stephen Baxter’s epic Xeelee Sequence (Raft, Timelike Infinity, Flux, Ring, Vacuum Diagrams, Starfall, and the four books of the Destiny’s Children sequence) goes one higher than space opera. This is cosmogony opera, the epic story of the war between the empires of the Xeelee and dark matter photino birds that encompasses the entire history of the universe from Big Bang to the final dissipation of matter, time, and space. It’s vastly ambitious stuff that rivals the cosmic range and inventiveness of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, reinvents the baroque excesses of space opera, and braces them with heady, mind-bending extrapolations of cutting-edge cosmology and physics, and a cool and dispassionate exploration of the role of intelligence in the evolution of the universe, and of individuals in human evolution. As in Blish’s Cities in Flight series, time triumphs over all, but before it does humankind gets its chance to strut its stuff on the galactic stage, and to influence the end of all things and the birth of new universes.
An appreciation about my favourite Space Operas. Well that should be easy enough, I thought when the request appeared in my inbox. Then we immediately get into definitions. Trying to decide What is Space Opera? has filled entire forums for weeks on end, it’s not a debate that’s ever going to end. So for the purposes of this piece, it’s what I personally enjoyed, and fits with the widest definition of galaxy-sprawling epic.
The Lensman series
I’m wondering how many people will nominate this. It is the acknowledged absolute classic Space Opera. I read it in the seventies when it was re-released in the UK by the Panther imprint. Specifically 1973, when I was laid up with a broken leg, and my mum went down to the local bookshop to find me some Science Fiction to keep me occupied. Whenever I talk about this at public events I always say that I don’t read it anymore because it’s kinda old fashioned and I don’t want to spoil the memory. Which I guess goes back to another definition of when was the golden age of Science Fiction – when you’re thirteen.
But… I’ve just picked one off the shelf (Children of the Lens) and read a couple of paragraphs. I definitely won’t be doing that again. It really is best left to memory. But what a memory. Two ancient alien races with superminds, one evil one good, competing for dominance of the universe, with the good ones directing evolution so that it might ultimately produce a species that would defeat the bad guys. That was humans that got chosen for their potential, of course. The starting point is history, with Atlantis as part of the struggle, then on through the cold war and into the future. All the while breeding humans to produce a strain of the strongest most powerful… er, hang on, that seems a bit -well, Nazi-like. That’s what growing old and cynical does for you, I suppose. After all, today’s Space Operas just use genetic engineering to elevate humans -all nicely politically neutral, even if it has the same result. But if you overlook the political incorrectness (which it wasn’t at the time it was written) and yes the somewhat sexist stereotyping as well, it is a classic story, with the noble Galactic Patrol flying off to have huge and actually quite innovative space battles with the fleets of evil henchaliens. Yes, we’ve rightly moved on, and it doesn’t warrant a close examination or even a re-read, but it certainly set the tone of big ambitious storytelling which lasts to this day. I owe it a great deal.
The first of the more realistic (if we can ever use that word in relation to this genre) Space Operas I read. It’s a first contact novel, with an alien race that’s hiding a big secret. The difference here is that Niven and Pournelle have thought out their world building, and it shows. The technology and the society are complimentary and work well together. The aliens also are well-realized, right down to their biology and asymmetric profile.
The story doesn’t have the kind of huge battles traditional to Space Opera, though there are fights between warships, again technologically believable. Instead we have what amounts to a battle of wits between the humans team sent on the expedition to the alien homeworld, and the aliens themselves. All the information is collected, the characters just need to put it together correctly. Given the book’s structure, it makes for a gripping read, especially in the last section.
Very much in the supertechnology league, and full of imagination. An asteroid from a future that isn’t quite our future arrives in Earth orbit and triggers a nuclear war. But the core of the asteroid holds a stunning secret, it has a singularity habitat which stretches on forever. This book again set new standards, taking the reader on a journey through time and alternate realities. Along with providing a truly impressive enemy, Eon was also pushing the boundaries with various advanced human concepts. It epitomises the modern Space Opera with both its exploration of science-based concepts and the possibilities that will produce in relation to society, as well as being genuinely exciting.
Not quite the epic in the classic sense that I was talking about at the start. However, The Forever War certainly has every other component of Space Opera. Galaxy wide war that lasts for centuries, enigmatic evil aliens (apparently) grunts in power armour, starflight, high tech weapons, a fight to save the human race (allegedly). The story is about the one man to survive the entire length of the war -due to a quirk of relativity. It’s been called by many as the dark antidote to Starship Troopers, and I think I’m happily aligned with that group of thought. In no way is it about the glory of war, quite the opposite. However, in telling the story it does, it takes the reader on the classic sensawonder journey required by the genre. And more, it makes you think. Subversive stuff indeed. This is a particular favourite of mine.
Space opera may be the strangest of genres; easy to spot, yet hard to define because it’s built upon a metaphor. Imagine if there was a genre called ‘crime sonata'; or a subgenre known as ‘literary madrigal’.
For me the essence of a space opera is that a) it’s packed with ideas and images and b) it’s in some way wild and wonderful and c) the characters get to travel from planet to planet, by whatever means.
I grew up loving Asimov and Heinlein and E.E. Doc Smith and A.E. Van Vogt and Larry Niven and that whole Golden Age space opera tradition; but I’m pleased to observe the space opera today is alive and kicking. So here are my five choices:
This a space opera and a detective story with a vast cast of characters and an alien called Starflyer. The most magical creatures of the book for me are the Silfen, aliens who travel from planet to planet via ‘Paths’ that can start in the forest of one planet, and end up in the forest of another planet, millions of light years away. And my favourite human character is Paula Myo, supersleuth, who tries to solve a riddle that has put the entire universe in jeopardy. Hamilton writes characters you can truly care about, and his prose is evocative, sometimes erotic, and haunting.
This is another epic space opera – written in two volumes but best considered as one big book. The two novels are, for my money, rather different in feel; and it’s the Hugo award winning Hyperion that truly captures my heart. It’s a quest story modelled on the Canterbury Tales, where a group of pilgrims share their stories; and each story grips us in a completely different way, with a wide range of tones and sub-genres swaggeringly displayed. This book has the filthiest and scariest sex scene I have EVER read (between Colonel Kassad and his sexy avatar lover who at a vital moment turns into – no, read the book!) Simmons is a stylist, a lover of literature, and has a sublime sense of the history of story.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
‘An odd choice,’ as Hugh Grant observed of his own behaviour in Four Weddings and Funeral. But if we define space opera as expansive SF that takes place entirely or mainly in space – then Adams’ masterpiece surely qualifies. The brilliance of the comedy shouldn’t blind us to the brilliance of the SF extrapolation – dammit, there is no means of space propulsion cooler than Adams’ ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’. The characters are rich and wonderfully conceived, the images buried in the prose caress the mind’s eye; and there’s jeopardy too.
Al is one of the finest modern exponents of the space opera genre; and for me this is his most brilliant book. It’s an epic about ‘shatterlings’ – clones – who travel endlessly through space in a voyage that is both exciting, and hauntingly mythic. The breadth of imagination in this book is extraordinary; the use of alternating first person narratives is bold and captivating; and the flashbacks featuring Abigail Gentian take the writing to an unexpectedly tender place.
This is a story of a galactic empire ruled by the undead – granted immortality by means of a symbiote which requires its host to be, er, technically dead. (There’s always a goddamn CATCH isn’t there?) Westerfeld uses a multiple-POV technique of dazzling complexity to create a series of sustained action setepieces that exhilarate almost without pause. It’s a glorious cybernetic organism of a novel – yet, at all the key moments, written with feeling, and a tender human heart.
I raather like the Hellflower series by Eluki bes Shahar . The sly references to Heyeresque Regency romance made me laugh so loud, my boss (in the next office) bit his pencil in half.
- E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series…love those coruscating beams. Great action and involvement.
- Iain Banks and the Culture novels. Great look at alternative future society.
- Dune, the first three. Vast, spanning, great world and culture building.
- Asimov’s Foundation series, vast spanning, lovely concept.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish cycle especially The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness for political and societal speculation. Not necessarily exactly Space Opera in the interpreted sense, but certainly in foundation.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Liaden by Lee and Miller.
- Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels, because they do such a great job bridging the lives and concerns of her people to something contemporary readers can root for and struggle to understand. Even her more alien cultures have a toehold in current human concerns.
- Lee & Miller’s Liaden Universe books — fascinating post-Earth diaspora of changing cultures, what is still important to them, and how they deal with other groups they are so long splintered from they don’t even recognize them as the same species. (They are, since they can interbreed.) Some great aliens, too.
- Kristine Smith’s Jani Killian books — how biology is destiny, and what happens when humanity meets alien — and a third species starts evolving between them.
- The Kimbriel Nuala books.
The three I’ve come up with are something of a surprise to me, mainly because I am not, in general, a Heinlein fan, and also because they make me feel a bit of a relic, but…
- Have Spacesuit, Will Travel
- Between Planets
- Farmer in the Sky
…all by Robert A. Heinlein.
My 5 Greatest Space Operas, in no particular order are –
Ian Banks’ Culture novels – I love them all but the absolute pinnacles for me are Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, and Excession. The sprawling immensity of the Culture, in all its scarcely imaginable variations and complexities (not to mention its overt anti-authoritarian, anti-exploitation social ethos) steers a perilous course along the coasts of Utopia. But there are conflicts aplenty, mostly where the Culture’s periphery scrapes against other dominant forms of social/political organisation. Banks is a highly skilled writer who employs a variety of techniques – he’s got a great grasp of technical feel; he’s able to write lyrical, evocative prose; he can do characters with enviable authenticity. Crucially he balances all those aspects against the narrative pace to create a smooth, compelling whole. Damon Knight once said that the best reading experience was a string of pleasures like beads on a string. That’s Banks for you, all right.
Vernor Vinge – Fire Upon The Deep – It’s all about scale. The vastness of the galaxy, the great distances between stars and civilisations, the gulf of time that is the past and the widening immensity of possibilities that is the future. Into this Vinge added a peculiar conceit, the concept that physical laws change as you go deeper into the galaxy; the closer you are to the core, the lower the level of workable tech. Vinge’s galaxy has three concentric areas, the Beyond, the Slow Zone, and the Unthinkable Depths, a strange vision which he rounds out and renders plausible while introducing the reader to the Tines and the Skroderiders, two alien races which are standouts.
Dan Simmons – Hyperion/Fall of Hyperion – Practically a feverish miscellany of space opera tropes which Dan Simmons keeps in the air with dazzling confidence. All prose fiction is a bit like juggling, keeping all the elements in motion, keeping the reader’s attention on the next dramatic swoop and reveal. Simmons depicted a far future Hegemony of Man, a boisterous civilisation held together by a network of matter transmission portals. That same network is maintained by the Core, powerful Ais whose plans for Humanity are minatory. And where Hyperion employs 7 viewpoints, Fall of Hyperion shows most of those characters via the mental link they have with yet another character. It sounds complex but Simmons is so deft that it comes off wonderfully.
David Brin – the Uplift War trilogy (Sundiver, Startide Rising, Uplift War) – What future is there for Humans in a cosmos brimfull of intelligent species? is David Brin’s initial question. He then sketches in the details of the venerable (and venerated) laws and customs by which these staggeringly different species interact, a mesh of traditions which Humans end up stretching to breaking point. I love Brin’s uplifted, intelligent chimps and dolphins as well as the gamut of his alien races – the invention is inspiring.
Bruce Sterling – Schismatrix – Visionary intensity is the watchword here. This novel shows a Human race diverging into genetically engineered variants as it spreads throughout the solar system and beyond. The story follows one man, Abelard Lindsay, on his journey from one stage to the next, from one advanced human enterprise to the next level of hubris and genius. I loved the quickfire succession of images and concepts; there may be a certain futurepunk gloss but the ideas embody themselves in the characters and speak from the page.
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