Women Writing Space Opera

Forgotten Suns

I’m so glad to see a female-written space opera getting lots of glitz, and Anne Leckie’s books are well worth the praise.

But like so many other situations, that is one woman getting all the buzz that mostly flows toward male written works. What about all the other women writing interesting space opera? Yet again, they depend on word of mouth, as the publicity machine churns for the new male star.

Because Leckie is not the only female writer doing interesting things with the old form. I am not going to say formula, because while certain elements crop up, the works I come back to reread are ones that combine the expected fast action and science (and para science) gosh wow with complex characters, which includes interesting things done with gender and identity.

Like Forgotten Suns, by Judith Tarr (Kindle), which came out a few days ago–with no publicity blitz. She’s been working on this for some years, but as happens so frequently with female writers, agents and editors are puzzled how to market it because it blithely crosses genres to tell its story, which is about as big as you can get.

Here are the basic elements that I like in space operas like Anne Leckie’s and Judith Tarr’s new one:

Interesting life forms to come around and examine humanity from different angles, set among weird and complex cultures

Larger than life characters with interesting explorations of gender and identity

Space ships

Emotional complexity

Big ideas—including glimpses of the numinous—without anything being dogmatic

Layered or polysemous surprises

In Forgotten Suns, for five thousand Earthyears, the planet called Nevermore has been empty.  Only a handful of nomadic tribes remain, none of whom remember the ones who went before. Archaeologists have been excavating one of the planet’s many ruins, but expedition’s funding has been cut;  the United Planets want to take over, strip the planet of its resources, and destroy its ancient and enigmatic treasures.

Aisha and Jamal, hyper-smart daughter and son of the chief archaeologists, are desperate to save their parents’ site, which is the only home they’ve known. Aisha blows the top off a mountain, destroying the treasures she meant to find. Except one: a being in stasis.

Khalida, a Military Intelligence captain, has returned to Nevermore to come to terms with the quarter-million deaths lying on her conscience. But the war she tried to end is threatening to engulf the United Planets, and she is yanked back into service. But with her goes the strange being named Rama–and also young teen Aisha, who is determined to save Nevermore.

The result is a high-octane mix of space adventure, psi razzle-dazzle, scientific euphoria in discovery, archaeological euphoria, and cool space stuff. But Tarr does not lose sight of the characters, whose complexities deepen as they are tested to the max. (Longer review here.)

ankaret wells

Some of my favorites get plenty of press, like Bujold’s Vorkosiverse, and Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s long-running Liaden Universe. But here are some favorites that have been around a while, that I don’t see talked about as much.

An indie who writes crackling-paced, wild-ride space opera with all the fixins is Ankaret Wells, in her duo logy The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War.

Here are some others that I thought contained most of these elements to varying degrees:

myriad

R. M. Meluch has less of the gender identity but plenty of strong female characters in her military space operas pitting a future American empire against the high tech Roman empire. The old enemies have to find a way to work together long enough to get rid of some truly nasty alien life forms. The first, The Myriad, begins like fairly predictable (though fun) space opera adventure, but the characters slowly gain in complexity, and the ending of that first was totally unexpected.

Then there are the older ones, like the Mageworld series, written by a female and male team, like the Liaden novels:

Then strap me again in my cockpit
And toast me in faraway bars.
Just let me fire off into hyper,
I’ll make my own way to the stars.

pots

The Price of the Stars, by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald has everything I love—complex heroic characters, many bigger than life, action, crackling tension relieved by glorious spurts of humor, enough horror to up the stakes, balanced by moments of sheer wonder. Layers of meaning, and that sense not just of ‘you’re wrong’ when a prediction doesn’t pan out but the floor dropping away, as if you’ve gone from the medieval chambers at Cluny and found yourself in the amazingly alien Roman catacombs beneath, and yes, the hints were there of the catacombs’ existence all along, but you missed ‘em. Characters change. The cultures develop, the villains are not who you think.

The first can stand alone. It’s probably the most easily cinematic, and would in fact adapt instantly into a killer action movie, as Beka Rosselin-Metadi dons the dangerous disguise of Tarnekep Portree (a young Mandeynan dandy with a taste for violence and low company) to solve the mystery of her famous mother’s murder. Her father can’t solve it. He’s too well-known (as well as notorious), but he promises his ship to her if she finds out, and she leaves the bad guys of three worlds in shambles in the process.

VondaNMcIntyre_Starfarers133x200

Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series began as a joke. But this being Vonda N. McIntyre, she was not satisfied to stick to the old formulas. In the first, our four heroes foil a bureaucratic plan to turn the huge research starship on which they live and work into a military facility. They do this by getting the not-quite-ready starship launched . . . and toward the end we get the first hints of contact with an alien culture.

There are Earthly political conflicts, romantic and emotional entanglements, academic rivalries, artistic concerns, social and economic issues, lots of pro-Canadian statements, and some interesting theories about how romantic relationships would evolve if the issue of procreation were taken off the table.

I hope some of these spark ideas among those who like the same elements I do–and please, mention new discoveries below! I am always on the watch for new writers to try.

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Women Writing Space Opera — 45 Comments

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of her books, but would C.S. Friedman count?

    • I also haven’t read them for a long time; I considered several other writers, who are doing science fiction instead of space opera, or stick with gender binaries (though with interesting women) and what I remember of Friedman fits this second category. I would be glad to be corrected, tho.

  2. We probably have different ideas on what constitutes space opera, since it would never have occurred to me to classify the Starfarers quartet as such. (It resides at the top of my Best Science Fiction list, with all the positive aspects listed above plus bonus points for best-description-of-how-science-works and most-thermodynamically-feasible-intelligent-photoautotroph.) However, I’d say some of Elizabeth Moon (e.g. Sporting Chance, Winning Colors) is closer to space opera than military SF. (She also does splendid fantasy.)

    • True–Starfarers is really close to the SF edge. I can see putting it on that side.

      I do love Moon’s space opera, though she’s another who I think of as staying with gender binaries. Though with excellent female characters.

    • Thanks for the kind words on Starfarers. I do think of it as being on the line between SF and Space Opera. I think one of my problems is that I don’t do space war/military SF. And when Moon & Sun came out, I was told that it didn’t count as Alternate History because it wasn’t about war.

      The folks who like the Starfarers Quartet really like it (and I really appreciate those readers!), but there are readers who aren’t interested in first contact (without shooting) with a dash of family saga thrown in.

      Vonda

        • And, I like to think, mildly juicy sex scenes. Once somebody said “Of course there’s no sex in your books,” and I said “!!??!!???” or words to that effect, and they thought about it for a while and said, “Oh, well, there’s sex, but it’s so integrated into the characters’ lives that it feels perfectly natural.” Um… well… yeah?

          That could generate a whole discussion about “gratuitous” whatever. Sex, violence… food, philosophy, background? Why are sex and violence (a) paired, and (b) set off with the “gratuitous” label?

          As for the science, mostly what I speculate about is biology, which is considered all squishy. Which is kind of weird considering that you can define the biology down to the molecule if you have the right tools.

          I really dislike the “hard sf”/”soft sf” hierarchy. Or, to be more accurate, I think it’s kind of silly.

          Sorry, went off on a stream-of-consciousness thing here.

          Vonda

          • I do think there is a good discussion of sex in books. I know I did one ages ago on UST vs. sex, the idea being that what read gratuitous to me was 1) when the story stopped in order to insert a long scene of Insert Tab A into Tab B, and 2) when it was all male gaze all the time, which has a tendency to reduce women to sex toy dolls/ladyprizes for the two-fisted hero to demonstrate his prowess.

    • Yes–she’s pretty much been the point to woman until Leckie came along. I’m thinking of the ones who don’t always get held up as “the example” that’s supposed to represent all those female writers out there who get zero publicity.

  3. Does some of Julie Czerneda’s work count as space opera? I loved the Web Shifters series and Species Imperative. She has global politics, suspense and really really well designed aliens.

  4. Tanya Huff’s Torin Kerr/ Confederation novels are fast moving and definitely do not confirm to gender roles.

    They also have great explanation for the old star trek problem where society/the military seems set up around humanity despite a gigantic multi-species alliance. In this case the more “advanced” species had moved beyond warfare and wound up having to recruit more barbaric/primitive species when they encountered a force that was hell-bent on fighting. Humanity just happens to be the first of those species recruited.

  5. Based on this blog I bought “The Maker’s Mask” for my Nook yesterday. Started reading and got dragged in.

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  7. Lois McMaster Bujold? Catherine Asaro? Jean Johnson’s recent series starting with A Soldier’s Duty? I suppose it depends on one’s definition, but all those seem like space opera to me.

  8. Oh, hey, this is why my Kindle sales just spiked! Thanks!

    I have The Price Of The Stars on my bookshelf but haven’t started it yet due to buying it in the middle of moving house and immediately packing it in a box. I’m moving it to the top of the to-read list right now.

  9. Nobody mentions Elizabeth Moon yet? She has many strong females in her books. Read Remnant population, or the Vatta War series.

    • She has been mentioned, though she is another who tends to write gender binaries, which isn’t part of this particular discussion. Great books, though!

  10. I bought Maker’s Mask because of this rec, too. Already own all of the others. (Gee, ya think I like space opera?) I’m really glad to see them getting some love.

    Meluch’s first book rocked my world, back when it came out. There’s a tidbit of hommage to it in FS (and thank you so so much for the lovely review–I’m glad it worked for you this time around). She is one hell of a writer. Straight to the gut and no prisoners.

  11. I’m a space opera writer (i.e. passionate reader who has graduated to making the stories they want to read). The Mageworlds series (there are LOTS more books) was my constant companion through a really rough summer two years ago, and I had bought Ankaret Wells’ work in toto, but many of these were new to me so I’ve been buying them up. Looking forward to some good times reading!

    This column gave me a lot of encouragement for my own work, which tends to the gender-fluid. I went independent because I saw absolutely no place for me or my work in a publishing scene that pushes predominantly “the usual thing” by “the usual people” (i.e. white men writing Middle America in space).

    I’m really bothered by the trend of picking out “only one” writer of any non-white-male category (quick: name five living African/African-American women writing SF/F! Hint: none of them are Octavia Butler, great as that late foremother was.)

  12. Forgot to mention my colleague Cora Buhlert, German pulp writer whose ‘Shattered Empire’ series does space opera full of sly allusions to recent (20th-21st century) German history. They’re short and addictive, and I have thus far collected them all.

  13. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll definitely be looking these authors up.

    I’m a bit curious though – why the insistence on exploring gender identity? There’s so many other ways to identify oneself out there, it strikes me as kind of limiting to exclude other ways to explore selfhood. There are lots of authors that write great explorations of identity (Elizabeth Moon is one example) but not necessarily gender identity, and I’m just interested to hear why you focused on that if you want to share?

    • Oh, I agree. It happens that that is one of the aspects of the book I started the post off with, so I compared it to others that address the issue in other ways.

  14. I have to give a shout out to the Rachel Bach’s Paradox series. Seeing as I nearly burned my house to the ground to get to the end of book three, I can say they are well worth looking into. Strong female main character. No excess or extraneous sex scenes. Good, solid story structure–though the author leaves you hanging with several mysteries in Book One: Fortune’s Pawn. I can’t say there was a lot of gender-bender issues, but there were alien creatures who began life as gender neutral and could choose at maturity which role they preferred. Of course, not making a choice had other consequences and I found the secondary character subplots to be quite engaging.

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  17. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell & Natural History by Justina Robson are a couple i’ve had on my TBR pile for ages now that i’m hoping to get round to soon.

    • Oh, I need to look into the Justina Robson–hadn’t heard of it! I didn’t care for the Russell.