Space Opera Treasures

by Sherwood Smith

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
.

A little over forty years ago, I sat with another teenage friend in the funky front room of their Manhattan beach cottage—for her parents were bohemians, and in those days beach real estate was still achievable by anyone. We looked out the front windows at the constant drum and hiss of the sea, talking of this and that.

I don’t remember how the subject came up, but her mother had joined us, and said in her slow southern drawl (she’d left home at fifteen to get married, many years before, but never lost her accent) “Just once I was standing on a ridge. And the wind was on my face, and in my hair, and the light was just right, so I could see and see, right beyond the world. And for just that moment I felt so big and so vast I knew everything.”

The closest I come to that is the beyond-the-horizon satisfaction of big idea, vast-reach, unabashedly heroic space opera.

Here are the basic elements that appeal to me in space opera:

Interesting aliens, weird cultures and larger than life characters.

Space ships

Emotional complexity

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

Layered or polysemous surprises

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

The quotation above comes from the  Mageworlds series, written by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald.

They have everything I just 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.

Three of them go together: The Price of the Stars , Starpilots’ Grave, and By Honor Betray’d.

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.

The second and third books concern the war with the Mages that is threatening all through this book, when the Mages cross the Gap between Worlds the distinction between bad guys and good guys blurs. So does time. Even honor seems to be at stake, for what is that, exactly?

There are generational stories, before the trilogy in The Gathering Flame, and after, in The Long Hunt which mixes action and mystery with comedy of manners. Anyone likes Bujold’s Civil Campaign ought to have this one on their shelves. Especially if you like dueling grannies who run a tea-shop…but can whip out a blaster faster than hired muscle when needed. And there are more.

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

Most recent, R. M. Meluch‘s  Americans vs. Romans, with two rival empires set in the far future. 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 mentioned above.

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.

M.K. Wren,  The Phoenix Legacy series. Hundreds of years after the end of the Second Dark Age, young Alexand DeKoven-Woolf is heir to a seat on the Directorate of the Concord of the Thousand Loyal Houses. Through his dying brother Rich, Alexand becomes involved with the Society of the Phoenix, an outlawed group trying to promote evolutionary change in the current social structure before the tensions inherent in the Concord’s feudal system bring on a third dark age. The rulers don’t see it that way, of course; they never do.

Mighty industrial empire—family dynasties—Society of the Phoenix bent on revolution—all the fun elements are there

Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths (which you can find here):

Two emperors—ship crews who bond together to mentally mesh with a web—and high politics bent around a mysterious crewman who is branded an Oathbreaker, with the memory wipe to prove it, goes straight into grand space opera territory.

Jane Emerson’s City of Diamond, massive city-ships, old empires and aliens with vast knowledge . . . a nifty space opera that I wish had more volumes. It certainly was set up for more.

And late in the sixties: Alexei Panshin’s Anthony Villiers trilogy (you can read them in any order, but I suggest starting with The Thurb Revolution) is well-written space opera that has all the grand sweep that one could wish for, though it starts small, with a traveling aristocrat with an acerb eye, accompanied by a Trog (a Restricted alien). The idea is that this world is made up of mutually beneficial small communities . . . that do not always comprehend each other’s customs or paradigm.

Give these a try—or recommend your own space opera extravaganzas that you think other readers would enjoy discovering!

Sherwood Smith (who is half a space opera writing team) is a member of Book View Cafe

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Space Opera Treasures — 29 Comments

  1. Space operas never fail to enthrall me … for hours, days … I can’t lay them down until I have reached the final ovation and am exhausted. Thank you for offering me a couple I’ve never read.

  2. I would like to support the recommendation of M.K. Wren – that trilgoy is incredibly gripping and has a tropic of manipulation of the masses by setting up a Messia-like figure I found fascinating, especially how that has to be resolved at the end. And it’s very much a family drama at the same time. I was lucky to find it on the shelves at Forbidden Planet in London in the 90s at some point, I never saw much about it otherwise.

    Same goes for the Highroad Trilogy by Alis R. Rasmussen, whom we are fortunate enough to have kept as a writer (Kate Elliott’s Jaran books are in the same universe, but as far as I understand much later in the timeline, and the Jaran books are mostly planet based).

    I’d have added the Chronicles of Nuala by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, but those are squarely set on one planet, so that doesn’t work…

    I remember having read the Doyle & McDonald in parts, but I didn’t keep those books at the time… maybe I should try to rectify that.

    OH right: eluki bes shahar (aka Rosemary Edghill, I believe) wrote a great space opera about a mercenary/trader having to deal with the prospective heir to an empire and an amazing A.I. with much deeper roots than she has expected, in due course saving the galaxy, I think. It’s a trilogy starting with Hellflower (and there was an omnibus edition)

    Oh right, Katie Waitman’s The Merro Tree – with an interspecies love story and the discussion of whether the inherent beauty of art should trump the expressed wishes of a dead people. And amazing performances and a physically abused boy turning into the most amazing performance artist in the galaxy. And political intrigues.

    Oh and I keep forgetting all of Julie Czerneda’s Ouevre (outside of her editorial skills) – I think the Web Shifters trilogy about the immortal shape changer beings is probably the best example for your definition, as we get somewhat of a generational interplay of what a being like that which is rare for its race (there only seem to be six in that particular galaxy) in that it is interested in mortal species interaction would find of interest, how people would deal with knowing it, what emotional ties would bind…
    Esen alit Quar

  3. The Highroad Trilogy! Thank you–I was never able to find the last, but maybe that will happen now that it’s easier to find out of print books.

    I thought about Nuala, but yes, it’s all about one planet, which edges it over into sf, but it does have a space opera sort of feel.

  4. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels deserve a look-in here (side note: are these not so popular in the US? They don’t seem to rate a mention on US sci-fi related sites as often as I’d expect…). ‘Excession’ and ‘Look to Windward’ are some of the more space opera-ish episodes in the series, but all are excellent.

  5. Thanks to you and the other commenters for the mentions of what look like great reads!
    I like Space Opera for the trips to other worlds and cultures.

  6. I had no idea people draw the lines for the definitions in such different places. To my mind, space opera (in addition to being set in space) requires vast distances, vast spans of time, and high stakes. It might require aliens. Is the Foundation Trilogy space opera?

    To my mind, Komarr is the only Bujold which feels like space opera — supertechnology and the fate of planets make the difference compared to her more human scale stories.

  7. I love the Villiers books and wish Panshin had written more of them. In a world of trilogies that turned into series, it’s a series that shouldn’t have stopped as a trilogy.

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  9. I LOVED that M.K. Wren trilogy, and thought I was one of the few people in the world who had read it. Apart from one of the worst every infodumps right at the beginning, I enjoyed it thoroughly (and it has such a great romance, too).

    I have very much enjoyed Julie Czerneda’s series, especially the shape-changers one and the species imperative one. She does such great aliens. Do her books count as space opera?

  10. Thanks so much for this entry! I’ve just added a bunch of new novels to my wishlist. (I’m especially intrigued by the Doyle/Macdonald Mageworlds books!) My own faves are the Vorosigan saga, of course, and Walter Jon Williams’s great Drake Maijstral books, especially The Crown Jewels.

  11. Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire Falls trilogy. Humanity and other alien races have been long-conquered by, and assimilated into the the empire of, one uber-powerful race. When the last living member of that race dies, all spacedom is plunged into war.

    Also, Scott Westerfield’s Risen Empire duology.

  12. I think C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur Saga would also work, especially as its from the viewpoint of the aliens – I haven’t read all of Cherryh’s oeuvre so I’m not sure what other classics I’m missing. My favourite books of hers are the Foreigner series, but those are centered around one planet and the society changes there.

    Oh, and if you can find it, do get the last Highroad book, the series really holds up on reread, I find. And has a satisfying ending – although I could easily have read more about the characters.

  13. If you read Spanish, “Mundos en la eternidad” by Juan Miguel Agilera and Javier Redal. Outstanding. If you don’t read Spanish but you know any English-language publishers, tell them to buy it.

  14. While I agree that Wren’s Phoenix Legacy is space opera, I read it once a long time ago and enjoyed it, then read it a second time and… not so much. It depended too much on highly unlikely MacGuffins, and while that may have thrilled by 16-year-old self, the 40-year-old wasn’t willing to suspend disbelief that much.

    Given that the Phoenix Legacy is also promoted as “romance,” and indeed reads much like the current glut trite SF romances but with an older generation’s reticence, it also has one of the most horrific torture scene in SF, making Susan Matthew’s work look fairly tame by example.

    I, too, am very disappointed that City of Diamond will not have a successor. The whole “Irish Space Cyber Ninja” thing was very entertaining.

  15. ‘A Million Open Doors’, by John Barnes, might be of interest, and I think would meet the definition of space opera (among other things, AMOD is ‘SF with dandies’), and it’s great fun. There are several other books in the series–AMOD’s immediate successor, ‘Earth Made Of Glass’, is also noteworthy, but it’s a very different book in tone.

    And for those who like their space opera short (space operettas, perhaps?), there’s ‘New Space Opera’ (vols 1 and 2) edited by Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois, which have some good stuff.

  16. “Just once I was standing on a ridge. And the wind was on my face, and in my hair, and the light was just right, so I could see and see, right beyond the world. And for just that moment I felt so big and so vast I knew everything.”

    That’s how I used to feel when I’d gallop on the top of the ridge on Rocky, one of my dad’s horses. I was 11 at the time and had no idea I was being given a gift (the freedom to ride dangerously with no supervision) until I was much older. After we lost the ranch and the land and life we loved.

  17. I did like the Honor books quite a lot, but haven’t kept up with the last few.

    One series you left out, that you have blessed the rest of us with is the Exordium books. I loved that series because of the vulnerability of the main character. Wasn’t quite sure for awhile if he was a good or bad guy, the ambiguity kept me wanting more.

    (Goes to check date of first book) 1993. Whoa! where has the time gone?

  18. The Jane Emerson nom de plume was never a particularly deep secret, and the author’s real-nameWeb site includes information on her Emersonian material and on her books and other credits as Doris Egan. Which is worth mentioning of its own merit, considering that there’s very good space opera (The Gate of Ivory and its sequel) to be had under the Egan byline as well.

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  20. I’ll second the question, does the Foundation series count? When I saw the title of this blog my first thought was Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine. It has all of the required elements of the space opera and it was the darker less optmistic Trek.

  21. Lani: the thing about space opera is that everyone’s definition seems to vary slightly, and examples can also vary. I’ve seen the Foundation series included–and left out, all for cogent reasons.

  22. The letter “V” is good for space opera (or other sci fi that’s near-space-opera).

    Jack Vance. He writes prose that reads like poetry. I’d especially recommend the Cadwal Chronicles or Ports of Call + Lurulu, but he actually wrote a novel entitled “Space Opera”; anything in the Gaean Reach setting seems to qualify.

    John Varley has several series which are both highly entertaining and fit the genre – I’m not as fond of Titan/Wizard, but loved the Golden Globe

    Vernor Vinge is another possibility.

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