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.
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.
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!