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