The Evolution in Space Opera: THE VELA and ANCESTRAL NIGHT

Two new space operas have appeared in the last couple of days. I inhaled them both: one a novel by Elizabeth Bear, and the second is a four-author serial, a form that is becoming increasingly popular

As I pointed out in my Goodreads review of Elizabeth Bear’s  Ancestral Night, space opera, particularly in the hands of some female writers, it is not even remotely retrogressive in the ways that were standard some thirty years ago.

This is also true of the new Serial Box Serial The Vela

For me to get hooked, space opera has to hit at least some of the following elements:

Larger than life characters with interesting explorations of gender and identity

The Vela scores pretty high here.

There has clearly been a conscious effort to offer a diverse cast of characters. Most of the speaking parts, protagonists, antagonists, and very complex characters who don’t plump squarely in either camp, the narrative voice identifies as female. A few don’t have gender sepecified (which is signified by “they/them” which unfortunately I have trouble reading as not-plural, but that seems to be the trend rather than various non-standard pronouns that have been floated, such as zir, etc)

What I liked is that the characters’ gender is not made an Issue, and thus doesn’t get in the way of a cracking good story that starts with a bang and keeps running. It just is a part of a world that feels lived-in, with its cultural islands and outlooks, that is doomed.

Asala, who is one of our main pair, is a tough fighter as well as a campaigner: the story opens with her lying on a rooftop with her sniper rifle, having turned off her hearing aid as she functions better as a sniper in silence.

Niko, our secondary character, is a young hacker, offspring of President Ekrem, a career politician with all that implies. Niko is sometimes like a pup, and sometimes seems to want you to believe that puppy-like, adorable fumbling brightness. Niko gets the “they/them” that sometimes distracted old me into rereading sentences to realize it was one person, not a mob doing the action.

Asala and Niko leave to find a refugee ship that has somehow disappeared. . .

In Ancestral Night, Haimey Dz fits that first criterion in aces and spades. I say aces as a ‘clever’ way of segueing to Haimey’s identity. When we first meet her, she is very certain who she is, and is determined to stick to it, even when that means using government mandated self-medicating.

She loves being a salvage seeker, living on the edge both of the known universe and financially, along with her crewmates, a pilot named Connla, agreeably complex and not even remotely a love interest for Haimey, and Singer, their AI who is at least as complex.

Then they make a discovery, of a ship that isn’t supposed to exist, leading to Reason #2:

Interesting space ships that go beyond sprockets and rockets

The space ships in The Vela are well thought out, but the focus is on a star system whose sun is dying after being basically used up by the rich inner planets. Everyone is trying to flee to the warmer inner planets before the cold kills them.

And we all know how well desperate immigrants are treated by the richer denizens. The Vela vanished, and both Asala and Niko care what happened to those refugees. President Ekrem, who secretly sent them, also cares, but not for the same reasons.

In Bear’s Ancestral Night, the ships are up front. The ship-design, drawing firmly on worldbuilding that supports awe-inspiring intricacy and mysterious power, opens up an array of questions about government, psychology, culture, social engineering . . . and of course What’s Out There.

Emotional complexity

This is where my admiration really set for both stories.

In The Vela four writers working together blended their styles and storytelling well enough to furnish complex characters as the story keeps widening out in.

In Ancestral Night great alien design complements the development of the characters, as Haimey slowly begins to discover that everything, everything she thought she knew . . . is wrong. Leading to . . .

Big Ideas and layered or polysemous surprises

Oh yeah. Right around the time our protagonists start catching up with vanished ship The Vela the story takes yet another turn, into the seriously cool.

In Ancestral Night, the ideas keep getting bigger and bigger as Heimey grapples with an abandoned ship full of mysteries, and with her own identity, while on the run from a villain very different from most space opera villains.

It’s early in 2019, but it seems to me it’ll be a great year for science fiction, especially space opera.

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The Evolution in Space Opera: THE VELA and ANCESTRAL NIGHT — 2 Comments

  1. The last time I read such a coop author novel was the Golden Key (1996), from DAW. That one had three authors though, not four. Hadn’t heard this narrative approach was back!

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