Writer Gareth Powell posted a list of Top Ten Essential Space Operas earlier this week, and since I like posting me some lists of books (and I have a space opera all of my own due out in July from Tickety Boo Press), I thought I would put together a list of ten space operas myself. But not “essential” ones, or even “top ten” or “best”. Just ten space operas you won’t usually find in lists of space operas. And which, yes, I do also happen to think are pretty good.
A few notes before the list. Much as I admire books like Light, Against A Dark Background (or any Banks, but that would be my choice) and Ancillary Justice, as picks they’re just too obvious. And when it comes to the definition of space opera, I wanted to choose books that no one could argue with – so, stories that stretched across several worlds, near-magical technology, alien races, the galaxy at stake, etc, etc…
In chronological order:
1 Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952). Those were the days, when alien hordes descended on imperial capitals and the only thing preventing the sacking of the empire was the hawk-like princess, and she’s not going compromise with anyone, no matter if the imperial forces are out-numbered and out-gunned. I reviewed this short novel for SF Mistressworks, and though it sounds about as cheesy as space opera can possibly get, the character of Princess Juille is actually surprisingly well-drawn and interestingly played. And the Ancients are pretty neat too. My review is here.
2 Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1966). I first read this as one half of a double with Delany’s The Ballad of Beta-2, and I’m pretty sure it was during a family holiday in Paris in the very early 1980s. I loved the Moebius Loop narrative, and the rich language. These days I think Dhalgren is Delany’s best piece of work, but this short novel runs it a close second.
3 Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (1967 – present). Valérian, Agent Spatio-Temporel, and his partner Laureline, have been operating as troubleshooters for the Terran Galactic Empire since their first appearance in Pilote magazine through, to date, twenty-two bandes dessinées. Four were translated into English back in the 1980s, which is how I stumbled across the galaxy- and time-hopping pair. Happily, Cinebook began publishing the series in English a few years ago – they’re now up to volume 8.
4 The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985 – 1990). I bought these in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi back in the mid-1990s, and I’ve always liked the strange alien world Blakeney created in Anthi. The two books are a bit wobbly in places, while in other places she does tend to dial everything up to eleven. The protagonist is also a bit of wet blanket at times, but it all hangs together quite cleverly. I reviewed both books on SF Mistressworks here and here.
5 Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, Phillip Mann (1986 – 1987). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction since reading his debut, The Eye of the Queen, back in the late 1980s. I really must reread his books – especially these two, The Story of the Gardener, as I remember them being a smart and literate space opera – and sadly that’s not a pair of adjectives you normally associate with space opera.
6 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Iain M Banks is chiefly credited with kicking off New British Space Opera, but I’ve always considered this a seminal work – even if no one else bothered to pastiche old pulp space opera in the same fashion as Greenland. I remember the buzz when the book came out, and happily it is now in the SF Masterworks series. Take Back Plenty spawned a pair of belated sequels, Seasons of Plenty (1995) and Mother of Plenty (1998). I reviewed Take Back Plenty here.
7 An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgement, Susan R Matthews (1997 – 1999). Matthews’ Jurisdiction novels probably bend the definition of space opera furthest from true on this list. Yes, they’re set in an interstellar polity – it’s a lexocracy, ruled by judges – and there’s plenty of drama and conflict… But Andrej Kosciusko is a torturer for the Bench, and the stories are relatively small scale. They are also very, very good. I reviewed the first of the trilogy on SF Mistressworks here.
8 The Prodigal Sun, The Dying Light and A Dark Imbalance, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (1999 – 2001). In many respects, these are the dictionary definition of space opera – plots and counter-plots, a sophisticated starship piloted by a cyborg mind, aliens, galactic war, a heroine who must transport an AI across a turbulent galaxy… Williams and Dix deploy every space opera trope in the Milky Way, but they do it in service to an action-packed fun read that’s about as emblematic of space operas as you can get.
9 The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld (2003). I think I read the first of these books as an ARC, but I forget where I picked it up. I liked it so much, I bought both books in hardback. They were published in the UK as a single volume, with the same title as the first book. Unlike many of the other books on this list, the Succession duology rings a few changes on the space opera template – the aristocracy are all dead, for a start. The two books are also quite deceptive in terms of scale – they feel widescreen, but are actually quite focused.
10 Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008). Who knew the sequel to the Aleutian novels, a superior first contact trilogy, would be a space opera? Based roughly on the story of The Count of Monte Cristo? But given that the action in Spirit takes place on three different worlds, two of which are alien, as well as in a space station shared by all the races in the story, the book certainly qualifies as space opera. I wrote about Spirit here.
The list said ten, so I had to draw a line after that number. But there were a a few I’d liked to have included but they didn’t quite make the cut. Such as Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt; Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades and Star Search, Colin Kapp; The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge; or even the Coyote Jones series, Suzette Haden Elgin.
Some people may spot there are a couple of obvious choices not mentioned in this post – such as Peter F Hamilton or James SA Corey – and that’s because, well, I don’t think they’re very good. Nonetheless, I’ve probably missed off some space operas I ought to have mentioned… so feel free to make suggestions. However, if you find yourself about to suggest a list of ten books by male writers only, or indeed by white male US authors only, you probably need to go away and rethink your list – or maybe even reconsider the books you’re reading…
ETA: A redditor pointed out that the most recent book mentioned in my list is from 2008. Given that I wanted the list to show a reasonable spread across the decades, this is not unexpected. Nor did I want to post just another list of the shiny new. This doesn’t mean my knowledge of space opera stops at 2008, however. I can recommend both Mike Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire trilogy (2009 – 2011) and Gary Gibson’s Shoal Sequence (2007 – 2013). I tried the first book of Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy (2013 – 2014), but didn’t rate it. I did rate Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (2011 – 2012), but I wouldn’t classify it as space opera. I mentioned Ann Leckie in the opening paragraphs of this post. I wouldn’t use Kevin J Anderson’s books as toilet paper, never mind suggest people read them; and I don’t really consider Alistair Reynolds’ novels as space opera (no, not even House of Suns), though I do think they’re very good. As for the bazillions of space operas self-published every month on Kindle… Since almost all of them are derivative and badly-written, I see no good reason to keep up with them.