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Ten space operas, not your usual suspects

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:

judgment_night1 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.

Valerian-Vol-3-Cover3 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.

take_back_plenty6 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.

The_Prodigal_Sun8 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.

spirit10 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.

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Sunday meme

Okay, so SF Signal posted this last Sunday, but I was in Berlin then, with no access to a computer. And yes, I had an excellent time, despite the weekend’s inauspicious start: getting up at 2:30 am, wandering down to the kitchen to make breakfast and stepping on a slug; and then getting to the airport and realising I’d left my credit and debit cards at home (fortunately, I had plenty of cash). Anyway, the meme…

alanya_coverMy favorite alien invasion book or series is…?
Probably the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, although Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy runs a close second. Duchamp’s five novels – Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto – document the arrival on a near-future Earth of an alien mission which will only talk to women. Supporting character turned chief villain Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s best creations. Jones’ White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café cover similar ground, but from a more global perspective. It also features, like Duchamp’s quintet, an extremely well-drawn antagonist in Braemar Wilson. Both series are intensely political and among the smartest books in science fiction.

ascentMy favorite alternate history book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: I’d say Ascent by Jed Mercurio, but naming it as alternate history might constitute a spoiler. It could also be argued that the superb Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is alternate history. I think I’ve read my fair share of Hitler-victorious alternate histories, and I suspect there are very few changes remaining to be rung on that particular trope. Not being American, I’ve little interest in their civil war and how it might have ended differently. Stephen Baxter’s alternate take on the US space programme, Voyage, appeals for obvious reasons. And many sf novels of the past written about exploring Mars and the Moon may not have been written as alternate history, but they pretty much qualify as it now. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century sf novels about twenty-first space travel, such as those by Steele or Bova, suffer from being, well, not very good. Sadly, early and alternate space travel doesn’t seem to be an area of the genre that has attracted writers with much in the way of writing chops. Which is a shame.

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey, the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. Everything that came after is just the twitchings of a dead subgenre.

redplentyMy favorite Dystopian book or series is…?
Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. If you read Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty, you’ll see that not everyone thought the USSR was a dystopia. And for all the UK’s fabled streets of gold, it’s starting to look more and more like a dystopia each day to those of us living here. As for reading about dystopias… I don’t think it’s been done especially well in science fiction – but then Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow. Some of DG Compton’s works from the 1970s might be considered dystopian, such as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and in Ascendancies, he manages to find a dystopian story in a near-utopian society. JG Ballard wrote plenty of novels and short stories which might qualify, but no specific title springs to mind – it’s probably best to consider his entire oeuvre as dystopian fiction. And you can’t really go wrong by reading them all.

equator3My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?
AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens), which mixes California noir and pulp sf and just about manages to get away with it, is one of my favourite sf novels. It’s completely bonkers, of course; but it’s one of van Vogt’s more coherent works. Which isn’t saying much. Recently, I’ve read some early sf by women writers and found it much better than the so-called classics I read as a kid – these days, I find EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov near-unreadable. There’s also an early Brian Aldiss novel, Equator, which I really like, though it’s more like spy fiction with added aliens than science fiction per se. Which may be one reason why I find it so appealing.

My favorite hard sf book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: it’s probably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I don’t read that much hard sf as such. When I need my real science kicks, I read books about space or deep sea exploration. There are very, very few hard sf novels which come even remotely close to emulating the authenticity those books possess.

nature-beast-richard-fawkesMy favorite military sf book or series is…?
I don’t have much time for military science fiction, though in the past I’ve read my fair share – including David Weber, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Jack Campbell, David Feintuch, John Steakley, and probably a few others. The only such books left on my book-shelves, and which may well get purged should I ever get around to rereading them, are Richard Fawkes’ Face of the Enemy and Nature of the Beast, which I remember as quite interesting. Also worth a go is Shariann Lewitt’s debut novel, Angel at Apogee, and her two Collegium novels, Cyberstealth and Dancing Vac. And if any of CJ Cherryh’s books qualify, then they’re certainly worth reading.

kairosMy favorite near-future book or series is…?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve always been a fan of John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels and short stories, but do they count as near-future? Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, a favourite novel, was near-future when it was published, but that was back in 1988 – and these days it reads more like alternate history. The same might well prove true of Ken MacLeod’s excellent Intrusion a decade from now. Another excellent near-future novel is Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, though despite being two decades old it has yet to become alternate history – perhaps because it doesn’t feel like it’s set in a near-future which might well happen.

The_Caryatids_Bruce_SterlingMy favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?
To be honest, I’m not interested in how Americans would react should their society collapse, nor do I believe that every single person on the planet would react in that way. Which pretty much discounts ninety-nine percent of post-apocalyptic novels. The only one that springs to mind as different is Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which shows the world – all of it – coping with the aftermath of climate crash and nation-state failures. Perhaps the best of the more traditional post-apocalyptic novels is Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, in which mysterious aliens save isolated pockets of humanity. It reads like a masterclass in sf and deserves to be back in print.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…?
Science fiction’s treatment of robots has always been silly. They’re either human in all but name and yet treated like slaves, or blatant signifiers for slaves. In remarkably few sf stories do they actually resemble real robots.

ceres-storm-david-herter-paperback-cover-artMy favorite space opera book or series is…?
I’ve always enjoyed Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though I think the individual parts are not as impressive as the sum of them. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty has always been a favourite space opera too, and I remember being impressed by Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire when I read it many years ago. Likewise David Herter’s Ceres Storm, which I read back when it was published in 2000. I really must reread it one of these days…

My favorite steampunk book or series is…?
I don’t read steampunk. There’s nothing in it that appeals to me. Airships? Pfft. Give me supersonic jets every time. Brass? Useless metal. And anyway, steel is more emblematic of the British Empire than brass. Difference engines? NASA didn’t put twelve men on the Moon using clockwork computers, did they?

My favorite superhero book or series is…?
I used to read superhero comics by the likes of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, but went off the whole genre several years ago. I can no longer think of anything nice to say about the genre.

Millennium(1stEd)My favorite time travel book or series is…?
I’m more likely to read and enjoy an historical novel than I am a time travel one. I can’t off the top of my head think of any time travel novels that I hold in especially high regard. I remember enjoying Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, which is set in 1940s Hollywood. And Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships takes Wells’ The Time Machine and runs with it… and runs… and runs… I’m a big fan of John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’, and I still have a soft spot for the film adaptation Millennium, despite its godawful production design… which does mean I really like the novel written by Varley of the film adapted by Varley of the short story written by Varley…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?
I don’t read YA books. I am no longer sixteen, and haven’t been for a few decades.

My favorite zombie book or series is…?
I don’t read zombie books. I don’t even like zombie films. Maybe one day somebody will do something interesting with the trope, but I’m not holding my breath.

foss_foundation-coversThe 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?
Last month, I foolishly agreed to read and blog about half a dozen classic sf novels, so I have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation to look forward to over the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I have some reading for SF Mistressworks, and I hope to sneak in a few more recent genre novels as well, but I’ve yet to decide which ones. In fact, when you have a TBR of around 700 books, it’s often difficult to pick what to read next and I can sometimes spend ten or twenty minutes feeling really indecisive as I wander from one bookcase to the next…

And now I’ve finished this I’ll no doubt think of books I should have mentioned. Oh well. The more observant among you might also have noticed that all the links on this post go to Foyles using their affiliate scheme (except for the one link to a DVD). I found it relatively easy to use – a little fiddlier than Amazon’s, but not unworkably so. We’ll see how it works out.