It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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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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Welcome to An Age of Discord

What is this, I hear you cry. A space opera? But, Ian, you write hard sf, literary hard sf, the sort of hard sf that needs two pages of bibliography! How can you write a space opera?

Well, it sort of happened like this…

I first started work on A Prospect of War back when I was living in the UAE. I’d previously completed two novels, neither of which were especially good. One was a sort of Dickensian space opera, and the other a first contact novel with a time-slipped narrative. But after working my way through the first seven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and failing to understand why they had proven so successful, I decided to write a space opera trilogy which used the structure of an epic fantasy. It took several goes before I was happy with the universe I was building (early versions probably owed a little too much to science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller).

So, I would have a “peasant hero”, a young man of common birth who proved to have some magical ability which resulted in him leading the forces of good against an attempt by a “dark lord” to overthrow the existing ruling dynasty. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw magic into my space opera. In fact, what I wanted was a relatively low-tech civilisation that had managed to build an interstellar empire using only a limited number of pieces of handwavey technology. I didn’t want it all shiny high tech because I needed to justify the rigidly-enforced social classes. You need those class barriers in place for a peasant hero to break through (and to provide yet more jeopardy to justify his eventual victory). And I wanted an atmosphere of fading grandeur and deep history.

I invented a world which reached an early industrial level of technology, and promptly discovered three satellites in orbit. A space race led to one nation – the most socially conservative and repressive of those on the world – getting into space first… where the astronauts found three ancient wrecked starships. And from them they reverse-engineered: a Faster-Than-Light drive, a cheap energy generator, anti-gravity, a powerful directed-energy ships’ weapon, and a force-curtain. (They actually had a little surreptitious help… but that’s a story for another day.) These five things gave that nation first the planet, and then an interstellar empire.

But my story would be set millennia later, after the empire had declined and a new empire, catalysed by a successful war against another interstellar polity, had been carved out of it. The dark lord would be only the latest leader of a conspiracy which has been harbouring a grudge since the defeat of the old empire…

This was getting bloody complicated. I took some time out from writing to do some world-building… and eventually ended up with a couple of hundred MB of spreadsheets, documents and text files giving details on everything from the imperial government to its military to naming conventions to ancient history. I even built a wiki, with the eventual aim of either publishing it online or in book-form as an encyclopaedia.

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

Then it was back to writing the story… which never quite went as planned. This was partly because I’d been too clever for my own good. For reasons which now escape me, I decided that FTL travel entailed journeys measured in weeks, but in the real universe the length of time the journey took was longer, on a logarithmic scale. So a journey which for a ship’s passengers might take a week would see them arrive eight days after their departure; for two weeks, it would be seventeen days… and so on. Since I decided to use four main viewpoint characters, and I’d have them travelling about on different journeys… I had to create a giant spreadsheet in order to keep the chronology straight. It was a major headache.

And that epic fantasy template I’d planned on using… that was getting completely bent out of shape too. I had my four protagonists meeting and then separating and then meeting again, just so I could get them all into position for the end of the first novel. To make matters worse, every time I reached for a space opera or epic fantasy trope to incorporate, it would never quite fit, so I had to either rip it apart or subvert it.

Anyway, I eventually finished the first book, after many years of writing and polishing. It was good enough for John Jarrold to take me on as a client. I started work on the second book of the trilogy. This was a mistake. If you can’t sell the first book of a series, what’s the point of writing the second book? A few years passed. I wrote a few treatments for novels, but no one bit. I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It won the BSFA Award. I discovered I much preferred writing the sort of literary sf that requires lots of research. I wrote the remaining books of the Apollo Quartet (well, was working on the fourth book). Then a small press – Tickety Boo Press – asked to see my space opera. What to do? I’m not writing that sort of science fiction any more. Won’t its appearance confuse readers who have come to expect the likes of the Apollo Quartet from me?

Decision time.

Now, I still stand by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. I think they’re good work. And now actually seems like the right time for them to appear. Publishing has changed, the sf market has changed, space opera has changed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t intend to do a little wrangling before they see the light of day. At 200,000 words, A Prospect of War could do with being made a little tighter and punchier. And I changed some background details when I wrote A Conflict of Orders, so I need to retcon them in A Prospect of War. A Conflict of Orders’ 170,000 words will also receive some rewriting. And I’ll finally get around to writing A Want of Reason – which will please some friends, who have been demanding I write it for years.

Space opera is a more commercial, and commercially successful, subgenre than literary hard sf. If An Age of Discord sells well, and encourages people to buy the Apollo Quartet, then it’s all win. There are space operas currently available on Kindle – badly-written and derivative ones – which sell several thousand copies a month. In three years, I’ve sold 1,300 copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Granted, novellas don’t sell as well novels, but all the same…

An Age of Discord does not mean I’ve permanently decamped to space opera. I still have a number of hard sf projects planned, both at novella and novel length. But I see no reason why I can’t write big fat space operas and literary hard sf. But we shall see how well the trilogy does. Perhaps people will hate it, perhaps no one will buy it. Perhaps its time has not come, after all…

 


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Space opera trilogy to be published

The news is out… Tickety Boo Press have picked up my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, to be published in 2015 and 2016. The three books are A Prospect of War, A Conflict of Orders and A Want of Reason, and they’re sort of a steampunkish widescreen baroque space opera sort of thing. The official press release (see here) describes the general story as…

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but those who ignore history do so at their peril. The Empire was born in civil war and now, 1,300 years later, a fresh civil war is brewing. But who is the mysterious “Serpent” who threatens the Imperial Throne? And what can the renegade naval officer known only as the Admiral, and her single battlecruiser, do to combat him? Casimir Ormuz, a young man of low birth, may be the key. Whoever controls him is most likely to win—but he is determined to be his own master.

And then the historical origin of the Serpent’s conspiracy abruptly intrudes into the present… And the civil war becomes a battle for the Empire’s survival.

Set in a colourful and richly-detailed universe, An Age of Discord tells an epic story of derring-do and intrigue, while subverting space opera sensibilities and traditions.

… which is all a bit vague and tantalising-y. As all good blurbs should be.

acoo

I wrote a back-cover blurb for the first novel, and while it may or may not appear on the actual book when it’s published, here it is to give a flavour of the trilogy:

Lieutenant-Commander Rizbeka demar Rinharte is lieutenant of intelligence aboard Vengeful, a renegade battlecruiser commanded by the mysterious Admiral.

Sliva demar Finesz is an inspector in the Office of the Procurator Imperial, and involved in investigating a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor Willim IX.

Murily Plessant is captain of the data-freighter Divine Providence. She is also an agent of a secret order dedicated to protecting the Empire against the clandestine machinations of its internal enemies.

Although all three women do not know it, they are fighting the same enemy.

Vital to this fight is the young man Casimir Ormuz, a member of Divine Providence’s crew.

Only Plessant and her secret order know the role Ormuz will play… and even then he is far more pivotal than they realise.

Did I mention that the plot is really complicated? There’s wheels-within-wheels and sword-fights and space battles and no space opera cliché is left unmangled by the Sales treatment…

Oops. Forgot to mention. A Prospect of War will be launched at Edge-Lit 4 in Derby on 11 July this year.

PS: An Age of Discord will feature quote marks for dialogue.