A “New Space Opera” Reading List

Many of my friends and acquaintances read SF, but there are a lot of sub-genres and I’ve noticed recently that many people either don’t know of “New Space Opera” or have just discovered it and want help finding more. Since I read as much of it as I can get my hands on, I figured I’d make a short, annotated, reading list to give those so-inclined a leg up.

First, the inevitable question: what is “Space Opera?” As far as I can make out, “Space Opera” was originally a derogatory term for the type of “cowboys in space” stories popular in the pulps once upon a time. Of course, low-brow or not, Space Opera is both very common and highly entertaining in television and film: “Star Trek” being the most obvious—in all its incarnations—as well as “Stargate” (likewise in 3 different series), “Firefly”, “Babylon 5”, and others you either know of if you’re a fan, or don’t need to know about if you’re not.

So what’s “New Space Opera?” This seems to be a much more controversial and slippery concept. For my part, I think of it as an updated, more high-brow version of Space Opera. It’s still primarily about adventure in space, but space isn’t just the setting anymore. The usual concerns of humanity far away from here and now—wild new technologies, bizarre and hostile environments, cultural evolution and upheaval—that you find in other types of SF are also found in New Space Opera. Since the late eighties, writers like Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher, and others threw out the laws of physics as regards FTL travel (in “real” or “hard” SF you obviously cannot go faster than light) and then decided to see what kinds of ripping good yarns they could tell while sticking to most of the other rules of the SF genre. Usually, the canvas must be big: inter-stellar or even inter-galactic wars (including the cold kind); smuggling, piracy, espionage and terrorism; the rise and fall of empires; vast spans of space and time—that kind of thing.

So without further ado, here’s my short list of “New Space Opera” for anyone who wants to give it a go. This is by no means an exhaustive list (that would be impossible), nor is it necessarily a list of “the best” New Space Opera. It’s just my idea of some good places to start. Enjoy!

  1. Iain M. Banks. Not to be confused with Iain Banks, who is the same person writing non-genre fiction. To the best of my knowledge Banks was among the very first (if not the first) to kick of this new kind of space adventure. His first space opera Consider Phlebas is a classic, but my personal favourites are the later Use of Weapons and Feersum Endjinn. Both Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons are so-called “Culture” novels (involving a human civilization Banks calls simpy “The Culture”), while Feersum Endjinn is set in a universe of its own. Banks’s more recent work is still worth reading, but it seems to me to be running out of steam.
  2. Alastair Reynolds. Reynolds has to be the undisputed master of vastness. His stories take place over such enormous spans of space and time that they sometimes feel a little bleak. Nevertheless, it’s brilliant and imaginative stuff. His debut series of novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap are must-reads. But if you’ve only got the time or taste for a singleton, I’d recommend the recent House of Suns
  3. Peter F. Hamilton. Hamilton tends to write long books with lots of characters. It’s the many points of view that bring the stories to life and make them so much fun. Probably the best place to start is with the two-volume “Commonwealth Saga”: Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. He has what promises to be an even better series in the works, but as it’s unfinished, I wouldn’t start there (ok, it’s The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void…so far.)
  4. Neal Asher. Asher took a little while to grow on me. I think he grew as a writer, too, which certainly helped. His first novel Gridlinked was well-reviewed and is probably worth reading because it’s the first “Agent Cormac” novel, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. An ultra-violent high-tech secret agent yarn. **yawn** But things definitely got better after that. Asher has a marvellously creepy bio-aesthetic that’s unlike any other writer I can think of. Asher’s “Polity” owes much to Banks’s “Culture”, in that it’s a utopian society ruled by (allegedly) benevolent AIs often embodied in warships (?!) But that’s about all they have in common. My favourites are probably the Agent Cormac novels, which are, in order: Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War.
  5. Charles Stross. Stross does more than just Space Opera, but he’s written a couple of decent ones: Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky, and by stretching the definition of Space Opera a bit, you could probably include Accelerando
    —which is worth a read anyway, because it’s the only attempt I know of to write up to and through the “Vingean singularity”. Deserves a prize for bravery, that.
  6. John Scalzi. This series is a must-read: Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. The last is a bit of a do-over of The Last Colony, but even though I was originally doubtful, it turned out to be well-worth the read.
  7. David Weber. This is probably the most controversial entry on my list. Weber writes military SF (and fantasy), and he’s very prolific. Military SF is sort of a sub-genre of Space Opera (itself already a sub-genre). Still, it’s got all the right elements: lots of big space ships getting blown to smithereens. Honor Harrington, the heroine of an apparently endless series of novels, owes probably everything but her gender and her Queen to Horatio Hornblower. Nevertheless, the first 4 books in the series, On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, The Short Victorious War, and Field of Dishonor are highly entertaining.
  8. Gardner Dozois and Jonathon Strahan (Eds.) If you’re an SF fan, you’ve probably noticed the ever shrinking shelf-space for SF in bookstores. The “Science Fiction & Fantasy” section is typically 99% fantasy and most of the SF is video-game and television tie-ins. The industry seems to be in some kind of (hopefully non-fatal) tail-spin, so the real writing and publishing effort is going into (or should I say: returning to) short fiction. The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2 are two excellent anthologies of short fiction, some of it by the aforementioned authors, and many more besides. I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Note that all of the authors mentioned above (well, most of them, anyway) have written many more books than those I have listed. Those are just my suggestions for places to start. After that, Amazon’s search feature is your friend. Enjoy!

9 thoughts on “A “New Space Opera” Reading List”

  1. I should add that I’m always looking for more good SF to read, so feel free to make suggestions. I’m not a big fan of the “pure” hard stuff (Niven, Pournell, &c). I’m more into escapism: romanticism, great characters, wild ideas, rich and freaky stories. The short fiction of Robert Reed has recently got my attention, but I’ve not read any of his novels yet. Oh! And I forgot to mention Toronto’s own Karl Schroeder.

  2. Lois McMaster Bujold has been my go-to author for space opera, though in recent years she’s turned to fantasy. Great flawed characters, complex set-up, and breakneck pacing. Best read in order, as the plots and situations all build on what has come before. Several have been re-issued as collections, so Cordelia’s Honor contains the first two books, tracking Cordelia Naismith, while the remaining books focus on her son, Miles.

  3. Oh, and if you liked Karl Schroeder’s series (and I do, very much), you might like Philip Reeve. His Larklight series is steampunk space opera, written for children, but I enjoyed them as much as the kids did. His Mortal Engines series is space opera, but instead of spaceships it has mobile cities hunting each other on a far future earth. That’s a much darker storyline, but well worth reading.

  4. I never could seem to get into Iain M. Bank’s works for some reason.

    I’d have to argue that David Weber is not ‘New space opera’, rather he’s the epitome of the old space opera. Still like some of his novels but they seem to be rather set in their format.

    Oh and Alastair Reynolds is a tad more then bleak. He tries to make it a bit upbeat but honestly when you have alien races resorting to hiding on the other side of the brane to get away from their own out of control creations and the milky way local ones are hell bent on destroying all higher life for 3 billion years it’s not hard to see that any attempt by the author to have humanity not be destroyed would be contrived. Mostly I see his novels are small successes against an inevitable end.

  5. Follow up. I really got into Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth saga, and his new series is definitely some of his best writing to date.

    While not space opera by rather near-future sci fi I really enjoy reading Toronto’s own Robert J. Sawyer. His characters development has improved over the years though not to the level that I would say other authors have obtained – it’s mostly about the interesting possible futures he comes up with that make his works worthwhile.

  6. @Bruce: I agree about Reynolds. I also dislike the fact that his characters tend towards the sociopathic. Only in House of Suns is that kept to a bare minimum (a few pages of creepiness.) I haven’t read Sawyer, but might give it a go.

    @Dethe: I’ve been told about Bujold, but haven’t been able to find anything but fantasy. I do believe she’s won more Hugo’s (or was it Nebulas?) than *anyone* else. Thanks for the recco on Reeve.

  7. I like I.M.Banks, too, it is actually the only new SF I have read I really like, so far. From what you are saying in the above, you might like some of the “old” stuff, too. For example, did you try Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed” ?

  8. @Steven Obua

    Yes, I certainly have read a lot of classic SF, including LeGuin. The Lathe of Heaven is on my list of best books ever. I could have included Asimov’s Foundation series as an early example of Space Opera, but didn’t want to start any arguments 😉

  9. It’s not really space opera, but Greg Egan also tackles post-singularity fiction. His strength is extrapolating an obscure but interesting scientific idea to its extreme, such as a using quantum entanglement to map all of human ancestry, the the fringes of huge biological mats in an ocean acting as a Turing computer simulating entire worlds, what a six-dimensional universe would really be like to live in, or life forms designed to live in the accretion disk of a neutron star (and how they discover the laws of relativity by tossing rocks around a cave).

    His writing tends to give your brain a workout at the same time as giving you a fun story, so it’s not for everyone (his web site often contains detailed background and on-line simulations of some of the science he uses), but he’s one of my favourite authors.

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