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!
- 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.
- 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
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!