I went looking for some new Space Opera SF the other day, and I came away disappointed. I found a fair amount of stuff calling itself space opera, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Most of it, actually, was what I would call Military SF. I’ve read the stuff before, and there’s nothing really wrong with it, but it’s not the entirety of the space opera sub-genre of SF. So what am I looking for? What, in my frustrated opinion, makes for good space opera?
Places to Go
I suppose travel is a requirement for good space opera, and in my book, that means FTL. Stories taking place within our local solar system just don’t feel fantastical enough to qualify as space opera, and if the interstellar travel is done via generational sub-light ships, then the story is happening in only one place: the sub-light ship. So I need my warp drive or hyperspace or something like that.
It’s nice to have lots of different worlds: some big, some small, some rich, some barren. We have a few cool looking planets in our solar system, so I like to see what others’ imaginations can come up with. You run into some annoying physical limits there, of course, but a smart author can get around some of it with a mix of good research and LOOK-OVER-THERE-IT’S-A-GIANT-SPACE-GOAT!!
As for the travel itself, my personal preference is for worlds to be days apart. Making them months apart starts to feel like a bad space-horror movie, where day by day the unstable navigator is slipping into a violent paranoia. Meanwhile, making them hours apart feels too much like taking a flight to Europe. In fact, that was one of my main complaints about Star Wars. It never seemed to take more than a few hours to get anywhere. It’s kind of hard to maintain Galactic order when any day could bring the rebellious flash mob over the skies of Coruscant.
People to See
I want the different places to be really different, and probably the most interesting way for them to be different is for the people to be different. If they’re not, then it’s like taking a worldwide culinary tour and only eating at McDonald’s. I want to see some of the local culture, and even if easy travel and instantaneous communication has led to something of a monoculture, surely there will still be variations. Try California and Kentucky. Even within American culture, the locals there are fairly different.
But then there are the Others. Maybe they’re aliens, or maybe they’re just Imperium vs. the Confederacy. (Imperialist swine, grumble, grumble…) It’s not just that the Other provides a source of potential conflict for the story. They provide something for the locals to contrast themselves against. We may not be perfect. We may not be rich. We may not even be pretty. But at least we’re not living under the oppressive thumb of Imperial rule!
And yet, I hate when the Others are reduced to one-dimensional villains. They’re evil because they can be? Really, that’s the best you can do? How about some long-standing disputes, or maybe some sense of racial purity, or even amoral economic competition? Something other than We-B-Thugs, please. I enjoyed most of the Honor Harrington series, but for the bulk of the book, their enemy Haven was little more than Oppressors Incorporated. I also recently tossed a new military SF series after the opening pages where the enemy executed the negotiators just to make a point. Really, can we have some motivation first?
Things to Do
This is where I fault a lot of the military SF space opera. I see so much of it that it would seem like interstellar war is the only business around. Aren’t there civilians? Aren’t they doing anything? I know this touches a bit on an earlier entry (Odd Jobs for SFF Protagonists), but it’s worth repeating here. There are interesting characters beyond the officer corps of the space navy.
Now, in order to go the places and see the people, it really helps if the protagonist has a reason to travel. This is one of the reasons we see so many merchants in space opera, and I like them. Personally, I see merchants getting into far more interesting situations than admirals. But there are also ambassadors, archeologists, aristocrats, athletes, actors, assassins, and that’s just the A’s. There are all kinds of jobs that can take you from place to place on a mission.
Of course, it’s usually the complication that arises that makes for the good story, not so much the mission itself, and that’s another area where I find a lot of military SF space opera falls down. Yes, the mission can go horribly awry, and our intrepid captain can fight back against increasingly desperate odds, but in the end, the success or failure of our protagonist depends on whether or not they successfully carried out their orders.
I much prefer a story where the real adventure is something quite unrelated to their purpose going in. It’s not that I want a story that is constantly side-tracked. It’s that I like to be just as surprised as the characters are. That’s why complications out of left-field are so fun to read.
And I’ll be honest: it may just be that after ten years of war, I’m in the mood for something that is specifically NOT war.
Wrapping it Up
So who has done well at this kind of thing? Well, I’ll go all the way back to one of the grand-daddy’s of the genre and say that Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy were great examples of this kind of thing. Larry Niven’s Known Space stories were as well. C.J. Cherryh’s Merchanter universe (Downbelow Station through Finity’s End) is perhaps one of the best examples. Cherryh’s Ateva series is on the edge (not nearly as much travel), but it’s close. A good chunk of Elizabeth Moon’s SF qualifies as this as well, but her stuff often tends towards the military – though I’ll grant her military stuff is more interesting that simply following orders. The Vorkosigan saga by Bujold is supposed to be another good example, but I found it a bit too stoic for my tastes – and if you know me, that’s saying A LOT!
Now, having laid all that out, does anyone out there have a recommendation for a good space opera novel or series? I’m itching to load up my Kindle.
Sounds like you’ve read the ones I was going to suggest. I expect you’ve already read Brinn’s “Uplift” stuff (Sundiver, etc.) and Vinge’s “Fire Upon the Deep” et al. I’ve picked up some of those “Best New Space Opera of 200X” type collections, and those are sometimes fun, but of course are a mixed bag.
If you find any good Space Opera, please blog about it. 🙂
It’s not at all new, but I love Julian Mays’ ‘Rampart Worlds’ trilogy. It’s a light-hearted space opera that is more mega-corporation corruption that military drama, and definitely includes the three points you brought up.
It’s quite different to May’s other SF series, and I enjoyed it all the more for haplessly cool first person narrator. Plus, the ensemcle cast includes a disgraced lawyer and a body-builder, which are certainly unconventional heroes in a racially-motivated war against aliens!
Brin’s ‘Uplift’ series is very good. I would also suggest Charles Sheffield’s ‘Heritage universe’ -series (=’Transvergence’, ‘Convergence’ …). The same grouip of main characters end up travelling around human settled space. They explore various mysterious artifacts which were left behind some long ago vanished alien race. The stories are quite enjoyable. There are also quite a lot of hard SF elements in them. The other series worth to look into would be Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ books.