Looking for a Good Space Opera

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.

The Most Annoying of Conflicts

Conflict is at the root of storytelling, and there have been some great ones over the years: stalwart good vs. primal evil, innocence vs. corruption, the power-mad vs. the freedom fighters, and so on. But today I’m going to complain about what I find to be the most annoying conflict of all: not talking. I see this conflict show up a lot between people who should be allies, but because they won’t talk to each other, they end up screwing each other over through pointless infighting.

Let me give you a couple of examples from a book I recently threw across the room. The two main characters are a femme fatale bodyguard and the man she’s protecting. At one point, she tells him to go while he insists on staying. This results in a willful battle between the two as he insists on engaging in some unannounced ritual, leaving them open to attack by a pair of opposition agents. Then afterwards, the bodyguard is laid up in the hospital while the protectee heads off to where the bodyguard wanted him to go in the first place.

Sure, we get a chapter or two of action and introspection out of it, but couldn’t we instead have had some more intelligent characters who actually talked about their opposing desires?

“It’s time for us to go.”
“Actually, I need to stay for a while.”
“Well, I need to engage in this little ritual. It’s important for my health. Let me explain it to you so that you can best protect me while I’m performing it, ok?”
“Sure, I’ll tell the rest of the team to wait for us.”

Admittedly, it’s not nearly as exciting, but it doesn’t make me want to smack the characters around for being stubborn idiots.

The next example from that same book involves those opposition agents who had attacked during the ritual. Our heroine managed to fight them off the first time, but they certainly make another appearance later on. We get, of course, another battle between our bodyguard and the opposition agents. The bodyguard wins, but in her weakened state another bad guy shows up to kidnap the protectee away from her. Only then did these opposing agents tell our heroine that they’re trying to protect the same guy she is and that the real bad buy is the one who just now showed up to kidnap him.

Again, we get another chapter or two of action and discussion, but couldn’t we instead have had some sane decisions by these other agents, like maybe warning the bodyguard early on?

“I know you don’t want to trust us, but we want to keep your guy alive too. Our intelligence tells us that the threats have been coming from Big Bad Jones. We’ll be working that angle, but you should be on the lookout for magical eagles in case we fail. Here’s my number if you have more questions.”

Yeah… that would have pulled the conflict out of maybe the first half of the book, so again, it’s not nearly so exciting. However, as it is, I got so annoyed with the stupidity of these heroes that I stopped having any real sympathy for them. Without that sympathy, I stopped caring whether or not they succeeded in their goals, so I would have been perfectly happy to see Big Bad Jones succeed in his poorly explained plan to destroy the world. At least Big Bad Jones had thus far been acting like a reasonable man. Plus he had the magical eagle thing going for him – how cool is that?

And so I stopped reading the book. There are something like four sequels to this book, but I won’t be buying them. Sorry, author, but you shouldn’t have made your heroes act like such pigheaded dolts in the first book.

Yes, I understand that not all characters are perfect. Yes, I understand the appeal of flawed heroes. And yes, I understand that things going wrong prevent the stories from becoming exercises in wish fulfillment. But I just can’t sympathize with a hero who withholds vital information for no good reason. Maybe I’m just being picky, but as your potential reader, that’s my right.

So, what character flaw/mistake/action will you not put up with in a protagonist?

Odd Jobs for SF/F Protagonists

I think we’re all familiar with the dashing starship captain and the powerful wizard who battles evil. These are both prime examples of the kinds of heroes we run into to science fiction and fantasy all the time. Their heroic friends include the squire who becomes a knight, the bodyguard who saves the world, and the rebel soldier who overthrows the empire. On one hand, these can become the same old and tired heroes, boring caricatures lifted straight from the manual of 101 protagonists. On the other hand, there’s a reason we see them so often. They are where the action is. It’s much the same reason we have so many police and doctor shows on TV. Those jobs regularly put them in the exciting places of jeopardy, where life and limb can fly off in unexpected directions.

And in truth, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I enjoy watching Captain Kirk as much as the next fan – though I do come down on Picard’s side in the classic debate – and that doesn’t automatically stop him from being an interesting character. Ancient wizards and cyborg bodyguards can have all the charms and foibles that endear us. Having an exciting job does not prevent that from happening, as long as the writer avoids using it as a crutch.

But there is a bit of a crutch built in. These protagonists with exciting jobs also come with some stock abilities that are useful in resolving the crisis. The starship captain does something with his ship. The wizard uses his magic. The bodyguard gets down and dirty with her fists. We readers expect that kind of thing, and writers typically deliver. You accept that the knight will summon up one last dreg of strength to finish off the hellion because that is what we’re used to. He’s a heroic figure, and you expect heroic figures to have heroic abilities.

But what about the garbage man? What does he do?

The garbage man is just a guy like you or me. He doesn’t command a starship with lethal weaponry. He can’t throw fireballs or summon demons. And unless he’s been studying martial arts for the last decade, he probably can’t fight his way into a high-security complex either. But he can drive his truck to the back of that complex and say the company switched schedules, and they’ll likely let him right on in. He can rifle through someone’s trash – did you remember to use the cross-cut shredder on that incriminating file? He can move through society with virtual invisibility, and if he does decide to kill you with something as mundane and boring as a gun, he knows where to hide the body where it’s never going to be found. He’s not a superhero, but he does have unique skills at his disposal, so to speak.

I’ll admit the garbage man is a contrived example, and I don’t know if anyone could build a series on William’s Waste Management of Wrath, but there are a lot of other jobs out there for our protagonists, and personally, I would like to see them more often.

I recently read the start of the Ishmael Wang series with a space opera hero who started off working in the galley and then moved into environmental systems. It wasn’t a story of heroic combat tactics, but it was still a very good read.

One of my favorite characters in the Harry Dresden books is Butters, a meek coroner who loves polka but has no deep reserve of magical power. And yet, he has still been known to kick to some serious metaphysical ass.

The protagonist in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is an interpreter. His training is primarily in such things as grammar and culture, and he spends a great deal of his time worrying about the impact of cell phones on the civil manners of his society. And yet, he still rises to the occasion, fighting for the worthy mutiny, putting down the usurpers, uncovering the secret plots, and in general saving the world. And of course, he does it all with the proper conjugation for each of those verbs.

And then there was a lonely mid-level administrator in Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text who did what he was told until it was time to make the moral decision, despite all the threats against him. He had no real power base. He had no political patrons. He was just a guy like me, working a job with only the authority to do what they told him to do. But he still found a way to be the hero.

I think that’s what I like most about these heroes with the unusual jobs. They’re not obviously heroic characters, cut from the mold of legend. They’re like me, but they’re the best possible me, doing what I tell myself I would do in their place. And in doing so, they give me hope.

How about you? What are some of your favorite protagonists who did not come equipped with their own starship or magical staff?