Five Essential Space Operas

In the introduction to his 1974 anthology Space Opera, Brian Aldiss wrote:

Science fiction is a big muscular horny creature, with a mass of bristling antennae and proprioceptors on its skull. It has a small sister, a gentle creature with red lips and a dash of stardust in her hair. Her name is Space Opera.”

When I wrote my own space opera, The Recollection, it was a labour of love: a hymn to the girl with the stardust in her hair. In many ways, The Recollection was the book I’d always wanted to write, and I poured into it a lifetime of science fiction influences and daydreams. It was (still is) my homage to those iconic space pilots of yesteryear, and an attempt to write an updated, contemporary space opera.

There are many references and influences evident in The Recollection - some of them overt, some less so. And while you do not have to have read any of the following books in order to enjoy The Recollection, some familiarity with them will (I hope) enhance your enjoyment of the text. Or, at the very least, I hope that reading my book will make you curious enough to discover these classic texts, and the universe of science fiction within their covers.

1) Nova by Samuel R. Delany – A swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition, Nova takes the tropes of traditional space opera and bolts them to a self-consciously mythical framework.

2) The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison - Harrison’s revisionist attempt to destroy the space opera genre spawned instead a renewed interest in grimy spaceports and down-and-out antiheroes, providing a key influence for the ‘New Space Opera’ of the 1980s and 1990s.

3) Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks – A rollicking adventure featuring space pirates, shape changers, sentient ships and interstellar war, which somehow also manages to simultaneously provide a deep and acutely painful meditation on the moral and emotional futility of conflict.

4) A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge – Famous for the author’s vision of a galaxy segregated by ‘zones of thought’ – areas in which certain technologies, such as FTL and AI, simply won’t work - A Fire Upon The Deep also presents us with a vision of a galaxy-wide Internet ‘chat room’, and the terrifying incursion of an artificial super-intelligence into human society: perhaps the definitive use of the Singularity in space opera.

5) Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds – In a dark universe filled with the ruins of older, vanished civilisations, gothic spacers schlep between worlds in vast, decaying ‘lighthuggers’, their lifetimes stretched by relativistic time dilation, their goals to shape the comparatively ephemeral planetary civilisations they encounter, and to gain a competitive edge over the other lighthugger crews plying their wares along the same lonely space lanes.

These five books are my personal selection of the five most essential space operas on my book shelves. If you’re a fan of the genre, I’m sure you have your own list tucked away somewhere at the back of your mind. Does it agree with this one? Feel free to leave your personal top five in the comments below…

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    16 Comments

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    1. Tim Maughan says:

      Nice list – but everyone always seems to forget Sterling’s Schismatrix, probably because they associate him with cyberpunk and not space opera. But it’s probably his strongest piece of writing, massively influential, and both thought provoking and fun.

    2. Gareth L Powell says: (Author)

      I’ve read Sterling’s later work, but not his Schismatix series. This is probably something I should address.

    3. Sam Pearsonn says:

      Good list Gareth.

      I was going to mention Schismatrix, too. Still one of my all-time favourites, and a big influence of Al Reynolds’ I think. You should seriously read those stories! Just get hold of a copy of Schismatrix Plus and you get the lot in one book.

      Linda Nagata – Vast. Just re-read that, along with The Bohr Maker and Deception Well. I like all three, but Vast is the most operatic of the three – it’s scope is, well, Vast :)

    4. twilight2000 says:

      Yay! A list of good Space Operas! But I miss ee doc smith on your list!

    5. Nate Herzog says:

      I’ve always loved Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star and the followup Judas Unchained. Big complicated romp through the deep future.

    6. Caryn says:

      My favorite space opera is Doyle and Macdonald’s Price of the Stars. Ripping great story I reread every couple of years.

    7. Hmm. Tough Question.

      I’ll agree with you on the Reynolds and the Vinge. The other three are trickier for me to pin down. Bujold (which one?) Baxter (which one?) and so on.

    8. Gareth L Powell says: (Author)

      Thanks for all your responses. Here are some individual replies:

      Sam – I have obtained a copy of Schismatrix, and I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

      Twilight – The Doc didn’t make this list, but would obviously be included in any history of the subgenre.

      Nate – I read Hamilton’s Confederation trilogy, but I have yet to read his latest work.

      Caryn – I do not know that one, I will check it out.

      Paul – I contemplated Baxter but, as you say, which one? ‘Space’ was on my original list, but got bumped as it’s a fix-up. I also considered ‘Timelike Infinity’, but it seemed a bit slight by itself, without the rest of the series.

    9. Ilium says:

      No “Hyperion” in that list. Not a real list then :(

    10. Phil Ackerman says:

      Just finished reading Nova on the back of this and I am afraid I was a bit disappointed. I think it was because the SF part of it did not play a big enough role.
      Consider Phlebas, A Fire Upon The Deep and Revelation Space I loved reading. Though I prefer Excession by Banks and The Prefect by Reyolds.

    11. Gareth L Powell says: (Author)

      Phil – A shame you didn’t like NOVA; I like it very much. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

      Ilium – I haven’t read HYPERION (I assume you mean the novel by Dan Simmons, not the poem by John Keats). I assumed from descriptions that it tended more towards the ‘planetary romance’ end of the spectrum, but I may be wrong.

    12. Yoda says:

      There is a recent analysis of Iain M. Banks’ novels and the ambiguities of the Culture as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy:
      Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160791X11000728
      (Free older version available at: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/rumpalaepaper.pdf )

    13. Sanford Molloy says:

      There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what that particular branch of literature called “Science Fiction” actually consists of. Is it space-ships and monsters? Time machines? Galactic empires? Well, its all of those things, and often none of them.Science Fiction, broadly speaking, is story-telling that deals with the impact of organized knowledge on human beings. Usually, this means technology, and the way it changes us.^

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    14. Gary Gibson says:

      Ditto Vast by Linda Nagata. It’s been a while since I read Schismatrix, and it’s high on my mental re-read list (I keep praying for an ebook version), and it’s definitely up at the top. Sames goes for Hyperion, which definitely qualifies as Space Opera, albeit of a highly original form.

    15. As mentioned above, the Commonwealth novels by Hamilton is the major one I would add to this list, Gareth.

    16. Lucas says:

      Startide Rising is also great, I hear.

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