Sailing The Starry Sea: Why I Write Space Opera

While I have been known to write other types of science fiction, there’s something about space opera that keeps drawing me back.

‘Space opera’ has been around since the heyday of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Initially the term was one of derision, likening the genre to tacky ‘horse opera’ westerns. However, just as the hippies and punks of the 1960s and 1970s took their derogatory labels and wore them with pride, so the term ‘space opera’ eventually became a byword for action-packed stories featuring big spaceships and weighty themes.

In terms of reading, I guess you could call it my first and truest love. As a youngster, I discovered Brian Earnshaw’s books about the tramp freighter Dragonfall 5 and her crew, and Hugh Walters’ UNEXA series about an international team of astronauts. As I got older, I read everything the local library had by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven. Much later, I fell in love with the ‘New Space Opera’ boom of the 1990s, especially Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ books, and novels by Alastair Reynolds, Vernor Vinge and M. John Harrison. I discovered older books by Samuel Delany and Alfred Bester. And recently, I’ve been awed by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, and books by Yoon Ha Lee, Adrian Tchaikovsky, James SA Corey and Becky Chambers (more on those later).

But what is it that keeps bringing me back to the subgenre? What is it that appeals to me about these tales of exploration and conflict among distant stars?

When I sat down to write my latest novel, Embers of War, I decided to throw in everything I loved about space opera. There’s a sentient starship with ideas of her own; a jaded captain with a traumatic past; a tough talking space marine and a multi-limbed alien engineer. There are ancient alien ruins and bizarre twists of physics, and hints of something lurking in the mists of hyperspace.

At its best, space opera contrasts the personal with the cosmic. Human characters struggle against the backdrops of infinite space and deep time, wrestling to uncover the reasons why we’re here and what it all means. It gives us a vast canvas on which to make our points. As storytellers, we’re no longer confined to one world or one society. If we want to say something meaningful about the world of today, we can let our tales leap from culture to culture, shining a light on our real life existence by showcasing worlds that are very different in almost every respect.

Iain M. Banks was a master at this. In novels such as The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas, he creates opposing political systems in order to show what happens when they collide. And he manages to do it through the medium of engrossing stories about engaging and fallibly human characters.

As mentioned earlier, space opera went through a bit of a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with books by Alastair Reynolds, M. John Harrison, Stephen Baxter, Gwyneth Jones and others. Now, as we approach 2020 (itself an almost unbelievably futuristic-sounding date to those of us raised in the 1980s), it seems to be undergoing another dramatic resurgence.

In 2014, Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus and BSFA awards—the only novel ever to have achieved such a clean sweep. The sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, and the related novel Provenance have followed it. The fact these books feature dark-skinned main characters in a gender-neutral society seems to have touched a nerve in ways not seen since Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels brought left wing politics into space opera back in the 1980s and 1990s, and opened the way for more diversity in the genre, both in term of subjects and authors.

Becky Chambers’ delightful 2014 novel, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, explores the complex relationships between a diverse human and non-human starship crew, including love between man and computer, an interspecies lesbian fling, and a creature caught in a symbiotic relationship with a parasitical virus. The sequel A Closed And Common Orbit continues to expand on these themes, and a new book is on its way.

In 2016, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children Of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for its portrayal of the struggle between a starship carrying the last survivors of the human race and a civilisation of uplifted, intelligent spiders. Spanning thousands of years and following the development of spider civilisation, and the rise-and-fall of various human societies, the book has the epic feel of the very best space opera coupled with a visionary examination of what it means to be truly civilised.

Kameron Hurley’s dark and disturbing 2017 novel, The Stars Are Legion, has been jokingly described by its author as, ‘lesbians in space.’ In reality, it’s a savage, epic tale of tragic love, brutal war and revenge set amid a cloud of decaying organic world-ships, in which an amnesiac soldier sets out on a desperate mission that will either save or destroy the fleet.

Mathematician Yoon Ha Lee received the 2017 Locus Award, as well as Hugo, Nebula and Clarke nominations for his novel Ninefox Gambit, which follows the fortunes of a young military officer and the ghost of a disgraced, long-dead commander as they participate in inter-factional conflict in an Empire whose technologies and tactics are determined by consensual acceptance of the Imperial Calendar.

Since the publication in 2011 of Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey’s ‘Expanse’ series—now on its seventh volume, Persepolis Rising (2017)—has been charting humanity’s rocky progress from being an interplanetary society centered on Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt, to an interstellar society of colonies scattered among fifteen hundred worlds. We see the upheaval through the eyes of the crew of the independent frigate Rocinante. They are drawn from various squabbling planets and ethnicities, but stay together because of the love they have for each other and the ship on which they live.

Taken together, these excellent books show that we’re currently living in something of a golden age for progressive, inclusive space opera. And it’s against this background that I’ve launched my own series, starting with Embers of War, which is published by Titan Books.

Embers follows the adventures of the former warship Trouble Dog, and her misfit crew of war veterans and cadets, as they race to rescue a liner that’s been downed in a politically sensitive star system. Featuring strong female leads, ancient alien mysteries, and some full-on space combat, I hope Embers of War can take its place alongside the books I’ve listed above, as part of the recent boom in space opera.

As a lifelong reader of stories set in space, I knew some of those books would inevitably end up influencing my writing. After all, we’re all made up of everything we’ve ever consumed. So, after much thought, I’ve prepared the following list of the books I feel had the biggest on Embers of War.

Nova by Samuel Delany is set a thousand years into the future, and tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. He believes a cargo hold filled with illyrion will be enough to tip the balance of power between Earth and the quasi-independent Pleiades Federation. Operating on several levels, the book explores Von Ray’s childhood and current quest, and relates them to Arthurian Grail lore, while also using the literary ambitions of one of its characters to provide a meta-commentary on the process of novel writing itself.

I guess the biggest way Nova influenced Embers is the way all its settlements and the interiors of its ships feel secondhand, scuffed and dirty. This isn’t a gleaming future, but one where real people live, work, and scratch profanities into the walls of their cabins. The stakes are high, but they’re also inextricably bound up in the ambitions and regrets of the novel’s protagonist—something that’s also very true for the good ship Trouble Dog.

In Iain M Banks’ Excession, he finally pulls back the curtain and allowed us to see the galaxy from the point of view of his hyper-intelligent ship minds. We get to eavesdrop on their communications and see their individual quirks and obsessions. And when a strange alien entity appears around a peculiar star, we get to see how the ships respond, and how they operate on levels far surpassing those of their human crews—crews who are seemingly just along for the ride.

Excession made me want to portray the starships in Embers in a believable manner. They aren’t just human brains in jars. They have their own ways of looking at the world, and of interacting with each other. They have their own perceptions of time and distance—perceptions that differ greatly from ours.

In Alastair Reynolds’ book, House of Suns, Abigail Gentian shatters herself into a thousand cloned bodies, and sets out to explore the galaxy. Six million years later, we follow the stories of two of those clones—the lovers Campion and Purslane—as they try to find out why persons unknown have decided to destroy them and all their line. Along the way, we encounter machine people, centaurs, and ancient weapons capable of rending holes in reality itself. If House of Suns influenced Embers of War, it was in the great sense of freedom the characters felt exploring the galaxy, and the intense, almost symbiotic relationships they have with their starships. Although the ships in House of Suns aren’t self-aware in any meaningful sense, they are certainly treated as characters in the narrative.

In addition, the decision to name a rescue organisation the House of Reclamation was a deliberate tip-of-the-hat to Alastair, whom I once unsuccessfully invited to work with me on a novel about teams of scavengers breaking into asteroid-like bubble worlds arranged in a Dyson cloud—a setting I eventually used in my 2011 novel, The Recollection (Solaris Books).

Next up, we come to Planetfall by Emma Newman. On the face of it, there’s very little crossover between this tale of a traumatised colonist and the most rambunctious goings-on in Embers, but Emma’s book really was a key influence. I’ve known Emma for many years and am honoured to count her as a friend and colleague. When Planetfall came out, I read it with eagerness and excitement. It really is a hell of a good book. But its influence on Embers has little to do with its content and more to do with its style. Planetfall is written entirely in the first person, and that was something I’d never tried. So, when I sat down to write Embers, I challenged myself to do likewise.

The final influence I want to mention is Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey. I picked up a copy of this book from the Forbidden Planet store in Shaftesbury Avenue at around the time I had just started writing Embers of War. I already knew what I wanted the book to be, but I was unsure if modern publishing still had room for tales of conflict and intrigue among the stars. Leviathan Wakes reassured me that it did, and that there was still mileage in tales of tight-knit crews setting out in their trusty old vessels to take on the universe. While it didn’t directly the content of Embers, it did give me the confidence boost I needed to finish writing it.

These books also demonstrate one of my favourite things about space opera: the same sense of swashbuckling romance you find in novels about pirates—that sense of freedom and adventure. The idea that all you need is a stout ship and a star to sail her by. My grandfather joined the merchant marine because he loved tales of the sea, and the unexplored corners of the globe. These days, we have to look a little further afield to find that same sense of venturing into the unknown. Where once sailors would weave tales of distant lands whose inhabitants had four arms, or no heads and faces on their stomachs, now we have to set our sights on other worlds, around other suns. The Earth has grown too small to accommodate the wildness of our imaginations, and journey times too short to truly satisfy our wanderlust.

Like it or loathe it, space opera’s always been an important part of science fiction. Maybe even the heart of the genre. Whatever else may be going on, there have always been books about big spaceships, colossal alien artifacts, and vast interstellar wars.

There’s an escapist edge to space opera that’s always appealed to me. Maybe I identified too strongly with Han Solo as a child, or maybe it was all those hours playing the Traveller RPG, but there’s something about the beaten-up old starship and its roguish captain that pulls me in every time.

Maybe what really appeals is the sense that in space opera, we’re all masters of our own destiny. We’re not bound by anything, save the need to keep our ship flying and stay one step ahead of our enemies and creditors. We go where we want and we do what we have to in order to survive. And we’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. We’ve left footprints in the multi-coloured sands of a thousand deserts. Our faces have been tanned by the light of stars so far from here their light won’t reach this part of space for another hundred years. And we’re still questing outwards, still searching for adventure—for an alien invasion to repel or a repressive regime to overthrow.

And, at the end of the day, we get to sit in our ships and look out the windows at the cold, distant stars and somehow make our peace with our place in the unending wonder of it all.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying one of my books, or dropping a couple of bucks on Ko-fi or Patreon. Thank you. 

Author: Gareth L Powell


2 thoughts on “Sailing The Starry Sea: Why I Write Space Opera”

  1. Recent Space Opera I’ve enjoyed:

    KB Wagers’ BEHIND THE THRONE, where a runaway princess turned gun runner gets dragged home to be the Heir.

    Melissa Snodgrass’ THE HIGH GROUND, which is a story of two fishes out of water (in very different ways) at a space naval academy.

  2. I have a soft spot for John Hemry/Jack Campbell. Discovered him when I found a copy of one of the JAG in Space books, and then read my way through his Lost Fleet/Lost Stars/Beyond The Frontier series.

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