When I wrote my own space opera, The Recollection (2011) it was a labour of love. 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 a homage to those iconic space pilots of yesteryear, and an attempt to write an updated, contemporary space opera.
Now, having finished a trilogy of books set in the near-future, I am once again returning to the space lanes with a novel that I hope will be the first in a new series of fast-paced space adventures. While I’m working on it, I’ve also been looking back at some of the best the sub-genre has to offer.
Below, ranked in no particular order, are my ten most essential space operas:
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.
6) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – The all-conquering, multi award-winning story of a murdered starship’s quest for vengeance, and the human body in which it now finds its consciousness trapped.
7) The Reality Dysfunction By Peter F. Hamilton – When roguish space captain, Joshua Calvert, comes up against a seemingly supernatural force, humanity faces its gravest and seemingly most-inescapable threat yet. Seamlessly blending gritty space adventure with outright horror, this thick volume forms the first instalment of the massive Night’s Dawn trilogy.
8) Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey – In the colonised solar system of a not-too-distant future, political tensions between Mars, Earth and the Belt threaten the stability and future of humanity. When the crew of an ice mining vessel are attacked by a stealth ship, the incident starts a seemingly-inevitable countdown to war.
9) Space by Stephen Baxter – Robotic aliens arrive in the solar system but seem to have no interest in talking to the people of Earth. Former NASA astronaut Reid Malenfant launches himself towards the system’s outer reaches in a bid to make contact, and to discover the truth about the many waves of alien settlement that have already passed over our worlds.
10) The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. A space opera that has all the classic ingredients: a beaten up ship; a crew of misfits; and a galaxy filled with danger and adventure. Like Ann Leckie’s book above, this is also a debut, and one that, like Ancillary Justice, promises great things ahead.
These ten books are my personal selection of the ten 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 selections and suggestions in the comments below…