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Series on Sunday: Space Operas

The husband and I read and watch a lot of science fiction, and it’s a genre I’ve really warmed to.  But I have to admit, I tend to like the “softer” science fiction, which feels terribly girly of me.  I like science fiction that’s more about people, relationships, and societal issues like class struggles and racism.  I also like science fiction that’s really about current-day life, whether it’s warning us about global warming or censorship or the dangers of social media.

I don’t like science fiction that’s heavy on technology and space battles.  I don’t like space opera – or so I’ve been saying for years.  It turns out I do.

Of course the real question is, what is space opera?  Two of my favorite recent reads are considered space opera, Leviathan Wakes and A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.  And one of my favorite shows, Firefly, can be considered space opera (and also a current favorite, Killjoys).

I thought space opera meant space battles.  I think I was confusing “military science fiction” with space opera, and maybe space opera is more about travel and exploration. My husband says space opera should focus on bigger global and political issues.  I say it can clearly do both.

I thought I preferred my science fiction to take place on Earth rather than beyond it.  Books like Oryx and Crake and Station Eleven, for example.  I’m not a big fan of wrecking this planet and then ditching it for something better – although maybe that’s becoming a more likely scenario.

Wikipedia says this: Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction set mainly or entirely in outer space, that emphasizes space warfare and melodramatic adventure, and often risk-taking as well as chivalric romance; usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.

Wikipedia also points out there are plenty of conflicting ideas about what space opera means and how it originated.

So, thinking about some of my favorites, to which I would add Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, here’s what draws me to these books:

  • Exploration of new cultures, species, and places
  • Interpersonal relationships (you can’t have a crew without them)
  • Dealing with thorny ethical issues that are relevant today
  • Adventure, mystery, humor, romance

And with that, here’s my take on Leviathan Wakes and A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet:

leviathanLeviathan Wakes: My husband loves these books, but I didn’t think I would, until I started watching the series.  I love the combination of detective noir and science fiction, and I also really like the issues related to class and environmental problems.  I picked up the book before I could get too far into the show , and I’m glad I did.

The Expanse series is actually written by two guys, under the pen name James S.A. Corey. Probably because it’s co-authored, there are two equally interesting main characters instead of one (for an interesting interview about the writing of this series, see here).  Holden is a young and idealistic officer who has to take command when his ship is attacked.  Miller is a cynical detective who lives a rough and not-so-fulfilling life, until he’s asked to find a wealthy young woman who’s run away from her family.  I won’t tell you how these two stories collide, because that’s part of the fun.

The world-building in this book is fascinating.  I liked everything about this book, with one glaring exception: the female characters are not well developed at all.  In fact they are more ideals than multi-dimensional characters. Really there’s only 1.5 female characters to begin with: Julie, the woman who’s missing, and Naomi, Holden’s second-in-command. It’s clearly understandable why Julie is more image than person, but I was disappointed by Naomi, who is simply too smart and understanding. She’s more of a sounding board for Holden’s problems than anything else.

That said, I loved the complexity of Holden and Miller, and the way these two interact and bounce off each other.  I also loved that this book raised really thoughtful, complex issues about philosophy, politics, and morality.  The last part of this book blew me away, and I can’t wait to read the next one.  And the show on SyFy is really good, and even adds to the book in some ways (see i09 for a great discussion of this if you’re interested, but note there are spoilers).

angry planetLong Way to a Strange, Angry Planet: I picked up this book because I’d seen great reviews from other bloggers, and because this book is on the Bailey’s Prize Longlist (a literary prize for women authors).  It’s unusual to see genre fiction on the longlist, so I was curious.  I also like to read science fiction by women when I can.

This book was fun and entertaining, and an easy read.  Normally the books nominated for Bailey’s Prize are daunting, to say the least.  I couldn’t finish the last two winners, in fact.  But this book surprised me.  I’m not sure I found it to be terribly literary, or even terribly innovative, but it’s a fun read in the Star Trek vein of exploring new worlds and cultures, and of characters with different social mores trying to relate to each other.  It’s on the lighter side of science fiction, though.  There are difficult issues raised, but Chambers has so many different characters and issues that none are weighted too heavily.  It’s pretty light on plot, but if you’re more interested in the relationships among the different crew-mates than where they’re actually going, this is the book for you.

Chambers’ characters debate such issues as individualism versus collective consciousness (a common SF theme), interspecies and human-AI romance, child-rearing, and how different cultures treat physical affection. The downside of this book for me was that I felt like I’d seen these issues explored before, and nothing here felt new or particularly complex. One of the most interesting conversations for me was a discussion about bearing and raising children; one character is from a reptilian species that bears its children young but gives those children into a “hatch family” of older adults to raise.  Again, these aren’t new issues — is a parent is one who produces the child or one who cares for it?  And is our “family” the one we biologically belong to or a group of our closest friends?

Like Leviathan Wakes, this book set up interesting class and political conflicts between “earthers” “spacers” and Martians, although these conflicts aren’t explored as much.  Long Way focuses more on differences among species, while Leviathan Wakes focuses on the humans.

While I completely enjoyed and would recommend both books, of the two, Leviathan Wakes gave me more to think about, and kept me on the edge of my seat more, too.  I actually found the characters in Long Way too likable; there wasn’t enough conflict.  I’m really hoping the rest of the Corey books have more substantial female roles.  In Chambers’ book, all of the characters are pretty light.  My frustration with Corey is they created really fascinating, flawed male characters, but the women are more like a guy’s fantasy of a woman rather than the real thing.

So that’s my take on Space Opera.

12 thoughts on “Series on Sunday: Space Operas

  1. Oh, I LOVED Long Way. You’re right about it being plot-light and thematically familiar (although I think mainstream sf has only relatively recently started to focus on social justice/equality issues); what made it for me was the delicacy and tenderness with which Chambers explores those issues. The scene where Lovey doesn’t come back had me nearly in tears, and Kizzy’s scene with Rosemary in the control room after the Toremi Ka attack made me want to stand up and punch the air. It pulled all the strings I expect a good movie to pull, but without sacrificing the smooth quality of the prose, which is something I think surprisingly hard to pull off; I can’t think of another author off the top of my head who’s done that for me recently.

    • Those are two really good scenes in the book, and I think Kizzy is an interesting character. I like how she explores what it means to be courageous, although at times she just feels like the comic relief. Dr Chef and Sissix are also interesting characters, and I liked the algae guy’s story. I think I needed fewer storylines though, so these characters could be drawn out more.

      • Yeah, that’s why I’m excited about the sequel (which will apparently follow Pepper and Lovey, not the crew of the Wayfarer). Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see those characters fleshed out in greater detail!

  2. Space opera is one of my favorite subgenres of SciFi. Those stories tend to involve large scale consequences and themes, but have an intimate character focus. The TV show Battlestar Galactica is a great example of this.

    Everyone has been talking about Long Way! i really need to pick that one up.

    If you’re interested in more Space Opera books, I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series (it’s a long running series, but Cordelia’s Honor and Capt Vorpatril’s Alliance can be read as stand alones), Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative trilogy, The Skinner by Neal Asher, and of course, Dune by Frank Herbert.

  3. I need to read Leviathan Wakes. I’ve heard such great things! Have you read Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, I’ve heard that one is a good space opera!

  4. I’m not such a big fan of military SF either – I don’t mind battles, but I hate all the military talk and that kind of atmosphere. Not entirely sure how to explain it!

    Leviathan Wakes is good. I actually got my dad into the series, which is rare – he doesn’t read all that often, or rather it takes him a long time to finish a book, but I do have him to thank for my love of SF 🙂

    I can’t wait to read Angry Planet!

  5. Pingback: My April Reading Wrap-Up | The Book Stop

  6. I’ve been trying to define Space Operas lately and the best description I’ve found is LOTR set in space or Star Wars/Trek. An epic that takes place in space. I personally love them even if they are heavier on the military and harder in the science. I haven’t read either of these books, but after your descriptions I think I will.

      • I actually just read Sky’s End by Lesley Young. The protagonist kind of gets on my nerves and some of the parts of the story are a little questionable, but her science is pretty sound and overall I think it’s a great start for a new author. I spoke to her a while back and she has plans for the rest of the series but she’s working out some publisher issues. I think she’s one to watch. If you’re not big on romance in your space opera, though, the sexy parts might get to you. I, personally, love sexiness in space, so I quiet enjoyed it.

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