Intelligent space opera?
July 30, 2009 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Intelligent space opera?

Recently, I've found myself enjoying space opera and hard science fiction but some authors seem to focus more on the technology and big explosions than on realistic characters and interesting themes. Can anyone recommend good authors, preferably ones writing now (as I find that books that were written before digital technology and the end of the Cold War make it hard for me to suspend disbelief), who have a bit of depth to them?

I like stories with a bit of action and a good pace, but interesting people and a willingness to explore "big questions". This is reading for pleasure rather than improvement, but if I learn something along the way, so much the better.

I have read some of the English authors working in the area - Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher - but although they put together big plots on a big canvas well, they seem to construct their characters out of cardboard and there's no sense of an ongoing social, cultural or natural history in their galaxies. I end up somewhat unsatisfied. I've enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red/Green/Blue Mars" series much better (I know it's not strictly space opera), and in the past, I really liked Frank Herbert, particularly the Dune series. Anything along those lines would be ideal.
posted by Grinder to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
P.S. This question is similar but asking about a different style of SF to what I'm looking for. I like most of what the OP there likes, but I'm looking for hard rather than soft SF at the moment.
posted by Grinder at 7:53 AM on July 30, 2009

I'd look to David Brin's "Uplift Wars" series and Vernor Vinge. Both are well written and thought provoking and a lot of fun to boot.
posted by cptnrandy at 7:53 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Damn, I came in to suggest Red/Green/Blue Mars.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:55 AM on July 30, 2009

Iain M. Banks... imho he writes the best literary space opera around.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:03 AM on July 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

Vernor Vinge is my favorite, especially "A deepness in the sky" and "A fire upon the deep". Also, Alastair Reynold's books are uniformly great, though often rather grim. Jack McDevitt is also very enjoyable. And, on preview, Iain M Banks definitely.
posted by advil at 8:04 AM on July 30, 2009

Larry Niven And Jerry Pournelle - The Mote In God's Eye
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:05 AM on July 30, 2009

May I suggest Dan Simmons' Hyperion series, and/or his "Ilium" and "Olympos," Julian May's "Saga of Pliocene Exile" and "Galactic Milieu" series, and John Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy?

I'll third the Iain Banks recommendation.

Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" and "Children of God" are great but not, I would argue, space opera.

Great question! I look forward to the other replies.
posted by cheapskatebay at 8:10 AM on July 30, 2009

They're both suggested in the other thread you linked, but I'd second that I'm a big fan of both the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons and the Revelation series by Alastair Reynolds. Both have huge, well-drawn universes and some compelling characters.
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:12 AM on July 30, 2009

Seconding The Mote trilogy. Also the Rama trilogy is excellent as well.

I am currently about halfway through book 3 of Kevin J. Anderson's "The Sage of the Seven Suns" series and its some of the best scifi I've ever read.
posted by JonnyRotten at 8:13 AM on July 30, 2009

And having not previewed, I'd actually argue against cheapskatebay's Ilium and Olympos suggestion. I love Simmons' Hyperion, like I said, but while Illium was awesome, the end of Olympos was enough of a huge cop-out that it retroactively ruined the first book for me.
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:13 AM on July 30, 2009

C.J. Cherryh. I don't love any of her stuff enough to have a title recommendation handy at the top of my brain, but her work is ferociously intelligent.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:19 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding zap rowsdower's anti-Illum/Olympos-ing; I loved Illium and wanted to stab Olympos with a knife.

Banks is fantstic, Alastair Reynolds is my most frequent recommendation these days - both the Revelation Space books (which are sort of a series, but with only a couple of really direct sequels) and his other stuff.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:22 AM on July 30, 2009

Gollancz recently reissued a bunch of space opera titles from their SF Masterworks range. They have unspeakably lovely covers.
posted by permafrost at 8:32 AM on July 30, 2009

And about halfway down this page ("Space Opera, Hard SF, and the Respectability Trap"), there's some interesting discussion of the intersection of hard sf and space opera that gets at your question pretty well.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:37 AM on July 30, 2009

n'thing Reynolds ('Pushing Ice' is about has hard as you can get, and addresses some suprisingly human issues) and Banks ('Consider Phlebas' is a good intro and is probably necessary to appreciate 'Excession', a justfabulous book).
posted by BadMiker at 8:37 AM on July 30, 2009

Definitely pick up Alastair Reynolds. I recommended him in that thread, and I'm recommending him again here. Hands down one of the best hard sci-fi authors still writing. The Revelation Space universe is his main work to date, but the recently-published House of Suns also stands out.

We're talking stories that take millions of years, meta-civilizations that measure time in galactic rotations, solar engineering, and starships kilometers long. Truly amazing.
posted by valkyryn at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2009

Banks, Reynolds and Simmons are some of the better known examples. Here are some others (in no order at all):

Ken McLeod, his Fall Revolution books are my favourties (Stone Canal, The Star Fraction, The Cassini Division), but his Engines of Light are excellent too.

Vernor Vinge, especially a Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon The Deep. Any Vinge is worth reading, but those will scratch your itch nicely.

Richard Morgan, his Taki Kovacks novels (Altered Carbon, Woken Furies and Market Forces)

Roger Zelazny, again, everything is worthy, but especially Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness. I envy you if you've never encountered Zelazny before.

Gene Wolfe must be mentioned: the books of the New Sun, the books of the Long Sun and the books of the Short Sun are mindblowingly amazing. These are not just good space opera, or good SF, but possibly some of the best books written in the last 20 years, full stop.

Karl Schroeder: His new Virga books are great (Sun of Suns, Queen of Candescence, Pirate Sun), but all of his stuff is worth seeking out. Permanence, his first (?) novel, is a great book-end to Asimov.

Emma Bull: not primarily a SO writer, but Falcon is worth finding, if you can.

I could go on, but I shan't, so I'll end here.
posted by bonehead at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are a couple of anthologies, helpfully titled The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2, which have short fiction by a lot of the leading modern space opera authors - they're not always typical of their novels, but they would give you an idea of whether you like their writing.

I don't get along with Hamilton and Asher either, mostly due to the lack of interesting characters and the crazy length of Hamilton's later works. I would second all the recommendations for Alastair Reynolds and Iain M Banks, and suggest Marrow by Robert Reed, which is interesting, reasonably pacey, and has an enormous spaceship.
posted by penguinliz at 8:43 AM on July 30, 2009

Ok, so I lied.

I just recently read two hugely entertaining collections: The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2 edited by (the always dependible and inestimible) Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. Really worth picking up both or either, if possible.
posted by bonehead at 8:44 AM on July 30, 2009

penguinliz: I owe you a carbonated beverage of your choice.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 AM on July 30, 2009

I'd second John C. Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy and add Wil McCarthy's "Collapsium" series.
posted by hilaritas at 8:55 AM on July 30, 2009

Seconding the suggestions for C.J. Cherryh (her "Chanur Saga" is fabulous!) and anything by David Brin! Enjoy!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 8:57 AM on July 30, 2009

Lots of good recommendations here and I would endorse Banks, Reynolds, Vinge, MacLeod and Simmons. However, I would say that if you are looking for intelligent fiction avoid Kevin J. Anderson.

A lot of the suggestions are the ones that turn up again and again here. How about Gwyneth Jones's new novel, Spirit, instead.
posted by ninebelow at 9:01 AM on July 30, 2009

Many people thought Alastair Reynolds' first several books were uneven, but I think his last few have been uniformly great. I just started his most recent (at least in the order of U.S. pb releases), The Prefect, and so far it is smart and gripping. Set in the same universe as the other Revelation Space books but I think it would work independently.

I am surprised no one has mentioned ["Mefi's own"] Charles Stross yet. I would call Accelerando, Glasshouse, Singularity Sky, and Iron Sunrise innovative and well-done manic and idea-packed space opera.

I'd also recommend Ken Macleod. There are two series (one starts with The Star Fraction, the other with Cosmonaut Keep), but maybe it would be better to start with the more-recent standalones: Newton's Wake, and Learning the World, which I liked a lot.

Robert Reed's Marrow, The Well of Stars, and (unrelated to the Marrow books), Sister Alice were all fun reads.

Older space-opera-y books that come to mind that I really liked include Paul McAuley's Confluence books (starting with Child of the River), the many XeeLee novels and story collections by Charles Baxter, Gregory Benford's series that starts with In the Ocean of Night, Greg Bear's series containing Heads, Queen of Angels, and Slant; and while some others in the discussion are recommending Dan Simmons' Olympos/Ilium books, I would suggest the Hyperion books instead.
posted by aught at 9:04 AM on July 30, 2009

I recommend The Quiet War by Paul McCauley, which I felt addressed the same matter as the Mars Trilogy, but from a dystopian rather than utopian direction. Well written and with good characterisation. Like Marsx3 its scope is the solar system in the nearish future not the Galaxy.
posted by communicator at 9:12 AM on July 30, 2009

I think you should add Lois Bujold to the list. Specifically, her tales about Miles Vorkosigan, and the few prequels that feature other people (a couple that feature his mom (how often do you see that), and one about deep space ... welders!).

Based on what you say, I think you'll like these a lot. Good writing, interesting lead characters, on going history, current writing, big questions are present. And really enjoyable to read.
posted by coffeefilter at 9:16 AM on July 30, 2009

Richard Morgan, his Taki Kovacks novels (Altered Carbon, Woken Furies and Market Forces)

I think bonehead means "broken angels", not "market forces" -- the latter isn't a space opera/taki kovacks novel, and I found it unrelentingly depressing to the point of complete unreadability. I like his other books a lot, though.
posted by advil at 9:20 AM on July 30, 2009

The Lensman series by EE Smith is the iconic space opera on which all others were based. And is common in such cases, it was also a lot better than its imitators. As to characterization, there's quite a lot of that.

Indeed, part of what makes the series so much fun is that several of the major characters are non-human (e.g. Worsel).

It features the most alien alien I have ever encountered in SF, one whose thought processes are in some ways utterly incomprehensible: Nadrek.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:25 AM on July 30, 2009

Seconding Lois Bujold. I just finished rereading all of them in order and I wish she would write more in the Vorkosigan series.
posted by Melsky at 9:28 AM on July 30, 2009

I just re-read Ilium and I'd forgotten how great it was.

In contrast, zap rowsdower and Tomorrowful have sadly reminded me of the crappiness that was the ending of Olympos. They're very right. Consider that particular suggestion withdrawn!
posted by cheapskatebay at 9:47 AM on July 30, 2009

I love Simmons' Hyperion, like I said, but while Illium was awesome, the end of Olympos was enough of a huge cop-out that it retroactively ruined the first book for me.

Oh god, I just finished Ilium earlier this week, and hearing that is a huge bummer.

That said, a hearty nth-ing to Simmons Hyperion series. I also enjoyed Banks' Consider Phlebas although I have yet to read any of his other Culture novels.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:49 AM on July 30, 2009

Another vote for Hyperion. Rrrrrreally good. Do not bother for the follow-up Endymion, though.
posted by XiBe at 9:55 AM on July 30, 2009

Some names I haven't seen repeated here yet:
M. John Harrison (Light, Nova Swing - the latter less space opera-ish, though a follow-up)
Justina Robson (Natural History)
Peter Watts (Blindsight)

Richard Morgan, though I love his stuff, most definitely does not write space opera.
As noted, Iain Banks & Dan Simmons are go tos for this kind of thing.
posted by tigerbelly at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2009

Thirding Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. It's the best I've read so far.
posted by Lafe at 10:38 AM on July 30, 2009

Thanks for the pointers so far.

I like Vinge a lot. Cherryh I haven't read in years, but I do remember reading a novel involving some very well-drawn insect species that I enjoyed a great deal. I have liked what I've read by McAuley.

I like Stross, but he's not what I'm looking for here: his sci-fi is more about future shock, whereas I'm looking for something a little more measured.

Banks, I'm sorry to say, bores me to tears. I know lots of people like him, but I've never been able to read his SF books. The non-SF stuff is good, but I couldn't understand why there's such a fuss about him.
posted by Grinder at 10:38 AM on July 30, 2009

> Peter Watts (Blindsight)

Peter Watts' work is pretty great, but he's much more interested in psychology-- specifically, sociopathy, sexual and aggressive impulse, and evolution as utterly savage algorithm-- than in the tech. Less focus on ships and guns and engines as such than on the raging id that makes characters want to use ships and guns and engines.

Might not have the operatic sweep you're looking for, but fantastic stuff.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:18 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of the not-yet-posted authors, I would recommend Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams.
posted by fings at 3:26 PM on July 30, 2009

Some good stuff recommended here but a bunch of it isn't space opera. First, the snark!

I'd second John C. Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy

Read the first two. No need to read the third, THE GOLDEN TRANSCENDENCE. Just imagine the decaying corpse of Ayn Rand rising from the grave and vomiting all over you instead. Same thing.

OP: You're making this tough by saying that you find Iain Banks "boring". If you'd found him too grim or something we could work with that. But he's fairly indicative of the New Space Opera so if you find that boring, well, much of the new British stuff may also be problematic.

Let's see... well, others have recommended Alastair Reynolds. If you're looking for New Space Opera you do have to give him a try. But you may find him boring, particularly REVELATION SPACE. Which is unfortunate because it's the first one and you have to start with it. The latter books move a bit faster.

So give his Inhibitors sequence a try. That would be REVELATION SPACE, CHASM CITY, REDEMPTION ARK, and ABSOLUTION GAP with THE PREFECT being a loosely connected prequel I believe. As I said, REVELATION SPACE is the place to start. It absolutely fulfills your desire for more intelligent space opera but, as I said, I fear you'll find the first one a bit boring.

Aha! Stephen Donaldson wrote some space opera a while back, which is loosely inspired by the Ring cycle. Very loosely. Mostly it is an interesting examination of how the roles of hero, victim, and villain can change and are never as simple as it first appears. Which is great... except that, again, the first book is very problematic. It's is dark, grim, and violent. And, in some ways, repulsive as the main female character is subjected repeatedly to all sorts of indignities and violence. But if you can get past the first book with the knowledge that it's setting up the story to play with archetypes many people (including myself) find it fairly rewarding.

The first book is THE REAL STORY.

For a more traditional space battle kind of space opera but with a very modern sensibility there is Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" sequence. First book is The Praxis. Not much to say about this one except that if you like this kind of book then this is the kind of book you'll like!

This is getting long so a few more names to look into: Ken MacLeod and M John Harrison. Harrison is easily has the most literary ambitions but I generally find that his reach exceeds his grasp. Others do disagree. MacLeod is quite interesting and political, particularly is "Fall Revolution" series which I think is his best work.

In summary: Lots of good intelligent space opera. John C. Wright = crazy objectivist but this doesn't become blatant until the third book of his series at which point RANDITE CRAZINESS AHOY!
posted by Justinian at 3:27 PM on July 30, 2009

Yay, no one mentioned my suggestion. Please check out John Scalzi and his Old Man's War series. He is one of the new wave of science fiction authors. The books are getting a lot of prestigious awards and nominations.
posted by skewedoracle at 5:53 PM on July 30, 2009

I recently found Old Man's War on a bookshelf in my building and read it and I've been on a two-month long space opera kick / childhood throwback.

I will second the recommendations for Scalzi and Reynolds, and add Niven. Some of the "Known World" stuff can be a bit cheesy (I read it nonetheless) but the Ringworld stuff is good.

I’m not exactly sure what space opera is, but I’m thinking of some combination of human colonization of the galaxy, aliens (ideally several), & war.

I’m currently reading Manifold Time by Baxter and it's pretty good so far, though the Carter Catastrophe is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of. I'm not sure if it qualifies as space opera though.
posted by Wood at 8:18 PM on July 30, 2009

Tobias Buckell's trilogy (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sky Mongoose) is fabulous space opera with very very smart cultural extrapolation. Don't miss it.

Nancy Kress's Probability trilogy (Probability Moon, ...Sun, ...Space) is a bridge between the C.J. Cherryh/Iain Banks cultural fantasia and space opera.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:41 PM on July 30, 2009

Nthing Alastair Reynolds. His first couple books have some slooow spots, but his recent work is excellent. The Prefect blew me away.
posted by Orrorin at 3:09 PM on August 1, 2009

How about Karl Schroeder?

I'm just going to paste in here a capsule review I wrote a while ago of one of his books: I think this one is the most space-opera-y.

Schroeder’s Sun of Suns was on the less sciency side of SF, but Permanence is pretty much full-bore, spaceships-aliens-and-nanobots, convention-attending, total-nerd Science Fiction. And it is awesome. The setup here is that there is a big galactic civilization, with some planets orbiting actual stars and others farther out that orbit brown dwarfs—they give out enough heat to support life, but not enough to power the faster-than-light starships that connect the inner worlds. SO, there are these enormous ships called cyclers that travel (below light speed) between the outer worlds and pass on supplies and passengers, keeping the society connected and thriving. The only problem is that now the inner worlds have the fast ships, there are fewer and fewer cyclers, and the outer worlds are getting cut off. There’s a lot more to it, a whole political thing and a rebellion and so on, but that’s all mostly a MacGuffin—the main point of the story is more about the search for (and attempt to understand) other advanced alien civilizations, and whether any civilization can survive without annihilating itself or everyone else. I love books that have an interesting take on aliens (Vernor Vinge is another author who does this especially well) and I really recommend this book even though I suspect the hardcore SF aspect will put a lot of people off. Seriously, get over it and read this - it will make you think.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:49 PM on August 4, 2009

Oh, and R.M. Meluch is someone that, I don't know, I find it kind of hard to recommend her because she has some cringey ways about writing her women characters, but despite that (and I really don't have a high tolerance for that sort of thing) her series about Roman Soldiers In Space is totally unputdownable in a Horatio Hornblower kind of way.

So there's that.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:55 PM on August 4, 2009

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