Recommended Space Operas
May 23, 2005 10:25 AM   Subscribe

With the completion of the Star Wars sextology [sic], I was looking for recommendations of other science fiction/fantasy space operas. I just bought the Doc Smith's Lensman "prequel", Triplanetary, and his first Skylark book. Any other suggestions or comments on these (i.e. should I start with Galactic Patrol in the Lensman series? Read Skylark before Lensman)? Suggestions from across all media is welcome (Babylon 5, etc.).
posted by Dante5Inferno to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Skolian Empire series by Catherine Asaro is space opera with a dash of romance thrown in. Okay, more than a dash -- pretty much every book's plot revolves around one of the characters falling in love, but there are also noble dynasties, a galaxy-spanning war, and some of the most horriffically believeable villians I've ever read in space opera. Asaro's a physicist, so her science is a little more plausible than most stories of this kind; for example, Catch the Lightning has a bit in it about Riemann sheets and parallel universes, and at several points in various novels she describes how a ship would actually look as it arrived at a planet FTL. Her telepathy is also worked out in some detail. I'd recommend Catch the Lightning, Primary Inversion, or The Last Hawk as a starting point.
posted by kindall at 10:37 AM on May 23, 2005

Space Opera... hmm... (strokes chin thoughtfully...)
Tricky one - it's a bit of a weird category, and is often down to personal interpretation. If you want some great reading about space stuff set in well-imagined universes, with interesting characterisation, etc. then have a go at some of the following...

Peter F. Hamilton - "Night's Dawn" trilogy

Isaac Asimov - "Foundation" series

Ian M. Banks - "Culture" novels (not really in a series, but set in the same universe)

Harry Harrison - "Bill The Galactic Hero" and "Stainless Steel Rat" stories (a bit less "space opera", but very worthwhile!)

Frank Herbert - "Dune" series

I've read the Lensman stories - definitely worth reading in order if you can manage, otherwise - if you're anything like me - you'll find that you want to go back to read them again in the correct order after each one :-)
It's been a while since I read them though - I think that you've just inspired me to dig them out to give them another go!
posted by Chunder at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2005

David Brin's Startide Rising (but I'd quit there), Iain Banks' Culture series, Ken MacLeod's oeuvre, Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, and, if you like that, go on to A Deepness in the Sky.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2005

Bleh. I didn't make it through the 1st Asaro book, but some of the science is fascinating.

I personally like the first five or six books of David Weber's Honor Harrington series. Elizabeth Moon, author of the mostly good Herris Serrano trilogy and several other books in that universe, has recently released a new space opera series set in the same universe but with a different protagonist.
posted by SpecialK at 11:00 AM on May 23, 2005

Babylon 5, of course. Avoid the "prequel" movie "In the Beginning" like the plague (it's spoilerriffic); the pilot movie "The Gathering" is optional (and got the Lucas-style "Special Edition" treatment awhile back; the original version is almost impossible to find now).

Seasons 1 through most of season 4 are some of the most essential, compelling sci-fi storytelling ever put on TV (although there are a few chintzy bits, mostly in seasons 1 and 4). Season 5 was, well... it was mostly in focus, and in color. (This is just my opinion as a dirty fanboy; ignore if necessary.) Your viewing would probably be enhanced with the help of the Lurker's Guide, which hasn't gone through a major update in years but is still the best B5 resource out there.

Other space operas: If you really want to get into some galactic nitty-gritty, seek out the epic anime Legend of the Galactic Heries. It is an amazingly huge (110 25-minute episodes; dozens of characters), vast, and fascinating space opera about the twists and turns of a decades-long interstellar war between the aristocratic Reich Empire and the democratic (but slipping into fascism) Free Planets Alliance. The battles are enormous -- sometimes it takes 3 episodes to finish one.

Sadly, the only way to obtain the series in English is in a set of bootleg DVDs (there are official discs but these don't have English subtitles at all). And the subtitles are, quite often, rather poorly translated and difficult to understand. Despite all this, I found it a very rewarding series without really a dull moment.
posted by neckro23 at 11:00 AM on May 23, 2005

I would suggest the two Risen Empire books by Scott Westerfeld (The Risen Empire: Book One of Succession and The Killing of Worlds (Succession)). Make sure you can read the two books together, because it's really supposed to be one book but it got split apart for silly reasons. I think there is now an edition that combines both of them. They almost have a solid science footing, but they are definately space opera.
posted by skynxnex at 11:04 AM on May 23, 2005

The term "Space Opera" refers to science-fiction which focuses on action, adventure, war, and character drama, in which outer-space settings are used as a backdrop. If you're at all into anime (or even if you just watched Voltron/Robotech as a kid), I'd recommend Martian Successor Nadesico.

The Wikipedia page I linked contains several suggestions (whose quality I can't vouch for, in general). One series not on this list that I liked was "The Damned" by Alan Dean Foster: A Call to Arms, The False Mirror, and The Spoils of War.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:04 AM on May 23, 2005

(er, d'oh, of course I meant Legend of the Galactic Heroes. stupid typos.)
posted by neckro23 at 11:09 AM on May 23, 2005

Stephen Donaldson's Gap series...
posted by joelr at 11:21 AM on May 23, 2005

For recently-on-TV Space Opera viewing, I would highly reccomend FireFly.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:24 AM on May 23, 2005

Firefly (the TV series was cancelled, but can be bought on DVD) is really most excellent. I think a movie is in the works. Just read some of the Amazon reviews.
posted by ori at 11:25 AM on May 23, 2005

"Bio of a Space Tyrant" by Piers Anthony. Yes, well, I enjoyed it when I read it. Years ago.
posted by amtho at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2005

Not really a big fan of Space Opera but Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" is pretty all right.

Jack Vance is great too if you gel with his weird prose style. The "Demon Princes" novels are classic retro space opera.

Also: I second Iain M. Banks. Although his books tend towards the depressing.
posted by selfnoise at 11:37 AM on May 23, 2005

Farscape starts small (one man flung to the wrong side of the galaxy), gets huge (emminent galactic destruction by the end) - excellent writing, directing and acting. The real space opera bits start in the second season, fighting the Peacekeepers (aka the evil Empire) and the Scarrans (other evil Empire).

The new Battlestar Galactica is riveting, but I don't know that I would say exactly that it or Firefly (which is one of the best tv shows ever made) are really quite space opera. Both are quite gritty, and go for a more introspective/emotionally realistic approach to science fiction. Firefly is very small (in terms of cast and scope) and intimate - really a science fiction drama (with lots of funny moments - it is Joss Whedon), though the movie will likely be much more action oriented. Battlestar Galactica has much more action and certainly is huge in scope, but the emotional impact is very different from something like Star Wars (for one thing, sometimes I think the "bad guys" really will win - but then again, they may or may not be bad). Listening to the podcasts from the exceutive producer of BSG, it sounds like they were as influenced by military and war dramas as by the science fiction of the original series.

That said, both are really good - they just are of a very different flavour from Star Wars. (And of course nothing like Star Trek.)

Do you like epic stories in general? Fantasy fiction has many many very good series of the same epic nature as Star Wars - I recently read Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series (it's finished now), and was mesmerised by all six volumes. George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire has also been good - like Elliott's, it has court intrigue, battles, destinies, etc. But some people don't have a taste for fantasy. Elliott also has a very interesting SF series - the Jaran novels, which I have only been able to find one of, but was fascinated by.
posted by jb at 12:06 PM on May 23, 2005

I'll third Firefly.

However, if you want some space-opera television that's heavier on the opera, Farscape would fit the bill. Firefly's a bit less epic; the crew of Serenity aren't as likely as the crew of Moya to engage in nuclear terrorism to disrupt peace talks aimed at forestalling a galaxy-wide war*, or get married to an alien princess and frozen in carbonite, or literally command the stars to do their bidding.

*This is mostly a product of Firefly's short run-time. From hints in the series and the visuals in the Serenity trailer, Whedon is getting ready to Think Big.
posted by jbrjake at 12:21 PM on May 23, 2005

It's a little religious and new age-y, but Julian May's metapsychic novels are great fun and a good read, with good old family dysfunction at the heart of it all, and great if you like New England. A little short on space, especially at first, but heavy on opera (literally in some cases).

I would start with Surveillance and Metaconcert (prequels), then on to the Galactic Milieu Trilogy: Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat.

This series is related to May's Pliocene Exile series, but I wouldn't recommend continuing forward (or backward) to them. You won't find answers to your questions.
posted by ulotrichous at 12:24 PM on May 23, 2005

Space opera? Three words: H. Beam Piper. He can be hard to get a hold of, but they're all juicy and delicious. Space vikings, timecops, and Fuzzies, oh my!
posted by steef at 1:49 PM on May 23, 2005

blakes7. talk about space opera.

as for reading, cj cherryh's alliance/union universe is all good.

farscape, firefly and b5 are all excellent as well.
posted by dorian at 2:29 PM on May 23, 2005

Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion are a great read--probably off in the periphery of what's considered space-opera, though there are some good old clashes of interstellar fleets and such. The two follow-ups Endymion and Rise of Endymion are far inferior, IMO.

The ...of Spider trilogy by W. Michael Gear is something I remember being pretty entertaining, but it's been about fifteen years since I read it, so; the first volume is really just setup for the next two books; the third is all about a truly vicious and internecine galactic war (body counts are in the trillions, as it's a highly advanced civilization, and it's a war of extermination and not conquest--planetkillers are pretty much the rule of engagement).
posted by Drastic at 2:37 PM on May 23, 2005

Firefly...I think a movie is in the works.

Ori, yes that's a done deal. Shoooting wrapped a while ago and the final edit is nearly ready. The movie has had several test sceenings already, and is scheduled for official release on September 30th. For the curious, here's the Firefly movie website.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:55 PM on May 23, 2005

Larry Niven's Known Space series, while not really technically "Space Opera", is quite Star Warsy.
posted by interrobang at 3:25 PM on May 23, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Get it while it's hot.
posted by The White Hat at 3:34 PM on May 23, 2005

the crew of Serenity aren't as likely as the crew of Moya to engage in nuclear terrorism to disrupt peace talks aimed at forestalling a galaxy-wide war

I loved those scenes - Ben Browder does crazy so well, and you never forget he has a nuclear bomb strapped to his chest for most of two episodes.

I think Mal might have done something like that if necessary, but I don't know if he would havedanced on the tables while ranting.
posted by jb at 4:00 PM on May 23, 2005

Buckaroo Banzi and the Fifth Dimension. Old but fun. Early Ellen Barkin, Peter Weller? (the Robocop guy) & the big guy from Third Rock From the Sun.
Sorry, can't remember names today.
posted by BoscosMom at 5:52 PM on May 23, 2005

Sadly, the only way to obtain the series in English is in a set of bootleg DVDs (there are official discs but these don't have English subtitles at all). And the subtitles are, quite often, rather poorly translated and difficult to understand.

There is also a fansub group doing this series (Central Anime I think). Haven't checked it out myself, but they probably have better subtitles than the boots.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 5:59 PM on May 23, 2005

Quite entertaining is the Miles Vorkosigan (sp?) series of books by Lois McMaster Bujold.
More props to Firefly for TV.
More scientific fiction would be Wil McCarthy stuff.
Don't knock Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which was the most "space opera" like of the series'.
Comedic TV in an SF vein would be Red Dwarf (also books).
posted by birdsquared at 7:33 PM on May 23, 2005

PinkStainlessTail: I'll have to try to find those... hopefully their subtitles will make more sense (for about ten minutes in one of the later episodes, the bootleg subs stop making any sense whatsoever!).
posted by neckro23 at 10:45 PM on May 23, 2005

Check out Nine Princes in Amber, but Roger Zelazny. It's the first book of five, but they're all pretty small and very light reading. The first book is ok-to-good but nothing special, but by the fifth, you're astounded. Some people read them as sci-fi, some people read them as fantasy. It starts out with a guy waking up in a hospital, with partial memory loss due to injuries/trauma, but he is healing from the trauma faster than is humanly possible. It's sci-fi in the sense that it's settings span, but are not limited to earth, and there are instances of advanced technology, but fantasy in the sense that there are peculiar reasons why swordplay is better than a gun/blaster in many of their circumstances, much of the science might as well be magic, etc.

Now, a little bit munchkinism is part of what I like about starwars, and Skylark was good initially, but the subsequent books got more and more munchkin, until it was, quite literally, an entire page descring how incredibly mind bogglingly planet-bustingly immense the energy from ship A's cannons was, and then an entire page describing how incredible it was that ship B's sheilds could withstand such an assualt. Then the next page would nothing but an equally long description of how incrediblly powerful Ship B's response volley was, and so on, until I just put the book down - and I NEVER put a book down :)

If you especially love the munchkinism aspect of starwars, maybe check out hong kong action movies. They're often embaressingly adolescent-power-fantasy, but hey, that can make for a fun movie too. In secret. With no witnesses :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:21 AM on May 24, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone! Lots to check out. I think I'm going start with Skylark to get the pulpiness quotient going and Firefly for eye candy and go from there. Thanks again.
posted by Dante5Inferno at 4:08 PM on May 24, 2005

Dunno if you're still reading, but these weren't mentioned specifically:

Charlie Stross's (cstross here) Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. Great fun, good toys, *very* large explosions. Charlie's and Ken MacLeod's SF is some of the most SF-literate, SF-aware SF around.

Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series, not really space opera -- more cyber/techno stuff with strong input from the Singularity -- but ought to appeal to a space opera fan what with big sweeping ideas and whatnot. The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road. That last is actually set in an alternate version of the universe, complete with an identifiable point where its timeline branches off.

Ken MacLeod's Cosmonaut Keep series, which toys with lots of conventions of classic SF. Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, Engine City

Neal Asher's Polity books, most of which feature Ian Cormac: Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, The Skinner. In some ways not too dissimilar from reading a Culture story... simpler, in bad and good ways, but good fun.

Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books. The interstellar adventures of a deformed dwarf.

Not in a series, at least yet:
Ken MacLeod, Newton's Wake. Post-singularity space opera.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:00 PM on May 24, 2005

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