Small-scale Space Opera
February 14, 2016 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Looking for space-opera-ish books that focus on small scale, personal stories.

Basically, books which are in a classical space opera setting: other planets, spaceships, AI, aliens, etc.; but aren't about a group of plucky upstarts trying to save everything that ever was or will be.

Smaller scale and closer focus stories about characters' everyday lives, about their societies, their hopes and dreams, their culture and rituals. Something like China Mountain Zhang but further in the future and spacier.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Goodreads page)

Its a great fun read, sort of like Firefly in book format.
posted by Fence at 10:36 AM on February 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

You might like the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie. Although it does contain a larger quest to save the universe from a terrible dictator, the second volume in particular is very focused in on one planet and their social issues on a very personal level.
posted by possibilityleft at 10:36 AM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I did, and liked it, precisely for its focus on day-to-day life and characters.
posted by signal at 10:37 AM on February 14, 2016

My previous answer was to Fence. I've read the Radch trilogy, and like it, but it's more preoccupied with galaxy-spanning politics than I'm looking for now.
posted by signal at 10:38 AM on February 14, 2016

The Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold might do for this. Miles starts out as a plucky upstart but things come to be about everyday life very quickly.
posted by bibliotropic at 10:39 AM on February 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think you'd really enjoy the Liaden Universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller - and there are a bunch of books in it.

Each book/arc follows 1-2 main characters. The stories all tie together and the Liaden culture is complex and fascinating. There's an overall storyline but the action is very character-centric.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:40 AM on February 14, 2016

Some of the Iain M Banks novels are like this, but if I tell you which ones, it might spoil them.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:41 AM on February 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you like space opera that is (as I perceive your question is trying to get at) "smart", then Banks is your man. You can do no better than Use of Weapons. Everyone who likes space opera should have that book on their required reading list.
posted by deathpanels at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've read all of Banks, and like it. "Smart" is not my main issue, though it's a given in anything I like, but rather intimate, personal stories that focus on the day to day lives of a small group of characters, and not large scale events or threats.
posted by signal at 10:54 AM on February 14, 2016

It's closer to "military SF" than "space opera" proper, but Glen Cook's Passage at Arms is very good. It closely follows the crew of a single ship through a critical battle in an interstellar war. The war in question is the backdrop to a larger series (Starfishers), but this book stands alone and refers only tangentially to the other books.
posted by fencerjimmy at 10:56 AM on February 14, 2016

light (and two more books that roughly form a trilogy) by m john harrison focuses on a small group of people (although the connections between them are not always clear) in a future (mainly - the first book has alternate chapters in the present) with humans, aliens, and discarded, half-understood technology from previous civilisations.

i enjoyed all three books. he's an excellent stylist with some interesting ideas. but (and it's a significant "but" for some people) he doesn't take the "rules" of the genre too seriously. your expectations are open to abuse.

edit: although, now i am reading your question again, i am unsure. you seem to emphasise the domestic, and i don't remember much of that.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:04 AM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I usually don't recommend my own books, and I don't know if you're open to YA, but my novel Starglass is pretty much this--a literary coming-of-age novel that happens to be set on a generation ship.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:10 AM on February 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" and its sequels manage the trick of balancing (and inter-relating) galaxy-spanning events with extremely personal, small-scale conflicts.
posted by adamrice at 11:30 AM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm honestly a bit unsure what you're looking for, given your follow-ups, but I really enjoyed Spin State by Chris Moriarty because it focuses on the crummy, dirt-poor miner colonies that are supporting an FTL industry. There's a murder mystery component as well.
posted by odinsdream at 12:19 PM on February 14, 2016

Oooh and highly seconding Starglass. Loved it!
posted by odinsdream at 12:20 PM on February 14, 2016

CJ Cherryh is the stuff you're looking for. Her Chanur books are gritty space politics through the lens of a single tramp trader. The Merchanter books are all very close focused on their main characters.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:23 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pushing Ice, Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds fit this quite well.
posted by nickggully at 12:25 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

For Cherryh, I think the Merchanter books are a better bet. The scope of the Chanur books keeps expanding until they really do deal with massive interstellar politics and war, although they certainly start on a small scale.

Frankly, I think it's hard to do Space Opera the way you want, because part of the definition of Space Opera is that it's operatic: i.e., melodramatic and epic in scope.

Andre Norton wrote a lot of YA SF novels that dealt with individual people and not epic wars or intergalatic politics. Many of them have not aged too well: the characterizations are generally pretty thin and most have few or no women in them. But I think something like "Moon of Three Rings", "Sargasso of Space" or "The Zero Stone" might do: they are pretty small stories, if not undramatic.

For newer fiction, you might enjoy Aliette de Bodard's "On a Red Station, Drifting", which is a small-scale novella about family dynamics and survival on a space station. Or Molly Gloss' The Dazzle of Day, which is an utterly brilliant novel about a Quaker-run generation ship.
posted by suelac at 12:47 PM on February 14, 2016

I liked The Goblin Emperor for this reason- it's mostly about the main character figuring out how the society he has been dumped into works and working his way into effectively governing a people mostly not his own (so a complex fish out of water story with a background of spaceships etc.).
posted by charmedimsure at 12:54 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might like some of Ursula K. LeGuin's later work, such as Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Birthday of the World. She tends toward "softer" SF with more focus on cultures than technology, but that sort of sounds like what you're looking for?
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 2:25 PM on February 14, 2016

How about Angry Young Spaceman which is about post grad kids wondering what to do with their lives and going to an alien planet to teach English in the meantime? I promise, the "spacemen" are not really angry at all.
posted by bswinburn at 2:45 PM on February 14, 2016

Thanks for all the suggestions, I've bought Starglass and Angry Young Spaceman, I'll check out some of the other recommendations later.
posted by signal at 4:23 PM on February 14, 2016


Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's books often, but not always, fit this mold. The best (for this purpose) would be Balance of Trade, but the series starting with Fledgling would also work. They both focus on young adults working their way through apprenticeships and setting foot out into a large and strange galaxy. Balance of trade also does a lot of explain the wider Liaden universe, so makes the best starting point for the series in my opinion.

Also 2nding Andre Norton and her Solar Queen series, I've read Plague Ship and Derelict of Space from that sequence and quite liked them both.
posted by Canageek at 4:47 PM on February 14, 2016

Nthing bibliotropic's suggestion of the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. There are parts of it that are epic (though more "let's save this one Imperial dynasty on this planet that's one of 20+ in the explored galaxy" than "let's save everything that ever was or will be"), but there are particular stories that are much narrower.

In particular, you might like
* The three Miles Vorkosigan novellas "The Mountains of Mourning," "Labyrinth," and "The Borders of Infinity," handily in one collection also called The Borders of Infinity
* The non-Miles (but same universe) Ethan of Athos
* The non-Miles (but same universe) Falling Free

If you love the culture aspects, you might also really love Cetaganda - it's essentially Miles solving one important but discrete mystery while on another planet with a very different culture and unique rituals, etc.

And if you fall in love with either Bujold's writing or Miles as a character, rest assured that there are plenty more novels in the series to enjoy, some with somewhat bigger scopes.

The series as a whole doesn't need to be read in a particular order, though Bujold recommends reading certain novels before certain others. Starting with any of the ones listed above should be fine - you'd miss a little background, but she does an excellent job of providing enough info that you're not lost even if it's the first novel in the saga that you pick up.

I also love the Liaden series, as recommended above - thanks to whoever recommended them in whichever random book recommendation post I read a few years ago! They seem to have a similar flavor of small, personal stories happening on a very large canvas.
posted by bananacabana at 5:44 PM on February 14, 2016

Molly Gloss' The Dazzle of Day fits this bill. It takes place on a generation ship full of Quakers and is remarkable for its intimacy and human acuity.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:48 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your description sounds a bit like an oxymoron. Space opera is usually defined by the grand, dramatic scope of its narrative. I think of it as the epic reinvented in the context of the sci-fi genre. I don't think you will find a sub-genre within space opera that only deals in small, intimate character studies but is also simultaneously space opera. I think what you're looking for is called a "Mrs. Brown" character and they are not very common in sci-fi, precisely because sci-fi deals with large scale issues like social change and technology. I think you may find more of what you're looking for in the hazy genre border between sci-fi and literary fiction. For example, Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro), Strange Bodies (Marcel Theroux).
posted by deathpanels at 6:29 PM on February 14, 2016

Maybe The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell? Aliens and spaceships but entirely centered around the relationships between a small group of people. Btw, don't read too much of the wikipedia entry, I think the book is better if you let it surprise you.
posted by snaw at 7:19 PM on February 14, 2016

Elizabeth Moon's Serrano books sort of fit the bill, if you don't mind them being military-oriented space opera. There's a larger thing going on that the characters are reacting to, but mostly the first three or four books follow one woman and her interactions with a more or less stable set of characters, and the second set of three or four books chooses someone else to follow who ends up tangentially connected to them through a cousin or something. The very first book especially is mostly about two grown women learning to respect each other, though there are exploding rockets later.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:27 PM on February 14, 2016

Seconding Elizabeth Moon. It's been a long time since I read them, but my recollection of the Serrano series is that they are fun, and relatively light, with very engaging characters.
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:35 PM on February 14, 2016

Garth Nix's 'A Confusion of Princes' would probably fit your bill. And his Seventh Tower series as well. They are technically YA, but excellent reads as an adult, regardless. The focus of both is strongly on the characters and the world -building.

Oh, and a book that is so, so fantastic and exactly fits your request: Tuf Voyaging by George RR Martin. He has several sci-fi books set in various universes that are all great and very character -focused. Tuf Voyaging is my favorite, though. Also, cats!
posted by mirabelle at 7:52 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Re: Bujold's Vorkosigan series, they are marvellously genre-bending but I would start with the very latest one, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, as it is very much about the main characters' personal lives.

This paen to the works of Naomi Mitchison may be of interest. I've not read the works discussed but this sounds like what you are after, maybe?:

"Memoirs of a Spacewoman was a fascinating introduction to Mitchison’s work. It was refreshingly different from the sixties science fiction I was most familiar with and most loved. She didn’t care for interstellar wars, or galactic empires, or sprawling space operas (three things, I should say, I care about very much), no, Mitchison used humanity launching out into space as a means to explore communication and family connections, talk about motherhood, and redefine the connection between child and parent. Most of all she talks about empathy and its utter necessity to human exploration." -L. M. Myles

(via Tansy Raynor Roberts' blog)
posted by Coaticass at 9:46 PM on February 14, 2016

Sorry, should have posted a spoiler warning with that first link! OMG.
posted by Coaticass at 9:56 PM on February 14, 2016

'The Songs of Distant Earth' by Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favourite SF novels. There's a lot of the components of a 'space opera', I guess, in that it involves interstellar travel, hibernation, colonisation of alien planets, etc. The story itself, however, focuses on a few characters and their interactions and how they think and relate to each other. It's really very good.
posted by h00py at 1:14 AM on February 15, 2016

Thanks all, lots of what seems great stuff to read!
posted by signal at 7:47 PM on February 15, 2016

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