Sunday, April 30, 2006

Into the Depths of the Stars!

I've made the decision, based on lots of soul-searching and careful consideration...ach, who am I kidding? It's basically a whim. But I want to become the world's preeminent expert on space opera. Now, I know, this is a goal that will take years to achieve and will neither yield riches nor fame, but it'll make me Lord Emperor of All Geeks (Space opera Division). And really, who could want more than that?

What brought this on, you ask? (Ach, who am I kidding -- nobody's asking that.) But anyway, it's a pretty obvious interest, since I'm one of the most faithful worshippers at the Church of Lucas. Space opera has always been my preferred SF subgenre, the bigger and vaster the better. And really: since mid-May of last year, life has seemed a tad directionless and unfocused. (Don't take my word for it.) So in a way, I'm going to try to scratch an itch that won't ever be scratched in the same way again. Or something like that. (Hey, it's a whim, and whims are pretty hazy things. Who sits and thinks out a whim, anyway?)

I'm also seeking to give myself a broader background in space opera tropes, because after I finish The Promised King* I want to turn to a tale that's been sitting in my head gestating for a few years now. I posted a kernel of this tale before; you can read it here, although I'm not at all certain how much of that little excerpt will remain when I get back to that story. Suffice it to say that stories of war and romance on a Galactic scale appeal to me; and if I had to name the single best piece of writing advice I've ever heard, it would be "Write the books you want to read."

So, where to begin? Well, I'm not sure where exactly I'll start. But I'm in the beginning of amassing a collection of space opera books. These I have already, in no particular order:

:: The Lensmen novels, by E.E. "Doc" Smith. I read Triplanetary a few years ago and enjoyed it, but still have yet to read the rest of this series. My understanding is that Triplanetary wasn't actually the first of the Lensmen tales.

:: The Skylark of Space, also by Doc Smith. Hey, you gotta inspect the roots of the genre, right? This book came out in 1928.

:: Brian Daley: Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds, Jinx on a Terran Inheritance, Fall of the White Ship Avatar. I remember Will Duquette recommending these a while back. I remember reading some of Daley's media tie-in novels as a kid, but never any of his own work.

:: Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns. This series is still "in progress", with three more volumes to go, apparently. The first book is kind of weak, being chapter after chapter after chapter of exposition; also, Smith's tendency to throw in cute allusions gets a little off-putting at times. But things improve quite a bit in the second book. I wouldn't recommend splurging on this series in hardcover, but they're fun in softcover. Anderson's really got a gift for conveying nifty visuals in descriptive prose, like the diamond-hulled warships of the Hydrogues.

:: Debra Doyle and James MacDonald's Mageworlds series. I've got The Price of the Stars, Starpilot's Grave, and By Honor Betray'd, which constitute the main Mageworlds trilogy, as well as a prequel novel called The Gathering Flame. I read Price of the Stars four or five years ago and thought it was just "Star Wars lite", but enough folks have spoken well of the series since then that I suspect I may have judged it unfairly. It happens, folks -- I wish I had a dime for every piece of classical music I hated the first time I listened to it. Heck, I hated Berlioz the first time I heard him.

:: The Liaden Universe novels by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I've read the first three of these and enjoyed them, although they didn't feel all that "space opera-ish" to me -- more like romances set in space. But as fans of SF and fantasy well know, these genres and their little subgenres tend to stubbornly resist easy categorization.

:: Primary Inversion and The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro. I read Primary Inversion a few years back as well, but I don't remember much about it. These are the first two books in a larger series called "The Saga of the Skolian Empire". Well, that's gotta be good, right? It's got the words "Saga" and "Empire" in it.

:: Downbelow Station and The Faded Sun Trilogy by C.J. Cherryh. These are apparently set in "the Alliance-Union Universe". Strange as it may seem, I have never read anything by Cherryh before.

:: Star Soldiers by Andre Norton. Equally strange, I don't recall ever reading Norton before, either. What the hell have I been doing?!

:: Excession, by Iain M. Banks. This is one of Banks's "Culture" novels. I started The Player of Games a while back, but never finished it for some reason. Perhaps someone can tell me if Excession is a good entry point into the "Culture" books, or if I should dig back farther. My understanding is that they're all standalone novels, but that doesn't mean that one book isn't a better intro than another.

:: A Thousand Words for Stranger and Ties of Power, by Julie E. Czerneda. The first two books in Czerneda's "Trade Pact Universe". I liked Thousand Words a lot when I read it a few years back. In honesty, I completely forgot I had the second book in this series until I went through the shelves just now.

:: The Duke of Uranium and A Princess of the Aerie by John Barnes. Read the first and liked it a lot; never got around to the second. If there were any justice, "Toktru" would be as well-known a word in SF fandom as "Fnord!"

:: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. Another one I started but didn't finish. In truth, I do this a lot. I'll be reading along, and get to about fifty or so pages in and just kind of say to myself, "Hmmmm, this really isn't what I'm in the mood to read right now." It's kind of a capricious reading life, I'll admit, but I think the upside is that I think I'm more fair to books when I come to them when I want to rather than forcing myself through them when I don't, if that makes sense. (I was clearly reading this last summertime, because I discovered that I'd been marking my place with an old grocery list. Charcoal, beer, and Italian sausage topped the list. Oh, and a can of infant formula. Weird, the reminders that await us in the tall grass....)

:: Sunrunner and Startide Rising, by David Brin. Everybody says that the first Uplift trilogy is amazing, the second one less so. Guess I'll find out eventually. I'm still mad at Brin for saying mean things about Star Wars a few years back, but I'll try to be nice to his books.

:: Metaplanetary, by Tony Daniel. Not sure if this is space opera or just hard SF, but I just found it on my shelves. I don't remember buying it, even. Anyone?

:: Jaran, by Kate Elliott. I don't know squat about this one, save that the back cover refers to a mix of "interstellar empires and primitive cultures". That works.

:: Lord Valentine's Castle, by Robert Silverberg. I'm honestly not sure this counts as space opera; the cover copy reads more like a blend of SF and fantasy. But again, the pesky dividing line between space opera and something else is always fungible. Onto the stack it goes.

:: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. First book in a franchise of sorts. I love this book's cover art -- simple, intriguing, and evocative.

:: In Conquest Born, by C.S. Friedman. I just bought this last week. I'd heard of Friedman, but knew nothing of her work. The cover has a guy on a starship, holding a sword. Yup!

:: Deathstalker, by Simon R. Green. Someone told me that this series probably went on two or even three books too long. This was another casualty of the "Hmmm, not really in the mood for this" malaise that sends me to the shelves for something else. Still, I absolutely adore that opening passage.

:: Pandora's Star, by Peter F. Hamilton. Ahhhh, Hamilton. Tried him once before and didn't make it -- but not for the usual reasons. His Night's Dawn Trilogy was so massive that when the books were issued in paperback, each volume had to be split in two. We're talking a massive series here, folks. Well, I loved the first half of The Reality Dysfunction (the first book), but something went awry with the second half: my copy of it literally fell apart, some months after I had bought it. Bad glue, or what, I don't recall. I never got around to replacing it. Anyway, I bought Pandora's Star a few weeks ago.

:: Dread Empire's Fall, by Walter Jon Williams. Trilogy about a fallen interstellar empire. Check.

:: Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross. I don't know why, but I always feel stupid when I read Stross. Kind of like that episode of Friends when Joey, tired of feeling left out in conversations, buys a single volume of an encyclopedia (because that's all he can afford), and thus keeps trying to steer the conversations to topics that start with the letter 'V'. I haven't read any of Stross's novels, but his short fiction is so idea-packed that I may need to decompress after reading his novels.

:: A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. I liked Fire, although I don't think I understood the ending all that well. Still haven't attemped Deepness.

These are works that I do not own yet but plan to acquire:

:: Scott Westerfeld's Risen Empire duology. I checked the first half out of the library and loved it. Why didn't I read the second half, then? Because I'm forgetful as hell, that's why. Hence this list.

:: Timothy Zahn. Pretty much anything. I owned his "Conquerors Trilogy", but lost it in the last move. He's fairly prolific, too.

:: David Zindell's Neverness and Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy. Never heard of Zindell until last night. Anyone?

:: The Book of Skaith, The Coming of the Terrans, and The Starmen of Llyrdis, by Leigh Brackett. I read her Sword of Rhiannon a while back, and once I aligned my reading-mind with the fact that Brackett had been writing with a 1950s author's knowledge of the planet Mars, I found it a highly entertaining read. There was a reason that George Lucas brought in Leigh Brackett to take the first whack at a script for The Empire Strikes Back, and her reputation as a writer of space opera was that reason.

OK, that's what I either own or plan to get in the near future. However, I know that this list isn't close to being exhaustive. So, what say you, readers? What space operas am I missing here? I'd be especially interested in comics, and in those terms, I'd like to focus specifically space operas, and preferably closed series that have actual endings. There are times when lots of comics titles delve into space opera -- the famous Dark Phoenix saga from The Uncanny X-Men, frex -- but unless the tale has a specific ending point, I'm not really looking for "Well, Superman often has some space opera stuff in it". (BTW, the series Six from Sirius, from which my Net handle "Jaquandor" is taken, is pure space opera!)

I'm also keenly interested in older SF authors, long out-of-print, who worked in the space opera form. Aside from Leigh Brackett and Doc Smith, I'm fairly ignorant of space opera as a literary subgenre before Star Wars came along, and we're talking about roughly fifty years of space opera goodness. So let me know about those, as well.

This is obviously something of a long-term thing that I'm putting in motion here. Looking at the stacks of books I've just created next to my computer table, I've got enough space opera goodness to keep me busy for a few years at least, and I've no intention of foregoing my other interests along the way -- horror and fantasy will still abound.

But space opera? That's where I want to be!

* I've started working again on The Promised King in the last week, and I'm hoping to start serializing Book II: The Finest Deed either later this summer or in early fall. I'll keep everyone posted.

UPDATE 5-1-01: Readers have suggested the following series and/or books, either in e-mail or in comments:

:: Dune, by Frank Herbert. I own the first one and started reading it once. I stopped a ways in because I frankly got tired of Herbert's constant use of his own made-up vocabulary. Usually this doesn't bother me much when authors do it, but Herbert had me flipping to the glossary every other sentence, or so it felt. Not sure if this is "space opera", really -- how much of it involves, well, "space"? Someone who's read it, let me know. Also cited are Herbert's The Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment. I've never even heard of these, but I'll seek them out eventually.

:: David Webber's Honor Harrington series. I've read the first two books, and I enjoyed them. They're space opera to an extent, although most readers would more consider them "Military SF". I like the Honor Harrington character, but I've heard that farther on in the series, Honor's seeming perfection gets more and more grating; I'm also told that Webber's infodumps get more and more intrusive and cloying. That would be something to see, since in the very first book, Webber completely stops the action just as the climactic battle/chase is starting to heat up, so he can go into a lengthy explanation of the history of supralight drive in his universe. I'm not sure how much more Honor Harrington I really want to read.

Military SF, generally, isn't my cup of tea. Admittedly, it's hard to find the dividing line between space opera and Mil-SF. My own way of determining the difference has a flaw or two, but so far it seems to have worked. I've never been much of a Robert A. Heinlein fan, but it's been years since I tried reading him.

:: Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books. Yup. I've read the first three. Pretty fun stuff thus far.

:: C.J. Cherryh's Chanur books. Never heard of them. I'll look them up.

:: Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai series. My familiarity with these extends about as far as the fact that I know they exist. I'll have to check them out.

:: The Hitchhiker's Guide series by Douglas Adams. Strangely, I've never read these.

Keep the recommendations coming, folks -- I'm looking for all the space opera that can be read in a lifetime!

1 comment:

Avi Abrams said...

space opera rules

you migt want to check out my THRILLIG WONDER STORY site which regularly reviews space adventures from the Golden Era. It also has a top-list and vintage pulp space illustrations.

and thank you for keeping interest in grand-scale space adventure alive!!

Avi Abrams