The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Space Opera

Posted on | August 23, 2013 | 165 Comments


Last week we looked at classic military SF involving soldiers on the ground; this week, we’re going to do the same with space navies.
Any discussion of space opera HAS to start with E.E. “Doc” Smith, who single-handedly created the genre with two epic series. The Skylark of Space is the first of four novels in which Richard Seaton matches wits, engineering skill and diplomacy against his nemesis, “Blackie” DuQuesne, in an epic struggle prefiguring the battles between Reed Richards and Victor von Doom. To give you some idea of the scale Smith was operating on here, by the fourth novel Seaton and DuQuesne have been forced to join together in an epic intergalactic war against psionic chlorine-breathing aliens who seek to exterminate humanity and its allies, and the weapons are entire suns teleported from a third galaxy into the home systems of the chlorine-breathers so as to trigger novae. More familiar to most fans are the Lensman novels, which begin with Triplanetary and continue on for five more novels concluding with Children of the Lens. These chronicle the adventures of the Galactic Patrol, its leaders the incorruptible Lensmen, and especially Kimball Kinnison, the protagonist of most of the novels and the first Second Stage Lensman. Battles interplanetary, interstellar and finally intergalactic are found in plenty, with humanity and its allies not always having the technological edge. Pretty much everything that comes in later space operas is rooted in Doc Smith’s works, no matter how dated they seem now. Truly, he’s one of the giants on whose shoulders modern SF stands.

Space operas were very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, with John W. Campbell Jr., Jack Williamson (The Legion of Space), and Edmond Hamilton (Crashing Suns, Captain Future) all making their names in the subgenre; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Foundation and Empire both have plenty of space opera content, especially in the second novel where the Foundation finds itself fighting first the dying remains of the Galactic Empire and then the implacable armadas of the Mule. Campbell’s early works can be found in the collection The Works of John W. Campbell .

After that, space opera died out for a few decades as larger-than-life supermen and wars on a galactic scale got shoved into the background in favor of things like character development, dystopias, and other topics not so reminiscent of SF’s pulp ancestry. However, the 1970s brought us (along with the accursed “New Wave”) two new takes on the old space opera theme. Larry Niven’s Protector brought large-scale warfare into Known Space for the first time (there would be more later, as Niven opened up the Man-Kzin Wars to other authors: The Best of All Possible Wars being a selection of the best of those) and C.J. Cherryh made a major splash in the field with the Hugo-winning Downbelow Station , which began the Alliance-Union series of novels. Orson Scott Card’s novelette that would later become a full novel, Ender’s Game , also came out in the 1970s; all brought a fresh approach to the genre.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven and Jerry Pournelle, not so much. While dealing with the classic themes of alien contact and having its share of flashy spaceship combat, The Mote in God’s Eye got criticized for all manner of things ranging from the form of humanity’s government (an empire? how archaic!) to perceived defects in the asymmetrical aliens and their society. Still, it’s a great book, a cracking good read, and a thumb in the eye for folks who thought traditional space opera was dead.

The 1980s brought Ian Banks’ Culture novels, which featured plenty of space warfare, often involving self-aware warships with names such as No More Mr. Nice Guy, So Much For Subtlety, I Thought He Was With You, Just Another Victim of The Ambient Morality, Shoot Them Later, and Now We’ll Try It My Way. Probably the best place to start is with Consider Phlebas . David Brin’s Startide Rising pits a single starship crewed by men and (mostly) dolphins against a smorgasbord of hostile aliens, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is also worth your time.

Probably the biggest/longest of all these space operas is the one written as a far future analog to C. S. Forester’s tales of Horatio Hornblower. I am of course referring to David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels, which begin with On Basilisk Station and now include thirteen novels in the main sequence, which does not include another nine novels in three spinoff series or the six “Worlds Of Honor” shared-universe anthologies; things have gotten complicated enough that there’s now an Honorverse companion, House of Steel, with enough technical detail to please the most obsessed of gearheads.

Also worth mentioning are the relatively recent Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell (beginning with Dauntless), and Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky, which provides an interesting counter-argument to Arthur C. Clarke’s classic cautionary tale “Superiority”.

Two series that don’t fall neatly into last week’s post or this one are Chris Bunch and Allan Cole’s Sten Adventures, which start logically enough with Sten. Sten’s adventures as grunt, spy, pilot and commander for the Eternal Emperor make the series very hard to categorize, but it has something for pretty much everyone. Also not neatly shoved into a particular box is Michael Flynn’s Spiral Arm series, which starts simply enough with The January Dancer, gets completely out of hand in the two subsequent novels, and ends in On the Razor’s Edge with a pilgrimage to Holy Terra of the Taj, The Wall, and the Mount of Many Faces; a civil war among the Shadows of the Central Confederal Worlds; and a family reunion. Tasty adventure simmered in a rich stew of Indian, Chinese, Russian, American and Gaelic cultures before being served up hot and bloody. I cannot recommend these – or the Sten novels – highly enough.

I’m sure I’ve missed somebody’s favorites. Post your recommendations and complaints in the comments.


165 Responses to “Space Opera”

  1. K-Bob
    August 25th, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    I know I have one or two in my collection. Funky format.

  2. SDN
    August 25th, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    She also has “A Few Good Men” which might qualify.

  3. SDN
    August 25th, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    Sarah also has a Carp Catapult…. and a scale covered Wombat would be amusing. 😉

  4. Herb Borkland
    August 25th, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    To leave out A.E. Van Vogt’s books overlooks their cosmic warfare and those unique Forties sci-noir atmospherics which made him the only Astounding writer — including even Heinlein and Asimov — whose stories John W. Campbell offered to buy sight unseen. Read all about it in the great editor’s “Letters.”

  5. mbri
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    Vernor Vinge – zones of though novels, The Peace War, Marooned in RealTime

  6. Wombat_socho
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    I think Drake says as much in the book notes on his blog, but I could be mistaken.

  7. Wombat_socho
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    Maybe I should just do one on Harry Harrison, period.

  8. Wombat_socho
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    It’s been a while since I read van Vogt, btut I’m having a hard time remembering anything of his that involves space navies. There’s bunch of space exploration stuff (Voyage of the Space Beagle, for example) and a bunch of space combat referred to in one of the Null-A novels, but nothing that really fits what I was talking about in this post.

  9. rustypaladin
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

    If anyone is interested, someone is working on an Honor Harrington movie. He also comments on an upcoming graphic novel.

  10. rustypaladin
    August 25th, 2013 @ 1:34 pm


  11. FMJRA 2.0: Sunday Edition : The Other McCain
    August 25th, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

    […] Space Opera […]

  12. Herb Borkland
    August 25th, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

    I expect you’re right after all. I let my enthusiasm for the author carry me away. However, the ending of the first Null-A is a memorable conflation of battling space ships overhead while Gilbert Go-sane reads the mind of a dying scientist wearing the original of his own face. Anyway — great post! Thanks again.

  13. WKrebs
    August 26th, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    One important book you omitted: “The Star Fox”, by Poul Anderson, published in 1965. I mean, just look at its three parts: “Marque and Reprisal”, “Arsenal Port”, and “Admiralty”

  14. FAQ You, Seriously : The Other McCain
    August 28th, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    […] week’s topic. (All you people who complained that Starship Troopers wasn’t mentioned in “Space Opera”, I’m looking at you.) Finally, I may simply have forgotten, as was the case with A. Bertram […]

  15. richard mcenroe
    August 30th, 2013 @ 1:31 am

    That… makes me nervous. Graphic novels adapting books too often get the shittiest ‘serious’ comic artists.