Space Opera: Why I Love It (and some examples!)

I read a lot of SFF books, but Space Opera is my go-to genre.   Hard science is nice, but give me star-spanning civilizations, weird, wonderful, and plentiful alien life, and overwhelming stakes any day, and twice on Sunday.  My love can be traced to James P. Hogan’s Giants series.  I read the first book, Inherit the Stars, in 8th grade, and fell in love with it.  I found out there was a sequel and read it, too.  Then I went to high school, where I discovered from our SFF-loving librarian that there were, in fact, three more books in the series.  I soon exhausted the supply.

From there, it was a quick tour of 1970s and early-80s space opera, from Landis’ A Planet Called Camelot to Asimov’s Foundation and onwards.  While I read fairly widely across the SFF genre, as well as outside it, I have never loved anything like I love a good Space Opera. Part of my love for the subgenre is that it’s often based on characters rather than technology, where the personal growth of the heroes is as important to the book as the plot.  The key to why I love this genre above all others, however, is these three facets of the genre’s tropes: the variety of alien life, the epic scale (including bigger-than-life weapons and tech), and the adventure.

In the real world, science is showing us that it’s pretty likely a fairly barren universe out there, and any life besides us is probably so far away we’ll never meet them.  This depresses the crap out of me–I spent far too much of my youth dreaming of alien contact to be happy with a universe in which humanity is alone. A Space Opera universe, on the other hand, is teeming with life.  From aliens who look mostly like us to aliens who look nothing like us, Space Opera gives us lifeforms in abundance.  Some of them think enough like us that we can work together, but others are so unlike us that any contact is rife with the potential for disaster.  C.J. Cherryh’s work, particularly in the Alliance/Union universe, occupies the knife edge between these two extremes, with parallel cultures that can only interact in the most tangential ways.

What really makes me happy, though, is the vast canvas on which so much of Space Opera is drawn.   See, I love epic stories.  And how much more epic can you get than star-spanning civilizations, spread across hundreds or thousands of light-years, working together–or against each other–to survive in a hostile universe?

Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series is one of my favorites.  In the first book, The Reality Dysfunction, an accidental rip in spacetime allows the souls of the dead to come forth and possess the bodies of the living.  A war begins, pitting the various factions of far-flung human space against the dead, forcing alliances among people who used to be enemies and spurring a few men and women to grow up, fast.

The trilogy (sold as six books in the US, though ebooks may have changed that) doesn’t disappoint on the tech front, either.  The Confederation has pure-tech ships that jump through space, and living ships that tunnel through and are in constant telepathic contact with their captains.  They have neural computers that allow a form of technological psionics in the Adamist nations, and genetically-engineered telepathy and consensus-building among the Edenists.   The aliens are even more advanced, including matter-creation and planetary engineering (one of the alien empires is based on a series of planets arranged in a giant ring around their primary star, all sharing the same orbit).  I WANT TO GO TO THERE.

Above all, though, is the adventure.  Groups of people (not all of them human), coming together to defeat a common enemy, or helping each other to survive in a hostile universe, confronting unfathomable threats… it’s the stuff we humans have been hardwired to love since the days when we sat around talking about how great it was we’d all escaped the sabre-toothed cat that day.

In addition to the books I’ve already mentioned, good space operas to try out would include E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (which I’ve sadly only read part of; I’d love to find more), Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (which I really ought to write about soon), and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.  There are MANY others.  Should you be so inclined, here’s a link to get you started.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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