August 3rd, 2002

Ten Essential Modern Space Operas

Since the 1980s space opera has been going through something of a renaissance, a dynamic rebirth that is making it possibly the most important sub-genre of SF. But this isn't our parents' space opera, full of thud and blunder and ravening beams of coruscating force. Now it's space opera informed by the uncertainties of life at the turn of the 21st century, and educated by speculative science and the way our lives are accelerated through the needle of technological change. It's dark and dirty in these futures, and humanity is facing an unpredictable, if not down-right hostile universe. And we're probably not going to win, or even survive. But we're going to keep on exploring and learning...

Inspired by marypcb's list of fantasy novels, I started to think which modern space operas I'd recommend to someone wanting to start to explore this area of SF. This list of ten is the result of that thought process. It's by no means complete, and if you were to ask me tomorrow, I'd probably come up with another...

  • Vacuum Flowers - Michael Swanwick
    Probably the most important piece of new space opera, this is a tale of life out in the solar system, on the fringes of what we would now describe as a post-singularity Earth. It's a story of identity, of love and trust, and of hope for a new kind of future. Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark is a wonderful heroine, an everywoman in an almost incomprehensible future. It's John Varley's Eight Worlds on smart drugs.

  • Schismatrix - Bruce Sterling
    When Bruce does space opera he does it on a very wide screen indeed. This is a travelogue through a fragmented solar system, where new forms of humanity struggle to understand their chosen paths, those of the bio-formed Shapers and the technologically enhanced Mechanists. If you can, look for the expanded edition Schismatrix Plus, which includes all the Shaper-Mechanist short stories.

  • Great Sky River - Gregory Benford
    Big physics meets the far future. Benford's Galactic Centre novels are an author at his prime, charting the eternal war between biological and machine life. Inspired by his early Nigel Walmsey stories, the stories follow a raggle taggle remnant of humanity as they run from the hunting machines. But Benford is doing more than writing a chase thriller, he is exploring ideas of how life may survive into the deep future where all the stars burn down, and only the black holes that power galaxies are left.

  • Four Hundred Billion Stars - Paul McAuley
    McAuley's first published novel introduced one of the more interesting SF series of the late 80s. Humanity is a late arrival on the galactic scene, and finds itself caught up in a war it doesn't understand, on a stage much bigger than it realises. In fact it's a battle for both the past and the future of the universe. McAuley's human polity is not western dominated, and the solar system and colony worlds have been through a tough time, marred by wars and collapse.

  • Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds
    A relatively new arrival on the scene, Reynold's complex space operas find humanity a dweller in the ruins of a wrecked galaxy. The wars at the beginning of time have left the stars empty, but still dangerous, teeming with weapons and worse. A fractured humanity, trapped by relativity, finds itself caught up in the aftermath, as archaeologists uncover more than they bargained for. Reynold's background is dark, decaying, yet fecund. There's an organic feel to his universe, despite its underlying mechanical nature.

  • Permanence - Karl Schroeder
    This is one work that deserves a wider audience. The most recent novel on this list, Schroeder's work is a true child of the first decade of the 21st century. Dealing with the big question, "where is everyone?", Schroeder introduces an empty universe where human civilisation has been disrupted by the development of a faster than light drive. The backwater systems around brown dwarf stars, so important to the initial expansion of humanity, have been left to wither, but have decided not to go down with out a fight. The discovery of an alien STL vessel dramatically changes the balance of power, and provides the key to the ultimate destiny of human life.

  • Manifold: Space - Stephen Baxter
    Baxter’s career began with space opera, and though he's diverted one way or the other at times, its remained at the core of his work. The "Manifold" series is one that explores big questions of physics and philosophy, while exploring the many possible lives of Reid Malenfant. Manifold: Space
  • is the middle volume of the trilogy, but one that stands on its own to show us one possible reason for the emptiness of the stars.
  • A Fire Upon The Deep - Vernor Vinge
    Vinge's epic space opera is a powerful story of what happens when transcendent beings intervene in the little lives around them. In a galaxy shaped by artefact into a preserve that encourages intelligence, a dark Power has been released, and it's up to a small band of information traders to save the day - even if it means descending into the Slow Zone, where AIs and FTL don't work. Vinge's ultrasound-linked group mind Tines are one of the great inventions of modern SF, and the concept of "godshatter" (the remnants of a transcendent being in the mind of a lower form - like a human being...) is one that has begun to migrate into other authors' works.

  • Angel Station - Walter John Williams
    Williams began to break down the barriers between cyberpunk and space opera in his epic Voice of the Whirlwind. But it was with the first contact story at the heart of Angel Station that he showed us just how the two genres could be fused into something new and exciting. Here high tech adventure met corporate politics, with the cards held in the hands of the genetically modified under dogs - in the shape of a hidden contact with a very alien presence.

  • When We Were Real - William Barton
    William Barton's futures aren't to everyone's taste. Dark and violent, they are crafted to show humanity in the most unflattering light possible. Barton's futures are venal places, oppressive and lonely worlds where it is just possible for the ordinary man to make a living. When We Were Real is a novel set in a background Barton is continuing to explore in novellas like "Heart of Glass" "Soldier's Home" and "The Engine Of Desire". In Barton's universe a slower than light civilisation is expanding out from Earth, under the control of corporations. And the only way to have a good life is to keep out of the way...

Just off the list are books like Cherryh's Downbelow Station, Charlie Stross' soon to be published Festival of Fools (aka Singularity Sky), Ken Macleod's "Engines Of Light" series, and Banks' Against A Dark Background.

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