The Space Opera Resurgence

At Wired, Charlie Jane Anders talks about the current space opera resurgence and why the subgenre has become more diverse and better than it has been in a long time.

The article offers a nice overview of the current crop of space opera writers amd also highlights how diverse the subgenre has become. The authors and books mentioned – The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Binti and Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor, The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Ninefox Gambit and The Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee and of course the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie (plus shout-outs to Guardians of the Galaxy and the TV series The Expanse) – will not exactly be news to SFF fans. After all, these aren’t undiscovered gems, but some of the most discussed, anticipated and award-winning works in the genre. You could also add other names to those mentioned in the article, e.g. Rachel Bach, Ann Aguirre, Elizabeth Bonesteel, K.B. Wagers, Aliette de Bodard, Emma Newman, Sara Creasy, S.K. Dunstall, Margaret Fortune, Rhonda Mason, James S.A. Corey (who is included – sort of – via a reference to The Expanse TV show based on their books), Tobias Buckell, Mike Brooks, Michael Cobley, Jay Allan (whom Charlie Jane Anders actually planned to include in her article according to this tweet), Charles Gannon, Marko Kloos, not to mentioned established space opera stalwarts like Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, C.J. Cherryh, Melinda Snodgrass, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Weber, Mike Shepherd, Jack Campbell, Jack McDevitt, Kevin J. Anderson, etc… However, Wired is a tech magazine, not an SF magazine, and therefore aimed at a more general readership to whom the big names and seminal works of current space opera may well be new.

Charlie Jane Anders also points out that there is a lot more space opera to be found on both physical bookshelves and on the virtual shelves of Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Google Play, iTunes or Smashwords than there was only a few years ago. She writes:

Not long ago, a group of mostly British men dominated the field. Authors like Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Iain M. Banks wrote wild, sweeping tales, often about cyborgs and other post-human characters. You still see a lot of that in space operas, but the genre’s renewed popularity has introduced readers to a diverse array of writers, each of them bringing a new approach to tales of thrilling adventures in the cosmos.

I remember those days of the early 2000s well, when space opera was mainly written by a bunch of white, mostly British men. Occasionally, those books made it onto the shelves of the local Thalia store and I bought several of them, because hey, there was a spaceship and/or a planet in space on the cover, the blurb sounded kind of interesting and the authors were highly regarded and/or had won a bunch of awards. But time after time, when I actually cracked the book open, I found myself deeply disappointed, because there usually was a lot of technobabble about the singularity and highly advanced civilisations with a lot of quasi-magic tech and characters that were thin as cardboard and often behaved so unbelievably that the only likely explanation would be that those books were secretly authored by advanced AIs, since it certainly didn’t sound as if the authors had ever met an actual, living, breathing human being. What is more, those books also tended to sound kind of samey, the same highly advanced civilisation meddling in everybody else’s affairs with their quasi-magic tech in book after book. It wasn’t until several years later that I realised that many of those authors were more or less inspired by Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels (who is still considered the gold standard for space opera by many UK writers and critics).

Not that all British writers were writing what became known as New British Space Opera at the time. Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, for example, is space opera in the truest sense of the word, with a cast of thousands, a broad sweeping canvas that spans all space and (eventually) time and everything and the kitchen sink, too, thrown in. It’s also a lot of fun. However, Green’s space opera was never to be found on the bookstore shelves, at least not at the stores I patronised, so I didn’t discover his work until years later. And for a time in the early 2000s, New British Space Opera and singularity science fiction was all there was actually to be found on the shelves.

I didn’t like any of those books. But I was an SF fan and a space opera fan and this was all the space opera there was, with very few exceptions (mostly published by Baen Books, which are notoriously difficult to find in Europe). So I kept trying the highly regarded New Space Opera of the early 2000s, until I found myself standing in the local Thalia store, the latest offering of New British Space Opera subgenre in hand (it was this one – I remember the cover very clearly), when I suddenly dropped the book to the floor and exclaimed, “Why do I keep buying this shit? I don’t even like these books.” So I turned my back on New British Space Opera and on science fiction altogether (I did put the book back on the shelf first) and read other genres for a few years, until I came back in a roundabout way via urban fantasy and science fiction romance and found a whole universe of SFF books that weren’t on the radar of the official genre critics at all.

Now, some ten to fifteen years later, there is a lot more space opera on the shelves than back in the early 2000s. It’s also a lot more diverse the than just pale Banks clones. Nor is it just written by white, overwhelmingly British dudes – indeed, some of the best space opera of today is written by women and writers of colour. And even some of those authors whose novels almost put me off science fiction altogether some ten years ago are writing much more enjoyable works these days. For example, I heartily disliked Absolution Gap, but enjoyed some of Alastair Reynolds’ more recent works like Slow Bullets and Revenger.

So we’re definitely in the middle of a space opera resurgence at the moment, which is great news, as far as I’m concerned. However, not everybody is happy about the direction the subgenre has taken. Some of them make their views heard in the comments. Yes, I know one should never read the comments, but bear with me here. First, you get a few of the usual “You missed my favourite book/author/series” comments, which are actually constructive, since they help those interested in the subgenre to find more books they’ll like (someone even gave a shout-out to good old Perry Rhodan).

There also are two what I’d call puppyish comments, though I have no idea if the commenters are in any way affiliated with the sad or rabid puppies. One commenter declares that “this type of space opera sounds more like wet dreams for SJWs”, but that the real fans (TM) want to read nutty nuggets and nothing but nutty nuggets before launching into a list of sufficiently nutty nuggety space opera.

Another commenter has this to say:

“Girl going into space, expering [sic] things and going trhrough personal growth” is a different genre. Not worse or better than space opera, but not SO. Charles Stross have (among his huge output) written some books that could be classified as SO (Saturns Children and Escaton series) but isn’t among the biggest SO writers.

Regarding the articles conclusion I beg to differ. Space Opera have given us a lot of alien invasions, memetic viruses, antimatter terrorism, fractional C strikes, genetic modifications going haywire, AI takeover, awakening of the Great Old Ones, enviromental disasters or the (repeated) end of humanity. The “girl going into space” genre could fit the bill for safety and happy ending- but it is not SO.

So in short, boys going into space, having advantures and experiencing personal growth is totally space opera, but girls doing the same thing is not, because they pollute the genre with their feelings and romance and happy endings and general girl cooties. I wonder what this commenter makes of the Honor Harrington and Kris Longknife series, both of which are very nutty nuggetty, but have female protagonists.

Paul Watson, the commenter who stated that he wants nutty nuggets rather than SJW wet dreams, helpfully included a link to a roundtable discussion with several authors regarding what makes a good space opera. He obviously wants us to click on it, so I did.

The authors Watson interviewed for his roundtable are Dave Bara, Michael Cobley, S.K. Dunstall, H. Paul Hosinger and Jack McDevitt, i.e. four men and two women, since S.K. Dunstall is the pen name of two sisters from Australia. It’s actually a pretty good discussion and a lot more nuanced than I would have expected from Watson’s comment on Charlie Jane Anders’ Wired article. Coincidentally, Watson also wrote a really nice overview about the US publication history of Perry Rhodan.

Nonetheless, the selection of authors interviewed suggests that Paul Watson’s preferences tend more towards the military end of the spectrum (though to be fair, I’ve only read Michael Copley and S.K. Dunstall of the authors in question). He’s far from the only one, cause if you take a look at Amazon’s subgenre bestseller list for space opera or for sub-subcategories like Galactic Empire or Space Fleet, you’ll find that the category is heavily dominated by indie military science fiction with a few big name trade releases such as John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire, the Expanse novels (since they’ve gotten a sales boost due to the TV series), media tie-ins and genre classics mixed in. It’s almost as if Baen’s slushpile came alive and took over Amazon’s space opera category.

Now space opera became an early casualty of the “write to market” strategy employed by many indie authors, because Chris Fox, the author credited with coining “write to market” (he outlines his strategy on his YouTube channel), chose space opera as his example for an underserved market (the relevant video is here) and thus opened the flood gates for indie space opera. The “write to market” philosophy is probably also the reason why a lot of the indie space opera dominating Amazon’s charts is so samey, a whole lot of spaceship in space covers, while the plots are a mix of Starship Troopers, the Lost Fleet series, Mass Effect and the new Battlestar Galactica with the occasional Honor Harrington or Kris Longknife clone thrown in for good measure. There are also a few urban fantasy/space opera hybrids featuring wizards and vampires in space, which at least try to do something original.

However, while a lot of Amazon’s indie space opera offerings aren’t to my taste (and note that there are indie space opera writers whose works I like, e.g. C. Gockel, Lindsay Buroker, Patty Jansen, Jennifer Foehner Wells, Krista D. Ball, K.S. Augustin, Sandy Williams, Jenna Bennett, Chris Reher, etc…), they clearly are to someone’s taste, because those books sell… a whole lot. There is a voracious readership for military flavoured space opera out there. And due to Amazon’s algorithms and because Amazon’s customer base is mostly concentrated in the rural, landlocked parts of the US, where that sort of thing is popular, Amazon’s space opera bestseller lists has been taken over by military science fiction. Which is great, if that’s what you like to read and/or write. However, space operas that don’t fit the fairly narrow scope of manly space marines doing manly things in space can easily become drowned out by the flood of military SF.

Now my personal tastes run in a very different direction. In spite of the broad canvas and larger than life plots, I prefer my space opera character-focussed. I like a bit of romance in my space opera and a focus on character relationships (both romantic as well as friendship and family relationships) in general. I really like characters struggling to overthrow an injust system or just trying to find a place where they can live without interference by the system. I actually like space politics – I’m probably the only person who enjoyed the Imperial senate scenes in the Star Wars prequels. I don’t mind military settings and themes, but I prefer my military science fiction more focussed on the characters and their individual conflicts than on space battles, weapons technology and vanquishing the enemy. And I really hate characters blindly following problematic or blatantly illegal orders. Alien races who are evil because they are evil and who want to conquer/subjugate/exterminate humanity because that’s what they do and who just happen to be insectoid or reptilian or Cthulhu with the serial numbers filed off (if people would at least make their evil alien race look like cuddly teddy bears for a change) bore me. Honestly, if I never see a plot along the lines of “humanity is locked in a deadly war of annihilation with an evil alien race and only Captain Manly McMannister and his ragtag crew can save the galaxy”, it will still be too soon.

My own two space operas, the Shattered Empire series and the In Love and War series, are both tailored to my personal preferences, high on all the elements I love about space opera and low on those I don’t like. I write a bit more about what I wanted to do with both series here and here. And yes, I initially began writing those stories, because I couldn’t find enough of the sort of space opera I liked to read out there.

And this is precisely why the current space opera boom is great for all of us who love the subgenre. Because today’s space opera is not just New British Space Opera or nutty nuggetty military SF or the Napoleonic Wars in space or the Roman Empire in space or science fiction romance or a picareqsue Bildungsroman in space or quenderqueer feminist space opera or magical mathematics in space – it’s all that and more. And that’s good for all of us.

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4 Responses to The Space Opera Resurgence

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  2. Patty says:

    Yet, when you look at trade-published space opera, I see variety, but when you look at self-published space opera, it’s almost exclusively a mil-SF sausage fest. It’s as if the diversification trend has done an abrupt u-turn in the self-publishing realm. Note that these self-published books now absolutely dominate the Amazon charts. With very few exceptions, they continue along a 1950’s line, where it is still OK to openly espouse that you need a male MC because otherwise people won’t buy, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    • Cora says:

      I agree that self-published space opera is a very much a military SF sausage fest and said so much in my post. I also suspect we’re thinking of the same KBoards thread about how only male protagonists sell in space opera and how even Honor Harrington is not proof to the contrary.

      I think this is another example of self-published works turning out to be a lot more conservative than trade-published works. And Amazon’s algorithms plus the fact that Amazon’s customer base is concentrated in parts of the US that have more conservative tastes do the rest to make the Amazon charts looks like Baen’s slushpile.

      The losers here are self-published authors of space opera that doesn’t fit the Starship Troopers/Lost Fleet/Battlestar Galactica with more white men template, though some are doing pretty well (Lindsay Buroker, C. Gockel, yourself). This is also partly why I do my best to highlight indie SFF that doesn’t fit the template here and over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase.

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