There’s More to Space Opera than Darth Vader and Klingons

What is space opera? Well I’m sure you’ve heard of Star Trek and Star Wars. More recently you might have seen Nightflyers or Jupiter Ascending. Think intergalactic adventure, conflict between good and evil, laser guns, and quirky aliens and you’re heading in the right direction. But there’s much more to the sub-genre than you might see on TV. Here are a few of my favourite space opera books that offer plenty of the above, but also provide intelligent and complex narratives the like of which you won’t read elsewhere.

The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks (1988)

Gurgeh, the best game-player in the galaxy, gets bored of his peaceful life in utopia and gets coerced into a secret plot to bring down the Empire of Azad. When the rule of Empire is based on a game, Gurgeh is the only person who can compete. The Azadians might be a cruel society, but utopians play the game of war by different rules.

Can war enable peace? Is a life without conflict and change worth living? And how would you cope if SIRI became a lot smarter and a lot more sarcastic? These are just some of the important questions that this book addresses in Banks’s exuberantly wild and witty style. Banks was widely known as a prominent Scottish author in many genres, especially for his controversial horror debut The Wasp Factory, but his science fiction is second to none to those in the know.

The Hyperion Cantos, Dan Simmons (1989; 1991)

A soldier, a priest, a government representative, a poet, a scholar and a detective walk into…no not a bar, but a series of tombs on an obscure, desolate planet that was probably created in the far future and might be moving backwards in time. These pilgrims tell each other the stories of why they’re visiting the tombs. It’s like The Canterbury Tales in space but a lot darker and with more time-travelling aliens covered in knives. Oh and the much-beloved poet John Keats has been resurrected at least twice into different cyborg bodies. And he can see the pilgrims in his dreams….

In anyone else’s hands this would all be a bit much but Simmons is such a good writer that you can’t help but be convinced. It’s not just about monsters and time-travel.  It’s actually incredibly moving at parts, especially when you hear the scholar’s tale of his daughter who is ageing in reverse as the result of visiting the tombs. Every day she gets younger, forgetting her most treasured memories, like a very literal kind of dementia. These two books of roughly 500-pages each are pretty dense and not for the faint-hearted, but they have all kinds of things to say about literature, life, technology, religion and instantaneous interstellar teleportation.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)

Ann Leckie’s debut novel scooped up all five of the major and three of the minor science fiction awards in 2013. That rarely – if ever – happens. Leckie tells the story of the Radch empire which doesn’t have a concept of gender and uses artificial intelligence to control human soldiers (ancillaries). The nature of the mysterious narrator will keep you guessing on many levels, and I don’t want to give too much away.

It’s worth reading just for Leckie’s evocation of a beautiful and barren ice-planet. It’s about memory, revenge and how our preconceptions of gender affect our lives and it’ll appeal to the crime fans out there because it begins with – a body!  

Binti, Nnedi Okarafor (2015)

Nnedi Okarafor is a Nigerian-American writer who manages to smash just about every cliche of science fiction going. Binti is the first woman from the Himba people (who are very similar to the real-world indigenous culture from Namibia and Angola of the same name) to be accepted into university. But her journey is not easy. As well as making the tough decision to run away from her home culture who do not support her decision, Binti runs into the Meduse: jellyfish-like extraterrestrials who practice genocide.

Okarafor’s 96-page novella contains more nuance in its depiction of both the Himba and the Meduse cultures than most textbooks. It’s ultimately about overcoming long-established cultural differences and conflicts rather than just fighting wars, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two novellas in the series.

Writing space opera is the ultimate test of an author’s imagination because the stage of the story is, by definition, no less than that of the universe itself, and in some cases beyond. It’s often therefore also the ultimate test of a reader’s stamina! But it doesn’t have to be told in huge shelf-busting volumes, and I’ve given some shorter examples above. I love reading these kinds of stories because of the sheer innovation that keeps them moving as well as the quality of writing needed to make them convincing, and I hope I’ve encouraged our readers to get stuck in, too.

By Joe Norman, Library Assistant at Manor Farm Library, Visiting Lecturer at Brunel University London, professional nerd and hairless headbanger.