FIVE CLASSIC SPACE OPERAS THAT STILL HOLD UP TODAY
by Gareth L. Powell
‘Space opera’ has been around since the heyday of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Initially the term was one of derision, likening the genre to tacky ‘horse opera’ westerns. However, just as the hippies and punks of the 1960s and 1970s took their derogatory labels and wore them with pride, so the term ‘space opera’ came to be used for action-packed stories featuring big spaceships and weighty themes.
Looking back now, not all of those stories have aged well. Some are frankly unreadable, either due to their dreadful prose, cardboard characters, or woeful science. But if you look hard enough, there are still plenty of gems to be found.
Below, I have picked ten classic* space operas that still have much to offer the modern reader.
*For the purposes of this list, I have defined the term ‘classic’ as including books written or published before the turn of the Millennium.
1. Nova by Samuel Delany. Without doubt, one of my favorite books, Nova is set a thousand years into the future, and tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. Filled with literary fireworks, the book relates Von Ray’s quest to tarot lore and the Arthurian Grail legends, while simultaneously using the literary ambitions of one of its characters to provide a meta-commentary on the process of novel writing itself.
2. The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison. Harrison takes the tropes of pulp space opera—starports, lone traders, and naval engagements—and gives them a cyberpunk makeover. Crews have to jack directly into their ships via sockets on their wrists. The main character deals amphetamines and is discharged from the army because he wets himself every time a gun goes off. Whether or not it was written as a criticism of the genre, it paved the way for the grittier ‘New Space Opera’ of the 1990s.
3. The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. When I sat down to write Embers of War, I re-read this book to help get me in the mood to write about a sentient starship. I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, and I was relieved to find it just about held up. Taken at face value, it’s a fun, if episodic adventure. Unfortunately, modern readers might baulk at the idea of data held on magnetic tape, and the titular ship’s constant yearning for a man to make her life complete.
4. The Game Of Rat And Dragon by Cordwainer Smith. This is only a short story, but I decided to include it because a) it’s quite extraordinary, and b) this is my list and I can do what I want. In the far future, human starship are routinely attacked during faster-than-light travel by invisible aliens that drive their crews insane. The only way to protect against these attacks is to use cats paired with human telepaths. The cats perceive the aliens as rats and destroy them with miniature nuclear weapons. If you haven’t read it, you really should. And while you’re at it check out Smith’s other stories, such as ‘Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons’, and ‘Golden the Ship Was-Oh! Oh! Oh!’
5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Based at least in part on the author’s experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, this tale of interstellar conflict follows the fortunes of William Mandella, a physics student conscripted into the war against the mysterious Taurans. Due to the time dilation caused by interstellar travel, he finds each tour of duty—while only lasting a couple of subjective years for him—throws him further and further into the future, with the result that every time he returns to Earth, he finds it changed almost beyond all recognition.
• Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
• Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
• A Fire On The Deep by Vernor Vinge
• Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
• Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
• The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
• Dune by Frank Herbert
• Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell is published by Titan Books. You can find Gareth on Twitter @garethlpowell