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Favorite recent Space Opera novels

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In reply to an earlier post on Jul 21, 2010 7:40:40 PM PDT
I'm actually in the middle of The Phoenix Exultant at this very minute (just put it down to have a coffee and check my e-mail). After a slow start in the first volume, I found myself increasingly engaged, and by now I know I'm going to stay with the series to the end.

Wright's debt to Iain Banks is pretty obvious -- the Golden Oecumene is a lot like the Culture -- but he blazes his own path through the far future. This series is definitely *NOT* military SF (though key characters are soldiers -- Atkins, Bellipotent). Indeed, it barely qualifies as space opera (at least as far as I've read), since it mostly sticks to Earth and near-Earth space. But it's definitely grand-scale SF with big ideas and space travel!!

I don't think I've ever read SF by a lawyer before. Wright is such a writer, and I find his riffs on the intricacies of future law both fascinating and amusing.

I can imagine that some readers might find the story slow-moving (I sure have at certain points), and Wright's dense, allusive approach to prose narrative might also be off-putting. Ditto with his excessive reliance on 19th-century stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. (Not to mention his annoying use of "which" and his often clumsy syntax.) Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the ride, and I'd recommend this series to anybody who likes thought-provoking SF that tends toward the baroque.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2010 7:40:15 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
Raymond --

I just love your discussion of The Golden Age series. "Dense", "allusive", "baroque". Yep, these descriptions are right on target, and I wish I had thought of them. I did actually get the "Atkins" allusion--Kipling's poem about the British soldier, "Tommy Atkins". And a few others. And thought myself quite clever, momentarily. Very momentarily. Then it was work, work, work.

It is definitely SF, of course. It is not fantasy in that (as near as I can figure) the fantasies and dreamscapes are the result of being tied in to an overweening computerized network that allows the characters to create these realities from their minds. OK. That's SF.

Whether this appeals or not is more a matter of taste, rather than criticism. Got nothing against the thought-provoking. Not fond of the baroque, generally. I couldn't help thinking of my reaction to the uber-cyperpunk SF, "Necromancer". Hated, hated, hated it! And yet, it is considered a classic and widely admired. Seminal, even. Seminal of a nouvelle vague in SF that turned me off the genre for years.

But airing these disagreements is what forums like this are for. I so much appreciate hearing from people, like yourself, who do not limit their comments to "liked this" and "didn't like that", but take the trouble to explain 'why'. And these kinds of comments actually have the effect of making others of us (I believe) rethink our positions. Even to the point of trying again.

Posted on Jul 22, 2010 8:18:27 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 22, 2010 8:19:52 AM PDT
DB says:
I too, thought your description of The Golden Trilogy was very thoughtful and I agree with most of it. I would classify this series as Space Opera, at least as defined in Hartwell and Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance (which I also recommend): space opera means "colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, or on planets in faraway space. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues and very large-scale action, with large stakes."
The scale of Wright's extreme far-future scenarios, so distant in time, with his beautifully written descriptions and history of the Dark Oecumene, so far distant in space, and relating all this to the mores and standards of Classical human myth and culture, which I suppose he believes to be so fundamental that it will rise to the surface of any human civilization, given time. His baroque styling, I think, is meant to enforce the link he wants the reader to build with the great western cultures of times past and his ideation of the far future. But, I agree in many ways it makes for slow reading, and may put off readers looking for action-packed space opera.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2010 10:42:59 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
D. J. -- Thanks for your definition of space opera. It seems relatively comprehensive, though I might take issue with the insistence on large-scale action, with large stakes. Some very good space opera is painted with a smaller brush--and with smaller, meaning individual, stakes. Still it does cover the majority of what we would think of as space opera.

But I would cavil at classifying The Golden Age as space opera--it is not easily enough acccessible, and your description of the author's "baroque" goals of linking to icons and tropes of western culture and myth (shades of Joseph Campbell!) and its extrapolation into the distant future take it even further from the recognizable simplicities of classic space opera. And your idea that these will "rise to the surface of any human civilization" I find fundamentally unsound. It suggests the distant future will remain fixated on a few short millienia of Western culture (and nothing of the East), and fail to create its own mythos and values. What these might be ten or twenty thousand years from now might be interesting to explore--and great fun for an author to imagine.

However, This is not what Wright was doing in this particular world, as is his absolute right as a creative writer. And this is the world we are dealing with in his books, and not some might-have, could-have beens.

Do not assume that all readers who find Wright slow reading, and are put off by it, are only looking for action-packed space opera. That is a bit of a cop-out. Slow reading alone is not a put-off. Confusion is.

One might call Wright's descriptions as "beautifully written". Others might call them arcane and incomprehensible. I always suspect 'beautiful' writing (outside of poetry.) Too often it is overly precious and too cute for its own good. Clarity and lucidity are my touchstones of 'good' writing--along with generous dashing of wit--as opposed to 'beautiful'. Give me good, any day.

For instance, John Scalzi's Old Man's War series is an outstanding example of the type of style I most admire in SF writing (as well as all writing.) Listen to this: "The planet was so beautiful, they were going to call it Eden, until somebody recognized that the Karmic repercussions would be nothing but trouble." Love it! Scalzi is full of such felicities. This is my definition of beautiful as well as good writing.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2010 1:55:23 PM PDT
DB says:
Thanks so much for your response.
A couple of points, all in the spirit of lively discussion (no flame intended) - Did I hear you say that space opera, by definition, should be simple and easily accessible? To whom?
And I think you may have misinterpreted some of my comments. Or more likely, I just wasn't clear enough in my explanations.
I don't view the author's goals as baroque, only his style of writing, which is (I surmised, but perhaps incorrectly) meant connect the reader to the western mythic tropes which he is espousing and linking to a far future world. And whether those will rise to the surface of any human civilization - that thought certainly was unsound - but possible, no? The Golden Oeumene was an example of that possibility. But to say the western POV would appear no matter what,'re right to call me on that one. On the other hand, how different (in fundamental meaning, not form) are western and eastern, and other tropes, myths, beliefs, gods....Jungian archetypes? Are some stories, like a son losing control of his father's sun chariot and getting burned, not universal? There's Phaeton, and Jatayu from Hindu mythology, or Nanauatl (or Nanauatzin) from the Aztec pantheon, or the Chinese myth of the Time of the 10 Suns not all identical myths, but similar in many ways.
Anyway, just having some fun thinking about this...

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 22, 2010 4:33:31 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
D.J. -- Flaming? Certinaly not! Just disagreement and re-explanation. Listen, there is this other forum where I got so flamed you would not believe, merely by disagreeing with the value of a book another poster just loved to pieces. You would have thought I attacked her virtue, while killing her kittens. Boy, was she p*ssed with me, and would not let up. Snotty, snippy personal attacks--how stupid I was. Eveybody thinks my posts were boring. How pretentious I am, yadda, yadda. Well, pretentious I may well have to swallow (sometimes I try to be more clever than reasonable.) But boring? THAT hurt. She had the whole forum up in arms. Anyway, I finally set up an alternate forum and took half the posters with me. This was one c-r-a-z-y woman. Believe me, I know flaming!

"Simple and easily accessible"? To me, I guess. But it certainly is not an adequate expression of space opera. Let me rephrase--direct and logical? Good plotting? Ease of style? Maybe these fit better. The point being, is that I find The Golden Age to be very much more, and something a bit less, than classic soap opera. This is not a bad thing; merely a different thing. All this talk about it makes me want to dive down that rabbit hole again to see what I have missed, which is obviously quite a lot.

Unsound but possible, of course. True, many world myths have much in common. Your knowledge about this is greater than mine, so accept my deference here. Speaking of the Aztecs, there is an SF series by Thomas Harlan, Wilderness of Flint, House of Reeds, House of the Dead, that posit a future galactic society based on the domination of the Aztec Empire, with sidelines into Samauri customs and values--where Caucasians are definitely of lower status. Quite wonderful, all in all. Highly recommended. But this was bascially background color. The stories themselves were pure SF. Maybe pure space opera--with a bit more. One did not have to have a wide knowledge of Jungian archetypes to fully appreciate it. Though a basic knowldege of the Aztecs and their myths is a big help.

I guess I am leary of--Jungian archetypes. Not that they cannot be profitably employed in SF. I cannot think of any SF I have read with enjoyment in the last year that has done so. But maybe I am just missing it all.

Do you have any recommendation that do employ these archetypes in SF--besides The Golden Age. Do you know Gene Wolfe? He has the Landro series, based in an ancient Greece that takes mythical beings as actual reality. Very odd and strange books, more fantasy than SF, but very good, too. And not, by any means, easy reading. Gene Wolfe is a very problematic writer--brilliant but as baroque as Wright. Shadow of the Torturer kept me reading and reading, with hardly knowing where it was going and what it all meant. Hints here and there that it was depicting a fallen society where space flight had disappeared and only hinted at, as a kind of myth. I finally couldn't finish it, for the same reason I can't finish The Golden Age. Fine writing--going where?

Right now, I am nearly finished with a very fine piece of well-written space opera, of the best sort. C.J. Fieldman's This Alien Shore. Really most excellent. Recommended highly. Complicated--but accessible!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2010 9:17:16 AM PDT
H. rudd says:
LOVE all of C.S. Friedman's stuff....This Alien Shore was excellent. (off topic but just as good is her newer series although it is fantasy not sci-fi)
Also try S.L. Viehl-Stardoc series-very very good. The spin offs are great as well-Shockball, Bladedancer, and Afterburn. Try the main series first though.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2010 12:51:52 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
H. Rudd -- This Alien Shore was the first Friedman I read and I enjoyed it so much, I went in and ordered the rest of her SF that I could find. Not her fantasy, though. Not fond of fantasy at all.

Thanks for the tip on S.L. Viehl. I just ordered the first two of the Stardoc series. Good thing there a more, but I want to try them before jumping in with them all.

Posted on Jul 23, 2010 2:23:00 PM PDT
Gene Wolfe is one of my all-time favorite SF writers, and I consider Shadow of the Torturer and its sequels to be brilliant work. I think the series (officially dubbed The Book of the New Sun) rewards reading to the finish, and frankly I am inspired to read it through again in the post-911 universe, where the word "torture" has acquired new resonance. The story does indeed take place in the far future, in an environment rather like The Dying Earth of Jack Vance (another all-time favorite, and an obvious forerunner to Gene Wolfe).

After he finished the 4 books of the Torturer series -- which are not what I'd call space opera -- Wolfe tacked on a finale, Urth of the New Sun, which if I remember correctly takes place entirely on a starship. Wolfe's future Earth definitely has space travel -- in fact, the towers of his future metropolis are disused rockets -- and the aliens that visit Earth are known as "cacogens" ["born ugly" or "born of evil/ugliness" -- not to be confused with the "cacophiles" of the Golden Oecumene].

I haven't yet dived into his more recent series, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun, both of which seem to have more of a space opera flavor, at least insofar as they deal with space travel and alien planets. Has anybody else tried those?

I once wrote something nice about Gene Wolfe in an in-print forum (back before we had this InterWeb thing) and he not only thanked me personally but added me to his Christmas card list. That is what I call a gentleman and a scholar.

On flames and extinguishers -- in my experience this list is extremely friendly & gracious, and I'm grateful that the level of discourse remains so civil and focused on topic. Thank you all who have read this far for participating! We all have different tastes, and it's good to share them. For example, I think it was this list that turned me on to Wright. Now, evidently, I must try this C.S. Friedman!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2010 3:50:32 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
Raymond -- Yes, this is a quite civil forum. I, for one, feel free to disagree with others' points-of-view, without anybody having a hissy fit. The point is to address the books themselves, and not the person. This is pretty easy if you think about it.

Gene Wolfe is a highly admired writer among a large and fanatical base of readers. I find him very difficult. Mostly because, to my mind, he fails to give the reader any place to stand. Things happen. Then more things happen. Then characters are introduced that come and go without any apparent motivation. It takes a great deal of trust that this will, ultimately, lead somewhere. I have only read the first book, without any urge to go on. I did enjoy Landro, though. Wolfe does write very well indeed. This can carry you along for some time. But, boy, is he tiring. I may very well be exposing myself as shallow here. But I can't pretend otherwise. I may well be more interested in his Books of the suns. Oh, and your story of Wolfe's response to you is charming!

You will find Friedman much different from both Wolfe and Wright. But very good. At least the first book I read, This Alien Shore. It grabs you and takes you for a fascinating ride.

The Dying Earth sounds interesting. Jack Vance is a very fine SF writer, as I remember, and worth revisiting.

Posted on Jul 26, 2010 6:17:33 PM PDT
if your into really accurate science id suggest "The Looking Glass" series or "Von Neumans war. Both by John Ringo and Travis S Taylor. Von Neumans War explains almost everything you could possibly want to know about Modern Rockets (it also has explosive paintball guns so its gotta be good). The Looking Glass Series isnt really a space opera but it does explain alot of science, such as Quarks amond other things. Its also a very good series. the second book "Vorpal Blade" is the best book ive read so far. hope this helped.

Posted on Jul 26, 2010 7:08:14 PM PDT
I have just finished "Dread Empires Fall - The Praxis" by Walter Jon Williams, having seen a recommendation in this forum. For the first half nothing happens, it's just scene setting. But then the action begins and it's great -- space ship battles on the small and large scale, plus interesting characters. The book ends on a sort of cliff hanger, obviously one must read the next two in the series to find out what happens.

But I was struck by the book's parallels with the Lt. Leary novels by David Drake. In both cases you find a young (space) navy lieutenant at the start of his career. In both cases this character finds himself, by dint of great cleverness, in his first command in extraordinary circumstances. And in both books a young woman of exceptional talents makes her way into the story and a sort of relationship with the navy guy. The Leary novels start with "With The Lightnings".

Net net, if you like one series, you will like the other.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 28, 2010 2:04:09 PM PDT
Spork says:
+1 for OLD MAN's WAR, good novel.

The Ian M Banks Culture books are terrific. I particularly like USE OF WEAPONS and EXCISION.

Posted on Jul 30, 2010 2:12:53 PM PDT
N. Lyons says:
I was going to suggest "Stand on Zanzibar" by John Brunner but I'm not sure it qualifies as 'Space Opera' (a poorly defined term in my mind). What are the characteristics of Space Opera? Page length, galaxy spanning, big story? If it's a big story creating a rich mosaic of an extrapolated future life Zanzibar might qualify, but if it has to occur on many worlds it wouldn't. It won the Hugo Award in 1969.

Posted on Jul 30, 2010 2:14:57 PM PDT
Chad W says:
I always think of Baldwin's The Helmsman series when I think of space opera

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 6, 2010 8:53:32 PM PDT
LA Reader says:
Check out Neal Asher. Great books set in the far, far future in galaxy spanning civilization governed by AIs. Lots of action.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 6, 2010 8:54:53 PM PDT
LA Reader says:
Iain Banks deserves more recognition. Excellent far future books.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 9:01:03 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
LA Reader -- Thanks for the tip. I just ordered, two, the first Cormac, and Parador Moon. Look good.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 9:10:11 AM PDT
M. A. George says:
LA Reader -- I check Iain Banks out, but there are so many. Can you recommend a favorite of yours for me to start with?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 10:54:40 AM PDT
DB says:
I've read most of Ashers work and enjoy it quite a bit. a good place to start is The Skinner. Not a Cormac novel, but same universe. I think it's his best, and a great intro his cast of characters.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 12:54:02 PM PDT
I seem to have read all of Iain Banks's SF so far (he also writes non-SF, which sometimes gets shelved with the SF - I haven't tried that). For starters I recommend The Player of Games -- there's a clear-cut story line to carry you through the complexities of his future universe. It's about a galaxy-renowned gamer who goes on an undercover mission to initiate contact with a corrupt civilization in one of the Magellanic Clouds. As often occurs in Banks's stories, the protagonist has a droid sidekick (droids/robots are called drones in this lexicon, I believe). Other likely starters would be The Algebraist (a human researcher studies a civilization floating in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet as galactic war looms) and Look To Windward (can't remember the story, but there's lots of mystery & intrigue & danger & death & reversals of fortune). Those would be among the most space-opera-ish of his works. I loved all three.

Posted on Aug 7, 2010 1:03:05 PM PDT
Oh, and I just finished reading John C. Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy. I enjoyed it a lot -- big ideas, surprises, intellectual challenges. In the end the series seems more philosophical than legalistic, though there's also a lot about the intricacies of future law (in kind of the same way that legal intricacies figure in various novels by Charles Dickens). I don't think I would recommend Wright as wholeheartedly as Iain Banks, though. As others have pointed out, there's a certain preciousness in the writing as well as in the characters, and following the story may require a background in Greek mythology. This series definitely isn't about "fast-paced action on many worlds," which might be a thumbnail definition of the brand of space opera that is often discussed in this thread. But it entertained me and truly stimulated my imagination, and that's what I look for in SF.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 3:30:28 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
Raymond -- THanks. I have already ordered The Algebraist. If I like it I will go forward with your other recommendations.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 3:32:37 PM PDT
M. A. George says:
Raymond -- I have all The Golden Age books, but as I commented earlier in the forum, am finding it very hard going. Halfway through the first book, but needed to take a breather. Will certainly try them again. One needs to be in good shape pyshicaly as well as intellectually to appreciate these books.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 9, 2010 10:19:54 AM PDT
Delany's Nova is absolutely fantastic novel. For those who haven't read it, the focus is very near-to-hand compared to other space opera.
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