Space opera

Of Fun in Your Fiction

Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds

Tuesday’s post got me thinking about the kind of stuff I most enjoy reading.  A correct answer to the question “what is your favorite kind of book?” is a complex beast and probably depends on a myriad of factors – everything from my mood to the kind of novel I’m working at at the moment of answering the question.

Probably the kind of writing I enjoy most is the quintessentially British humor of authors like Wodehouse, Pratchett or Douglas Adams.  But I’ve read almost everything they’ve written, so that initial flash of wonder at their brilliance is no longer available.

On the other hand, I often enjoy a good dose of the classics, especially some of the 20th century greats (I especially recommend The Great Gatsby and The Remains of the Day).

Other days, I love nonfiction in various forms.

But if I had to be specific about one particular type of genre, I’d say I enjoy space opera and medieval-style fantasy.

Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The fantasy is easy to explain.  Lord of the Rings is the benchmark there, and many of the doorstop series that began in the 1970s through 1990s followed the template.  They eschewed social questions to focus on the eternal battle between good and evil… and are all the better for it (Terry Brooks is probably the prototypical exponent of this, but Feist, Jordan and Eddings–before he became impossibly annoying–were good, too).  Escapist stuff, with little in the way of moral grey areas and absolutely no message fiction.  It’s lovely to read stuff in which politics are absent–I can always look at my Facebook feed if I happen to miss that (hint: not likely!).

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First_edition

Space Opera falls into a similar space, at least at novel and series length.  By its very nature, the subgenre deals with worlds so transformed by technology that current modes of thought and moral discussions are irrelevant.  This has the effect of making even the political considerations–and, as seen in the Dune series, politics can be used effectively–interesting, as opposed to yawn-inducing.

And it’s only in space opera that writer’s imaginations are fully unleashed.  The technology is so far from today’s stuff that it bends society and even what it means to be human beyond recognition.  If fantasy is escapist, then this takes escape to the next level.

Unfortunately, both genres (like everything else) are subject to the whims of fashion… and fashion is currently dictating two things:

  1. Medieval fantasy is wrong because the social and political structures necessary to make it believable (feudal class structure and a society where men do most of the fighting) are very much not in vogue today.
  2. It is compulsory for science fiction to focus on the next fifty to one hundred years.  And they must be shown as grim because capitalism will destroy us, and global warming will destroy us.

My only problem with the above is that those trends forget that SF became popular because, on one side, it was fun, and on the other, it presented ideas that caused people to say “wow”.

Fortunately, some writers have ignored the dictates above and are still writing about a post-Earth human future.  The old sense of wonder, more mature, more jaded and much more knowing, is still alive in these works.

I really don’t think yet another post-apocalyptic society based on egalitarian political thinking is going to create much of a sense of anything.  Ennui, maybe.  Extreme boredom, perhaps.

But nothing else.

As a genre, we really need to bring the fun back.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose best space opera is probably Siege.  You can check it out here.

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A Lesson on Leaving Well Enough Alone

Ghost Legion by Margaret Weis

Star of the Guardians is a space opera series by Margaret Weis, released in the early 1990s.  I read the original trilogy of books as a teenager basically upon their release.  I was also aware that there was a fourth book in the series (apparently, there are now three spinoff books, too), but was never able to find it here in Argentina and by the time I discovered Amazon, the book was out of print and I couldn’t get them to ship used books here.  By the time global internet commerce became a thing, and I could find the book easily, I had pretty much forgotten I wanted it.

That was the state of play until, browsing the SF section of one of my favorite used book stores (BABS Casi Nuevo in Buenos Aires), I stumbled upon it and bought it.  The book was tossed into my TBR pile, and there it lay until I got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago.

I remember enjoying the first three volumes in this series, and, to be honest, the storyline was pretty much closed right where those ended – the lost heir’s quest had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the bad guys had been dealt with.  However, there was one major loose end that Weis felt she needed to address, and wrote this book.

So fast forward to 2018, and a lot of things have happened.  I’m no longer an impressionable teenager, so some of the actions, and the way the plot weaves science fiction and religious fantasy together jars me more than it did then.  Also, there’s a whole lot of head-hopping, which, though I don’t really hate it, is strange twenty-odd years later.

In addition to that, space opera has really evolved since then.  Alastair Reynolds and a few others have moved the goalposts so far down the field that they couldn’t even be seen in the late eighties when these books were being conceived.  This is not Weis’ fault.

But some things are.  The beginning of this fourth volume drags on and on.  The book hits its stride in the last 150 pages, which means that any reader less dogged (and emotionally invested) than myself would have abandoned long before hitting pay dirt.  Worse, the excess length is mainly used to beat us over the head with character motivation–of course that needs to be in there, but some of it is quite repetitive, which seems counterproductive.

The reason for this appears to be that Weis needs to place the characters she’d developed over a well-paced trilogy in a new mental space, and that forces her to break them out of molds.  Unfortunately, all the development she did in three books didn’t lend itself to easy undoing in a single volume… and it got a bit dense.

Luckily, Weis’ penchant for writing action in which characters we care about do amazing things is unaffected and once the pieces are in place for the final act, the book flows briskly to a satisfying conclusion.  It leaves a good aftertaste and rewards the effort to get there.

So it’s not a bad book but, looking back, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d known exactly how it was going to go down.  Too much work and there are other good books out there.  Likewise, Weis probably would have been better served (artistically, although perhaps not financially – I don’t know details about that one way or the other) to leave the series where it stood and move on to other projects.  It was in a good place at the end of the original three books.

I don’t know Weis personally, so I can’t ask her about it, but I suspect she might want to take this one back.  I know that if the choice were mine, I’d let the original trilogy stand for itself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose own galaxy-spanning space opera is entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Unfortunately Annoying

I’ve gone on record saying that some SF books are less compelling than others.  I’ve been especially critical of the first part of Pandora’s Star, for example.  But that one eventually got under way and became compelling.

Today’s subject didn’t.

A Fire Upon teh Deep - Vernor Vinge

I don’t ever recall having read a science fiction novel that was full of amazing ideas that I had as much difficulty getting into as Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

And when I say ‘full of amazing ideas’, I don’t mean that he just looks at gender roles within established genre tropes or something equally banal and yawn-inducing.  I mean that Vinge comes up with concepts that are truly underexplored in SF.  Things like multiple-organism-minds or variable speed of light and its effects on technology.  There is truly groundbreaking thought behind this book and it deserved to be better.

But it was let down by the characters, especially the milti-organism mind creatures which, for some reason, I found to be more annoying than anything I can remember reading in the genre.  It wasn’t that the writing was bad–it isn’t–but I just found the alines themselves unbearable… and that made the whole book really tough to digest, as half of the action took place in that setting.

I went through it anyway and came away with a sense that it could have been a true great (many already consider it to be one, you should read other reviews by folks who didn’t have such a strong visceral reaction to a major group of characters), with a good quantity of space action, an implacable and incomprehensible (albeit mostly off-stage) enemy and enormous stakes.

The ending did feel a little facile, and some of his speculation bordered on fantasy, but those were minor quibbles.

Anyhow, I may need more time to sort out how I feel about this one.  As a writer, it’s obvious to me that this book is a major achievement… but purely as a reader, it was a hard grind that I really can’t recommend to others.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose own far-reaching space opera, Siege… is much less well known than A Fire Upon the Deep.  But people seem to like it, so there’s that.  You can check it out here.

An Interesting Juvenile

We spoke about interesting finds in Buenos Aires used book stores yesterday, and here’s another one.  Secrets of Stardeep is one I’d probably never have purchased if it hadn’t been in one of the used book shops.  But it was, so I picked it up.

Secrets of Stardeep - John Jakes

Now, I’d never heard of John Jakes which, apparently is wrong, as the guy is a #1 New York Times bestseller.  In my defense I plead the “his bestsellers happened in genres I don’t read that much” gambit (and will ignore his Planet of the Apes novelization)

But I only learned that later and I went into this one blind.  From the cover, I never would have guessed that it was a juvenile, and it clearly wasn’t marketed to the juvenile market–and the YA market had not yet been invented.  I thought it was a typical sixties / seventies space opera.  But it turns out that the protagonist is of about high-school age, and is preparing his examinations when he learns decides that a detour might help him clear his father’s name…

Of course, this leads to adventures galore on a faraway world which puts not only his continued academic career but his very life at risk.

That’s standard fare, and the characters, though more sophisticated are reminiscent of an Asimov juvenile novel.  What isn’t expected is the double twist at the end… which would have worked beautifully in an adult book, too.

I won’t say I loved this one, but I do respect what the author managed within the limitations of trying to appeal to younger readers.  It’s a solid effort which aspiring SF novelists might want to track down to see how it’s done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He also has a space opera novel you can read.  It’s called Siege, and you can check it out here.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

Beyond Revelation Space

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days By Alastair reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably the most important writer to enter the SFF genre in the past 20 years or so, certainly the most important to be writing pure SF.  His Revelation Space series reminded everyone of why we like reading SF in the first place.  While others are beating us over the head with their politics, abuse of the English language and fears of the coming eco-apocalypse–and winning awards for that drivel–Reynolds built up a far-flung, plausible future extrapolated from the humanity and technology of today and told an entertaining story therein.

So yeah, Revelation Space earned its solid sales, and the writer’s multi-million pound advance was equally well deserved.

But what happens when you move beyond that?  Let’s have a look, using two of Reynolds’ lesser-known books to illustrate the point (as you’re probably aware, we really like doing these exercises).

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days is not a novel.  It’s a collection of two novellas stuck together in one volume, and must be analyzed as such.

It starts off beautifully.  “Diamond Dogs” is pure Reynolds: two humans grappling with an almost unimaginable tech challenge.  On the grand scheme of things, the story might seem like a low-stakes problem, but one increasingly gets the feeling that something important is going on there.  Exciting and interesting.

“Turquoise Days”, on the other hand, is not quite as good.  I think this one tried too hard to pander to what passes for “respectable” SF these days and, for that reason, doesn’t quite reach Reynolds’ usual standards of excellence.  It’s not bad, it just sinks into the quagmire of he current sameness and utter lack of a sense of wonder overrunning the genre.  It also has Solaris envy.

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain is a very different kettle of fish.  It’s a hugely imaginative, high-concept parallel world / alternate history detective story.  It is conceptually brilliant and a daring change of pace from a man whose strengths lie elsewhere.  The story is somewhat clunky in places but, just like Revelation Space itself, it all comes together seamlessly–and satisfyingly–in the end.

So, what to do?  Well, if you’ve never read any of his work, you absolutely have to start with Revelation Space.  If you haven’t however, I would say that “Diamond Dogs” is a good introduction, but an even better one would be any of his short works.  “Zima Blue” is, in my opinion, the best SF short I’ve read published after the year 1990 by a long margin, and most of the rest of his stories are amazing as well, if, usually much darker than “Zima Blue”.

If you get the impression that the batch above is something of a mixed bag, you’d be right.  Other than “Diamond Dogs”, these two books are best left to the fans.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose novel Siege, though nowhere near as well known, explores many of the same issues as Revelation Space.