Space opera

Judas Unchained and the Conclusion of the Commonwealth Saga

I’ve said it before, so I won’t belabor the point, but I wish Peter F. Hamilton edited about 25% out of his books. They are too long and the narrative structure, which jumps around from one focus of the action to another very often, doesn’t help. If he was a talentless hack just filling in pages, or if his stories were bad, that wouldn’t be so frustrating.

But he isn’t. His Commonwealth saga is a truly interesting story with well-developed characters that takes place within a wonderful setting. I’m a sucker for mid- to far-future stories with human colonization of the galaxy, and this one definitely qualifies.

The story itself is about an interstellar war in which there is one clear antagonist and a bunch of nonhuman races (both human-generated and fully alien) whose loyalties aren’t quite clear at the outset. Intertwined with the galaxy-spanning conflict, we also get a police investigation novel intertwined… and in the end, the cops become almost more important than the people driving the starships against the enemy alien.

In fact, my one criticism of the saga is that it becomes clear rather early in the book that the war will go humanity’s way, and the final enemy standing is more of a question of justice than of survival. When a book is a thousand pages long, knowing that the good guys are too powerful to lose anything but their morality by page 500 is a little too much.

But even with that criticism (which in any other book would have been the death knell), the novel is worth finishing. You want to know how the character arcs play out despite the plot losing a certain amount of attraction, and you want to spend more time in that coalition of planets linked together by wormholes through which trains tie the planets together (yes, an interplanetary civilization based on trains. How cool is that).

If you’re patient, this is well worth reading. If not, you may be better off reading The Lost Fleet, which has a lot of the elements that make the Commonwealth fun but with a laser focus on action and character.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has explored the question of humanity making a last stand against the forces of an uncaring galaxy in Seige, a well-received novel that looks not only at the limits of humanity’s physical powers, but also at the definition of humanity itself. You can check it out here.

The Prefect and Reynolds’ Depth of Character

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite writers working in science fiction today. A little of this has to do with the fact that he writes deep-space tech/idea/adventure-based books that have zero message about utterly trite current politics (see here for more on that). I can read a thick Reynolds book–despite the fact that these are dense, idea and tech-heavy works–in a few days, while most other SF books (and seemingly everything on the last few Hugo ballots) leave me scratching my head and asking myself what kind of reader would enjoy this.

To me, the genre in recent years seems more about showing off political credentials and virtue signaling than any attempt to engage the reader or entertain (which seems weird for a genre like science fiction). Of course, I assume that there are people out there with very different taste from mine, and I further assume that they have to be selling this stuff to someone, or they’ll soon go out of business.

Fortunately Reynolds hasn’t fallen victim to the trend, which is probably why he sells so many books.

The Prefect is a typical Reynolds offering, which is a good thing. This one follows the adventures of two members of the Glitter Band’s police and compliance arm, called Prefects. One is an experienced member of the corps, while the other is a rookie attempting to live down her father’s disgrace.

By focusing so closely on two specific characters in such a large book, Reynolds moves away from the more sprawling style of Revelation Space. Those who criticized his early work as not sufficiently character-based will like this direction while those who enjoyed the mighty Revelation Space books won’t be too annoyed, as it still works.

As always with Reynolds there is a dark edge underlying the marvels he describes, and while most of society is living the dream, we never really get to see it because his characters run head first into that darkness. In that sense it has seriously developed noir sensibilities. Only a tiny fraction of LA in the 1940s was committing murders and blackmail… but that’s the only side you see in noir. Likewise, Reynolds’ universe is one of endless wonders… but you only get to look at the seedy underbelly and the gritty working-class tech people that make it function.

It definitely works. Reynolds’ fiction is worth reading every single time… even if you need to read something light (Wodehouse is ideal) afterwards.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who often works with space opera. The well-received Siege is an example on a massive scale, with a galactic war between the tribes of humanity as the backdrop. He follows a doomed group of baseline humans as they prepare for their last stand. You can check it out here.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

Space Opera at Its Best

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

It’s no secret that we at Classically Educated really, really like the work of Alastair Reynolds.  I firmly believe that he is the best writer currently working in the SF field by several lengths.  I know his case is helped by the fact that science fiction is currently not going through a golden age–quite the contrary, in fact–but Reynolds is a man who would have been heralded as a great in any era.

His stories take place in the deep future and, though they extrapolate from the present, they don’t pretend that the things that society is deeply concerned about today will matter in a thousand years–or even a hundred.  Thus freed from the fetters of writing boring politically-concerned drivel, Reynolds sets out to explore the galaxy.

And man, does he ever explore.  No distance is too far, and no element of particle physics too obscure for his pen.  His work is made even more interesting by the fact that, with his background as a scientist, he doesn’t take shortcuts: the science in a Reynolds book is limited by what we believe to be the true state of the universe.  No faster-than-light shortcuts to make the plot easier to weave together.  No quantum teleportation on a macroscopic scale.

Pushing Ice is vintage Reynolds.  Humanity is just beginning to push hard into space, with a foothold on the inner planets and profit-driven operations working further out to harvest water ice.  When a moon of Saturn begins to act extremely strangely, the nearest mining ship is sent out to investigate.

The people on board the ship are caught up in events and technology on a galactic scale that they can’t even begin to understand, but must somehow face up to if they want to survive.

As always, Reynolds is unflinching: he gives us a book where believable things happen to the characters, and miracles simply don’t exist which, strangely, ends up making this one an uplifting work.

It’s definitely a solid effort, hard to put down and well paced.  The one thing I didn’t like is that the two main characters often act like spoiled children, and the dynamic between them felt a little forced.

But that’s of little importance when you consider how well this particular drama plays out against the biggest canvas possible.  Another Reynolds winner.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own sweeping space opera is entitled Siege. You can have a look at it here.

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.

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.