Ah, the space opera! That “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn,” as science fiction author Wilson Tucker memorably put it when he coined the term in 1941. Science fiction writers (and readers) seem to never get enough of big spaceships, big galactic empires or giant worms. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” may seem like the most epic of these epics, but before him writers such as E.E. “Doc” Smith and Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton were dreaming up sweeping space adventures. Let’s talk about some of our favorites in this action-packed genre.
Silvia: Because of the success of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation, many people have been asking me for books that resemble the movie. Although the obvious recommendation is to plow through the many volumes of the Dune series itself, newbies are sometimes fearful of being thrown into the deep end of the pool (the six Dune books penned by Frank Herbert span some 900,000 words). Therefore, I’m not going big, but small, and recommending “Binti” (2015), a novella by Nnedi Okorafor. Like “Dune,” “Binti” has a young protagonist traveling from one distant corner of the galaxy to another, while undergoing a great personal transformation. It’s a coming-of-age tale rooted in African culture, which is continued in two other novellas.
For people looking for full-blown novels, there is Arkady Martine’s “A Memory Called Empire” (2019). A new ambassador arrives at the city of Teixcalaan, intent on investigating the sudden death of their predecessor. It’s heavy on intrigue, politics and court machinations and utilizes the tried-and-true science fiction trope of transplanted memories. An older title that falls into the brick-of-a-book category is “Hyperion” (1989) by Dan Simmons. It borrows the structure of “The Canterbury Tales” and blasts it into space in one massive undertaking.
Lavie: I recently came back from France, where I was really taken with the vibrancy of French space opera. There’s Pierre Bordage, whose “Warriors of Silence” trilogy dates back to the 1990s, and Jean-Claude Dunyach, whose “Dead Stars” (1991) is an important early title. Both are still popular. Joining them are a host of new writers, such as Floriane Soulas, whose “The Forgotten of the Amas” (2021) is a grandly ambitious novel set around a Jupiter that is presented in the true scale of a full space opera. I was also taken with Carina Rozenfeld’s “Terres” (2021), which is not a neat fit but fascinating for its exploration of an entire multiverse. English-language publishers, take note!
The big blockbuster of translated science fiction has to be Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” (2008). The trilogy is hugely ambitious and cosmic in scope. And while I’m talking about space opera in translation, brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky in Russia created one of the great settings of 20th century science fiction with their Noon universe, in a series of novels now gaining new appreciation and new translated editions. “Hard to Be a God” (1964) and “The Inhabited Island” (1969) were rereleased by Chicago Review Press a few years ago. I adore “Noon: 22nd Century” (1961), a mosaic novel which is first in the sequence, charting the expansion into space of a Soviet utopia. This is one sadly long out of print, though.
I have a strong suspicion that the Noon universe partly inspired Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” series. These sprawling novels of galactic milieus, giant orbitals and even larger A.I. ships and their various machinations offer one of the most compelling and sustained visions of a far-flung future.
Silvia: It’s worth noting the Strugatsky translations by Chicago Review Press seem to be the most accurate ones, as the previous editions were censored back in the day. I’ll end this column with the ever-popular X meets Y: In this case, “Dune” meets Hans Christian Andersen in “The Snow Queen” (1981) by Joan Vinge. It contains the prerequisite galactic empire replete with political machinations. There’s also a hero’s journey, an ageless monarch, a low-tech society versus a high-tech one, and of course a lot of talk of Winter with a capital W. So, what galactic empire floats your boat, dear readers?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books include “Mexican Gothic,” “Velvet Was the Night” and “The Return of the Sorceress.” Lavie Tidhar’s most recent novels are “The Escapement” and “The Hood.”
Science Fiction: Space Operas like Dune
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