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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Space Opera Week - My Space Opera Favourites!

Last week I was talking about regular opera - you know, the kind in which boy meets girl, falls in love and they both end up dead at the end(or, as in Madama Butterfly, she ends up dead and it's a kind of revenge on her faithless husband, who went and married someone else behind her back and whom she has specified must come himself to pick up their little boy - and hopefully trip over her pathetic dead body. That'll learn him!). And while they're dying, they sing.

This morning I got my weekly email from and blow me if it isn't Space Opera Week! 

There are various kinds, of course. Soap opera is called that because they used to advertise soap and other such stuff during the ads. Come to think of it, soap opera is probably the closest to original opera in its storylines except nobody sings. (Though I, personally, am beginning to think the Song Of Ice And Fire series is pretty much mediaeval soap opera!). Horse opera is another name for Westerns. And so on.

Space opera is the kind of story in which there are spaceships that can actually get from one corner of the galaxy to another using faster than light drives. You have to have those or there's no space opera. The authors do try to come up with explanations...sometimes, anyway. Wormholes, for example. Frank Herbert has mystical stuff, people who take this thing called Spice to navigate through space, and no, you can't use it in cooking!  Lois McMaster Bujold has wormholes, but the pilots have to get implants to do the wormhole jumps, which can be a problem if they stop making the kind of ship for which you have an implant - suddenly you're out of work! This happens to a character calmed Arde Mayhew, whom her hero Miles Vorkosigan rescues from redundancy. 

Space opera has a very long history, as you'll know if you've ever seen the covers of the 1930s pulp magazines. In fact, Fredric Brown was sending those up in his novel What Mad Universe, in which a science fiction editor finds himself in the universe of one of those pulp covers, complete with girls in see-through clothes.  

It must be a popular genre even now, as people are still writing it and viewing it. Below, I'll list some  that I've read and loved over the years, in no special order, and then a few films and TV shows. I have not read anywhere near all of them, including many major classics - so many books, so little time! But you are welcome to mention any of your faves I might have left out in the comments section below. 

Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Legacy series. Heris Serrano is an admiral of the space fleet. There are plenty of good strong female characters in this series and some minor characters in one book get a lead role in another. I could never get into Honor Harrington, I'm afraid, though a friend who was a huge fan sent me the first book in that series. I did like Heris Serrano. I unearthed this series when I ran out of Miles Vorkosigan books because Lois McMaster Bujold was writing fantasy! I mean, really, fantasy! When you've been writing the best damned space opera series around, it's a shock to fans like me to be confronted with a series of fantasy novels instead. I tried, really I did. I just couldn't read past the first one. It was adequate, but not my cup of tea. Fortunately, she went back to the Vorkosiverse. And Elizabeth Moon did another space opera series, Vatta's War, to keep me going till my dearest Miles Vorkosigan returned.

Gordon R Dickson's Childe Cycle, aka the Dorsai series When I was new to fandom, this was the space opera everybody was following. They were meant to be four historical novels, four present day and four space operas, but in the end, the space opera dominated and there were certainly more than four of them, plus short stories. I think I started with Soldier, Ask Not. I loved the Dorsai mercenaries, especially Ian and Kensie, the Dorsai brothers. Ian was the dark and brooding one, Kensie was all sunshine and sweetness, but died early on and Ian never got over it, and didn't the female readers like me long to comfort him!  The planet was poor, so all they had to make a living from were their young people's bodies, in combat. The premise was that the human race has more or less split into specialties. There are Mystics, psychologists, soldiers, spread across a number of colonies.  

Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn novels. Dominic Flandry is a dashing secret agent who has many adventures in space and is a bit of a dandy. Nicholas Van Rijn is a space trader, a lot smarter than he pretends to be, and his stories are hilarious. They are both set in the same universe, which has a timeline going over centuries. 

Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson also wrote a series together, about the Hokas, a race of live teddy bears who are intelligent and imitative. When they like a story - usually Earth-inspired - they play it out with total seriousness. In one short story a group of them are taken to the opera and decide to play out the story of Don Giovanni, with their hapless human helper as the Don! They never really believe it deep down, they just enjoy living it. 

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels. Need I say more? I admit I'm about three books behind, because I keep going back and rereading the old ones and besides, I am going slow on Cryoburn because I know that Aral Vorkosigan dies in that. It's such a wonderful universe. The characters are delightful and the universe is fascinating. Wormholes, battles, politics - some of the battles happen because of the politics and the politics are centred around control of the wormholes, without which you can't travel faster than light. Which has contributed to the culture of Miles' planet, Barrayar, which was stuck behind a blocked wormhole for a very long time and then, when one was opened and they were invaded, they first kicked out the invaders, then came out fighting. It's an old-fashioned feudal society and though they have a spacefleet, riding boots are still part of the military dress uniform and women have fewer rights than men.

Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang. The heroine Helva is a girl born crippled in a time when children who can't live a normal life have the option of being trained and, when ready, sealed into a spaceship and running it as a computer. The ship gets to choose her pilot, known as the "brawn" (the ship is the "brain"). Helva becomes a ship and has many adventures with her "brawn", with whom she sings duets. No further spoilers, just read it! 

There are so many more, but I'll go on to visual space opera for now. 

My all time favourite space-themed TV series was Star Trek - the original, not the spinoffs! The spinoffs were generally good, sometimes very good indeed, but I never saw the entire series of any of them, nor wanted to collect them(except Enterprise, which I got on discount and still haven't watched through). I've been enjoying the new films, whose actors, I believe, are really settling into their roles and Karl Urban especially sounds like DeForrest Kelley as Dr McCoy; when you shut your eyes you can almost see the original McCoy!  It's a world in which peace has broken out except maybe with the Klingons, with whom there was an enforced peace after the episode "Errand of Mercy" and they just got on with exploring. There were not too many encounters with the Romulans in the original series. Even the third season, the weakest, had some fine episodes. I bought the entire boxed set of seasons 1 to 3. 

Babylon Five was wonderful too. It was set several centuries in the future, during the "Third Age Of Man" as the credits declared solemnly each episode. It was on a space station with the ambassadors of many races living there, along with a community of workers and a commander to make sure it all ran smoothly. There were five seasons, planned out from beginning to end by the author, John Michael Straczynski, who wrote most of the episodes, though there were some written by the likes of Dorothy Fontana, David Gerrold and even the amazing Neil Gaiman! The story editor was Harlan Ellison, who did a few cameo roles himself, including a doctor, a comedian and a cheeky computer with a Jewish New York accent. It had - deliberately - elements of Tolkien in it, if you can imagine, for example, the Nazghul as scary black spaceships, each with a human symbiont melded into it. There was a lot of mystical stuff in it and it was the first TV SF series I saw in which our present-day religions played a role, as well as religions of other worlds. 

If you think it sounds vaguely familiar, this series was pitched to a certain company before the series you have in mind, and turned down. 

I have a great fondness for The Last Starfighter, a sweet YA film about a teenager who is whisked off into space to become a Starfighter and help save the universe against the baddies. It was Robert Preston's last movie, I think.

Galaxy Quest is going on my favourites list; it starts on Earth, but ends up with all the elements of space opera as  a group of has-been actors from a TV series not unlike Star Trek are whisked away to play the roles from their TV show on a replica of their ship, only one which works. There's this sweet race of aliens who saw the show, thought it was real and based their lives on it...

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a love for the Star Wars universe. I'm old enough to remember the excitement of the original film, which didn't, in those days, have a sub title and was, in the beginning, called The Star Wars. My brother has a vinyl double album with that title. I remember going to see this amazing new film after school one day, at the quiet five pm session, when you didn't have to book ahead or stand in a queue, and being totally blown away by it, from the very first moment when that huge spaceship roared across the screen till the last when the beautiful princess presents medals to our heroes. Who would have known how far it would go? And that glorious musical score and the Hero's Journey elements that have played so great a role in films since then... 

Plus, those of us who are passionate Star Trek fans owe a lot to Star Wars. It was the success of that film which persuaded Paramount tat there was money to be made from science fiction and they brought it back. 

So, what are your favourite space operas?


Lexa Cain said...

Isn't it funny that one can adore Science Fiction, which is full of "fantasy" worlds, cultures, and beings, yet not like actual Fantasy? I may have dabbled in a few Fantasy novels/series, but I was crazy about SF and loved the authors you mentioned, especially McCaffrey and Herbert. Now my fave is Peter F. Hamilton, a brilliant UK author. Have a great weekend, Sue!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm with you on that, Lexa! Not so much that I dislike fantasy as a genre as that I'm picky. I just can't read Fat Fantasy trilogies any more. But I have some favourites in the fantasy realm and even the occasional trilogy. Pullman's His Dark Materials. Lord Of The Rings. Juliet Marillier's books, any of them, but most recently Blackthorn and Grim which had me almost in tears. Kate Forsyth's books. Garth Nix's Old Kingdom. And, of course, Terry Pratchett's Discworld. All of these have something in common: characters you can care about and the fantasy premise doesn't overtake the characters in importance.

But I adore SF, both light and hard. That said, I, like you, write fantasy! In my case it's because folklore and mediaeval romance are where my ideas come from and, to be blunt, because my science skill is basic! I do know enough to get suspicious when I think someone else has written nonsense, and look it up.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - I'm afraid I'm a duff here ... never really got into Opera - though love listening to it ... while Space Opera etc ... I'm completely lost about it - I really shouldn't be ... but I am ... just enjoy and thanks for sharing some wonderful ideas here ... cheers Hilary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Just some suggestions, Hilary! Not everything is for everyone. And the music, to be honest, is the best part of opera. The stories are mostly very silly! ;-)

Julie said...

The Ship Who Sang! I am trying desperately (with great difficulty!) to get the entire "Brainship" series so I can read it again (because, you know, I have *nothing* to read!). I read the series many, many moons ago but with some stories once just isn't enough! I love love love a good space opera....and now my wish list just got longer ;)

Sue Bursztynski said...

I loved that one so much I was keeping it to get it signed by Anne McCaffrey when she was here for Aussiecon many years ago. And then I left it home and found one of her other books in the dealer's room instead. When I mentioned it to her, as she signed the other book, she said, "Silly girl!" and signed with a flourish!

Glad I've been able to suggest something new for you. So many books, so little time, eh?

Julie said...

I meant to mention but forgot, if you haven't read it, try Bujold's The Spirit Ring. It is fantasy, but I quite liked it and it's a stand alone novel.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I read that one, it may have been before I discovered the Vorkosiverse. Benvenuto Cellini's daughter! I did enjoy it. For some reason, I've never read it again, though, while I re read the Vorkosiverse novels regularly.

Christine O Cheallaigh said...

I've read Dune by Frank Herbert and loved it, I still need to read the rest of that series. We have just about all of the Pern books, a lot of the Discworld books, and most of the Shanara books, except for the last few which the library has. We also have Piers Anthony, the Dragonlance series, and a few others. I personally love both sci-fi and fantasy, so I'm always on the lookout for new series (well new to me anyway). Our library even has the Sword of Truth series (on TV it was called Legend of the Seeker or something like that) which I really need to finish reading.

As far as TV/movies, we also love Star Trek and Star Wars. I've watched every Star Trek series, and can't wait for the new one to come out. I never really got into watching Babylon 5 when it was on; it was probably on at the same time as some other series I watched, so never watched it. I might have seen a few minutes here and there of various episodes, and at the time I might have at least known who the main people were, but couldn't tell you anymore other than Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner's character). I have no idea what other TV series you were talking about in connection with this one, as far as I know no other show at the time even came close to resembling this one.

One that was too short-lived, and now that another favorite series of mine starring the same actor is over with I hope they decide to bring back, is Firefly. I really miss Mal and company, although unless they feel like filling in some of the gaps between the end of the series and the movie Serenity they wouldn't be able to bring back a couple of the characters as they killed them off in the movie (WTH, Whedon!) but I would really love to see this one back on TV. I kept saying the whole time Castle was on that whenever they decided to end that show they needed to talk the actors into signing on for a Firefly revival. I don't know if any of the original actors are committed elsewhere or not (those that are still alive that is, Ron Glass unfortunately passed away a few months back so they wouldn't be able to bring his character back unless they got someone else to play the part, which I would NOT recommend) but if they're all available, someone really needs to talk them into this! I know the whole point of the Serenity movie was to try to get enough of a response so they could bring the series back, and for some reason it didn't work at the time, which actually freed up Nathan Fillion so he could do the Castle series, but still...and I love how they kept slipping in Firefly references on that show, one season even going so far as having Castle dress up in his old Mal outfit as his Halloween costume, and Alexis (his daughter) making the comment that he wears that same outfit every year. I don't remember his comment back to her, probably because every time I see that episode I'm laughing too hard to notice.

I've never heard of the book series you were talking about, or the author for that matter. I guess I need to get my library card renewed so I can look for it at our local library. (At this rate my TBR list is NEVER going to go down... :P )

Sue Bursztynski said...

I only ever read the first Dune novel, a classic, but it took me so long to read that I couldn't try the rest. It stands alone we'll enough.

A friend of mine, tte late Jan Howard Finder, was writen into the Pern series as Finder of Harper Hall. I only read the first in that series, though.
I have Firefly on DVD, but haven't yet watched past the first episode.
Babylon 5 was a wonderful series! Watch it if you can. The other series I had in mind was Deep Space 9, which from what you say, you HAVE seen. He pitched his show set in a space station, was rejected and not long after they did their own show set on a space station... Personally, I preferred B5, though there were some fine episodes of DS9.