Kameron Hurley’s science fiction novel The Stars Are Legion almost never saw the inside of a book store. She came up with the idea in 2012, but she and her agent didn’t think anyone would buy it. A “big gory political space opera” wasn’t something flying off the shelves at the time. But two years later, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice swept the major science fiction awards, Guardians of the Galaxy became a surprise box office smash, and Syfy announced plans to make The Expanse into a TV show. Hurley’s book soon found a home at Saga Press.
She was hardly alone. “Publishers started snapping up space operas, leading to a huge demand that needed to be filled,” she says. Today, a bumper crop of space adventures fill Kindles. They run the gamut from intimate character dramas to galaxy-spanning epics, each of them as big and bold as their genre implies, but far more experimental and varied than ever before.
Not long ago, a group of mostly British men dominated the field. Authors like Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Iain M. Banks wrote wild, sweeping tales, often about cyborgs and other post-human characters. You still see a lot of that in space operas, but the genre’s renewed popularity has introduced readers to a diverse array of writers, each of them bringing a new approach to tales of thrilling adventures in the cosmos.
Nnedi Okorafor’s beautifully crafted and moving Binti series, for example, tells a personal story of a girl’s voyage to space and her return home. Critics praise the intimate feel, and addictively fun writing, of Becky Chambers’ novels. (Her second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, arrived earlier this year and examines with the relationship between a woman and an artificial intelligence that has acquired an illicit robot body.)
John Scalzi grapples with problems of sustainability against the backdrop of space in his snarky, thrilling new book The Collapsing Empire. And The Stars Are Legion, which Scalzi calls “badass,” is a sweeping epic about a squad of starships—one that just happens to feature a cast of all female characters.
Why Space Opera, Why Now?
Publishers love space operas for an obvious reason. (It rhymes with schmook schmales.) It’s not so obvious why so many authors find themselves drawn to writing them. Many, like Chambers, grew up on Star Trek, Carl Sagan, and Ursula Le Guin. And for writers like Scalzi, the form provides entire star systems to play with, plus the ability to create whole new cultures totally unconnected to today’s Earth. (Full disclosure: Scalzi and I share the same editor at Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen Hayden.) With a book set 1,500 years from now, Scalzi says, “I can make up anything I want.”
Yoon Ha Lee, whose The Raven Stratagem comes out in June, chose space opera because “I wanted to blow up spaceships.” Lee’s inventive books feature a super-science dominated by complex mathematical formulas, something inspired by “Marcia Ascher’s work on ethnomathematics,” he says, and the idea that “the laws of reality could be mutable from point to point, like a sort of modifiable vector field.”
Okorafor says she didn’t think of Binti as a space opera while she was writing it; she just wanted to tell the girl’s story. The setting was almost secondary. Likewise, Chambers wanted to write a character-focused book without the epic stakes often found in the genre’s earlier novels. The idea, she says, was to combat the notion that “space is only for the elite.” Highly educated and exhaustively trained astronauts get to explore the galaxy, and soon the world’s wealthiest people will visit space. But everyone else stays on Earth. “In both the history of human spaceflight and in the stories we tell, space doesn’t feel like a place for everybody,” she says. Her book celebrates the idea that the universe “belongs to all of us.”
The Ann Leckie Effect
Pinpointing just what launched this new phase remains tricky, but Ancillary Justice definitely encouraged new writers bring a fresh approach to the genre. Leckie’s book, Lee says, emphasizes the “sociocultural” rather than the “technological wonder and exotic science” of authors like Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton.
Of course, it helps that more people appreciate the wonders of space. “NASA has been killing it at doing public outreach through social media and internet technology,” says Chambers. And meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk capture the imagination with their ambitious space ventures. But the biggest reason might be the simplest of all: The real world can be frightening right now. Space operas celebrate the idea that, come what may, humanity will one day conquer the stars and brave new worlds. It offers an escape, and, Hurley notes, a glimpse of more hopeful futures.