Four Space Operas and a Funeral

Another in my series of Sunday posts to clear out my backlog of started (but not finished… not even close in most cases) posts about books I have read.

This one follows from a grand idea I had for a post which I have been kicking around for a couple of years now.  I was going to do a mighty compare and contrast post about four space opera science fiction series that I had read over the years.


The problem turned out to be in the final word of that previous paragraph, “years.”  As in, it has been many years since I have read some of these books.  My idea just wasn’t viable without my going back and re-reading a whole pile of books.

So my back-up plan is to lay out a very basic summary of each series in the order in which I read them, so oldest (and most vague) memories first.  Then I will hang a poll at the end to let people vote on which series they might recommend and call it a day.  So let’s get started.

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Summary: Follows (mostly) the life of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, the physically handicapped son of a powerful noble in a down-on-its luck empire.  Think Tyrion Lannister in space.  In fact, aside from a better relationship with his father, that analogy is surprisingly apt, and since the series kicked off in 1986, it pre-dates Tyrion.  Call Tyrion Lannister a medieval Miles Vorkosigan.

Highs:  I read it so long ago… this is where my comparison idea really fell down… it is hard to remember.  I have a positive mental image of the books.

Lows: I didn’t keep the books for very long, so I clearly felt, at some point, they were not worth re-reading.  Maybe they felt too contrived?

Honor Harrington Saga by David Weber

Summary: Honor Harrington, a female officer in the Royal Manticore Navy, rises through the ranks via brains and skill.

Highs: Early stories are good, tight space sagas.  Technology and politics are believable.  She has a cat.  I actually re-read On Basilisk Station recently, and it was still good.

Lows: Series evolves from external foes to internal politics and gets dull.  I didn’t make it through the fifth book, which was the latest in the series when I read it.

The RCN/Lt. Leary Series by David Drake

Summary: Follows the careers of, and the friendship between, Lt. Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy, in a series of adventures inspired by Patrick O’Brein’s Aubrey/Maturin series. (Which I have also read from end to end.) 18th century attitudes and politics in the era of space travel.

Highs:  Fun books, interesting approach to FTL space travel in order to give it a feel of the age of sail.

Lows: Series doesn’t shake out and settle down until the third book.  We spend, in my opinion, far too much time with Adele reflecting on her past and her relationships with the other characters in the book.

The Lost Fleet Series by Jack Campbell

Summary: John “Black Jack” Geary is awakened after 100 years in stasis sleep in an escape pod to find the war that was just starting when his ship was destroyed is still going on.  Picked up on the way to what was supposed to be a war winning attack, he is there to see it turn into a trap.  The commanding admiral puts Geary in charge as he goes to his death.  Afterwards, Geary keeps command of the fleet, being the most senior captain by many decades, and tries to get everybody home safely while most of the other captains try to call bullshit on his right to the command position.

Highs: Well thought out and consistent space travel and combat.  Political and personal entanglements, as well as feelings of doubt, guilt, and anger, that Geary gets into feel real.

Lows: Carboard cut-out bad guys and seemingly endless passages about honor and responsibility and sacrifice in the name of the cause plague the series.  But far and away the biggest negative for me is the idea that a commander with pre-war ideas and tactics can show up, apply those ideas and tactics (which everybody has forgotten), and win.  That is pretty much war in reverse of reality, where pre-war tactics go out the door after the first few bloody engagements and new tactics and counter-tactics are constantly developed.  Armies and Navies evolve in war or they lose.  They don’t regress to “run straight at them” blood baths.  Even WWI, well known for such “run straight at them” tactics was full of attempts to get around that.

Legacy of the Aldenata by John Ringo

Summary: A long running, galaxy spanning war is headed towards Earth, and the alien alliance on the defensive sees the human race as a good chance to pull their irons out of the fire.  Our military prowess and their technology and production abilities, its a match made in the heavens.  Literally.  All these races were genetic creations of the Aldenata, a very advance race that has since buggered off to nobody-knows-where, leaving their toys to run amok.

Highs: Excellent depth into the military, technological, political, and social aspects of this sort of upheaval, doubly so when the aliens hit Earth.  There are few simple answers, and Earth’s allies clearly do not have their best interests at heart.  And Bun-bun.

Lows: John Ringo hates city dwellers and will murder them wholesale given half a chance, a theme which recurs through his works. (That is why this book is “The Funeral.”)  But anybody who lives in the country or on a farm possesses the wisdom of the ages and an illegal arms cache that would put many third world countries to shame.  Civilians in general aren’t worth fighting for, but the military does it because honor, duty, country and so on.  Series goes on forever.  Easy to lose track of who belongs to which secret underground organization.

You Rate Them

Those are my basic recollections.  As expected, the more recent my reading, the more detail I recall.  You should not read anything into the fact that I have more lows than highs for these books.  Things that work tend to just flow into the mix, while things that do not tend to fester and thus become more memorable.  I would recommend them all, at least for those in search of an escapist space opera.

Now for the poll.  Which of these series would you recommend?

As usual, there is the comments section below to add in what you might think of any of these or to call me out on the low quality or inaccuracy of any of my brief summaries.

16 thoughts on “Four Space Operas and a Funeral

  1. bhgapuss

    I would have said that I was something of a fan of Space Opera, having read most or all of the novels of Iain M Banks, Peter Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds, Ken McLeod and Niven/Pournelle, to name just the ones that come immediately to mind, but on the basis of your highly amusing reviews I wouldn’t read any of that bunch.

    And didn’t Miles Naismith used to be in The Monkees?


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Michael Nesmith was in the Monkees. But yes.

    I am not sure I would characterize some of what you have listed… which I have read as well… in the “space opera” genre. I think to get there, the book has to reach a certain level of interpersonal drama which I don’t think was achieved in the works of Niven and Banks at least. Probably a good thing, too.

    I probably should have defined terms, so I will go with the Wikipedia entry on Space Opera, which leans towards “soap opera in space.” The five series listed all share that in common, which is why I lumped them together.

    And I said, my negatives should be taken too seriously. Stuff like that just sticks with me.


  3. Brent Krupp

    Niven/Pournelle (which is to say Niven alone, Pournelle alone, and Niven/Pournelle collaborating) is fairly hard SF (though one can argue that it is also space opera-ish, if you allow that those can overlap).

    If you haven’t read Ringworld and Mote in God’s Eye you really need to get cracking.


  4. Rohan

    Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are outstanding. They are routinely nominated for the Hugo awards, and have won four.

    I think you should reread the series.


  5. Stropp

    I agree with Werit about the Commonwealth saga. I quite enjoyed those and they didn’t fall into the trap that Hamilton’s Reality Dysfunction did (trying to tie up a million loose threads in the last 50 pages and relying in a Deus Ex Machina to do so. Really disappointing.)

    I also quite enjoyed Reynolds Revelation Space series, but particularly his stand alone books: especially Chasm City and Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days.

    Another recommendation for space opera: Sean Williams with the Evergence series and Orphans series; He has a few fantasy series too with a unique Aussie flavor (The Books of the Change.)

    Also: The Saga of the Seven Suns by Kevin Anderson. Started to drag on by the end but was a good/interesting read.

    Aside from the Lost Fleet series, I haven’t read the other books on your list, Wilhelm, but I would like to read the Vorkosigan books (they keep popping up on my radar.)

    I found some of the same problems you had with the Lost Fleet. The first books were intriguing so I bought the others in a bundle, but started to tire of them before I got to the last book.

    @bhagpuss — I think that was Mike Nesmith :-)


  6. Arken

    Main problem for me with both the Vorkosigan and Honor books is that they became the “money” books for the writer and they seemed to run out of ideas after about the 4th book. That and Weber has this thing about making his female leads more and more superhuman (oh did i mention she comes from a family that had genetic experiments? and she is an expert shot with a thousand year old 45?).
    i like the Leary books, but Drake will occasionally through in filler stuff (stories from original latin translations that he has translated) that are disjointed from the main story. With him its almost like he has a short story sitting there and he knows he can’t pad it out to a full story so he throws it in. But overall, very good (he does a really good job of showing the toil combat takes on someones soul).
    Ringo. I really like his latest series (can’t remember what they call the series, but deals with asteroid battlestations etc..). He does have an extreme dislike for certain types of people, colored by his time in the Military (Special Forces) which he shares with Drake (although Drakes not so…”bad” about it.
    The Lost fleet is also very good, and has an underlying theme to it SPOILER WARNING******Outside forces are what started the war, while internal forces are what led to both sides needing for it to continue–the first few years of the war wiped out all those with some knowledge of military history and the governments decided that a stalemate was the best thing for them. And in history there have been times where military theory has regressed (after the fall of Rome for example).
    Anyway all good reads, and your mileage may vary.


  7. Jacob

    I love Bujold’s “Miles Vorkosigan” books.

    However, her style evolved over time, and her first few books don’t show her best work. The first couple books are fairly formulaic – dashing hero, cardboard villain, flourishing victory. Happily, her later books get more subtle, with flawed heroes and respectable antagonists, and she uses the space opera setting to ask good SF questions about the consequences of a world set up like hers.

    If people are looking for just one Bujold book to sample her style, I recommend one of her later books, “The Curse of Chalion”. It is fantasy, not part of her SF series, but it is a good example of the kind of plot-weaving she does.

    One key theme I associate with Bujold is her optimism – she writes stories where people make mistakes and then pick themselves up and try to be better.


  8. Larry B

    Try the Perry Rhodan series. No other series comes even close to matching it, if you are a true fan of sci-fi space operas.


  9. Gert

    Loved the harrigton series myself ,it has 2 spinoff series more or less and the original is at 13th book atm .
    I honestly didnt like some of the personal stuff but dear god i actually like the politics and the battles and strategys are great and it still is my favorite series still – i have reread the entire series like 3-4 times for entertainment lol. It does bog down abit in the later books and the new villains arent my thing but i do still read the books when they come out .
    If u like fantasy with scifi elements u should try safehold series by David Weber aswell – i like it even more than the harrington series to be honest .

    The RCN series is decent , i hadnt thought of the comparison to 18/19th century naval books before but now that u mention it has a point . It is on the inoffensive side of things to be honest and would make for decent reading for any fan of the genre or even for a newcomer who might be interested to i guess .


  10. Luk

    I really liked Harrington series, superhuman or not the wars and people who wage them in that universe are very believable and feel good to root for. Hated the stronghold series and still waiting for more books about the Lost Empire, which is even more soap opera than the Harrington’s books.

    I did read some of Ringo’s books just because of the connection to Weber’s writing and while it was very fresh in the beginning, it got just too preachy about military ideals particularly in We the Few book that it was just unbearable.

    I think nothing gets more space opera than the Origins (Spinward Fringe) ebooks by Randolph Lalonde, The first trilogy is free and downright awesome because it is so episodic and almost pulpy in the vein of what if Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing something with what we know about space and wars today.


  11. Pasduil

    I’ve read some Alistair Reynolds and Iain M Banks and liked them. Noted people’s other recs for future reference.

    I’ve been wondering whether to broaden my own blog to include books as well. Esp as lately I’ve been spending more time reading the Farseer Trilogy than playing anything.


  12. kiantremayne

    I voted yes to all of the above, although at least some of them class more as “military SF” than space opera. I would also endorse Peter Hamilton’s work and the Sten series as top picks. Jack Campbell has four “JAG in space” books published under his real name of John Hemry, and I actually enjoyed those more than the Lost Fleet series. Then again, I’m a sucker for a good legal or political drama.

    I had the pleasure of attending an SF convention here in the UK a couple of years ago that had David Weber and Peter Hamilton as guests of honour. Both are very smart guys and intelligent, entertaining speakers – unlike some of the ‘fan personalities’ used to bulk out discussion panels, which is why I don’t do the convention scene all that much.

    If you’re looking for space opera, I’d also recommend keeping an eye out for Elizabeth Moon’s work.


  13. Ranamar

    @Arken (8):
    Ringo has an extreme dislike for certain types of people because he is a reactionary xenophobe of a nativist conservative who almost certainly highly approves of American militia movements. I enjoyed the first couple books by him that I read (the core four are good time-wasters), but he drops any pretense of not writing allegories in which people I agree with more than him are secret villains posing as people trying to help. As a result, I refuse to give him any more of my money, because I won’t pay people to insult me.

    One that I forgot to recommend when filling in the poll, and written by an author I am still a big fan of is Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. I’m not sure how much to pitch it here, but the basic setup involves using consciousness transfer into arbitrary bodies to engineer supersoldiers… whose personalities are then imprinted from retirement-aged people on Earth. (hence the title) It devolves somewhat into political skullduggery after Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, but I think I enjoy that more than our host here. The original main characters’ story arcs are also declared finished, by now.

    Also, seconding the mention of Alastair Reynolds, which is much more on the adventure story end than the “military SF” end, as well as involving somewhat harder science initially. (Sending information back in time is almost universally associated with weapons and BAD THINGS happening.) His books are all rather dark, though, with a strong helping of “humans repeatedly screw things up”.


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