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Shelf Care | Space Opera!

By Alex Doyle

Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Space opera! Big fat tomes of science fiction writ on a broad canvas, set against the backdrop of war with competing factions, spaceship battles, and ridiculously advanced technology. Sure, it’s been done often, but these three books do it well.

So if you like:

Unstoppable killing machines, like the Terminator

John Keats

..and, really most anything, it’s probably in here.

You might like

The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons

Overview

On the eve of a galactic war, seven pilgrims tell their stories of what brought them to seek the Shrike: a creature out of nightmare that will kill six of them and grant the seventh’s wish.

Sample passage

Father Hoyt looked as if something in the meal had caused him indigestion even though he had eaten almost nothing. “Look,” he said, “couldn’t we change the rules this once – I mean, given the war scare and all? And just land near the Time Tombs or wherever and get it over with?”

The Consul shook his head. “Spacecraft and aircraft have been trying to take the short route to the northern moors for almost four hundred years,” he said. “I know of none who made it.”

“May one inquire,” said Martin Silenus, happily raising his hand like a schoolboy, “just what the gibbering fuck happens to these legions of ships?”

Father Hoyt frowned at the poet. Fedmahn Kassad smiled slightly. Sol Weintraub said, “The Consul did not mean to suggest that the area is inaccessible. One may travel by ship or various land routes. Nor do spacecraft and aircraft disappear. They easily land near the ruins or the Time Tombs and just as easily return to whatever point their computers command. It is merely the pilots and passengers who are never seen again.” Weintraub lifted the sleeping baby from his lap and set her in an infant carrier slung around his neck.

“So the tired old legend goes,” said Brawne Lamia. “What do the ship logs show?”

“Nothing,” said the Consul. “No violence. No forced entry. No deviation from course. No unexplained time lapses. No unusual energy emissions or depletions. No physical phenomena of any sort.”

“Marvelous melodrama,” laughed Silenus. “A real-life, Christ-weeping Sargasso of Souls and we’re for it. Who orchestrates this shitpot of a plot, anyway?”

“Shut up,” said Brawne Lamia. “You’re drunk, old man.”

The Consul sighed. The group had been together for less than a standard hour.

Takeaway

Hyperion, and Fall of Hyperion (the sequel which was the second half of Hyperion, split into it’s own book for publishing reasons) are personal favorites of mine, and science fiction classics for a reason—there’s a lot going on here and it’s really well done. Each pilgrim’s tale reflects its teller, so within Hyperion, there’s the private detective who was working with an AI, the poet with writer’s block, the warrior who wants to kill the unkillable Shrike, and a father trying to save his now infant daughter who started aging backwards after an accident on Hyperion. If all of this looks like it’s Way Too Complicated, you’d be right. All of this should not work on paper, and I’m pressed to think of any other author that could pull it off. Simmons seamlessly ties all these disparate threads together, and they’re all essential for the story he’s trying to tell. The events set in motion in Hyperion wrap up in The Fall of Hyperion. The remaining two books—Endymion and Rise of Endymion—follow up a few hundred years after, and it’s a testament to Simmons’ storytelling abilities that things that were presented one way in the first two books turn out to have a whole ‘nother side to them. I’ll add that I’d originally read The Hyperion Cantos about 20 years back, and it’s one of the few series that read just as well, if not better, with a few decades of perspective.

Or if you like:

Godlike AIs

Well thought out world building
Computer Science

First contact stories

You might like

A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Overview

While a godlike artificial intelligence is taking over star systems, a rescue ship races to a medieval planet where doglike aliens are fighting over a crashed starship and it’s child survivors, unaware that they may have a weapon to defeat the AI.

Sample passage

“It was the nightmare that haunted travelers, especially at the Bottom of the Beyond: with ultradrive gone, suddenly a light-year was not a matter of minutes but of years. Even if they fired up the ramscoop and went into cold sleep, Jefri Olsndot would be a thousand years dead before they reached him, and the secret of his parents’ ship buried in some medieval midden.”

Takeaway

There’s a lot going on in this Hugo winning book, and the overview is a gross oversimplification of the concepts the plot explores. It follows two narratives—one being the child survivors of the spaceship crash who are working with doglike aliens who have individual identities in groups of 4-6 (and Vinge explores this concept pretty well—how they ‘think’, what sort of society they form, and what happens when a member is killed), and the super high tech rescue ship which is being chased by the minions of the AI. Interspersed there are galactic network newsgroup posts commenting on events, which is one of several areas where Vinge’s background as a computer scientist comes through in the writing. The multiple narrative structure, as it so often does, helps and hurts the plot as I sometimes found myself less interested in what was going on in the current narrative than in the other one. Though to be fair, that may be an effect of me re-reading the book for this review, but that said, the book has held up well since I read it 20 plus years back. If you like it, there’s more to explore in Vinge’s Zones Of Thought series, which has standalone stories set before and after the events in A Fire Upon The Deep.

Or if you like:

Seeing what humanity does when it’s reached the limits of its technology

Smartass AIs

Halo

Futuristic spycraft

Galactic travel tours

You might like

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Overview

Horza is a spy working for Idirans in their war against the Culture—a highly advanced human empire—and he’s been tasked with stealing a damaged Culture AI that’s escaped to a planet that neither empire wants to mess with.

Sample passage

By their names you could know them, Horza thought as he showered. The Culture’s General Contact Units, which until now had borne the brunt of the first four years of the war in space, had always chosen jokey, facetious names. Even the new warships they were starting to produce, as their factory craft completed gearing up their war production, favoured either jocular, sombre or downright unpleasant names, as though the Culture could not take entirely seriously the vast conflict in which it had embroiled itself.

The Idirans looked at things differently. To them a ship name ought to reflect the serious nature of its purpose, duties and resolute use. In the huge Idiran navy there were hundreds of craft named after the same heroes, planets, battles, religious concepts and impressive adjectives. The light cruiser which had rescued Horza was the 137th vessel to be called The Hand of God, and it existed concurrently with over a hundred other craft in the navy using the same title, so its full name was The Hand of God 137.

Takeaway

Iain M. Banks wrote ten novels set in the universe of the Culture. Consider Phlebas is a stand-alone novel, and as the first, serves as an Odysseus-style road trip through what that universe has to offer. The interesting angle here is that, technically, Horza is working for the bad guys, and through that lens the reader gets to see the Culture from the outside. I felt that the plot kind of takes a back seat to the things Horza is encountering as his travels have one setback after another on his journey to the planet where the AI is. There are truly massive starships, aliens, spies, long dead civilizations, and, to give an example of the Culture’s resources, some of the action takes place on a larger-than-worlds Culture built ring in space called an orbital, (which would probably be most familiar to readers as the setting of the video game Halo). It’s smaller than a full on ringworld, although the Culture has them too. For all the far out concepts, Banks does a good job of making it feel real, and while I’d have preferred faster pacing on this trip I have to admit the scenery is amazing.

 

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: The Process of Elimination.

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About Alex Doyle (22 Articles)
Alex Doyle is a father, programmer, smartass and a fan of anything that wastes no time to getting to the point. When he's not trying to be clever on the Internet, or irritating his kids with dad jokes, he can be found looking for the next great story that everyone has to read.

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