Space Opera September Reviews

September has ended; time to wake up and get reviewing. You may remember last month I decided to do the Space Opera September Readathon, run by SFF180. The readathon gave me a month to read books, which allowed me to rank up as either a Federation Officer or a Rebel Fighter while collecting ships. Like this:

Rank is based on the number of books, but what track I’m leveling up, and what ships I have in my fleet, are determined by completing challenges. The challenges for this year’s readathon were:

  • Challenge 1: Read a space opera novella (unlock Shuttlecraft.) I read On a Red Station Drifting
  • Challenge 2A: Read TWO space operas by women (unlock Fighter.) I read The Galaxy and the Ground Within and On a Red Station Drifting
  • Challenge 2B: Read a space opera by a diverse author featuring a diverse protagonist and/or major character (switches Rankings to the Rebel Track, and unlocks the Rebel exclusive Blockade Runner.) I read On a Red Station Drifting
  • Challenge 3: Read a space opera published before you were born (unlocks Explorer.) I read Hyperion
  • Challenge 4: Read a space opera 500 pages or longer (unlocks Dreadnaught.) I started reading Fall of Hyperion, but didn’t finish it on time.
  • 2021 Challenge: Complete a space opera duology or trilogy (no reward specified) I aimed for the Hyperion Cantos, but damn those are big books.

You may notice that I got a lot of mileage out of reading Aliette de Bodard’s On a Red Station Drifting. If that seems cheap, I also read Vol. 2 of G. Willow Wilson’s Invisible Kingdom graphic series, which would also count towards challenge 2A, and depending on how you view portrayals of ethnicity, religion and sexuality amongst non-human alien characters, could also count towards 2B. Now, what does this mean for my rank? Well, I completed challenge 2B, which makes me a rebel, and I read four space opera books in September, which technically makes me a Space Pirate. However, it feels like cheating too count Invisible Kingdom, considering how quickly I can read graphic novels. Besides, I don’t really want to talk to much about Invisible Kingdom here, because I think it would be better to talk about the whole series when I finish it. For the sake of the the readathon, I’ll only count the three books I’m going to discuss in this post, which means my rank is Rebel Leader.

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On a Red Station Drifting

By Aliette de Bodard

Score: 7.5/10

I never list Aliette de Bodard as a favourite author, yet I end up talking about her a lot here. On a Red Station Drifting is not my first dip into de Bodard’s Xuya universe, but I feel it is one of the most well known works in the series, and so far it is my favourite. I am going to be more proactive with regards to reading this series. And maybe I will need to start adding de Bodard to the favourites list.

The Xuya universe is an alternate history where the Chinese were the first outsiders to reach the Americas, and the world becomes dominated by Chinese and Aztec culture. Many stories are set in a far future space age where Confucian galactic empires rule and sentient spaceships are part of familial linages.

I’m still wrapping my head around how a lot of the technology in this universe works. The very basics of the technology is mentioned in this story, but some familiarity with the Xuya universe and mind ships helps. I read The Tea Master and the Detective a couple of years ago, which has a ship as a protagonist, which may have made this book easier to understand. Aside from that though, there isn’t any reason not to start here, as all the stories are standalones and this is the first story about the spacefaring Dai Viet Empire. Click here for more information about the Xuya Universe.

Aliette de Bodard is French and Vietnamese, so I trust that her depiction of Vietnamese culture is accurate. She also makes the Vietnamese cultural elements in her stories very accessible for Westerners. Most of the drama is informed by Vietnamese ideas of familial piety, and the Dai Viet Empire is based on a Confucian Bureaucracy (a bit like Imperial China) that enforces strict rank and status on the characters.

We follow two very powerful, but very different women in this story. The first is Linh, a magistrate from a planet that has been invaded. Before the invasion she made statements calling out the Emperor on his lack of action against their enemies, which got her in political hot water. She flees to isolated Prosper Station, which is run by distant relatives of hers. The other protagonist is Lady Quyen, a ‘lesser spouse’ who has been left in charge of the station because her husband, along with all the other ‘greater’ wives and husbands of the family have been called away to serve in the war. Linh seeks refuge at Prosper, Quyen makes a place for her because she is family, and then the two of them are just so horrible to each other. Yet neither of them comes off entirely as the bad guy. They are both under a lot of stress, unsure of their place, and expect different things from each other based off of their different understanding on how their ranks apply to the situation and what each are entitled to from the other.

There is so much happening in this little novella. So much family drama, a lot of complex worldbuilding, and really cool SF technology. I mentioned the ship minds, but I haven’t bought up the fact that Linh and other high ranking members of society have the memory implants of their ancestors in their heads to guide them. The Xuya universe is a richly imagined place, that imagines a future galactic civilization influenced by Asian cultures, rather than Western ones. This is a universe that I need to read more of, and I recommend On a Red Station Drifting as a good place to jump in.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

By Becky Chambers

Score: 10/10

Three aliens stop at an interstellar truck stop then get stranded due to space technical difficulties. They have nothing to do but eat the cakes their host makes and sit around talking. Then the host’s kid is stupid. The end.

There isn’t a lot happening here; certainly none of the grand adventures we usually imagine when we think of space opera. However this story is amazing. I could not put this book down when it was just aliens eating sweets and talking about how weird all the cheese-eating Humans are, so when an emergency did happen towards the end of the book, you bet I stayed up way later than I should to finish it.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within is the forth, and apparently final book in the Wayfarer series. If you have read the other three books in the series and love them, then rest assured this is a great return to form. The Wayfarer series is about a multispecies galactic civilization, and each book follows different people trying to get by, live their lives and make meaningful connections with others. Space opera about the Every Day Person. The aliens are varied, and there are a lot of biological and cultural differences that make navigating life in this Galactic Commons difficult at times, but the interconnected community navigating these challenges creates is worth the effort. This series is light on plot and action, but very big on drama and character. It also feels super relevant for the time period we are living in.

One criticism this series often gets is that the aliens don’t feel alien enough. That is true, but I feel it is a feature, not a bug. Chambers has hit the sweet spot where her aliens are different enough to make the Galactic Commons feel like a multispecies place, yet they are similar enough for us to easily relate to. More importantly, it is easy to imagine Humans fitting into this community. That balance is particularly important in this book, where there are no Humans in the main cast. If each alien species was radically different to the point where they had completely different ways of thinking, living and communicating, then a story like this, with no Human point of view, would be too bogged down with biological and psychological exposition to work.

That being said, this book is the first in the series to include an Akarak as a main character, and the Akaraks are more of an ‘alien’ alien than the rest of the Galactic Common species. Their atmosphere, lifespan, size and history make them much more different than the rest of the aliens in this story. They are usually harder to communicate with too, but our POV Akarak is a linguist, which allows both readers and other characters a rare chance to see what life is like in this peaceful, tolerant society for a species that is actually different.

Like all the books in this series, this is a story about regular people going through personal journeys in a fantastic space opera setting. The worldbuild and characterization in this series is excellent. If you have read and loved the Wayfarers series before, reading this one is a no brainer. If you haven’t, I’d highly recommend the first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

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Hyperion

By Dan Simmons

Score: N/A

I’m not going to give this book a score, because as of writing this review I have not finished the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, which means that I only have half a story. I liked Hyperion, but it is frustratingly incomplete by itself. I cannot form a final opinion on this book until I finish the sequel and get answers to all the questions this story has bought up. Do not start this book unless you are willing to commit to a duology of two books each around the 500 page mark. Plus there is another duology after this, making four doorstoppers all together.

Hyperion is a science fiction classic. It won the Hugo Award for best Novel in 1990, and often appears on lists of must read books and top science fiction stories. That’s a lot of hype, so the question is, does it live up to it?

I feel the answer is yes. Maybe not a hell yes, but so far I am digging this story. There is a lot of amazing worldbuilding. The setting is a far future Hegemony of Man; hundreds of planets connected by farcasters (teleportation portals), and colony worlds that don’t have farcasters and must be reached by ships bounded by the laws of relativity. Which is cool because we get stories and settings that take advantage of both the instant travel – like a chase scene through a nature walk that travels through different environments on different planets – and storylines that rely on the time dilation effect of relativistic travel. This is just one example of how complicated the worldbuilding is.

We don’t realise this complexity at first , as the story is presented as seven pilgrims travelling to the mysterious Time Tombs on an isolated planet called Hyperion, where they will confront the mythical killing machine known as the Shrike. Along the way, they take turns telling the group stories of their previous experience with Hyperion, and with each story our understanding of not just the political situation behind the pilgrimage, but the world itself grows. A couple of the stories are a bit disturbing actually, but all form a tapestry that tells a much grander epic. My favourite story is that of Sol Weintraub and his daughter Rachel. That was just tragic.

Besides telling the stories, there isn’t a lot happening on the pilgrimage. They do encounter complications, and a mystery does crop up, but there is nothing too challenging. At the end, I felt like I had just read a very long set up, and was frustrated that I had to wait for the payoffs.

Of course, the fact that I did feel the need to jump right into the next book is proof that Hyperion has done its job. This story is a classic for a reason. Considering it is over thirty now, the story hasn’t aged too badly either, though there are some things about the way women are depicted that does feel off. Which you can probably guess from the name of the interstellar civilization they live in. Though, the leader of the Hegemony of Man is a woman, and the token woman amongst the pilgrims is one of the most competent members of the group, so this is probably fair for its time. I wasn’t facepalming every time a female character tries to do something the way I have in some other books this year, even though I did cringe at a few parts.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Or rather this half of a book. I’m currently reading Fall of Hyperion, and so far so good. I used Hyperion for one of my book bingo challenges, so when I get to reviewing it there I’ll talk about both books. Or if I have a lot to say, maybe I’ll give the duology its own post. Or read the second duology if I really like it.

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Even though I didn’t complete this Readathon, I had a lot of fun. Not only did I read some good books, but I became a Rebel Leader. I have a shuttlecraft, an explorer, a fighter and a blockade runner in my fleet. I liked the theme of this readathon, and it was fun hanging out in the discord and seeing what other people were reading.

Has anyone else read some good space opera lately? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Reading,

~ Lauren

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