Space Opera vs Military SF

Space Opera: adventure in space! Spaceships and possibly aliens, sure, but the story is a probably a quest story. Someone badly needs something or needs to do something in order to Save The Day. The quest, whatever it is, involves heroism against long odds. The plot zigs and zags and zings, with mounting troubles that must be overcome. At the end, of course, the good guys win. Or at least the good guys don’t lose. If there are bad guys, they get theirs. Cosmic justice is served. The world, or whatever was in peril, is saved, or at least mostly saved.

This is not the kind of story where the ultimate conclusion is that it’s impossible to truly win, so the good guys might as well create their own private bubble universe and hide inside so as not to be disturbed as the rest of humanity goes to hell. I’m thinking of Chalker’s FLUX AND ANCHOR series here. What a downer. Space opera can’t do that. It doesn’t have to be saccharine, bad things can happen, but it must be at least somewhat upbeat.

You do need to be in space for some significant fraction of the story, imo, or the story may be a great adventure story, but it is definitely not space opera, even if it is SF. If the story is primary a mystery, then it’s probably not space opera even if the mystery is set aboard a spaceship. If the story is primarily a romance, then it probably isn’t space opera; space opera is one of the SF subgenres that may be really light on romance. Not that you can’t see a romance subplot, but it’s likely to be decidedly sub.

Even if there are spaceships, they are probably not massive city-sized behemoths like in CITY OF DIAMOND (an excellent book, btw, or at least a complicated book with many excellent features). In space opera, the spaceships are probably smaller, more intimate settings for a smallish crew we’re going to get to know well. We won’t be using Real Physics, but Space Opera Physics, with wormholes and all like that, and weapons so that ships can fight with each other. Those and other aspects of the setting will be fairly familiar, so the reader can enjoy the story without asking too many questions about how the universe is put together.

Golden Age space opera could be pretty gung-ho, with good guys who were practically supermen saving beautiful women along with the world, and with humans always or nearly always way more heroic and cool than any aliens that might be around. Stories were heavy on action and plot twists, light on characterization and sociological development. I’m thinking of EE Doc Smith here, which may not be quite fair because I know EE Doc Smith’s work more by reputation than because I read a whole lot of it myself.

The best of modern space opera is very good indeed, though. In good modern space opera, you can expect the author to pay a good deal more attention to characterization than might have been case fifty years ago. So now we can expect twisty plots, fast action, high stakes, heroism, good guys that win, bad guys that lose, *and* also, with the better writers, we can also expect good characterization, snappy dialogue, and overall solid writing. Plus spaceships. What’s not to love? Space opera is what you give someone who likes adventure stories – thrillers, say – but isn’t too sure about SF. The overlap in the reading experience between a thriller and a space opera is probably high enough to let people who are suspicious of SF trappings enjoy the story.

So, who writes the best modern space opera? No question about it, Lois McMaster Bujold comes so firmly to mind that it’s hard to think of anyone else. Her Vorkosigan series is not purely space opera – I mean, A Civil Campaign is a comedy of manners – but the earlier Miles books surely qualify.

The other writer who comes most easily to mind for me is Elizabeth Moon, who has written a lot of space opera of varying quality and set in varying universes. Hunting Party is a wonderful book, it really is, and if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Especially if you’re keeping an eye out for actually mature female protagonists. Some of the other linked books are also good, but imo the quality in this series is highly variable. In particular you get some books with thoroughly scattered pov and no real protagonist, and those don’t work as well. The series starting with Trading in Danger, which takes place in a different universe, is consistently good, though.

Another space opera series is Busby’s Bran Tregare / Rissa Kerguelan series, which someone mentioned recently in the comments . . . right, it was the post about starting series in the middle. Well, Busby’s is a series where the different books are from different points of view but overlap in the stories they tell, so the order in which you read some of the middle books is really a tossup.


One more is Feintuch’s Midshipman’s Hope and the associated series, though the first book is far and away the best in my opinion. The angsty protagonist works just fine in the first book, but the continuing angst gets decidedly old as we go on. However, the first book is definitely a good one, with a cleverly worked out plot and a compelling story.

Okay, that’s space opera, but I don’t want to linger here, I want to go on to military SF, which is what I actually had in mind when I started writing this post. If you like adventure SF and space opera is right up your alley, then if you haven’t dipped a toe into military SF, you really ought to, because the two subgenres intergrade thoroughly.

The difference is this: in space opera, you may get battles, but the majority of the action takes place in non-battle situations and your characters may or may not be part of an actual military unit. In military SF, your characters will almost certainly be part of a military organization, you WILL get battles, the battles will take up a lot of the book, and the tactical situation of those battles will be realistically drawn and get a lot of detailed attention.

Clever tactics in battle always impresses the heck out of me because I don’t think I could write anything like that. (It impresses me in military fantasy like Wexler’s THE THOUSAND NAMES, too.) Me, when I write a battle, I paint the military situation in broad strokes and more or less fake it. It’s quite a trick, sticking your characters in a believable battle, making the situation fiendishly unwinnable, and then getting the good guys to win in some brilliant way your reader doesn’t see coming.

What you will have in the best military SF, then: twisty plots, fast action, high stakes, heroism, good guys that win, bad guys that get theirs, good characterization, snappy dialogue, and overall solid writing. Plus spaceships, though a lot of the action, even the majority, may take place on the ground, not in space. Plus important characters who belong to military organizations, lots of time spent detailing battles, and an authorial emphasis on the tactics of the battles.

I have recently been working my way very slowly through Harry Turtledove’s immense Worldwar series, which is military SF but definitely not space opera. So plainly the overlap between the two subgenres is not universal, but then that’s always going to be the case, so let’s just agree that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and move on.

Anyway, in Turtledove’s series, the action opens with an alien invasion during WWII, so you can see immediately a lot about how the plot is going to work. In some ways, this series reminds me of Golden Age SF, because humans are intrinsically very much superior to the aliens and characterization, although the author does a decent job, takes a back seat to plot – Turtledove is showing us practically the whole world, so we have upwards of a dozen pov protagonists and switch around among them. He’s a good enough writer to keep me interested, but this is not the kind of work I find deeply emotionally engaging, which is why I’m reading it now; it doesn’t really interfere with working on my own WIP, and I’m glad I figured that out, too, believe me, because it is nice to have fiction I can read while working on stuff. But this is why I was thinking about military SF recently and about how so much of it overlaps with space opera (even though the Worldwar series doesn’t, really.)

What does overlap with space opera is Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which I dip into rather frequently, reading my favorite bits and skimming the rest. Weber tends to make his most important protagonist a bit over the top, but I actually enjoy that. He also tends to give us more of the pov of the bad guys than I frankly feel is necessary; those are some of the bits I skim or even skip entirely.

Another example is Huff’s really excellent Valor series, a great favorite of mine, which I’ve only read once and look forward to re-reading when her next installment comes out this fall. I love everything about this series. I mean, I don’t find the alien species the least bit believable, but Huff doesn’t try to make the reader take them seriously; she tosses them in the story, gives them the characteristics she wants them to have to make the story work, and moves right along. I think Huff’s writing is really strong and her decision to make her protagonist a sergeant rather than the commander of the unit was simply brilliant. Mike mentioned in the comments that the first and second books is not available on Kindle, but double-checking, I see they are, not as the Confederation of Valor omnibus, but separately, as Valor’s Choice and The Better Part of Valor. Glad I checked so I could let you all know that because this is my favorite military SF series.

Pournelle’s Falkenberg’s Legion series is an older work that has a lot going for it, though I would say it’s lighter on characterization and heavier on military philosophy than some. It’s been a while since I read it, but I did like it and still have the books in my library.

A newer, ongoing military SF series starts with Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos. I have the second book here, too, but I haven’t read it yet because, you know, sooooo many books. But I did enjoy the first book, which I found light on character complexity but engaging, well-written, fast-paced, and adequately plotted.

And the final series I want to mention here is Frezza’s trilogy starting with A Small Colonial War – I like this one a lot. When someone borrowed it and neglected to return it, which alas is a risk when you loan books freely, I re-bought the books right away so I could re-read them when I wanted to, which I knew I would want to. And I have, several times since then. Frezza’s trilogy feels oddly slow for military SF, but it appeals to me. He is dealing with military tactics, but also with the political arena and even the cultural backdrop as well; these are surprisingly complicated novels for such short books. A knowledge of Latin is an asset to the reader in this series, plus I enjoy the tidbits of poetry and the literary references Frezza tosses in, too.

This is also the series I am most reminded of by Turtledove’s Worldwar series. The works are very different, but I do think Frezza did a far better job with his aliens than Turtledove did with his, which may be why I find myself comparing the two. Well, Turtledove is primarily paying attention to real-world history, so perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to be particularly clever with his alien species as well. But though I will certainly keep Frezza’s series in my library for the foreseeable future, I’m giving the Worldwar series to my dad as I finish the books. He’ll enjoy them, and I don’t really think I will want to re-read them.

Space Opera or perhaps military SF novels that I have on my TBR pile or wishlist at the moment include:

The Course of Empire by Flint and Wentworth

Faith by John Love

To Honor You Call Us by H Paul Honsinger

and The Devil and Deep Space by Susan Matthews

… but I don’t know who recommended any of them or why they caught my eye or exactly how they’ll sort out into the two subgenres because I haven’t read any of them yet. Comments, if you have?

So, what do you think? Did I get the categories more or less right? What space opera and military SF works did I fail to mention?

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13 thoughts on “Space Opera vs Military SF”

  1. On the Mil SF side, I greatly enjoyed The lost fleet and The lost stars series by Jack Campbell.
    The Lost fleet is strictly space Navy (with a few Marines’ fights to rescue prisoners). The lost stars series alternates space combats with ground forces interventions and focuses on what happens to the “bad” guys – and not so bad guys – after the defeat. All of this mixed with some kind of arthurian canvas!
    There are detailed tactics, bitter politics and a bit of (rather bad) romance.

  2. I agree with the recommendation of Jack Campbell! The two series the same author wrote under the name “John Hemry” were also very good. There were a few years where it seems like I was constantly alternating back and forth between books in ‘The Lost Fleet’ and books in Mike Shepherd’s ‘Kris Longknife’ series. In general, ‘Kris Longknife’ is space opera and kind of reminds me of some of Moon’s books. Lately I’ve been lagging behind both of those series, but I’ll catch up eventually.

    Anyway, how about Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace series? Maybe space opera sliding towards military SF as the series progresses? I liked the first four and I thought book four especially ended on a triumph for the main character, but the description of book 5 made me nervous. I should probably give an author the benefit of the doubt after 4 good books, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to try book 5 and risk ruining the series. I think by now I’m at least a couple behind.

  3. Thanks for suggesting the Campbell series! Phineas, I know what you mean, I also have occasionally stopped reading series because a particular book ended on a positive note and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk gooing on.

  4. Of the 4 books at the end, I’ve only read THE COURSE OF EMPIRE. It’s certainly not space opera and I don’t think it’s really even military SF, though there’s a large battle at the end. But the book is actually about political maneuvering, not strategy and tactics.

  5. It may be worth taking a look at Peter Grant’s books. My husband has been reading them, and gone through several in a row, and they LOOK like space opera to me. Title of a first in a set: TAKE THE STAR ROAD.

    He likes the Campbell LOST FLEET and John C. Wright’s space operas, as well as Bujold, so although I haven’t read these I cautiously recommend them as fitting the request.

  6. Thanks for the suggestions — I’m kinda feeling like going on a space opera kick when I finish this draft of The White Road, though who knows, I may go in a completely different direction and read something like HILD instead.

  7. Wentworth didn’t really write space opera as such, but what she did write was excellent. Her stuff is more anthropological SF, even when wrapped up with Big Space Battles.
    And yes, you can’t mention Space Opera without Baen Books and LMB. But you would be remiss in neglecting The Liaden Universe, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, and David Drake’s Lieutenant Leary, RCN, a brilliant homage to Patrick O’Brien. (Compared to these, Honor Harrington is an also-ran.)

  8. Oh, and if you haven’t read Patrick O’Brian I pity you, while at the same time I am jealous.

  9. I must admit that I have not found David Drake very appealing, though I couldn’t tell you why. I am not sure I’ve ever looked at his series with Lieutenant Leary, but I do have all the Patrick O’Brien and so calling Leary an homage to O’Brien does make it sound like maybe I should try it.

  10. David Drake has good books and bad ones. REDLINERS may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is fascinating to read as a cathartic effort to get past having fought in Vietnam. I also enjoy his various retelling of events in myth and history. (Cross the Stars for the Odyssey, for example.)

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