I began thinking about this topic last year, when the Sad Puppies were in full cry. One of their complaints was that current Hugo finalists and winners are not good, old-time space operas with space ships and ray guns. I wondered about this, since Ann Leckie’s trilogy strikes me as classic space opera, though I haven’t finished the last volume. Maybe she takes a sudden turn at the end. But the Puppies wouldn’t have known about the third book when they were complaining.
Then I thought about Lois Bujold, who has five Hugos. Bujold is the only person I have met with more Hugos than she had room on her mantelpiece. The last time I saw her, she said she had moved to a new house, so maybe she has room now. In any case, I would call the Vorkosigan Saga classic space opera.
And I thought of C. J. Cherryh, who has won two Hugos. She was just made a Grand Master of Science Fiction. A lot of her fiction is classic space opera, it seems to me: the Chanur series, many of the novels in the Alliance-Union universe. I’d be inclined to add the Foreigner books, which might be planetary romance, I suppose, but they do have space ships, space stations, and interstellar travel. Cherryh is great at describing ships and stations, metal worlds with the exterior cold seeping in. I love her cold.
I would add Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire novels to the list of space operas, also Marguerite Reed’s recent first novel, Archangel, which is up for a Philip K. Dick Award, and Karen Traviss’s Wess’har books. In addition, there is my novel Ring of Swords, which is clearly military space opera. You notice that I am listing only women. I am sure there are men who write fine space opera, but—for the most part—I don’t read them. I don’t claim that my list of women space opera writers is comprehensive. There are a lot more.
It seems clear to me that space opera is being written and some of it is winning Hugos, as well as other awards. So why are the Puppies complaining?
I am going to discuss what I like about the space operas I have read. This may explain why the Puppies aren’t happy. I’ll start with Ann Leckie. She is famous—or infamous—for only using the pronoun “she” in her novels. (This may change in the third novel, which I have just begun.) Even more interesting to me is this: her protagonist cannot see either sex or gender. In her culture this is so unimportant that it isn’t visible. I can believe this. We see what matters.
Leckie is onto something. She is imagining a universe where gender/sex does not matter—so much so that it isn’t visible. An interesting idea, but maybe not one that would interest fans of old-fashioned manly space opera.
There are several themes and/or tropes that appear in the space opera written by women. I can’t say if space opera written by men is similar or different, since I don’t read it. But these themes explain why I find the space opera I read interesting.
As in all space opera, there is fighting and interstellar war or the threat of war. In addition, there is nurture, negotiation, reproduction, tough women, and vulnerable men.
We can’t identify the sex of the protagonist in Leckie’s novels. But s/he was an AI running an interstellar warship, with human soldiers—zombies, more or less—enslaved to her or him. In the first novel, s/he loses her or his ship body and most of her or his human bodies. S/he is reduced to a single human person, with the mind of a military space ship. I identify with the loss, vulnerability, and strangeness. Through most of the first novel, this very-much-diminished entity is caring for a totally screwed up human soldier, an officer who has degenerated into drug addiction. So a vulnerable hero, and a person who nurtures … Leckie’s hero sounds like woman to me.
Bujold and Cherryh also write about vulnerability. Miles Vorkosigan is a small and fragile person, who wants to be as formidable as his admiral father and general grandfather. Bren Cameron, in Cherryh’s Foreigner series, is an average- size human surrounded by tall, black aliens, all more powerful than he is. Both Miles and Bren have to rely on wits. Women do this, in a world dominated (still) by men.
(I realize that ideas about gender are changing. But I would argue that one definition of womanhood is a person who is afraid to walk down a dark street alone. There are other definitions, but vulnerability and lack of power are key.)
Bujold writes a lot about reproduction. A number of her novels turn on people (not always women) having children or wanting to have children. Diplomatic Immunity has a villain who is a Ba, a person genetically engineered to have no sex. The Ba hijacks a ship full of embryos, killing the ship’s crew, because it’s the only way it can become a parent. A scary presentation of the need to reproduce. I find this a powerful idea.
Ethan of Athos, a Bujold novel I have not read, is about a man from an entirely male planet, who goes on a quest for fresh, new ovarian tissue for his planet’s uterine replicators. Having no women, Athos needs to import the tissue in order to keep reproducing. An interesting problem for a space opera.
Komarr, another novel in the Vorkosigan saga, is about a woman escaping a horrible marriage and struggling to save her son from a genetic disease. It’s also a detective story and a space opera. But what grabs me is the family dynamics.
Cherryh’s Foreigner series, now up to 18 novels, portrays a hero caught in an alien culture, where he survives by his wits and his skill at negotiation. Everyone around him, including his alien lover, is larger and more powerful than he is.
The Foreigner books have a couple more interesting elements. One is the Dowager, an ancient alien female who becomes one of Bren’s allies. She is very much the mastermind of the series and tougher than nails. Another ally is the son of the alien ruler, the great-grandson of the Dowager, who is growing up with the aid of the Dowager and Bren. The novels are (in part) about nurture and raising a kid who will (as an adult) negotiate between species. I love the Dowager, How often is an old woman the mastermind of a series? The kid is tolerable, and I like poor, anxious Bren, always worrying.
City of Pearl, the first Wess’har novel by Karen Traviss, is about human interactions with an alien who is guarding a planet and its intelligent native species. Again, the theme is nurture: the alien’s attempt to keep the squid-like local people safe. The human protagonist is a very tough woman ex-cop.
The same theme of protection and nurture appears in Archangel by Marguerite Reed,where the human heroine is guarding an alien ecology—and raising a toddler, who is as demanding as all toddlers. As in City of Pearl, the novel has a seriously tough heroine: a hunting guide and a scientist. The descriptions of autopsying big alien animals are memorable. (The colony world needs the money big game hunters bring, but also needs more information about the native life forms.)
Finally, we get to Catherine Asaro’s The Last Hawk. Wikipedia describes the plot as follows:
Because of his pleasing appearance and his skill in Quis (a game with real world consequences), Kelric is coveted by the queens (known as "Managers") of the different estates. Kelric'smembership in the estates proceeds as follows: Dahl, Haka, Bahvla, Miesa, Varz, and finally Karn. Renamed "Sevtar", Kelric has two children with two of his wives (one of which is born Rhon) during his time in the different estates.
This pussyfoots around the plot a bit. Kelric is an extremely powerful cyborg. His cybernetic components are badly damaged when his space ship crashes on a planet dominated by women; and he goes from being a formidable war machine to someone who is (comparatively speaking) weak and vulnerable. In this condition he becomes a servant or prisoner of a whole series of powerful women, who maintain harems of Quis players. (I think harem in the right word here.) As Wikipedia says, he is handed from queen or queen. With each transfer, we are run through another pirate romance plot or version of The Sheik. But in this book, the helpless captive is a formerly powerful man, and the smirking pirate or sheik (“Ha! Ha! My lovely! You are mine!”) is a woman.
Asaro has played other games with space opera and romance and physics. (She has a PhD from Harvard in chemical physics, a field I didn’t even know existed.) I am especially fond of The Last Hawk.
I could keep going. I haven’t discussed Cherryh’s Chanur books or my own Ring of Swords, not to mention whole slews of other books. But I think you get the idea: nurture, reproduction, protection, negotiation, vulnerability. I can see why the Sad Puppies might not like this stuff.