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A new kind of space opera

Published on: 2021-05-25

In recent years I've come across a few space opera series that I've both thoroughly enjoyed and have found similar in interesting ways. They are:

Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie

The Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee

Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine

Re: Callum: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I've been meaning to write a small post comparing the three series when I came across a Geminispace discussion started by Callum's review of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (1st book of Imperial Radch trilogy):

Callum's original post

dozens' thoughts and recommendations of other authors

More recommendations from Sario

It was nice to see fans of Leckie's work, and perhaps this gemlog can add two more authors / series to the recommendations list. To that end I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but some light discussion of book themes, styles and other similarities will follow. So be warned!

Theme of identity

The deepest similarity, for me, is the theme of identity that's shared between all three series. In the Ancillary Justice the main protagonist is "reduced" from being a sort of AI / hive mind composed of a hundreds of individuals controlling a starship to a single human being. This may be my favorite Sci-Fi concept of the three.

Ninefox Gambit and A Memory Called Empire, first books in the Machineries of Empire and Teixcalaan series respectively, both introduce a similar premise: a protagonist who shares her mind with another consciences. Questions of trust and boundaries of one's own identity are explored in both cases.

From one perspective Leckie shows us an opposite effect from Lee and Martine: her protagonist is reduced down into a single individual and she needs to learn how to deal with that singular perspective. The other series' protagonists need to adapt to having another person in their mind, sharing their thoughts and feelings. It's a plurality they need to deal with. But in all three cases heroines need to reexamine their own sense of self in light of their new Sci-Fi induced circumstances.

Backdrop of empire

On a more technical level all three series share the space opera subgenre. Here too there are deeper and, for me at least, more enjoyable similarities. All three stories take place against a backdrop of somewhat menacing, or outright oppressive, empire. In all cases the protagonists are placed in an opposition to it, at times leading the revolution or just contributing to it.

But what's interesting is how all three empires, while clearly shown to be oppressive, also feature some progressive social norms by today's standards. For example all novels feature LGBTQ characters and relationships, which are taken for granted by the rest of the cast. Some of the novels actively push to break readers' expectations, with Leckie's use of feminine pronouns being the prime example of this.

Put together this made me reexamine my own prejudice while showcasing villainous antagonists that lack them. It's a refreshing departure from a more common practice of modeling oppressive Sci-Fi societies directly after our present-day ones. It allows authors to both showcase and normalize queer relationships while exploring impact of authoritarian regimes in other regards.

Whimsy of characters

Despite the serious tone novels generally have, and despite topics of oppression they deal with, there's also a dose of whimsy to them. It comes off in smaller details; a dictator's fondness for ice-cream, a soldier harboring a kitten. It humanizes the characters, but also stands out in contrast to military Sci-Fi style.

There were a few moments when this was somewhat immersion breading for me, but in the end it's these little character eccentricities that stayed with me. This may be most pronounced in Lee's writing, but it is present in others' too.

Recommendation: yes 👍️

To wrap this up, I'll circle back to Callum's original request for recommendations of SF authors who aren't white men. I can definitely recommend digging into Ninefox Gambit and A Memory Called Empire. Between the two of them Lee and Martine are female, male, queer and trans and their writing feels more genuine for it.

I personally enjoyed these three series and I hope to read more similar books in the future. If we could make this a new style of Sci-Fi for years to come that would be great.

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