Between the just-released movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name (Crown, 2014), and the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, opening in theaters December 18, the cold, cold reaches of outer space are white-hot—not just for filmgoers but also among readers.
Several publishers brought up a third movie as stoking a renewed interest in space opera: 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, about an Earth-born adventurer who teams up with a group of extraterrestrial misfits to save the universe. It was a mainstream hit, grossing $333 million domestically.
“I didn’t think Guardians was going to work—no one’s ever really done a full-on space opera outside of Star Wars,” says Joe Monti, editorial director at Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint. “But it had charm and was widely accepted. So here we are, in a world where that stuff can be popular.”
The plot of Dark Run by Mike Brooks (S&S/Saga, June 2016) evokes that cinematic romp, putting a science fiction twist on the traditional heist tale, with a roguish crew trying to survive in a corrupt universe.
Character-driven space opera can also be a vehicle for telling intimate stories. Planetfall by Emma Newman (Roc, Nov.), about an interstellar mission gone awry, stars a protagonist with PTSD.
C.A. Higgins’s just-published debut, Lightless (Del Rey), takes place on a military ship in deep space, zeroing in on a computer scientist and two fugitive terrorists. “The real engine of the story is the relationships among the three characters,” says Tricia Narwani, editorial director at Del Rey.
Other tales are more sprawling, such as Ann Leckie’s multi–award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy (Orbit), which concludes in October with Ancillary Mercy.
“Space opera [is similar to] epic fantasy, in that it builds a world for your imagination to roam free in,” says Anne Clark, v-p and deputy publisher at Orbit. “But it has touch points that are recognizable to readers in our own lives right now. It can range from near-future to far future, but there’s always going to be something familiar about it.”
The YA novel Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Knopf, Oct.) pairs a familiar scenario with a more outlandish situation. Two teens, who are barely speaking to each other after their breakup, get caught up in a war between rival mega-corporations in the year 2575.
Off-planet corporate intrigue also drives the recently released Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Tor.), which begins a series about the five families who rule Earth’s moon, controlling its resources and vying for power. In a starred review, PW said, “McDonald creates a complex and fascinating civilization featuring believable technology, and the characters are fully developed, with individually gripping stories.” Earlier this year, CBS optioned Luna: New Moon for television.
Another indication of the growing appetite for space stories may be found in who’s writing them. John Sandford is best known as the author of the Prey series of crime thrillers; the most recent, Gathering Prey, has sold more than 120,000 copies since its April 2015 release. This month, Sandford is publishing his first work of science fiction, Saturn Run (Putnam), coauthored with Ctein, a photographer with a physics background.
In the book, a Caltech intern, in the year 2066, detects signs of alien intelligence. The novel, which PW’s starred review called “thoroughly absorbing,” bridges the gap between space adventure and near-future SF. And with recent real-world developments like the discovery of potentially life-supporting water on Mars, that distance may not be as wide as once thought.
For a sampling of forthcoming titles in ongoing series, go to publishersweekly.com/sff1516.