The term “space opera” conjures grand vistas, massive spaceships, multi-threaded plots of romance and intrigue, dashing protagonists, and dastardly villains, evoking all the grandiosity of an opera and the hallmarks of the best imaginative science fiction. But while all this is true, operas rarely come in a single flavor. There are gothic horror operas, romantic operas, fantastical operas, and even comic operas. While many space operas are happy to feature witty banter, few truly take advantage of all the comical end of the scale has to offer. Submitted for your approval, here are six seriously funny space operas.
The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi
Drawing from the “gentleman thief” adventures of classic characters like Arsene Lupin and the aesthetic of European comic books, Rajaniemi’s whirlwind space opera follows the adventures of Jean le Flambeur as he gallivants around a trans-human
French Martian Riviera at the behest of a mysterious woman, on a quest to complete the one failed job of his illustrious career—the heist that got away. While the magnetic lead, whip-smart delivery, and cleverly plotted twists are recommendation enough, Rajaniemi’s generous sense of humor, knowledge of quantum mechanics, and flagrant abuse of Clarke’s Third Law ensure the book’s setting and characters exude enough style and charm for multiple adventures.
The Road to Mars, by Eric Idle
While the elevator pitch of “Hope and Crosby, but in space” does its part to describe Idle’s cheerfully, blissfully absurd comic farce, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Set aboard an interplanetary liner making the several-month long haul to Mars, The Road to Mars follows two failed comedians as they get tangled up in intrigue, murder, a terrorist plot, a refugee crisis, the joys of working blue, and numerous clashes with their fellow performers and passengers. Aiding and abetting them in their mayhem are a David Bowie replicant trying to devise a mathematical formula for humor, a prop comic who works in explosives, and a mysterious woman in some mysterious kind of trouble (aren’t they always.) Idle’s gift for absurd farce comes full to bear, delivering a well-timed sci-fi adventure that also manages to explore the history and nature of comedy itself as it stampedes along. And it teaches readers how to swear in Latin.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
Picking up during the climax of Chambers’ first novel featuring the crew of the deep space working vessel Wayfarer, A Closed and Common Orbit is the story of ships’ former AI Lovelace (renamed “Sidra”) and a chipper mechanic named Pepper. The book finds its robotic heroine navigating the world from within a new physical body, and trying to adjust to not being a spaceship any more. Chambers fills the book with fantastic comic touches, from Sidra’s constant attempts to a form much less functional than the one she’s used to, to a manual listing all the fun things an AI can do with their body, including sitting at the bottom of a pool, as a “neat party trick.” This sense of humor also helps highlight genuine heart, as Pepper and Sidra grapple with everything from Sidra’s unusual after-market memory files to her difficulties in her new body.
How Much For Just The Planet? by John M. Ford
When Pocket Books asked “Mike” Ford, the virtuoso author of the classic Star Trek novel The Final Reflection, for a followup, they’d probably hoped he’d write another thrilling story of the Klingon culture. But Ford hated to repeat himself (and might have been a little fed up with Paramount’s plot restrictions), so instead, he wrote a musical comedy farce set in the Star Trek universe. The resulting book adheres as closely as possible to the canon we know and love, but veers as off the rails whenever it can, resulting in a book where Klingons are film noir fans, Starfleet is obsessed with inflatable replica starships, food replicator mishaps dye everything in neon colors, and Kirk ends up getting a face full of blueberries in the middle of a pie fight. It may sound chaotic (and it is), but there’s also a point to all of it (not to give anything away), and Ford’s immense talents give the chaos enough order to make it a must-read.
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
Banks’s space operas operate on a Coen Bros.-style comic wavelength to begin with, what with people being executed via trebuchet and a temple full of mirrors to discourage laser fire, but Excession launch the deadpan comedy into all-out absurdism. It’s the story of a massive, eccentric AI-run spaceship, a hibernating crew of humans unliving out their days as technically living diaramas, and a conspiracy among its fellow five-dimensional AI vessels attempting to solve the problems caused by the sudden appearance of a massive black sphere from outside space or any known context. It’s the kind of book where an AI’s physical representation appears as a cadaverous figure dressed all in black, sapient spaceships engage in sarcastic foulmouthed banter while combating the boredom of space voyages, and an explanation of cosmic horror references both Douglas Adams and a situation familiar to countless players of Civilization. While not the most accessible of the Culture novels, Excession does have the distinction of being one of the weirdest, and definitely one of the funniest.
A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold’s series has always displayed a fantastic sense of humor, but A Civil Campaign is practically a Regency comedy of manners in space opera drag. Miles Vorkosigan wishes to marry Ekaterin Voroisson, a brilliant widow whose husband’s death was partially Miles’ fault. As a brilliant tactical and political genius, he believes he can come up with some plan to woo her. It would probably work, too, were that the only problem. But the Emperor’s impending wedding, an insane get-rich-quick scheme by Miles’s clone/twin brother Mark, political backstabbing, and a murder investigation all conspire to complicate Miles’s designs, as his attempts at wooing are delayed so he can put out one fire after another. Bujold’s comic timing is excellent as ever, and the sharp dialogue (a single utterance of “twit” carries immense force) only escalates the out-of-control romantic antics.
What’s your favorite comic space opera?