We don’t need to tell you that Firefly has transformed from failed TV series to cultural phenomenon in the years since its 2003 cancellation after an inauspicious 12-episode run on Fox. Joss Whedon’s Western-styled space opera might be missed, but in the years since, its fans have found ways to cope with its absence, turning to other TV shows, writing fan fiction—or searching out books that scratch their Big Damn Heroes itch. We always find ourselves reaching for a solid space opera novel during the summer months, so we’re offering up 15 space opera books for Firefly fans, each embodying one or more of the qualities that made that show so great.
Crewing a spaceship
The defining element of a ship-based sci-fi show are the people onboard; spaceship crews present an excellent opportunity for authors to create a diverse, fascinating cast of characters.
One of the absolute best books to exemplify the power of a disparate group of heroes is Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which features one of the best casts that I’ve ever encountered in a book. The good starship Wayfarer has an incredible crew: there’s Rosemarie, a new clerk hired to help the ship through customs; Lovey, the ship’s self-aware AI; techs-in-arms Jenks and Kizzy; reptilian pilot Sissix; the profoundly abrasive Corbin, in charge of growing the algae that serves as the ship’s fuel; the amiable Dr. Chef (the doctor and the cook, naturally); the truly alien navigator, Ohan; not to mention Ashby, the gruff-but-good-hearted captain. Chambers’ novel is less a linear plot than a great mosaic of character stories, all of which play out as the ship heads out into the black on a mission to to open up a new hyperspace lane.
Mike Brooks Dark Run is a brand-new book deserves to catch your attention, and not just because of its snazzy John Harris cover: it’s an exciting ride through space aboard the Keiko, your standard ship of rag-tag smugglers and thieves led by Captain Ichabod Drift, who’s being blackmailed into taking on a dangerous mission to the ruins of Old Earth. Everyone onboard has a criminal record a lightyear long, including their captain, and it’s incredibly fun to watch them bang into each other as Brooks sends them off on a fast-paced, high-stakes mission. (Lest you worry about another early cancellation, this is but the first installment of a new series.)
Another appealing aspect of Firefly was the universe in which it was set: one still reeling from the ravages of a brutal civil war, with tensions between the central government and the outer planets threatening to erupt into renewed warfare at any moment. Galactic governments (or even system-wide ones) ramp up the tension as those loveable, mixed-up crews either enforce or break the laws between the planets.
Elizabeth Bonesteel’s debut novel The Cold Between sets up a really intriguing world, in which the Central Corps maintains peace and order throughout human space, existing alongside several other groups—sometimes not in a friendly way. This is no black-and-white universe; Bonesteel goes above and beyond to make sure that she’s not writing about a monolithic, oversimplified evil space empire.
It’s impossible to talk about worlds and governments without mentioning Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh, or Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The two reigning queens of space opera, their respective series—the Alliance-Union books and the Vorkosigan Saga—are each classics of the genre: long-running stories that consider the might, right, and wrong of intergalactic human empires, and the tension that results for their characters.
Another debut novel to consider is Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers, due later this summer. It’s caught our eye thanks to its plot, which involves an heir to the Indranan Empire being dragged back home, forced to give up her starship and her life to rule over an empire (whetehr she wants to or not). Not unexpectedly, she finds that there’s more to system-wide rule than meets the eye.
On a mission
Finally, there’s the thing that drives any great spaceship story: the mission that sends our characters on their way. Space opera offers plenty of excellent story hooks: the crews of the Wayfarer and the Keiko are hired for their respective missions, Breq, the AI protagonist of Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice, is motivated by revenge, while The Cold Between‘s Elena Shaw unravels a decades-long conspiracy.
Emma Bull’s novel Falcon pulls you into the story quickly, as Dominic Glyndwr, a member of Cymru’s royal class, returns home from a long journey to find everything has changed, and her world is on the verge of revolt—and that’s not all. The product of an military experiment, and with nothing else to lose, Dominic embarks on a mission that could very well be his last.
Another excellent example is Julie E. Czerneda’s 2001 novel In The Company of Others. As humanity spread into space, it terraformed numerous planets, only to run into a wall when colonists encountered The Quill, an alien life form that has pushed back human space, killing anyone it comes into contact with as human stations become overcrowded with colonists with nowhere to go. A researcher, Gail Smith, arrives on one station in search of a potential survivor of the Quill, bent on finding a way for humanity to continue to spread into space, before our species self destructs.
Karen Lowachee’s Warchild is a bit more straightforward: Jos Musey, kidnapped as a child by pirates, is later captured by the striviirc-na, an alien civilization hostile to humanity. Trained to be their perfect sleeper agent, he is sent off on a mission to recon human space, and help lay the groundwork for a treaty. However, when he returns home, his true loyalties are tested, with galactic civilizations hanging in the balance.
If you’re looking for a bit more of a straight-up adventure, Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home might be up your alley. It follows antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, who return to a distant Earth in search of a cache of Apollo-era artifacts. First, they’ll have to track down a missing space freighter that might hold some clues to the whereabouts of the treasure. There’s also The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn, which sees Jordan McKell hired to fly a ship to Earth—and to keep it out of the hands of the Patthaaunutth, the aliens who control intergalactic travel. It’s a thrilling adventure with a motley crew and mystery that might change the future of humanity (with a majorly surprising ending).
The biggest, grandest mission of them all might be the one in Larry Niven’s classic, award-winning Ringworld. When Louis Wu is hired by the Puppeteers to investigate a mysterious artifact discovered floating in space, he encounters something more awesome than anyone could have imagined: a structure so massive, it encircles an entire star. If you can’t get enough of giant orbitals, you’ll then want to move on to Iain M. Banks’ sprawling Culture series; the first installment, Consider Phlebas, has a particularly heady Firefly boquet, though it goes quite a bit more sour by the end.
Ultimately, the space opera seems to endure because is signals an adventure is in store. They offer stories of the exploration on thousands of new worlds; quirky spaceships and quirkier crews; and missions, battles, and new things to discover, just around the galactic corner.
What books would you add to our list?