Sometimes when the Science Fiction Book Club offers a whole series of books, I bite and buy them all, telling myself that I’m saving money. I’ve read Elizabeth Moon before and she’s an excellent writer (see The Speed of Dark, which won the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novel), so it wasn’t much of a risk. That’s how I came to read the entire Vatta’s War series, end to end, with the exception of the fourth book that hasn’t been released yet.
Many people might use the label “space opera” for these novels, but that label isn’t even accurate any more since its meaning has drifted. Initially, it indicated a plot and characters that didn’t truly depend upon a futuristic environment. If the plot and characters could be lifted out and easily placed, for instance, in current times, then it was space opera. It was also considered a derogatory term and often used to describe the earliest T.V. series of Star Trek. Today, people tend to use the term to describe an action-based plot, whether or not the plot hinges upon a futuristic environment (or scientific and technological advances, etc.). Military science fiction is often relegated to the space opera bin by default.
What’s ironic about the term “space opera” is that the detractors of Star Trek also used the term to emphasize that the series wasn’t based upon plausible science. My husband and I just watched the Deep Space 9 episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” which had the characters going back in time to participate in the 1960s Star Trek episode of “The Trouble With Tribbles.” They’re both famous episodes. However, what struck us, as the characters themselves considered their own technological advances, was how much our society depends upon widgets and technology that match 1960s Star Trek items. My husband’s iPod, my Palm, our cell phones, and the medical equipment that monitored my husband during a minor surgical procedure (as well as the fact that it was considered minor and relatively non-invasive), all bear uncanny resemblances to technology displayed in that 1960s show. Sure, plenty of science fiction postulated the widgets we use today, but it’s the visual designs used on the old implausible Star Trek that seems to have had some of the strongest influence on our designers. Enough ranting.
Trading in Danger, Marque and Reprisal, and Engaging the Enemy are fast-paced science fiction with a military flavor. In the series, the central danger to civilized economies and trade are the sudden terrorist attacks upon the ansibles that provide FTL travel and communications. Ky Vatta finds herself in the terrorist’s sights, as does her family. Most of her family members, including all her immediate family, are wiped out in a terrorist attack — and the government of Slotter Key isn’t doing anything to track down the perpetrators. Ky and her cousin Stella find themselves stranded and on their own as the Vatta trading empire crumbles. They’re betrayed by traitors sitting in planetary governments and even on Vatta ships. Ky, Stella, and the few remaining Vattas struggle for survival, restoration of Vatta resources, establishment of an inter-planetary force for order, and revenge for family deaths. These are engaging characters with realistic flaws and virtues. I’m excited about book number four in the series.