Literal Star-Crossed Lovers: A Reading List of Space Operas with Romance Subplots
S.B. Divya Recommends Valerie Valdes, Lois McMaster Bujold, Malka Older, and More
I have loved reading science fiction since age ten, when my school librarian handed me a copy of Jill Patton Walsh’s The Green Book. I fell in love with romance after reading Jane Eyre, which my uncle gave me. When I became a writer, my focus was on the former, but my stories often include a romantic relationship, sometimes at its start but just as often in its later stages.
When I sat down to write my latest novel, Meru, I knew I wanted to write an interstellar epic but I didn’t have a plot, so I drew upon one of my favorite Indian mythological stories, “Nala and Damayanti.” Unlike many love stories, this one is about a couple whose adventures begin mostly after they get married. The central question isn’t, “Will they or won’t they,” but rather, “How will they find their way back to each other?”
When most people hear “space opera,” they probably think of Dune or Star Wars rather than romance, but I’ve discovered that many books blend these two genres. Here are some of my favorites. They range from older works to some that came out in the last few years.
A common theme across all of these is that the two leads not only cross the vast distances between stars; they also bridge the treacherous gaps between cultures. My own novel is no exception. Space travel creates worlds with varied societies and life forms. It provides a fertile soil in which to explore romantic relationships, taking the subgenre beyond wormholes and laser battles.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Agent of Change
The first book of the long-running Liaden Universe series. The main characters, Val Con and Miri, are a spy and mercenary pair, but they’re not your typical couple. The Liaden Universe contains three different species of humankind, with Val Con being a Liaden–a more advanced species–and Miri being a Terran, a more typical human.
This creates some additional sparks and complexity to their relationship as they go on the run against some common enemies. Both characters’ points of view are represented.
I suspect that having two authors of different genders added an extra dimension to the writing. The series continues today, so there are many more books with new characters, twists, and turns, but this one still makes a great entry point.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Shards of Honor
Book One of the Vorkosigan Saga, a series that spans multiple generations and centers on a complex and quirky family. This first novel is full of space battles, science, and politics. It also features the romance that ultimately results in the conception of the lovable, inimitable Miles Vorkosigan.
The two central characters here are Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, who find themselves on opposite sides of a war. Their relationship develops slowly and is quite mature as the two of them deal with complex ethical and emotional situations.
This is definitely not your standard enemies-to-lovers story, and the book sets the stage for repercussions that will echo through the rest of the series.
Valerie Valdes, Chilling Effect
The first in a trilogy, this debut novel features an interspecies romance between a human starship captain and her alien crewmate. It’s a slow burn that’s complicated by the fact that Captain Eva Innocente is highly conflicted by her attraction to her subordinate, not to mention the many high-stakes situations that keep them both too busy to explore their feelings.
As with other space operas, there’s a lot of fast flying, fighting, and general hijinks in the vein of Firefly, along with a wonderful found-family crew and some heartbreaking moments of introspection and growth. Last but not least, there’s the pesky telepathic cats who get loose on board the ship.
Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace
A follow-up to Martine’s breakout debut, A Memory Called Empire. The sequel gets deeper into the relationship between Mahit Dzmare, an interstellar diplomat, and Three Seagrass, an agent of the imperial Information Ministry, who first acknowledge their feelings for each other at the end of book one. In this novel, the two women are thrown together once again, this time while dealing with an alien first-contact situation that teeters on the brink of catastrophe.
Romance doesn’t take center stage in their interactions, but sparks definitely fly even as Martine goes deeper to explore cross-cultural relationships and the challenges associated with them.
Malka Older, The Mimicking of Known Successes
A novella by the author of Infomocracy, that takes place after Earth’s ecosphere has been rendered uninhabitable. The primary plot here is a murder mystery set on artificial rings built around Jupiter, and the vibe has a strong steampunk overtone even though the setting is in our future. The romance takes place between a detective, Mossa, and her academic ex-girlfriend, Pleiti.
This is a second-chance story that follows the two as they find clues, track down suspects, and discover that they have both changed just enough to find their love again—all while possibly saving the future of humanity.
Meru by S. B. Divya is available via 47North.