A Starsector Reading List

As you might imagine, I’ve been busy cooking up some new star systems and worlds to visit in Starsector.

Which brings to mind that for some time now I’ve wanted to share a few of the science fiction novels I feel relate to how I approach the world of Starsector creatively. Reviewing my list of novels, I find some common themes: dark settings where terrible things happen (or have happened); they are often about distinct factions with differing philosophies coming into conflict; they’re set in “used” worlds filled with ruins, ancient and often misunderstood technology, scratches and dents and rust and rubble and history. And of course they’re space operas with the battles and pew-pew lasers and that lot. Just like Starsector! Such is what I aspire to, at least. Let’s begin!

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(The art, by the way, is just some stuff I’m working on for Starsector, nothing to do with the books.)

Alastair Reynolds

I’d say Reynolds is easily a, perhaps the, primary literary influence on how I think about the world of Starsector, and foremost his Revelation Space series which consists of:

  • Revelation Space
  • Chasm City
  • Redemption Ark
  • Absolution Gap
  • The Prefect

Reynolds mixes some hard-enough science fiction with a something of the noir or gothic and quite a good dash of fun genre indulgence throughout. Noir comes through especially in Chasm City - and in the city in the novel which is its namesake – with a tale of betrayal, revenge, several sci-fi mysteries to be solved, a lot of nearly sociopathic characters; the whole lot.  And gothic in both the Victorian and modern sense, I think, ranging from the classically tragic-grotesque figure of the Captain and his peculiar affliction to the more-than-modern space-goth Ultras who would probably be a hit at some club nights I’ve been to.

Plus there’s the sheer cheekiness of an entire central faction of the Revelation Space universe that I swear is one big revisionist take on Star Trek’s Borg. It tackles how to make the Borg make sense and, better yet, how to make them appealing – so keep an eye out for the Conjoiners.  And then comes Absolution Gap evoking some deliciously mad sci-fi religion with the imagery of huge caterpillar-tracked and mechanical-legged gothic cathedrals forever circling a frozen moon. And how can I fail to mention the technological terror of the Cache Weapons – or the Inhibitors?

Reynolds’ world is some fantastic stuff. You should visit.

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Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks is my favourite author. I don’t say that lightly. He’s amazing. He elevated science fiction to “respectful literature” at the same time that he was absolutely indulgent in the genre and having a great deal of fun. And somehow he seemed to do this almost unconsciously, unthinkingly, just writing what he wanted to write and it happens to accomplish all of the above. It’s difficult to fathom how. Banks is great.

  • Against a Dark Background

I love this book. It’s among my favourites with Bank’s Use of Weapons (which is not on this list but which you should read – do it). There’s a lot going on here; it’s part a character study, it’s part a sweeping sci-fi epic, it’s part deconstruction of said epic fantasy quest narratives; or is it deconstruction of science-fiction power fantasy? Or commentary on the Cold War – or personal tragedy?

The mood and setting tie in to Starsector, in my mind. This is a dark, ‘autumn world’ (worlds if you must be literal) where the heights of technology and civilization perhaps belong to the past. Things slowly fell apart and the past mistakes were forgotten again, made again, and forgotten again. Powerful people fight over ancient technology which isn’t understood but has meaning projected on it that’s nothing to do with whatever it was and more to do with what someone wants. It’s a world decayed because of the mundane-worst of humanity, and … maybe not. Banks’ black humour is applied masterfully.

  • The Algebraist

Outskirts of a hegemonic galactic portal empire? Check. Said portal connection is destroyed, leaving a small section of the empire cut off? Check. Due to this, lots of trouble brewing? Check. It’s classic Banks to make a villain this over the top actually work.

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(If you want to get in on Banks’ Culture series, which does not particularly relate to Starsector, perhaps start with “Player of Games”. I imagine that gamers in particular will get a bit of a kick out of it.)

Dan Simmons

As a matter of fact I’m just now re-reading this series for the third or fourth  … fifth? … I’ve lost count – call it the fourth time now. I’d treat the Hyperion series as one work pretty much, because it is. You may be able to find the entire collection as “Hyperion Cantos”, but the individual books are:

  • Hyperion
  • The Fall of Hyperion
  • Endymion
  • The Rise of Endymion

From the start Hyperion straight-up involves a galactic portal-empire called “the Hegemony” so it’d be absolutely remiss to leave it out of a discussion of Starsector. (This naming overlap isn’t my fault! Really!) I don’t want to say too much about the catastrophe(s) that befall(s) the setting, but suffice to say it applies to our mutual interests.

This is a literary sci-fi series, but not in the sense of modern/post-modern literature that which scoffs at tales of adventure and so on. Hyperion is more a science fiction story with love of poetry and epics; Simmons is an author who clearly adores classical myth (and his other works, Ilium and Olympos, lay this plain) – mere humans are caught between forces of titanic power and it’s the heroism of their humanity which tips the world one way or the other. Hyperion also digs into themes of Abrahamic religion, and while I don’t think I could dig so far as he does, the imagery of his far-future Catholic Church is to die for. (Heh heh, you’ll get it after you read it.) Plus, the Shrike is an absolutely unforgettable figure.

All the common points of setting are found in Simmons’ work here as well – an empire sprawled in death across more or less terraformed worlds, and all that entails.

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Now! Compare Simmons’ take on AI versus Banks; compare Simmons’ “Ousters” of the Hyperion Cantos with Banks’ “Beyonders” from The Algebraist. Compare Reynolds’ Cache Weapons with Banks’ Lazy Gun; Reynold’s nanotech with Simmons’ nanotech – and how the respective contemporary fictional societies feel about all of it. There are some similar ideas in play through the aforementioned novels but each author has a radically different approach.

These stories won’t tell you what exactly is going to be in Starsector but they’ll tell you a lot about how I’d like Starsector to feel when it’s done.

Now it’s your turn: Are there any stories you think fit nicely with what’s going on in Starsector? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations.

Read the comment thread here.

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