In Search of Epic Science Fiction

Much is said about epic fantasy. In fact, when people think of modern fantasy, they are often thinking of series such as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. These are multi-volume novels that span many years, contain several characters, and the plot concerns the fate of an entire population.

To claim fantasy or science fiction as epic is a nebulous task — there is no definitive definition. A good discussion with 28 epic fantasy authors on Clarkesworld is here.

I particularly liked what Brandon Sanderson had to say when asked “What is at the heart (or core) of Epic Fantasy?

For me, “epic” means covering a large span of time or a large geographic area, over multiple books, dealing with the rise and fall of nations. No single one of those things is absolutely essential.

Gav Thorpe added

To be truly epic a story has to be world-changing. It has to deal with the fates of entire nations and races. It can deal with one individual or a whole host of characters, but by the end of the tale the world as it started out needs to have significantly changed, whether for better or worse.

So can we apply these definitions to science fiction? Absolutely.

Many science fiction novels deal with geographical largeness, be it our solar system, galaxy, or the entire universe. This alone cannot define epic science fiction — there needs to also be some type of largeness in terms of characters or plot in the context of future history.

Works that seem obvious to place in this category are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Epic science fiction can also be found in TV and movies with examples such as Stargate and Star Wars. But when we talk about modern science fiction, the task becomes more difficult.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is typically cited as a good example. Iain Banks’ Culture series is certainly large and sweeping, but the connection between the novels is primarily a shared universe rather than one large epic story. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space is another example that is mentioned.

I understand that science fiction no longer shares the popularity that fantasy has, but I am surprised there is not more being done in terms of epic science fiction. One of my recent reviews was Brian Thomas Schmidt’s book, The Returning (Saga of Davi Ravii Book 2), which approaches epic proportions in terms of geography and the stakes. My next review coming is Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, which also approaches a level of grandeur, but it primarily focuses on a small number of characters with a larger war taking place in the background.

Is there a George R.R. Martin series in modern science fiction? A series with a vast setting, a complex story with the fate of civilizations at stake, and multiple characters who grow and drive change throughout a large story arc? I’d be curious if anyone has any thoughts.

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