MIND MELD: Keeping Space Opera Relevant [UPDATED]
This week we tackle one of our favorite science fiction sub-genres, Space Opera. Specifically for this question, we are going to be taking our cue from Alan DeNiro’s review of The New Space Opera over at Rain Taxi. (You can view the book online here). The question posed to our panel this week is:
Relevant? Today’s news will be dated tomorrow. Why bother with relevance? You might as well demand that Tolkien be politically correct. Space Opera being a retro style, it should be indulged in with mucho retro gusto. Human passions on alien worlds! Action! Adventure! Really Wild Things! The big evolutionary drama played out against the universe in a timeless way. It makes for good stories, and good storytelling stands the test of time. The Wild West vanished long ago, but no one ever remarks that western stories are irrelevant. If I’m going to write genre stuff I will revel in it, not cringe and worry whether I’m relevant enough for today’s tastes.
All generalisations have exceptions, and the statement that space opera sub-genre is firmly entrenched in the confines of the science-fiction field is no exception – space-operish novels by Cecelia Holland, M.K. Joseph, Doris Lessing, and Frederick Turner spring to mind* . But I do think it’s broadly right, as long as we stick to print rather than movies and TV series. One reason is that space opera requires deployment of the full orchestra of SF themes and memes. That’s a large part of its attraction for me, anyhow. And while it’s possible for a few talented writers to invent it from whole cloth, usually anyone who tries to write space opera has to be familiar with all that SF stuff, and to be familiar with it they have to have read widely in the field. Given that it burgeons forth from the pulsing heart of the SF genre, how then can space opera be relevant to anything other than the current state of SF? First, I think that it is relevant in the same way that all SF bears some relevance to the time in which it was written,
for no matter how deeply buried, there always traces of the happening world or the recent past in any SF text. Second, many authors deliberately attempt to use recent history to give some vital underpinning to the vast narrative sweeps of space opera. For instance, James Blish has stated that his Cities in Flight series was influenced by hobo culture during the Depression, and by the historical theories of Spengler. More recent space operas (the kind of thing John Clute called ‘cosmogony opera’) have been deeply imprinted by speculations revolving around cosmological theories and cutting-edge physics. So space opera will remain relevant so long as the people writing it remain aware of what’s going on around them, are able to filter useful details into the story, and give the unbelievable a local habitation, and a name.
* The Floating Worlds; The Hole in the Zero; The Canopus in Argos series; A Double Shadow
Hmm, I think Space Opera went pretty mainstream in 1977 with a somewhat well known film called Star Wars, which featured a lot of the tropes that make Space Opera the dashing subgenre that it is: massive spaceships, planets with two suns, big dumb objects (the deathstar), giant space battles, plucky heroes and larger than life settings. A lot of that stuff lies at the bottom of Space Opera and is what gets the adrenaline going. I think that people are able to get Space Opera just fine, particularly when I see Alastair Reynolds paperbacks at Wal-Mart, as well as the more military Space Opera of Baen also at Wal-Mart. When you look at the sales figures of the videogames of Halo and Mass Effect, it’s quite clear that the tropes and themes of Space Opera are more than normalized within the general population.
But the question of how to keep it relevant is very interesting, I think. I don’t know if Space Opera struggles any less that any other SF/F related genre. A lot of SF/F uses the framework of its tropes as a way to explore Big Issues that we think today’s society is facing. The neat thing about SF/F is that by saying ‘let’s pretend’ you can de-baggage concepts that get knee-jerk responses out of people today. I don’t see Space Opera as being all that much different in the opportunities it grants except for one thing…
…Space Opera does expect a large amount of explosion, fast pace, and adventure. People really don’t have a lot of time to sit around. That constraint can prevent an author from dwelling on things too closely or fully fleshing things out as far as they might have otherwise. I think that’s why Space Operas often have a tendency to run long as authors try to get everything in.
But as far as relevancy, the form allows authors an incredible latitude and variety that makes modern Space Opera books of late a very fun and exciting place to be a reader.
Space opera – not the old hacking grinding horse operas that Wilson Tucker had in mind when he coined the term, but its smarter and savvier descendant – is arguably as much a part of the mainstream as any other sub-genre of science fiction. I’m aware that we all think we live in some kind of post-cyberpunk world, and that Philip K. Dick’s crazy paranoia seems to be keeping Hollywood in business these days, but how could you possibly argue that space opera is NOT mainstream when we live in the same world as Star Trek and Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and so on and so forth? Whether it’s universally *respected* or not, space opera is very much a part of our mainstream culture.
I also wouldn’t say that space opera is firmly entrenched within the confines of the science fiction field. Rather, I’d say that space opera is the truest, purest form of science fiction and it rightly occupies the very center of the field. Space opera has given science fiction its greatest icons and many of its greatest stories. If you remove it, then science fiction itself becomes a very different thing. Certainly, that’s what working on The New Space Opera confirmed for me.
Now, once you get past the notion that space opera is somehow less mainstream than other SF, and that it is in some way entrenched within confines, you do get to what I take to be the essence of your question — how are writers working to keep space opera fresh and relevant? I think it’s an interesting question. Writers write stories that reflect the times that they live in. The bright optimistic science fiction stories of the ’30s and ’40s reflected the optimism of the pre-WWII era and most importantly the confidence that existed in science and technology to solve our problems. That optimism changed over time, and by the time you begin to see the seeds of the new space opera being sown in the mid-1970s there’s a definite move to embrace the literary challenges raised by the New Wave and Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. Stories became brasher, more experimental. Then in the early ’80s, with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives laying waste to the UK, British writers picked up the bright shiny object that space opera is and made it darker, savvier, more politically aware. That continued through the 1990s, as space opera became more scientifically aware, with ships become more commonly slower-than-light, and all of that quantum stuff coming into play.
So what are they doing right now to keep things fresh and relevant? Well, I think there’s a desire to absorb ideas like the Singularity, quantum mechanics, and so on into space opera. You can see it in things like Karl Schroeder’s Virga Quartet where there’s a definitely playful creative element coming to the fore. Writers seem to want to tell stories that are bright, colorful and adventurous, but that keep in touch with what’s happening in real science. You can also see contemporary events impacting on stories, with post 9/11 themes appearing. I actually think this is an incredibly exciting time to space opera. The impression I have is that, just as British writers turned to space opera in the darker times of the 1980s, now North American writers are beginning to do the same thing. Combine current science and cultural issues with bright energetic adventure. I even just heard that Neal Stephenson has written a space opera. These are strange, interesting, exciting times for the field.
I wasn’t very happy when I first noticed the triumphant return of Golden Age style Space Opera; must have been about a decade ago. My adult tastes had been formed by challenging, experimental and highly political feminist sf of the seventies, and then by cyberpunk. I wanted sf to be engaged with the real world, real issues, the forseeable future. And yes, I wanted the barrier between top-end sf and the “mainstream” to vanish. I had nothing against space opera as mass market entertainment, but I felt the big resurgance was a bad sign. There’s no denying, Space Opera in the front rank means a genre that embraces permanent warfare world. I personally don’t care if the ideology calls itself hard-left-libertarian or right-wing-liberal-as-in-Heinlein, I don’t care if it’s about “girls getting to be guys”: it all looks the same to me. I felt that science fiction was responding to developments in world politics, signing up with the team that seemed to be winning; and not in a good way. Plus, I felt it was a dumbing down. “Space Opera”, does timeless war stories or thrillers with spaceships: the science is usually negligible, and always anachronistic.
NB Greg Egan is an absolute star, and none of the above applies to his work.
On the other hand, US sf was in the doldrums at the turn of the century. A whole suite of sfnal ideas, the repertoire of the cyberpunks, had become manifest in the real world, near as d**n it; and sf had to look for pastures new (or lying fallow). Speculative fiction, a possible candidate, just didn’t make it. Too often that term “Speculative” means either “I want to call my stuff sf, but I can’t be bothered to do the research” (so, no better than mass market Space Opera, really). Or else “I’m writing mainstream stories, but they’re not strong enough to stand up without a quirky, kooky element”. Science fiction is essentially adventure fantasy. You can have big, literary, “mainstream” adventure fantasy, no problem, no need to cite anything very modern. How about Moby Dick? But sf without adventure fantasy is missing one or two vital components, and a book, or story, like that doesn’t often work (though there are exceptions). I suppose publishers just looked around, and there was the good old starship, fully kitted out, already crewed with a faithful populist following, ready to boldly go all over again.
The thing is, once a fashion becomes popular, anybody can wear it. Joanna Russ used Space Opera for tough sexual politics (the Alyx stories, and a bleak, terrific, novel called The Two Of Them). I’ve written all sorts in my time, from a nearly-mainstream novel about the career of a scientist (Life, Aqueduct Press, won the Philip K. Dick prize fin 2005) to a series I called near-future fantasy, with an sfnal element about breaking the mind/matter barrier (Bold As Love, won the Arthur C. Clarke in 2001). Some of my earlier stuff is very hard indeed (try Escape Plans, heheheh). Short stories, I usually write to order. Space Opera is what I’ve been asked for recently, and I’ve enjoyed seeing what I can do. Besides, it’s all part of my megalomaniac plot to trace the development of a certain form of interstellar transport; from the right-now LHC at Cern (those fools who say the LHC will facilitate time travel are talking rubbish! Time is an illusion, it’s for instantaneous transit), through neurophysics, games development, the bloody founding of the World State; into our no-kidding galactic future.
Why do I believe we have one? Who do I think “we” is, or will be? God knows. It’s just an escape plan.
I don’t know about ‘relevant’. Relevant means different things to different people. I find science, and the way it connects with human society, fascinating (right now, concentrating on neuroscience), and I want to think about how to build the Good State. If Space Opera can provide me with a venue, I’m fine with it. If non-genre readers find their way into that special alcove at the back of the bookshop, and start buying my books, they are very welcome. But I’m not going to start writing soap opera, not for any money.
At least, I’m not sure. Try making me an offer.
I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit. I guess my problem is that I don’t see ‘space opera’ as rigidly defined subgenre of speculative fiction the way, oh, ‘cozy’ or ‘police procedural’ are subgenres of mystery. I’ve heard the term used most often to describe action driven fiction set in some sort of alien environment rather than in the near future, and using truly science fictional technologies such as warp drives and the like. I don’t know that there’s any particular reason to question its ‘relevance’ per se. Science fiction in general includes a range of work, from truly thought provoking stories that make readers (hopefully) question our future as well as current behaviors to stories that are simply an entertaining foray into someone’s impressive imagination. Personally, I think science fiction is the most relevant genre of fiction period, since it is the only one that allows us to pull the reader out of the here and now that we have all stopped really seeing (it is just so familiar) and to turn the lens of the future on the things that we’re doing today. It is fiction that makes people think about who we are and what we are doing, and to question our tomorrows and the paths that lead there. I sure wish more people would read it. We need to have a lot more people thinking about where we’re doing and what some of the consequences of today’s trends and technology are. It’s a broad umbrella, science fiction. Relevance, in my opinion, is something that you determine story by story. Sometimes, the alien is the perfect metaphor for what is happening in your back yard.
First, in terms of space opera, and its placement within science fiction, I think it’s a complex question that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. It is, however, interesting as a study in perception.
In terms of space opera’s relevance, I wasn’t talking as much about its thematic or (I guess I would say) metaphysical relevance–the “big questions” that science fiction in general has a robust set of tools to tackle. That, I would say, is indisputable. Cordwainer Smith might be the quintessential example of that–in how his Instrumentality stories playfully but also forcefully grappled with issues of identity, cruelty, and human rights. I wouldn’t necessarily say his stories were “fun” all the time, but they were always entertaining, full of the fabric of space and history. Many, many other writers who have written space opera have believed strongly in the relevance of the form, and the proof is in the pages.
What is interesting, though, is how this transfers over to the world of “readerly pleasures” in general (let’s focus mostly on books here). Perhaps it’s because space opera requires a certain lexicon accrued over decades to truly appreciate its subtleties. Are people watching Battlestar–and completely un-hung-up on the fact that it’s space opera–seeking out those books on the shelves? I’m not sure. Is the visual poetry of Star Wars or Farscape truly an effective ambassador for written science fiction? That is an age-old question and is a whole other can of worms! But I do think that something gets lost in translation in terms of the perceptions of its relevancy with a larger reading audience (which is in itself nebulous, sure). I don’t know if the best space opera is being sought out by people who would watch Battlestar but then read, say, urban fantasy, soft science fiction… The space opera doesn’t seem to “cross over.” Ask the average reader of Jonathan Lethem novels whether, true or false, he had published a novel set on another planet, and I bet the answers would surprise you!
This is highly unscientific on my part–just some hunches. But if we ride out these hunches and ask “why?”, then we might get at some illumination. I think the differentiation between space opera and other forms of science fiction–and their attendant reception–has to do with characterization, or lack thereof. Getting back to The New Space Opera anthology that I reviewed, I found that the stories I liked best had well-rounded, nuanced characters and those that didn’t–no matter how great the ideas–left me cold. Ultimately, aside from the galactic scope, or even the philosophical ideas, people who like to read a wide variety of stuff need–need–characters to identify with and follow. This is crucial and sounds rather basic, but it’s really, really hard to do well in space opera, simply because of the scale involved. The cosmological is constantly at war with the personal.
All of this isn’t about some quixotic mission to chase a trend, that space opera “has to” gain a wider readership or somehow sell out what it can be, or even to halfheartedly make admissions to characterization just for the sake of it. However, I do think that space opera CAN be the ultimate playground to explore what it means to be human, and to elicit emotional responses in the storytelling.
This, however, is the paradox–in trying to capture “the new” in space opera, a fair amount of 21st century space opera goes too far in jettisoning the concerns of, well, human beings. I do think some received ideas about transhumanism and being “post-human” in the vast depths of space are already tired and played out. It becomes a crutch to avoid questions about who we are today. Again, it’s really tricky to do this well, but the old-skool space opera, whatever its flaws, was comfortable with human beings at the helm. It gave an entry point for people to come into the genre–much like the space opera television that is so popular today. Pushing too far to a monochromatic view of humanity defeats the purpose of storytelling. To get back to Cordwainer Smith, it’s all Lords of the Instrumentality and no C’mell. And who really wants that?
Filed under: Mind Meld
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