MIND MELD: Has Space Opera Lost Its Luster?
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Late last year, after John Ottinger wrote a passionate review of John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion, he was asked by Tor Books publicist Cassandra Ammerman on twitter about why, in his opinion, Space Opera, hadn’t gone more mainstream, like steampunk? (her words.) The question made sense: since Steampunk was The Next Big Thing a few years ago and apparently still hasn’t begun to lose its (steam) power, should science fiction writers and readers worry about its predominance as a subgenre in detriment of Space Opera, even with many new novels fresh in the market?
So, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
How could anybody think space opera was losing its appeal when we have such stellar practitioners as Iain Banks, Walter Jon Williams, and Lois McMaster Bujold? What I like is that space opera is a big pie-in-the-face to the mundane science fiction movement. Space opera just outright says, so what, it’s unrealistic, it violates the laws of physics, but it’s heart-racingly imaginative (Ooooh, that Culture), so get used to it. And every time I sit down to a really great space opera (a good place to start is that gorgeungous anthology, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell, THE SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE), I feel that I’m going back to my fannish roots — this is how SF started. Think big. Think romantic!
But steampunk is an alluring contender: Tobias Buckell does both genres with all kinds of sparkle. But think of Cheri Priest and even Cory Doctorow. The one appeal steampunk has is the visual: there are whole catalogs featuring steampunk clothing (The Pyramid Collection). Last time I went to my optometrist, I was just so dismayed that he didn’t have any goggles with funny gears on the side. Soon everybody will be wanting steampunk sunglasses. And then there are movies like HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and HUGO. This isn’t all that new, really; a very stylish 90’s TV show, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. is an early contender. Oh, heck, let’s even go back to WILD, WILD WEST. How many fans watched that and said to themselves, “Well, what is this all about? Western? SF?”
As for me, why do I have to choose? I’ll take both, thank you very much, by the bushel!
I can’t say I have very strong feelings in these regards. There’s always room at the table. Steampunk and space opera between them do not exhaust the genre. I have written space operas, so called, like the Spiral Arm series. I have also written stories that might qualify as steampunk. In the Country of the Blind involved Babbage engines; so did “The Steel Driver,” which was otherwise a straight rehearsal of John Henry and the steam drill. “The Forest of Time” was an alternate world full of zeppelins, machine guns, and telegraphs. All of them preceded the popularity of the genre title, however; and they lack the -punk ‘tude.
If space opera is losing steam (so to speak), it is due to the general turning away from the future that marks the present age. In the waning of the modern ages there is a certain nostalgia for the past, very much like that of fifth century rhetors (or fifteenth century humanists) for the glory days of Rome: “the glamour of forgotten pasts conjured emotions of loss and regret, of faint distant bells and twilight languor and ruins seen by moonlight.” The sense that Something Has Gone Wrong leads us to look backward and set our speculations there. Interstellar adventure might yet be possible; but the Victorian Age is over. “If only we could…” gets replaced with “if only we had…,” the difference between saying, “I hope my house does not catch fire” and saying, “I wish my house had not caught fire.”
One of the reasons for the popularity of genre stories – sea stories, air stories, westerns, etc. – is the interest generated by the unfamiliar setting. The unusual is always interesting. Face it. Zeppelins are cool; and steam-powered spaceships certainly create a WTF? in the reader’s mind. But this is also a reason why genre literature fades. After a while, the unfamiliar setting becomes familiar – and therefore less interesting. The literature of sea-fiction — i.e., fiction read because it is about sailing the high seas — is a thing of the past. Patrick O’Brian maintained his series through his intensely well-realized characters, not through the novelty of frigate ships and the exotic nature of life on the high seas. Notice he did not spawn a host of imitators.
To the extent that the steam punk genre depends on this sort of novelty, it will have a short half-life. Zeppelins can become as humdrum as moon trips and elfquests. Eventually, the background will fade into, well, into the background. To the extent that it depends on character and plot and writing, it will last in the way that any good writing will last — even space operas — without any particular genre tag.
I don’t think so. Oranges and apples, you know? Besides, subgenres rise and fall in popularity from time to time. Now “the thing” is steampunk, gritty fantasy, urban fantasy. In the past it was space opera, New Weird, cyberpunk, epic fantasy, vampire fiction, etc. Maybe the next trend is a resurgence of pulp, or westerns, or something totally new. And this happens not because some subgenre took another’s place. But because there comes a time when a subgenre is exhausted as a subject. When somebody comes with a new, or personal take on that particular subgenre, it becomes popular once again. This happened to steampunk, by the way. It happens to be a 30-years-old subgenre that only got everybody’s attention in the last, what, five years? And be sure, there will come a time, very soon, when our discussion will be: is steampunk dead? That’s how things happen.
The question has to be: if there is a decline in the amount of Space Opera being published, is it losing ground to any other SFnal subgenre? Steampunk isn’t strike me as the candidate. Steampunk, in my opinion, peaked some time ago. And while it began as an alternate history form of Science Fiction, it quickly devolved into what I call “clockwork fantasy.”
Of course the decades-old complaint that Science Fiction has been losing ground to Fantasy still applies, and Space Opera is included in this general regression of the genre. But the more interesting question is whether it is losing ground to other subgenres indisputably [to the extent this is possible] Science Fiction.
When I looked at the Locus recommended reading novel list for 2011, out of 23 books listed as Science Fiction, only three were what I’d consider Space Opera. What I seem to be seeing more often are near-space, harder SF and Earth-based stories set in some future, often dystopian.
But we can still find the stuff being published, if not as often as we might wish. And we might recall that Space Opera never constituted the greater part of SF. So I wouldn’t go so far as to call it moribund – not in a world where there is still Ian M Banks – who has a new Space Opera forthcoming this fall.
I don’t think Space Opera will ever fully lose its appeal. There is always room for hope for the future and people who will maintain that hope even in the midst of adversity. These sorts of things always go in cycles, and perhaps one-day space opera will return to dominance. But that hour is not yet – nor is it likely in the near future. I think the waning of space opera stories is a reflection of the (Western) society in which much of it is being published. Western society’s generally pessimistic outlook leads to the waning of space opera as preferred reading subgenre.
As I understand it, space opera is a subgenre based on the belief that individuals and nations can work together long enough to improve technology so that we can reach for the stars and build interstellar societies. As space technology has progressed slowly and its early promise has slowed to a trickle, the envisioning of vast interstellar societies has become more difficult. The optimism inherent in so much space opera is being undermined by slow technological progress and the breakdown of civil discourse. We are, as a society, less hopeful than we were before due to our many political and religious wars, climate change, and the divisive nature of international and domestic relations.
While Space Opera looks outward to the future with hope, readers observe our current mess and think that there is little hope for humanity as a whole. We look around us and see that the future envisaged by space opera, which is supposedly based on our own, is not possible given the current state of the world. So readers reject its idealization of humanity and its possibilities in favor of dystopian literature. In dystopia, our pessimism about our future is reflected, and there we can read about characters overcoming odds individually rather than as a society. History teaches that humans will never work together as a species for the benefit of all, and so readers turn to stories of individuals overcoming personal struggles or small triumphs that end localized evils that do little to address the worldwide apocalypse that so often precipitates the dystopic setting.
Look at space opera’s half-sister. Epic Fantasy shares many common elements with space opera – the overcoming hero, the conflict between good and evil enemies, and the general tone of optimism. But works like Game of Thrones undermine that notion and instead present the reader/viewer with a society that is breaking down to the point that no single hero can save it, even going so far as to deconstruct the very conception of “hero” in the first place. Space Opera is undergoing a similar transformation, so that the “new space opera” is grittier and less hopeful about our future, reflecting back to the reader the fears and anxieties that dominate the 24-hour news cycle. We are pessimists, not optimists, and our changing tastes are mirrored in the works we purchase.
This does not mean that space opera is not published, merely that it reflects changing cultural values and ideas and so morphs by stages into a different subgenre with different meanings. Space Opera is not going away, its just looks different from the works of Poul Anderson or E. E. “Doc” Smith. The previous optimism is gone or subtly shaded with darkness. The stories are no longer simple dualities of evil space empire vs. good space empire (e.g. The Federation vs. the Klingon Empire in the original Star Trek) or hero vs. villain, but yin and yang. There are little bits of dark and light in each New Space Opera.
New Space Opera looks more like Iain Banks or Alastair Reynolds and appears to be a subgenre dominated by British authors. Some notable exceptions to the Brits-mostly clause include James S. A. Corey, but most American authors are opting to write pessimistic dystopias rather than optimistic space opera. I believe this reflects the changing outlook of the society’s members, influenced by the media, politics and unfortunate individual circumstances. I can’t speak to the wider world of World SF, but to me the apparent commercial success of English-language dystopia in other countries indicates that this may not be a true of Western civilization only.
Steampunk, by comparison, is the flip side of this pessimistic coin. Pessimism about our present society and its future prospects lead us to look nostalgically to the past. Steampunk is nostalgia for the past that was and the future that might have been. The focus on mechanization, the tangible, and an alternative technological timeline is a direct reaction to the computerized, intangible world that divides humanity even as it saturates us with “information.” Steampunk aficionados and writers turn back the clock and start over. Industrialization began this rat race to destruction, so Steampunk allows us to go back to where it all started and rewrite the future by rewriting the past. By this method, writers and readers are able to realize the optimistic tone of Space Opera by using wholly new elements and thereby circumventing the pessimism of our current age.
Space Opera has lost its appeal of late, but this is not the end. Just as history moves in cycles of cohesion and dissolution, so too will this society. When we move away from our current pessimism, whenever and however that happens, Space Opera will revive. It won’t be quite the same, but it will be optimistic about civilization’s future, because humans will once again see our world as a glass half-full.
First of all, steampunk isn’t really a movement, and I might even argue whether or not it is a subgenre. It’s a skin. Or perhaps a style. Steampunk neither pursues an explicit literary agenda as the New Wave did, nor does it pursue an explicit social agenda as cyberpunk did. Most steampunk literature can be parsed quite effectively as alternate history, urban fantasy or some other subgenre. Space opera, on the other hand, while not a movement, is decidedly its own subgenre.
This is not me being critical. I adore both steampunk and space opera. I just think they’re not directly equivalent.
Second of all, whether or not you concur with the above assertion, I would also say that steampunk and space opera don’t share enough of a common core audience to be stealing marketshare and bandwidth from one another. Steampunk is as much about art, music, costuming and the Maker movement as it is about literature. Its audience skews young and outside the historical bounds of genre fandom. Space opera is at or near the core of genre fandom and the history of science fiction. Its audience skews older, more male, and more traditional in terms of SF tastes and reading history.
Is space opera in decline? I certainly have that impression, though I don’t have the publishing numbers to back that up. Is steampunk on the rise? Absolutely, though I would be surprised if the print sales numbers of steampunk are presenting a serious challenge to other branches of science fiction (and especially fantasy).
So while the observation that gives rise to the question seems valid to me, the conclusion implied in the question is misleading. It’s a potentially valuable discussion, but I think we’re looking down the wrong alley here.
I’ve said it before, and I need to say it again: Space Opera needs to explode. I mean, it needs to go further than it’s going now. How old is the New Space Opera now? Twenty? Thirty years old? How can that be New? It’s not new, it’s old, and it’s stale in some ways and vibrant in others, but it needs to shake up some stuff, to punch the genre in the nose, it needs to make itself new again, revive itself again, make it something into another other again. It needs to push on beyond its current hard science fan base and take risks. The last risky book I read was The Quantum Thief- could you imagine a book like that scaled up to Space Opera level? It would be tingling and brain empowering. It would feel like a shotgun blast to our collective psyche waking us up.
Of course, this question is two-parts, it’s saying two things, one of which I’m not sure I agree with: Steampunk being the next thing the next it genre, and I’m not so sure that it’s quite a heavy weight genre- not that Space Opera ever was a heavy weight genre like Epic Fantasy was in the eighties, or Cyberpunk in the nineties, or Urban Fantasy was recently. I don’t see it toppling the best seller lists with title after title, or the idea that just writing a Steampunk novel would be enough to sell xyz,000 copies. It definitely has a following, and it is a rising star of sorts, it’s just not a sock to the jaw that other genres have been in the past. Genres that tapped into some cultural zeitgeist and created a cultural thirst that could not be quenched no matter how many books are published.
Of course, fads like that spin and shine and very rarely ever make classics in our contemporary psyche, works that dwell on past the twilight years of the mold they used to press their bones into shape. In a way, that’s both to Steampunk and Space Opera’s benefit- since these days the works are few and exceptional that are published they have sticking power, they hang around and stay resident in our cultural realities.
Of course, this is all musing from one hack that writes books that break every genre mold it touches. Including my one brain addling stunt in Space Opera
William Gibson was the pioneer of a revolution in the world of science fiction and fantasy when he invented the subgenre that come to be known as cyberpunk; and he also set a trend for the naming of subgenres. ‘Cyberpunk’ of course is called ‘cyber’ because it’s partly about the phenomenon of cyberspace and it’s called punk because, er…why was that?
Labels matter. I write and love space opera which is one of the most hallowed and important subgenres in speculative fiction. ‘Space opera’ is a phrase which is hard to define, but essentially it’s science fiction in space with knobs on. It’s the opposite of ‘mundane SF’, it’s baroque, exaggerated and hence, operatic. But it’s a label that sounds old fashioned now, which is why I’ve sat on any number of panels discussing Is Space Opera Dead? (To which the answer is always; Of course it’s bloody not!)
And yet…Peter F. Hamilton is the number one SF writer in the UK and sells by the zillions in other countries, and his vast epic stories are the quintessence of space opera. Alistair Reynolds also writes in that arena, and sells by the shedload. And the space operatic novels of Mike Cobley are, I’m assured, currently selling like bottles of Evian in the deserts of Mars. Add in to that the global success of Battlestar Galactica and you have a subgenre that’s in the ascendancy. But it’s not, I have to concede, the up and coming subgenre. It doesn’t have the tang of newness to it; and damn it all, it’s not called ‘punk’.
Now if someone were to invent spacepunk that would be a different story.
I do think there’s something exhilarating about the rise of steampunk. Over and above the quality of individual books, steampunk is a way of life, an aesthetic, and a fashion choice. I went to a steampunk ball in one of the Eastercons a few years back and it was full of men in glorious suits with tails and top hats and brass telescopes and brass guns, and women in gowns and aviator helmets and a Jethro-Tullesque steampunk band in leather and brass on stage hammering it out. It’s joyous and it’s cool; cooler, let’s face it, than filk, or Star Trek cosplay.
I’ve recently written a steam punk short story for a collection called Resurrection Engines (edited by Scott Harrison), which includes contributions from fab writers include Adam Roberts, Juliet E. McKenna, Kim Lakin-Smith and Lavie Tidhar (whose steampunk novel The Bookman is one of the most finely crafted yarns of recent years). And I was taken aback at how pleasurable it is to write in the idioms and sentence structures of a previous age (in my case, I wrote a story in the style of Wilkie Collins, master of the ‘shocker’ and one of my favourite novelists.) It’s a joy to savour the slow cadences, and the courtesy and etiquette of this historical world and milieu; it’s like creating a whole alien species with their own manners and mores, except you don’t have to make it up. People did actually used to talk and behave like this!
But the whole question of Is Space Opera Dead or At Least Lying On the Floor Whimpering in Pain? is one of those issues that’s rooted partly in sales figures – since fantasy and urban fantasy (of which steampunk is a sub-subgenre???) way outsell SF. But it’s also, I feel, based on a perception that space opera no longer ‘speaks’ to us; it’s not the best prism through which to view our current world. Stories set in the far future with exotic aliens and amazing technology are starting to feel old hat.
And yet, this will change. It already changed when Battlestar became a hit; it changed again when Leviathan Wakes by the writers known as James. S. A. Corey became a best-seller; and it’ll keep changing. But space opera is one of the most supple and versatile of subgenres; for you can write absolutely any kind of story, in almost any style, and set it in the far future in space, baroquely.
What I do feel is happening is that certain mind-blowing extrapolations – humans living longer, personality downloads, vast galactic battles taking place – no longer have novelty value. If you write a story in which human beings can store their minds in a memory chip and hence become immortal no one, but no one, is going to say – Wow, how did you ever think of that. So the evolution of space opera depends on finding new ways of telling stories or different types of story based on a ‘far future elsewhere’ scenario.
I use the word ‘evolution’ advisedly, since not all animals evolve in the same way at the same rate. There will always be ‘classic space operas’, just as there will always be dinosaurs (oops, sorry, bad comparison! but look at sharks and how little THEY have changed since the Paleozoic era.) Novelty is not always what you look for in a book, or a subgenre; more of the same sometimes totally hits the spot. In fact, damn it all, you can’t beat a good old-fashioned space opera…
But what I’m talking about now is ‘coolness’, or zeitgiestyness; and there I think the challenge is to breathe fresh oxygen into familiar tropes. Charlie Stross did this with his space opera Glasshouse, which has far future characters living a twentieth century lifestyle. Dan Simmons did it in Hyperion, which is the Canterbury Tales told as space opera. And Al Reynolds did it in House of Suns, which is the strangest and most poetic space opera I’ve ever read.
I guess then the question is, why is steam punk becoming so cool? New writers like Gail Carriger are having wonderful fun with the conventions of Victoriana; and established steampunker Kim Newan is having a renaissance with his classic novels Anno Dracula (set in Victorian times) and The Bloody Red Baron ( set during World War I). In the five years or so I’ve been going to SF/F conventions, I’ve only ever once seen a Klingon; but every year the Victorian costumes multiply.
Is it just because the clothes are GREAT? (For guys in particular, jeans and T-shirts just can’t compare with a three piece suit and top hat; and frocks really were frocks back then.) Or is this a case of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ creeping into our culture? If so, I hate it; there was much that was crap about the Victorian era, and having computers and spaceships doesn’t make it any more palatable.
But I think it’s more because steampunk comes out of such a well defined period and aesthetic. I can’t really think of any radically different invented SF or fantasy universe that’s as evocative and compelling and well worked out as the mock-Victorian universes that comprise steampunk, or the mock-medieval universes that are at the heart of Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, and just about every other fantasy novelist I can think of off the top of my head.
So that would be one challenge for the ‘spacepunkers’; to create far future worlds with their own costumes, etiquette, culture, music, architecture, building styles and moral codes. It’s been attempted, of course, many times, in space operas from A. E. Van Vogt to E.E. Doc Smith to Star Trek. But (discuss!) every space opera universe that a writer’s mind can conceive of will in effect be just a modified version of a period in actual history. There’s a limit to world-building, in other words; so world-remembering with subtle changes is the better strategy. And that for me defines the power of steampunk; it’s speculative fiction set in a remembered world with knobs on.
I’m a bit behind on current SF, but I do know that two major works that could be called space opera have been published recently: Al Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. It’s interesting that both are set after the climate crisis, but without glossing over how difficult dealing with it could be. This is one response to the expected turbulence of the near future, and I think an important one in that it holds out the hope for a liveable human future, albeit more distant than SF once thought.
Another response to the same problem of the near future is steampunk. I have nothing against it as a sub-genre and I quite like it as a costume style, but I see the current popularity of steampunk as a turning away from the present and future to an imaginary alternate past. I don’t see that as a good sign.
There’s a lot to quibble with here, so I’ll quibble away. First, space opera, as most of us would understand it, is a subgenre of science fiction. (A frequently misunderstood subgenre, too – much of what’s labelled space opera patently isn’t, but that’s a soapbox for another day). Steampunk, on the other hand, I would contend, is more properly regarded as a tone, an ambiance, an affectation, rather than a distinct subgenre. And even if it were a subgenre, what exactly is it a subgenre of? Science fiction, fantasy, alternate history – what? Answers on a postcard please, to the Outer Hebrides. So I think we’re in danger of comparing apples with oranges here, something that becomes even more evident when you consider that it’s perfectly possible to write a steampunk-inflected space opera, as many have. More usefully – does it really matter? I only need so much space opera in my life. There has always been more of it out there than I can reasonably keep up with, the books tend to the chunky, and if there are only one or two genuinely excellent space operas written each year, that’s more than enough for me.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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