It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


A prospect of space opera, part two

If you want a book to sell, you have to be pretty relentless in pushing it all the time, but I can’t say it’s something I enjoy doing. I’ve always believed you judge a person by their deeds, not their words. Except in this case, the deeds, er, are the words. Or something. So consider this blog post, a discussion of some aspects of the universe of my space opera, A Prospect of War, and space opera in general, as in the nature of a a discreet poke to remind you that HEY, I JUST HAD A SPACE OPERA PUBLISHED BY TICKETY BOO PRESS AND IT’S AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE ON KINDLE (a hardback edition will be launched in July).

Serfs up, dude
The interstellar empire in which A Prospect of War takes place is feudal. It’s not the only political system you might find in a space opera novel, although it’s a relatively common one. But when the speed of communication is limited to the speed of travel – and travel itself is slow and often uncertain – local government needs a high degree of autonomy. However, if the throne is going to maintain control, it needs to know those running things locally have its interests at heart, and what better remote rulers than a group of people tied to the throne by chains of privilege, self-interest and obligation. They owe their position to the throne, and they’re well-rewarded for enacting the throne’s wishes. And, of course, should one get out of line, there’s always the threat of the throne organising the others to gang up on them.

Having said all that, such a political structure only works if everyone has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. And that includes the people at the bottom. They’re going to be the most numerous, so they need to be the most tightly-controlled. Such as, not letting them travel. Pretty much like serfs back in the Middle Ages. The serfs would be the economic resources in a fief, and in return are protected, and to some degree succoured, by the noble who owns their bond. But you can’t just have serfs and nobles, since the latter have enough on their plate without also managing the serfs. So you need a freeman or franklin class between the two…

One point to bear in mind is that these social classes are real to the people in them. Serfs – or, as I called them in A Prospect of War, proles – can’t just go gallivanting off on adventures just because some interesting stranger passes through their village. A franklin – or yeoman – arguably might, but they have their own responsibilities and obligations. As for the nobility… Well, the genre has enough stories about over-privileged oafs trampling all over the rank and file in defence of another group of over-privileged oafs – oh wait, that’s what my space opera is about… Or is it?


But back to the government side of things… When it comes to an interstellar empire, there’s another factor to take into account: anyone who rules the space between planets automatically has the high ground. No world is safe from orbit. This is where the navy comes in. They don’t so much enforce the throne’s rule as rattle sabres menacingly from orbit. Needless to say, space is big. Really big. Vastly, hugely, mindboggingly big. To borrow a phrase. Things can get lost, really lost, in space. So I cheated. In A Prospect of War, interstellar travel takes place using a sort of hyperspace, an alternate dimension, called the toposphere. This means there’s effectively no actual space between planetary systems, it’s completely out of the equation. It’s as if the countryside between city-states didn’t exist – though a journey still takes a certain amount of time. This makes the concept of an imperial navy much more plausible.

The Imperial Navy in A Prospect of War is one of three institutions which effectively rule the empire, alongside the civil government and the regnal government. In Dune, Frank Herbert writes “In politics, the tripod is he most unstable of all structures”, but since I can’t find any other reference to that sentiment I suspect he just made it up. Certainly for my space opera universe, I decided a tripod was no more and no less unstable than any other form of government. Besides, the nature of an interstellar empire and the history of that empire naturally inclined to a three-way balance of power – the navy to safeguard the space between worlds, the nobility to rule the individual worlds, and the throne as the ultimate recipient of fealty. However, in my universe past events had seen enfranchisement develop among the nobility, leading to a legislative forum, an electorate, and also an administration to support it – the civil government. And this despite the fact the throne already had an administration in place to enact its will – the regnal government. So, there’s some duplication of government institutions – like the Imperial Exchequer (regnal) and the Imperial Treasury (civil). Some of the plot of the trilogy is driven by the politics between these two governments, just as much as it is by the conspiracy which intends to overthrow either, or both, of them.

What, no guns? At all?
One thing I knew people would notice about A Prospect of War is that it’s a space opera, set in space, with spaceships… but everyone has swords. Just swords. No guns. I liked the idea of swords as personal weapons, because they made violence intimate. And they also made handy signifiers of social class – because swords need skill to use, which means training, which means spending money. And the more money a person spends, the better their teacher, and so the better a swordfighter they become. Unlike a gun, a sword is not a democratic weapon. The empire of A Prospect of War is not a democracy.


If people carry swords, what’s to prevent someone else from, well, just shooting them? We all know that scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (this one). My solution was to, er, pretend guns don’t exist. No projectile weapons. No gunpowder. Just never got invented. It requires a leap of faith, but I’ve been told it works. True, there are “directed-energy” plasma cannons, but they need lots of power, so a lack of handheld versions isn’t implausible. (It’s implied in the novels that the five space opera technologies, which includes directed-energy, are used without any real theoretical understanding – a consequence of them having been reverse-engineered from a derelict spaceship millennia before.) Besides, space opera blasters – guns of any description – aren’t very dramatic. Swordfights are much more exciting. Just as long they’re not those interminable Hollywood swashbuckles, of course.

But if swords are badges of social rank, then not everyone can have them. Especially not proles. Contrary to the belief of one particular nation state, an armed populace is not necessarily the best defence against… well, anything. And although the empire has an emperor and dukes and earls, etc, it’s not precisely a tyranny. So, no swords for proles. They only get to use knives and non-edged weapons. Even the soldiers. Well, except for the marines, who use boarding-axes, as much because they’re useful tools in boarding actions as because they’re lethal close-order weapons.

All this makes for interesting battles, a sort of Age of Reason-type mass combat but without the firearms. There’s hugely lethal artillery – the directed-energy cannons – and a much higher degree of mobility than was historically the case… but otherwise it’s pretty much two lines of soldiers charging forward and lamping each other with maces. Which also makes the violence in a battle very much more intimate than if guns existed. And making violence intimate makes it that much more dramatic. Especially when the reader is emotionally invested in the characters… As I would hope they are.


Welcome to An Age of Discord

What is this, I hear you cry. A space opera? But, Ian, you write hard sf, literary hard sf, the sort of hard sf that needs two pages of bibliography! How can you write a space opera?

Well, it sort of happened like this…

I first started work on A Prospect of War back when I was living in the UAE. I’d previously completed two novels, neither of which were especially good. One was a sort of Dickensian space opera, and the other a first contact novel with a time-slipped narrative. But after working my way through the first seven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and failing to understand why they had proven so successful, I decided to write a space opera trilogy which used the structure of an epic fantasy. It took several goes before I was happy with the universe I was building (early versions probably owed a little too much to science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller).

So, I would have a “peasant hero”, a young man of common birth who proved to have some magical ability which resulted in him leading the forces of good against an attempt by a “dark lord” to overthrow the existing ruling dynasty. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw magic into my space opera. In fact, what I wanted was a relatively low-tech civilisation that had managed to build an interstellar empire using only a limited number of pieces of handwavey technology. I didn’t want it all shiny high tech because I needed to justify the rigidly-enforced social classes. You need those class barriers in place for a peasant hero to break through (and to provide yet more jeopardy to justify his eventual victory). And I wanted an atmosphere of fading grandeur and deep history.

I invented a world which reached an early industrial level of technology, and promptly discovered three satellites in orbit. A space race led to one nation – the most socially conservative and repressive of those on the world – getting into space first… where the astronauts found three ancient wrecked starships. And from them they reverse-engineered: a Faster-Than-Light drive, a cheap energy generator, anti-gravity, a powerful directed-energy ships’ weapon, and a force-curtain. (They actually had a little surreptitious help… but that’s a story for another day.) These five things gave that nation first the planet, and then an interstellar empire.

But my story would be set millennia later, after the empire had declined and a new empire, catalysed by a successful war against another interstellar polity, had been carved out of it. The dark lord would be only the latest leader of a conspiracy which has been harbouring a grudge since the defeat of the old empire…

This was getting bloody complicated. I took some time out from writing to do some world-building… and eventually ended up with a couple of hundred MB of spreadsheets, documents and text files giving details on everything from the imperial government to its military to naming conventions to ancient history. I even built a wiki, with the eventual aim of either publishing it online or in book-form as an encyclopaedia.

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

Then it was back to writing the story… which never quite went as planned. This was partly because I’d been too clever for my own good. For reasons which now escape me, I decided that FTL travel entailed journeys measured in weeks, but in the real universe the length of time the journey took was longer, on a logarithmic scale. So a journey which for a ship’s passengers might take a week would see them arrive eight days after their departure; for two weeks, it would be seventeen days… and so on. Since I decided to use four main viewpoint characters, and I’d have them travelling about on different journeys… I had to create a giant spreadsheet in order to keep the chronology straight. It was a major headache.

And that epic fantasy template I’d planned on using… that was getting completely bent out of shape too. I had my four protagonists meeting and then separating and then meeting again, just so I could get them all into position for the end of the first novel. To make matters worse, every time I reached for a space opera or epic fantasy trope to incorporate, it would never quite fit, so I had to either rip it apart or subvert it.

Anyway, I eventually finished the first book, after many years of writing and polishing. It was good enough for John Jarrold to take me on as a client. I started work on the second book of the trilogy. This was a mistake. If you can’t sell the first book of a series, what’s the point of writing the second book? A few years passed. I wrote a few treatments for novels, but no one bit. I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It won the BSFA Award. I discovered I much preferred writing the sort of literary sf that requires lots of research. I wrote the remaining books of the Apollo Quartet (well, was working on the fourth book). Then a small press – Tickety Boo Press – asked to see my space opera. What to do? I’m not writing that sort of science fiction any more. Won’t its appearance confuse readers who have come to expect the likes of the Apollo Quartet from me?

Decision time.

Now, I still stand by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. I think they’re good work. And now actually seems like the right time for them to appear. Publishing has changed, the sf market has changed, space opera has changed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t intend to do a little wrangling before they see the light of day. At 200,000 words, A Prospect of War could do with being made a little tighter and punchier. And I changed some background details when I wrote A Conflict of Orders, so I need to retcon them in A Prospect of War. A Conflict of Orders’ 170,000 words will also receive some rewriting. And I’ll finally get around to writing A Want of Reason – which will please some friends, who have been demanding I write it for years.

Space opera is a more commercial, and commercially successful, subgenre than literary hard sf. If An Age of Discord sells well, and encourages people to buy the Apollo Quartet, then it’s all win. There are space operas currently available on Kindle – badly-written and derivative ones – which sell several thousand copies a month. In three years, I’ve sold 1,300 copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Granted, novellas don’t sell as well novels, but all the same…

An Age of Discord does not mean I’ve permanently decamped to space opera. I still have a number of hard sf projects planned, both at novella and novel length. But I see no reason why I can’t write big fat space operas and literary hard sf. But we shall see how well the trilogy does. Perhaps people will hate it, perhaps no one will buy it. Perhaps its time has not come, after all…



Memory jog

The latest issue of Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine has appeared, and among its many fine stories is one of mine – ‘Waters of Lethe’. It’s about a bathyscaphe journey to the bottom of Europa’s world-ocean. Sort of. You can read it here.


I’ve now written stories which feature Wilfred Owen, Spitfires, the Bell, Apollo astronauts, flying boats, rocket sleds, bathyscaphes… What to do next?


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