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.
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?
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…