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…
January 30, 2015 at 10:54 am
I fully expect that you never abandon your Literary SF roots, Ian 🙂
January 30, 2015 at 11:34 am
My memorial re-read of Banks’ Culture novels showed me that the first one was a commercial space opera with a conventional linear plot and some fairly identifiable characters; it was just the setting and some of the set-pieces that were different. Once that was sold, IMB started going off in other directions within the same framework.
Yes, I’ve loved the Apollo Quartet, but if you’re going to be a successful commercial writer, you have to get both parts of that equation right. That necessarily involves compromise until you reach the exalted heights of selling masses of your stuff on your name alone.
Anyone can be a starving artist, scrawling timeless literature on the walls of their garret in their own blood. It’s nicer to actually get paid for your work (though I realise that this is an unfashionable view these days…)
Or, in other words, “Art for Art’s sake, but money for God’s sake!”
January 30, 2015 at 3:26 pm
The wonderful thing about space op writing is how much freedom it gives you to explore social and societal themes. Glad to see someone else invested years in projects that get put aside and then dusted off until they finally get finished and published!
January 30, 2015 at 4:00 pm
If that’s true, I can’t think of many authors who have done such explorations. Most space operas are inherently right-wing – whether the author is or not – and the only societal exploration comes down to feudalism, oligarchism or corporatism. I freely admit mine opens with your bog-standard interstellar empire with proles, nobles and an emperor, but by the second book I’m ripping that apart 🙂
Pingback: Welcome to An Age of Discord - Todd DeanTodd Dean
January 31, 2015 at 4:09 am
See, if there’s one thing Banks did and that needs to be continued by other authors, it’s to take space opera to the left. Not that I’ve ever really figured out how to do it myself…
January 31, 2015 at 10:07 am
For all his public leftyness, I don’t think the Culture novels are all that left-wing. The Culture is a post-scarcity high-tech civilisation and about as socially liberal as you can get. But the stories the novels tell involve violent, and often catastrophic, interventions in other civilisations. If the people in the Culture were left-wing in a sort of wishy-washy liberal way, the Minds were definitely right-wing.
My own view of politics in sf has changed since I originally wrote the first two books of An Age of Discord, and while the second book does comment heavily on the inequities of its universe’s society, I’d never really considered ripping it down. But now I’ll be writing the third book, and there’s plenty of room in its planned plot to fit in a bit of revolution 🙂
January 31, 2015 at 6:29 am
So, does this mean we will or won’t get to read ‘All That Outer Space Allows’ sometime in the not too distant future?
January 31, 2015 at 10:02 am
All That Outer Space Allows is still going strong. I’d hoped to have it finished by the end of Jan, but I’m still not quite there yet. (I was away from it for a couple of weeks because I had to finish something more urgent.) Anyway, I hope it’s worth the wait…
January 31, 2015 at 8:29 am
I’ve always felt that Banks’ works became less edgy the more he went on.
I certainly don’t agree that Consider Phlebas is a traditional work of commercial space opera: The protagonist is spectacularly unsympathetic, the universe is full of brutally cut-throat powers who all claim the moral high ground and the narrative is littered with moments of body horror. Player of Games is a much more conventional novel, in fact… I think Consider Phlebas does most of the heavy lifting as far as the Culture’s moral ambiguity is concerned.
I think what Banks did really well was to maintain the independence of his POV characters. You had the Culture and you had the things the Culture were dealing with but while his POV characters were frequently from the Culture, their distance from the Culture’s institutions (creaky old Minds who came to resemble Whitehall Mandarins the more the series progressed) meant that he could preserve the books’ moral centre and if the plot demanded that the character do something egregiously right-wing? Well… that’s when you deprive your POV character of agency 🙂
It’s difficult to write a space opera with the state backing the protagonist without the protagonist seeming authoritarian and it’s difficult to write a novel in which a protagonist fights for their independence against the state without tapping into the genre’s race memories of Libertarian competent men.
I am not a writer (IANAW) but I have always felt that Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom would make an awesome space opera: Bunch of idealistic kids steal their parents’ starship and go off to enlist in the Interstellar Brigades in order to fight for the independence of a cluster of systems. Initially the war goes poorly but it soon becomes apparent that the forces of independence are getting aid from some sinister power and you follow the recruits’ alienation and disillusionment as the forces of Independence are over-run by a fascistic tendency that was always present but invariably shouted down.
January 31, 2015 at 10:20 am
It strikes me that you have two choices when it comes to space opera settings – feudalism or corporatism. And the latter is more or less a variation of the former. Empires by definition need a centre, and that centre needs to somehow maintain control of all its dominions. What most space opera fails to do is look at how empires fall. Most of the ones I can think of, it’s catalysed by some external force, or by some messianic figure. Um, now I consider it… I seem to be using both of those in mine. Oh well.
January 31, 2015 at 10:53 am
That sounds like the question at the heart of the Player of Games 🙂
Wasn’t there a series of space opera novels back in the day about a trade federation modelled on the Hanseatic league? The Culture lacks a centre but a) has no economy to run and b) is administered by super-intelligences who all think alike anyway so its centre is ideological rather than legal.
There’s a fantastic book by an American anthropologist called Joseph Tainter. The book is called The Collapse of Complex Societies and it argues that bureaucracy is invariably a response to problems (internal or external). According to Tainter, a society grows more complex and centralised in an effort to solve a problem until eventually the bureaucracy is so expensive that people simply choose to walk away and let it collapse. So… you’re right that most empires collapse because of external problems but the problems are really only a catalyst for internal problems as the society asks itself “can we afford to centralise even more in an effort to stave off this Barbarian invasion? No… well then fuck it!”
January 31, 2015 at 12:07 pm
Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic/Flandry books were allegedly based on the Hanseatic League. They’re the ones Baen re-released a few years ago with the horribly sexist 007-type cover art.
The thing with bureaucracies in sf is that bureaucracies are a mostly European concern. US sf is, at heart, libertarian and so believes in minimal government. Bureaucracies are anathema to it, so when they do appear they’re the enemy or an object of fun. Much as American sf likes to demonise politicians. Most space operas avoid politicians completely, replacing them with some mangled form of aristocracy. Which, of course, is just politics under another name.
January 31, 2015 at 1:38 pm
“They’re the ones Baen re-released a few years ago with the horribly sexist 007-type cover art.”
Um… that doesn’t exactly narrow it down 😦
Anti-political sentiment is no longer the preserve of Americans, there’s a reason the power fantasies of the MCU play well over here. This reminds me of that French zombie film They Came Back in which the town council and emergency services calmly steer the zombies to a local gym and keep them warm and fed: No flesh eating, no warlordism, just good municipal planning!
January 31, 2015 at 1:53 pm
A bunch of SFWA worthies spoofed one of the covers here: http://www.jimchines.com/2013/01/group-cover-pose-reveal/
I’ve written before that sf is pandering to public discourse’s less-than-subtle move to the right. It’s a shame no one is doing anything about it.
February 6, 2015 at 12:03 am
Having followed your blog only recently, I have not yet read your hard SF. Although I planned to do so, I’m much more likely to actually read your space opera! 🙂
February 6, 2015 at 8:55 am