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What is it about space opera?

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It often seems to me that space opera has within itself to be all things that are science fiction. Most writers, however, treat it as little more than action-adventure in space, or the fall of some historical empire transplanted to an interstellar canvas (with added cool techno-gizmos). Given the size of that canvas – there are literally no limits – there’s more than ample opportunity to ask relevant questions and play through the various answers. Some space opera authors have indeed done so – Iain Banks springs to mind: in his Culture novels he often examined the morality of intervention in other sovereign states’ internal affairs. Sadly he’s an exception, rather than the rule.

So why is it so few space operas do little more than pit one group against another, usually differentiated by either race, class or politics? Or show an interstellar polity torn apart from within or without? And the science fiction, well, that’s embodied in the background or some maguffin around which the plot revolves.

valerian

One of the chief elements of a space opera which the subgenre rarely seems to interrogate is the whole idea of an autocratic or feudal interstellar polity, in which custom and tradition has embedded an oligarchy so deeply in place it can only be dislodged by actually razing the polity to the ground. Historically (real history, that is), rulers claimed divine descent and so justified their exalted position – this was probably the second biggest con ever perpetrated on humanity, after the concept of an afterlife (capitalism comes a close third) – but any such claims of godly DNA are risible at best, deluded at worst. And if those rulers didn’t actually claim divine descent, they certainly claimed divine right – ie, they ruled in the name of the gods, with the gods’ permission and blessing. Quite how you prove that is beyond me, but it certainly happened – and there are probably a few royals out there who are so stupid or inbred they still believe it.

But let’s assume a space opera empire is ruled by a particular dynasty for the same reasons that such dynasties ruled in real history, ie, canny politics and/or historical accident, and park that for a moment. What about the actual society, its various levels and the lack of social mobility? What Herbert called “fraufreluches” in Dune. I can understand the need for a tightly-controlled society in an artificial environment such as a space station – everybody’s lives depend on people not breaking things – but space operas in the main presuppose a galaxy of earth-like planets ready to be colonised by land- and resource-hungry humanity… Except, wait, they can’t be all that land-hungry because a lot of space operas feature worlds that are either populated to a ridiculously dense degree, or almostly entirely empty. And those densely-populated worlds… A world like Trantor or Coruscant, it would be impossible to feed the population of such a world, it’s just not physically possible to ship in the foodstuffs required to support a population of a trillion or more (Wikipedia gives Corsuscant’s population as “Approx. 1 trillion”, although the Wookiepedia claims three times that; isn’t the internet wonderful?). Assuming an average of 2,500 calories per person per day, for the entire population that’s equivalent to about 5 billion (or 15 billion) cows a day.

For a highly technological (ie, “magical” per Clarke’s dictum) space opera, most problems, not just food, would be magically solved by magical science and magical engineering – replicators, or something like that. If there’s no scarcity, you’d expect the society to be relatively flat, and any social classes that have shaken out have done so depending on whether the empire follows an egalitarian socialist model or a more restrictive model based on, well, any variety of right-wing ideologies. I’ve said in the past that science fiction – and especially space opera – is an inherently right-wing mode of fiction, irrespective of the politics of its writers. Just look at the various societies depicted in science fiction texts, look at the solutions proposed to the problems presented by science fiction texts. It’s said that editor Donald A Wollheim once ran a straw poll among sf fans on the best form of government and “benevolent dictatorship” proved most popular. Even back in the 1960s and earlier, when science fiction traded on the assumption its fans were “better” than readers of other modes of fiction (“fans are slans”), that’s still a horribly juvenile result. But then look at genre’s various role models, and then count all those Marxist space operas…

The idea of science fiction, or indeed any mode of fiction, as primarily a form of “entertainment” has often been used to poison the debate regarding the genre’s uses. Some people – often stupid ones – will champion fiction as a literature of ideas, a vehicle for thought experiments, and then pooh-pooh concepts or approaches they don’t like as “message fiction”. All fiction is message fiction. It’s only the content of the message, and the power of its vector, which differs. And, of course, the ability of the reader to pick up the message.

But space opera… Most space operas require huge, often cumbersome, authoritarian political structures in place at the start. And there’s usually an associated fascination with all the pomp and circumstance and cool uniforms that go with such structures – er, Star Wars anyone? (And now we have Imperial Stormtroopers appearing at conventions and such… Er, they were the bad guys, you know.) Of course, the better entrenched the power structures, the greater the equity gap, the more melodrama there is when the empire burns. But where space operas so often fail is in showing the consequences for everyone. Heroes must by definition have sufficient agency to either destroy or save the empire, but those embedded in the power structures are far from the only victims. As the title of Robert Sheckley’s 1972 story has it, ‘Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead’ – palaces are, after all, home to more than just empresses and emperors. In CL Moore’s excellent Judgment Night, the two protagonists, Princess Juille and Egide, prince of the H’vani, actually meet at a “pleasure moon” which is, naturally, purely for the use of the upper classes and, as in other space operas, the only non-aristocrats mentioned are servants or soldiers.

foss_palace

I freely admit that when I started writing my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, I chose to base the plot on a well-established story template from consolatory fantasy: someone is trying to unseat the emperor, for reasons not clear when the story opens. Toppling the throne, of course, does not necessarily entail a complete destruction of the empire, it might just be a dynastic struggle. But this is a consolatory fantasy, which sort of presupposes an elemental battle between good and evil – and a dark lord makes a better villain than an ambitious cousin. I had no intention of using a moral landscape painted in such primary colours in my trilogy, and it was while considering the alternatives that it occurred to me I should present the irruption caused by the plot across all levels of imperial society. To some extent, I had to consider this: the main protagonist, the “peasant hero” was by definition a member of the lowest sector of society.

But there’s a paradox there. While the fight may affect, or indeed include, all levels of society, the conditions which define defeat or victory exist only in the uppermost levels. So I had no choice but to elevate my peasant hero if he was to play any sort of useful role in the struggle – and this in a society in which social mobility is near-impossible. I could show how the consequences applied to all social levels, and I felt I needed to show that – so  I had to make a discussion on the society of my interstellar empire an important element of the plot. Which I did. A Prospect of War opens with three main narrative threads – one features serfs (I call them proletarians), another has a pair of middle-class (ie, yeoman) characters pretending to be proletarian, and the final one is firmly yeoman (but also features aristocrats). There’s no getting away from involving the upper sectors of society if the stakes are empire-wide, so I had to introduced them – but by making one of the protagonists a peasant hero, I could use the mechanism of his elevation to the position required to lead the fight as commentary.

I based the empire of A Prospect of War on an historical model and I built a fictitious history for my empire which justified its various institutions. (Chiefly, I admit, by limiting the technology of my empire such that Age of Reason technology was more than sufficient to maintain society.) I also went for pomp and circumstance. I gave everyone uniforms, and then I described them (I even worked out a colour scheme for the uniforms of army regiments). I described the architecture because that’s another good signifier of monolithic social structures and embedded power groups. I used the sword – the carrying of it, the legal right to use it – as an indicator of social class. In other words, I made it as plain as I could that here was a society that had not, and could not, change or progress. Except by violent upheaval. Which I even signposted – the empire of A Prospect of War is around 1300 years old, and came into being when a powerful admiral used his fleet to seize the throne of the preceding empire.

The term “space opera” was coined as a pejorative, a reference to “horse opera”, which were bad Western stories. In the decades since the term first appeared, its meaning has changed, and those works boasting the label have gained a measure of respect that now puts them on a par with other types of science fiction. Moore’s Judgment Night, mentioned earlier, was first published as a magazine serial in 1943. Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” in 1941. I’ve no idea how Judgment Night was originally received by its readers – perhaps at that time it had not even been identified as space opera. It’s certainly a classic of the subgenre now. But like early classics in any genre or subgenre, it deals chiefly with archetypes and its tropes have long since become clichés (sadly, in Judgment Night‘s case, several elements of its plot seem to have been forgotten by science fiction for several decades, such as a princess leading the defence of the empire). For me, A Prospect of War had to function not just as an entertaining space opera, but also as a commentary on space opera – and, to some extent, consolatory fantasy. I’d like to think I managed to do so, but that’s for the book’s readers to say.

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5 thoughts on “What is it about space opera?

  1. For me, A Prospect of War had to function not just as an entertaining space opera, but also as a commentary on space opera

    It does comment on some aspects of space opera in interesting ways, I found

  2. Space Opera is to Science Fiction what Dirty Harry is to Police Drama: It really only pays the barest lip-service to the actual genre. No one in a space opera really cares about interstellar politics, any more than audiences cared how many bullets Harry Callahan had fired (he always had more when he needed it… and he used ’em).

    All that matters in Space Opera is the fun, the drama, and the coolness of the backdrop–because that’s all it is, a backdrop–and that’s just fine with audiences.

    • There are certainly space operas that have as much scientific credibility as your average epic fantasy, but there are many that make use of exactly the same sf tropes as heartland genre fiction – like FTL, AI, cyberspace, etc. I just think there are some underlying assumptions to a typical space opera set-up that are not trope-related but which are worth exploring.

      • Ian, we could probably discuss the various sci-fi movies, and where they land between science and space opera, for months. It could make a wild and scary thread. Anyway, I wasn’t criticizing, I was just drawing a comparison that I think is apt: Space opera is by definition loose with its science, just like Dirty Harry is loose with its police procedure.

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