It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

10 things I learnt writing space opera


The following may read as pure cynicism, but it’s actually meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I thought it best to mention that before some redditor sees it and starts frothing at the mouth…

1. There is nothing to be learned from analysing other space operas
Why are some space operas successful, and some not? It’s no good looking for a magic ingredient or a magic formula – there isn’t one. This also applies to epic fantasy, another resolutely commercial form of genre fiction. I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series to see what made its books bestsellers. I couldn’t figure it out. They were terrible and derivative, and often astonishingly dull. They also sold by the boatload. Go figure.

2. Yes, you can be too clever
Space opera is a commercial subgenre of science fiction and has proven wildly successful on television and in the cinema. It is broad-brush literature. Yes, you can get clever with it, but the sort of people who enjoy space opera are unlikely to appreciate it, and the sort of people who like clever fiction are unlikely to pick up a space opera in the first place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t successful exceptions, of course. But. M John Harrison’s Light had his name on the cover, so readers knew exactly what they were getting. And Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy judged the amount of cleverness to include pretty much perfectly.

3. In a trilogy or series, never put off the resolution of minor plot threads or mysteries until the next book
It’s one thing to draw out a plot over the length of a trilogy or series, but that’s the meta-story – no one expects that to be resolved in the first book. But if you’ve included a bunch of minor plot threads, or even a couple of mysteries, you need to resolve them before the end of the book in which they appear. Readers will either conclude the plot thread doesn’t work, the author has forgotten about it, or won’t remember it when you do resolve it in the book following. See above re too clever…

4. Readers will swallow anything… as long as it’s a trope
As Joe Abercrombie tweeted several weeks ago: “Always surprises me the things people find utterly unbelievable in a fantasy. Giant winged lizard? Fine. Female smith? BEYOND RIDICULOUS.” In space opera, that would be: Faster-Than-Light travel? No problem. A society that never developed gunpowder? I DON’T BELIEVE IT. Guess what – it’s all fucking made-up. Every bit of it. Dragons are not real, FTL is not real. So if the author wants to posit a star-faring society without guns, then why the hell not? Um, see above re too clever…

5. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds the moneys
Commercial fiction of any genre trades on the familiar. It exists mostly to be comfort reading, and most people don’t like to have their likes and prejudices questioned. See Puppygate, see Lovecraftgate, see anybody who uses the term “political correctness” or “social justice warrior” unironically. Space opera is big spaceships, big battles, derring-do and as much colour as can be reasonably squeezed into 700 action-packed pages. Themes are big and bold and simple: good people win, bad people lose; evil empires are evil; one man (it’s always a man, of course) with a stout heart can topple the biggest of empires; if you can’t map Middle America values onto a fictional universe, then it is clearly wrong.

6. Unless your space opera is military sf, don’t package it to look anything like military science fiction
If you put a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover of your space opera, most readers will expect to find something inside which is all about the GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP and nothing else. Manly man human space fleets battling nasty reptile aliens, for example. And when that’s not what’s in there… When people buy a meat pie, they expect to get a pastry shell filled with some sort of flavoured flesh. If it was filled entirely with, say, aubergine, they would be rightly disappointed. Of course, books are not meat pies, and it may well be that a military-sounding book title and a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover are actually relevant to the story, which is, despite all that, not at all military science fiction. But that, of course, is why we have blurbs – and why Kindle books let you read an excerpt.

7. Too much description is a bad thing
Descriptive prose gets in the way of action. Though how immersion is supposed to work without descriptive prose is beyond me– oh wait, clichés. Of course… And you could always stick it in dialogue. Readers like dialogue – it explains things. You know that writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell? It should really be: don’t show, tell it in dialogue. Fact.

8. It’s impossible to know what needs to be explained
Some readers will complain because a space opera’s particular flavour of FTL is not backed up by an info-dump. Others will be unwilling to suspend their disbelief regarding the book’s social set-up without some sort of history lesson to “explain” it. There is no way of knowing what level of exposition is appropriate, or what elements actually require exposition – it varies from reader to reader, from story to story. Personally, I tend to go for “less is more”, but readers seem to trust authors far less these days than they used to.

9. There needs to be a Poe’s Law type thing for pastiches
Science fiction, they say, is a genre in conversation with itself. It might be better to consider it as some sort of colony creature, which passes its genes – ie, tropes – from one generation to the next, slowly evolving, often mutating, as it goes. A GIANT SPACE JELLYFISH. Conversation, after all, it implies some sort of intellectual engagement, and if tropes are what genre uses to propagate itself, you wouldn’t expect them to be used so uncritically so often. So when tropes are indeed pastiched, it’s often impossible to tell if it’s being done ironically or uncritically.

10. You can overthrow the universe as long as you put it back how you found it
Nothing ever really changes in space opera – or in epic fantasy, for that matter. Different uniforms but the same old jackboots. You can only take progression so far. See earlier re female smith. Start putting too much progression in there and you put the entire genre at risk – you get Puppygate. Still it’s hardly surprising that a subgenre based on autocratic political models is regressive, it’s written into its DNA. And if you change that, well, you haven’t really got space opera, have you? So keep your universe tidy and put things back where you found them. You know it’s the “right” thing to do…


Of course, for every point made above, someone is going to name a particular space opera which disproves the point. Which, er, pretty much proves point 1. But when you look at a genre which exists in two distinct markets, one of which is driven by marketing spend (proper published books), and one by weird sales algorithms (self-published Kindle books), it tends to be the more traditional fare which succeeds best in the latter market. Besides, the points made above are not actually meant seriously…

Or are they?


64 thoughts on “10 things I learnt writing space opera

  1. A society that never developed gunpowder? I DON’T BELIEVE IT.

    Now, Ian, I can believe that. But to have no missile weapons of any kind–that was what I couldn’t believe. No gunpowder still means crossbows are almost certainly going to be a thing instead. Maybe I should have been clearer in my review?

    • Ha. No, it wasn’t just you – it’s a comment that’s been directed at the book a number of times 🙂

      • Iain, why do you care? If that’s the level of criticism you got, you should be happy, you got off light. Come back when you’ve been accused of being racist/misogynistic/homophobic and have had lies spread amoung your friends and your work mischaracterized by people who are happy to even lie about the contents, and then we can talk.

        And imagine that everyone had said “Oh, this is totally believable, I didn’t have to suspend disbelief once!” Don’t you think that in that case you’d have somewhat failed in your duty as a writer of the fantastic? The job is to push boundaries, and pushing boundaries will always tend to leave some people behind (not because there’s anything wrong with those people, we are all left behind by some claims, there’s something for each of us that is too much of a reach).

        An SF writer has to make most of the readers believe six impossible things before breakfast, but you can never make all of us believe them all of the time. Them’s the breaks.

        • You seem to be confusing comments directed at a book with comments directed at a person. My ten points are not actually things I learnt after writing a space opera – I just used that as a title. They are things I’ve thought about sf for some time.

          • # You seem to be confusing comments directed at a book with
            # comments directed at a person.

            Hmm… that doesn’t change my point either way. Ian, you sound despondant, like Space Opera went bad for you because you got all these negative comments, but I’m saying that the comments you got aren’t that negative. You must expect that some people will have problems with some of the things you write, and if they didn’t, it would surely mean you weren’t pushing far enough. And I’m not criticising Justin or anyone else for ‘not believing’ some things, everyone has something that breaks suspension of disbelief for them, and it differs from person to person. What were you expecting? You’re not always going to get the mostly positive response that Adrift got.

            Perhaps I am misreading your post, but you sound aggrieved and angry, and like you’re saying “I will never do space opera again!”. But if I am reading you right, then you’re overreacting and being hasty. Furthermore, as I said, what do you care about the reception? Write it, publish it, rince, wash, repeat.

            The point about covers is an interesting one, though. There’s an
            Established language of covers. Those of modern spy novels,
            Rather often depict a person in silloutte, either
            Running or stood in the distance (sometimes with
            A long shadow). ‘Sex&City’ style novels often feature a close-up of

            A high-heeled shoe. Clearly such a forumlaic cover is part of a
            Promise to the reader about what the contents will be. I
            Have to think you are right that ‘big space battle’ is another deep
            Rooted iconographic promise, and people will expect
            Outer spacebattles, giant spaceships and tales of
            Daring-do and within, manly, womanly, or otherwise.
            I think you did well with the cover for Adrift on
            The Sea of Rains (I like the many landers one) because it
            Eshews such visual promises, it doesn’t use an established iconography.

            If you’re stepping outside of the formula in terms of writing, it probably is a good idea to go with a cover that also steps outside of the formula too.

            • The post is slightly cynical and slightly tongue-in-cheek. But it’s definitely not agnry. How a reader responds to a work is entirely personal. I am, perhaps, a little annoyed that tropes have now become so fixed in sf that no one bothers to interrogate them.

    • I wonder more about the implications re: landscape engineering or whatever the proper name is. Running tracks through the Rockies would have been excessively interesting without boom powder.

  2. Okay, hmm …

    How do you account for Iain M. Banks, then?

    (Because by my reading of his corpus he breaks just about *all* of your rules. Oh, and I’m paying a *lot* of attention to how he did so (breaking your rule #1) because, well, you can figure out the ellipses for yourself …)

    • There is no accounting for Banks 🙂 But I’ve yet to see anything quite like him since – although, to be fair, Banks himself only did Banks to varying degrees, sometimes more successfully than other times. You can pretty much draw a line of Banksiness from The Player of Games to Transition, and all of his sf novels are on that line somewhere.

      • If you don’t have an editor screaming in your ear through a megaphone “CAN HAZ SECOND COMING OF IAIN M. BANKS NAOW, PLZ” then … then you’re very lucky, is all I can say.

        (Not that I’m capable of replacing Banksie, but I’m very interested in scratching the itch in the collective literary subconscious that he so unerringly put his finger on. And I reckon the only way to do it is to break *all* the rules — but from a position of knowing what they are before you get started.)

        • Of course editors will demand the second coming of a critically and commercially successful sf writer 🙂 Doesn’t mean, no matter how hard people try, they’ll manage to emulate him.

          And I agree entirely with your second para re the itch and breaking the rules from a position of knowing what they are. I’m interested in how science fiction works, though I don’t I’ve always been successful in taking it apart and putting it back together in interesting ways in my fiction. OTOH, I have no time for fiction which just uses rote deployment of tropes.

        • Banks broke some of the rules, but not all. For me the most important ‘breakage’ was his portrayal of a future society in which people and machines got along just fine, and if they weren’t actually equals, then it was the machines who held the ascendency, but the machines were benevolent: that was new.

          But in many other ways he stuck to established tropes of the genre. Banks is one of my favorite authors, so bear that in mind in what I’m about to say, because I’m not denouncing him even if I sound like I am.

          The Culture is essentially a galactic empire, and is highly imperialistic in its outlook. It meddles in the affairs of other societies which it considers ‘regressive’. In this it is no different from the British Empire that thought it had a mandate to “civilize” the “savage people’s”. Perhaps it is not the British Empire, but a mirror of neo-con America, working to spread ‘freedom and democracy’, or perhaps yes, the Soviet Union, spreading communism. In this regard the core component of much space opera, the maintainance of a galactic imperium, (whether it’s called that or is called The Federation, The Commonwealth or the Culture) Banks sticks to the established formula. The mindset of a Culture AI, a British colonial governor and a neo-con policy wonk are very similar: we are the enlightened ones, and must spread our enlightenment to the backward peoples of the universe. By force if necessary, and if someone gets hurt, well the future utopia we plan to deliver will justify our actions.

          Also, of course, Banks stuck with FTL, and aliens, and gigantic spaceships. He could have gone with sublight transports, an empty universe, and uploaded characters travelling on tiny spacecraft (as I seem to recall Charles has done).

          Breaking all the rules may well be a good idea, but I’m not sure it’s the key to success. Banks did not break all the rules, just some. In the end I suspect that success is as much luck as anything else.

          However, Mr Banks did strike out in a new direction, despite all the things that he kept. The irony of editors asking for the second coming of Iain Banks is that copycats won’t sell, but anyone striking out in a new direction as Banks did will be seen as ‘not Iain Banks’. As ever, no-one will recognize the next big thing, until it’s the next big thing.

  3. If I thought I could seriously write a Banks-type space opera without being really blatant about it, and achieve even a tiny fraction of the quality of the real thing, I’d bloody do it, at the very least to preserve at least one small corner of the subgenre for left-liberal sf.

    On the question of being too clever…I always end up tripping myself up by making things waaaay more complicated than they really need to be.

    For some reason I imagine you shouting AND ANOTHER THING all the way through writing this.

    • I tried it, back circa 2002-2004, in “Iron Sunrise”. (If I hadn’t started out with a universe which was subtly broken I’d have gone back for more rounds until I got it right, but … well, it wasn’t going to end well.) It’s really hard to stuff thematic depth, characterisation, *and* space opera into the same sausage skin and I think a major point about Iain is that he didn’t try to do conventional formula MilSF/space opera, except in passing and to make a point (e.g. “Consider Phlebas”). Instead he wrote something else that’s a whole lot more subtle but that also pulls out organ stops in the key of space opera.

      • He had an advantage in that he’d created a universe which could be all things. He could tell whatever stories he wanted, cover whatever themes he wanted, and still have it recognisable as part of a single-setting corpus. Not every Culture novel actually reads like space opera – and I don’t just mean Inversions – but it was a space opera universe so that kind of infused them all. I suspect the most traditionally space opera of Banks’s novels is Against A Dark Background… which isn’t even a Culture novel.

        • Yeah, I’d agree with that: he built a sandbox where he could put pretty much any story he wanted to tell, something I gather Pratchett pulled off with his own novels (I say “I gather” because I haven’t read any Pratchett). That opens things up hugely.

          I need to go and look at some space opera novels that *don’t* fit the militaristic formula and think about them…for some reason, Spinrad’s Child of Fortune is floating around in the back of my head, although it’s been many, many years since I’ve read it.

          • # It exists mostly to be comfort reading, and most people dont
            # like to have their likes and prejudices questioned.

            Why do you care? Who are you writing for, if not yourself? Did you hope for fame, fortune, groupies and your name in lights? If so, I think SF is probably the wrong sandbox to play in.

            You should just write what you want to read, put it out there, people take it or they don’t. Rinse, wash, repeat.

            # See Puppygate, see Lovecraftgate, see anybody who uses
            # the term political correctness or social justice warrior unironically.

            Well, that’s me. I use those terms because I need them to point to real things in the world, and there’s no better terms currently available. I need them to distinguish myself from extremists and crazies when people try to claim I’m one of the extremists or crazies.

            Really Ian, I would have thought that after hategate you’d have realized that there are chaos actors in the ranks of the left. Are you really claiming that there’s no extremists on the left, and no one who goes too far? Can you really claim that there’s no one running around out there who’s appropriating terms and concepts for their own neferious purposes without any real commitment except to themselves? Do you really believe that the ‘other side’ isn’t running a few agents provocatuer? Well, if that’s the claim you’re making, people will conclude that you’re at best radically out of touch, because everyone’s encountering these people online constantly these days. In the internet age the kind of embarrassing extremists who used to send letters to the newspaper written in green ink are now all over social media claiming to be the true voice of whichever cause they choose to glom onto. Some of the causes will not survive that experience.

            I know the terms get misapplied, but refusing ever to consider that they could be used to point to actual abuses and abusers is what got the UK SF community totally pwned by a sociopath, and I predict it will happen again, because so few people seem to have learned from the experience. Next time it may be a more painful learning: I think we’ve been fortunate in how lightly people were burned from playing with that particular fire. If people had paid a little more attention to some of the folks using the term ‘social justice warrior’ unironically, then things might have gone better for a lot of people in the so-called community. As things stand, you seem to be stating that you’ll accept anything so long as I stick a ‘social justice’ brand-name on it: that makes you very vulnerable to certain types of subterfuge.

            As for Puppygate and Lovecraftgate, I’ve not paid too much attention to the latter, I’m tired of watching the SF left and the SF right try to outdo each other in tournaments of competitive stupidity. I know what it will be: two crowds of middle-class-fifty-year-olds screaming abuse at each other like kids in a schoolyard. I’ve seen that already, I don’t need to see it again.

            However, Puppygate was a more complex phenomenon than you make out, with a lot of people being angry about a lot of different things, all milling around together (I know because I tried to talk to the puppies and got into a fight with some of them straight away, but they were a more complex collective than you style them) . Of course they got hijacked by ideological parasites like vox day (the ‘reverse-SJW’) but then we must admit that both ‘sides’ of SF have been repeatedly shown to be politically naieve and easily taken over by chaos actors.

            Still, if you’re looking to sell space opera, and if you’re looking to present people with new ideas, it’s probably a bad move to insult these people the way you just have. I suspect that a lot of the market for space opera lies in the puppy ranks. Now, I know you’ll say that they wouldn’t read you anyway, but given that I saw puppies arguing with each other that they *liked* Ancillary Justice or the Three Body Problem, I would say that this is far from proved. Also, if you’re looking ot say something of any value, then by definition you have to say it to people who disagree with you. Ergo, in many ways these people are your target audience. Oh yeah, you can write stuff and get applause from the “Smash the patriarchy!” crowd, but what use is that? That’s just an exercise in ego-stroking, playing to a small and increasingly strange choir. (You might accuse me of making the same error here, but I’m not looking to sell books, so I don’t care if the SF community knows that I’ve got an abyssal opinion of it).

            Oh and WHERE IS TERRA APHRODITE?

            • I’m not sure what the relevance of most of your rant is to my post, but the sort of people who would be pissed off by my politics are the same sort of people who would not enjoy my fiction. So no loss there. There’s enough right-wing regressive drivel masquerading as sf out there, and I’ve no desire to add to it.

              • I’m not sure what the relevance of most of your rant is to my post,

                Well, I was directly commmenting on things you said and points you introduced. The only bit that’s not relevant is the last line.

                # but the sort of people who would be pissed off by my politics are
                # the same sort of people who would not enjoy my fiction. So no
                # loss there.

                But that’s one of the points I’m making. You lump lots of people together as ‘that sort of people’, but I think you’re mistaken. Take ST Johsi, he’s presumably one of your ‘Lovecraftgate’ sort-of-people. Admittedly he’s someone with a bit of a bad rep, (described in 2009 as ‘the nastiest reviewer in the field’, a crown he has now surely lost) but that is not unusual in SF. I would think he agrees with much of your politics, given that he published “The Angry Right: Why Conservatives Keep Getting It Wrong”. He’s an atheist, as I believe are you, and as an Indian man I’d expect him to agree with at least some of what you think about colonialism. But he’s passionate about Lovecraft and has handed back his Hugos after Lovecraftgate (and sent a letter to Tor books that amounts to a declaration of war. I feel sorry for Tor, why are they the designated battleground for every fight in SF&F? It can’t be much fun being SF’s Belgium). But is Mr Joshi one of ‘your people’, or ‘their people’? Is he ‘right wing’ because he wants to keep the Lovecraft trophy? Is he a potential reader of your work, or not?

                Me, I’m rather in agreement that it’s time to change the WFC trophy from being a bust of Lovecraft (and an unflattering one at that) to something else, which puts me ‘against’ Mr Joshi. But I wouldn’t write him off as a ‘regressive’ unit and an enemy, and I’d have approached the issue differently than people did: I’d have stuck to the case that Lovecraft was only one writer in the field, and that we need a trophy that represents the field more broadly. Yes, secretly I’d be thinking that Lovecraft’s racism was a big issue, but I wouldn’t make it the issue, because I’d know full well what would happen. Now that it has happened it seems to me that the best thing to do is make it a bust of Cthullu. This will quieten the Lovecraft fans and should dispense with the whole racism issue too. No one will claim that Cthullu is racist, he’s a person-of-color (green) and he plans to devour everyone equally and without prejudice. So I’m guessing that would pretty much put me on your side of this issue. But on the other hand, I will use the term ‘social justice warrior’, because I see that there are fakers in the ranks of the left (and the right too) who are doing a lot of damage to the causes they glom onto. But do you thus think I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t read your books? I’ve read them and liked them in the past.

                You speak of ‘sorts of people’ as though everyone who disagreed with you on an issue were a monolithic block composed of Vox Day clones. But they’re not. Someone who will stand with you on one issue will stand against you on another tomorrow. You might hope they’ll stand with you on a third in the future, but if you called them all the names under the sun during the battle over issue 2, you’ll find that they’re less likely to stand with you in future even if they agree with you. And they’ll be less likely to read you.

                But here, Ian, much as you rail against the form, you seem to be exhibiting a Space Opera mindset, or perhaps a Tolkienesque one, and I note that this is a very common attitude in SF. People in the SF community (not all, but way too many) think in stark terms of us-vs-them, good-vs-evil, right-vs-wrong, those-who-are-not-with-us-are-against-us. They often speak of ‘politics’, but they do not know what politics is. Calling people names and declaring them ‘regressive’ whilst trumpeting one’s own ethical superiority is not politics: it is tribalism. Too many SF types imagine that they are the enlightened Federation of Planets and that everyone who disagrees with them is the ‘regressive’ Evil Empire. But that is not the nature of reality, reality is not black-and-white, except in patches. Most of the time it’s varied shades of grey. This is not what I experience outside the community, so one wonders what’s behind it. I wonder if this is a case of ideological feedback: where the community as a whole is shaped by the worldveiw of the fiction they’ve read.

                And I cannot think of a single space-opera that has depicted a universe of greys and difficult ethical choices. Star Wars doesn’t, nor Star Trek; Banks pretends to, but the Culture is always right, so that’s “no” too; Dune is ‘good vs evil’; EE Smith the same; I didn’t finish Ancilliary Justice, it started out okay but midway through I realized that I didn’t know what it was even about, but I would argue that reducing people to ancilliaries is pretty evil so I’d go for black-and-white there too; Carolyn J Cherryh’s space opera is a little less binary perhaps, but the Kif are pretty nasty as I recall; let’s not even bring up Heinlien; Joe Hadelman’s “The forever war” has ambiguity, but that’s more down to the ‘fog of war’ than anything else. Even Alistair Reynolds strikes me as being pretty straightforward ethically.

                Perhaps this is why written science-fiction has become so irrelevant? We are now in a cyberpunk 21st century where the major evil on the world stage is the direct offspring of our governments meddling actions; in which ‘freedom and democracy’ has crashed-and-burned and spawned total disaster; in which half the world is still recovering from a marxist utopian experiment that went bad, and the other half is still ploughing through free-market utopian experiment that’s gone bad; in which we have wars where we can’t even decide who to bomb this week; in which political choices are often between two sides of neo-fascist haters who only differ in terms of which group they target their approbrium at. In such a world black-and-white space opera, whether it claims to be left or right in flavor, seems infantile. Its only value is, as you say, as a place of escape, and not just for the right, but for the left too. We can still just about believe in socialist utopias, so long as their set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Frankenstien and 1984 are the relevant texts of the 21st century, as they were for the 20th, and I don’t see their position being overturned any time soon. Who in SF could write shades-of-grey (no, not that Shades of Grey) space opera? Who would publish them? Who would dare? SF is for believers now, and you must belong to one camp or another.

                And this is why we need TERRA APHRODITE.

                • Personally, I think Joshi is a Very Silly Man. Lovecraft was becoming increasingly untenable as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award (not Hugo), and it was long past time he was retired. Joshi sent his letter to the World Fantasy Convention, not Tor. He also attempted to defend Lovecraft’s racism – which was excessive, even for the time. But that boat has sailed.

                  As for the Us vs Them… Of course I don’t think sf is split into two opposing camps. I also think the sol-called “culture war” only exists in the minds of a few people (yes, thoe ones who use “political correctness, “social justice warrior” and even “cultural Marxism” unironically). But it’s a stone cold fact that there is a small and vocal group of right-wing fans who are determined to get their version of events down as what really happened – despite all evidence to the contrary. The irony is that sf is by nature an inherently right-wing genre – even if many of its contributors are not. It has nothing to do with black/white morality or politics. Shades of grey and moral ambigiuity have been around in genre fiction for ages. But there’s very little sf set in a left-wing universe, it’s mostly, like the Leckie, left-wing commentary in right-wing settings.

                  Oh, and the kif were the most interesting aliens in the Compact space books.

                • # Lovecraft was
                  # becoming increasingly untenable as the trophy for the
                  # World Fantasy Award

                  I’d largely agree, but I think if people had just said “We need something that says fantasy, not Lovecraft” then we’d never have had this latest farrago. Mr Joshi appears to be responding to an wide-spectrum attack on Lovecraft as a literary figure, which is exactly what I’d expect to have happened given what I’ve seen of the SF&F community. In such an environment, people take up extreme positions in response to the attacks coming at them and all they love. My solution for all this is frankly for SF&F to split into two communities: it cannot keep together much longer and splitting sooner rather than later would be better. If things continue as they are, someone’s going to get hurt.

                  # (not Hugo),

                  Slip of the fingers, but a revealling one, eh? I can’t keep track of all the fighting and chaos in the so-called community. What will it be next month?

                  and it was long past time he was retired.

                  # Joshi sent his letter to the World Fantasy Convention, not Tor.

                  Actually, no, he sent his letter to Tor:

                  Mr. David G. Hartwell
                  Tor Books
                  175 Fifth Avenue
                  New York, NY 10010

                  Dear Mr. Hartwell:

                  I was deeply disappointed with the decision of the World Fantasy Convention to discard the bust of H. P. Lovecraft as the emblem of the World Fantasy Award.

                  Which I didn’t understand, because I saw the letter without context. Turns
                  out Mr Hartwell wears two hats, and one of those hats is as administrator of the WFC awards. So that’s the Tor link explained.

                  # He also attempted to defend Lovecrafts racism which was
                  # excessive, even for the time. But that boat has sailed.

                  I would be very interested to hear Mr Joshi’s arguments on this. He is the pre-eminent lovecraft scholar, so I’d assume he’s got some interesting angles on the issue, but at one point he even seems to question that Lovecraft was racist, and I think that would be a very tough argument to make! But the claim that Lovecraft was excessive for his time is a reach. Contemporaries like RE Howard were just as bad, and we are not just pre-civil-rights, but pre-WWII. The World Eugenics Conferences would still be a thing. Segregation was still a thing. The Raj was still a thing. Lovecraft was born in 1890, when plenty of people were walking around America who would have owned slaves previously. Even Socialist luminaries like HG Wells were saying and writing stuff that Robert E Howard would have agreed with and approved of. Towards the end of Lovecraft’s life the Nazis are on the rise in Europe, and imperial Japan is developing it’s own racial ideology. Lovecraft was not in the least exceptional, but that’s irrelevant as to whether he should be on the WFC award.

                • # As for the Us vs Them Of course I dont think sf is split into
                  # two opposing camps.

                  But you speak as though you do? You speak as though there’s this monolithic enemy out there. Like the Borg or something.

                  # I also think the sol-called culture war only exists in the
                  # minds of a few people

                  Almost by definition an ideological conflict would. Like the feminist-sex-wars it’s something happening between a few people with most of the population uninterested. It will exist in the minds of a few people until someone decides to take it to the physical plane (which I think is unlikely among middle-class types, but you never know).

                  Something is definitely going on. Sometimes I wonder what the game is. The people benefiting most from it are unquestionably on the extreme right. When the ‘culture wars’ finally spill out into the working class, it will be the 80s all over again.

                  # (yes, thoe ones who use political correctness, social justice
                  # warrior and even cultural Marxism unironically).

                  “Cultural Marxism”?! That’s a new one. I’ll have to look that up. I might want to use it. Unironically or otherwise.

                  A *lot* of people use “political correctness” unironically, I would guess most of the british population have used the term at some point. SJW not so much, because that hasn’t penetrated into the mind of the public yet, but it is doing. ‘Loony leftie’ has gone out of fashion, but if we carry on as we are, it’ll be back. People need terms to name the things they experience.

                  # But its a stone cold fact that there is a small and vocal
                  # group of right-wing fans who are determined to get
                  # their version of events down as what really happened
                  # despite all evidence to the contrary.

                  Like Mr Joshi? I think he would take great offence at you calling him right-wing. And the ‘other side’ would say there’s a small and vocal group of left-wing fans who are the same, and they’d be just as right. Those of us in neither camp would like our genre back, please.

                  # The irony is that sf is by nature an inherently right-wing genre

                  You know, I thought Mr Kinkaid was kidding when he basically argued that reality is inherently right-wing, but it seems to be what everyone in SF believes. What is a left-wing genre? Fantasy? No, it’s all kings and queens. The spy novel? No, it’s all about maintining the established order. The western? Crime fiction? Romance? What? What’s left?

                  SF, because it argues that the world could be different than it currently is, is the most subversive and left-wing genre yet created. If the left doesn’t hold this ground, then it doesn’t hold any ground. That said, some subdivisions of SF lean more to the right, and I think space-opera is one of those.

                  # Shades of grey and moral ambigiuity have been around
                  # in genre fiction for ages.

                  Yes, but I didn’t say ‘genre fiction’, I said ‘space opera’. Shades of grey are more common in, say, hardboiled crime fiction, but very absent in space opera. Maybe there’s some space opera that I’ve not read that’s set in ‘greyspace’.

                  # But theres very little sf set in a left-wing universe, its mostly,
                  # like the Leckie, left-wing commentary in right-wing settings.

                  That’s because left-wing universes are essentially utopian. What’s your conflict in utopia? You have to introduce it from outside. When I last made this point, Kim Stanley Robinson called me a nazi, but the point still stands, fiction is about conflict. I’ve tried to write stories set in utopias: there’s nothing to drive them, no conflict to be resolved. You could do a ‘maintaing the established order’ fiction where the established order was a socialist utopia, but in many ways the result would still seem quite right wing, as it would be about maintaining an established order.

                  # Oh, and the kif were the most interesting aliens in the Compact
                  # space books.

                  I’ve not read them since my teens, but I recall the Kif being quite… well they almost had waxed moustaches as I recall, but I am remembering a long way back.

                • Not sure why you’d want to “secretly .. be thinking that Lovecraft’s racism was a big issue, but I wouldn’t make it the issue, because I’d know full well what would happen.” I think this is a conversation we need to have, not sweep under the rug. Yes, Lovecraft was a racist; yes, we have reached the point where racism is unacceptable; and yes, we should point this out to people who (being generous here) might not have realized the extent of Lovecraft’s racism or what it means to be a writer of color and to receive a statue of a man who thought you were sub-human.

          • As I recall, The Void Captain’s Tale is set in the same universe as Child of Fortune.

            Would Spinrad’s Riding the Torch count as space opera? It’s set on a flotilla of Bussard Ramjets.

    • I think we all have a bash at it at some point. And then we realise, what’s the point when we have Banks? And much as I wuld like to see a left-liberal space opera, I’ve yet to figure out how that would work.

      • But you don’t need to imagine it; We have Leckie’s Radch Empire as a shining example. It portrays conquest and empire in an extremely negative way (and justifiably so!). It is also very banksian in many ways. Given its ending, you could even imagine the future of the Radch universe to be much more culture-like.
        Also, Ken Macleod explores communist and anarchist themes in a space opera background.
        I’m tempted to offer Rule 11 of Space Opera for your consideration: If you’re a Brit writing space opera, you can do whatever the hell you want. Alastair Reynolds certainly can.

        • It’s a totalitarian regime kept in power by military might – which is controlled by AIs who are programmed to obey Anaander Mianaai. The trilogy’s chief argument against the Radch campaign of annexation is that it’s economically unsustainable. Although the books do not state exactly what the annexed worlds are needed for – other than warm bodies to provide ancillaries for the fleets which annex worlds… Catch-22.

          • I can only conclude you missed the point of the trilogy entirely. There may not be any impassioned anti-imperialistic speeches but by showing you the various sins of even ostensibly “benevolent” empire-building – mistreatment of locals, miscarriage of justice in favor of privileged populations, erasing the cultures of indigenous populations, economic slavery, chattel slavery and so on – it manages to get the point across quite well. Breq’s experience on Shis’urna (and later at Athoek station on the plantation) is comparable to that of a modern American soldier in Iraq shortly after the second gulf war, or perhaps that of an Israeli soldier in the occupied territories, and it’s coming from what is clearly a liberal-left perspective.

            • I can only conclude you totally misunderstood my point. Leckie may have attempted to show the human cost of such empires–and while her commentary is clearly left-wing, it’s still only commentary in a right-wing setting.

              • What are the essential elements of a space opera?

                • # What are the essential elements of a space opera?

                  1) Space
                  2) Loud women in horned helmets

                • I don’t think any element associated with space opera is essential. But at its most basic, it’s melodramatic stories in settings which presuppose easy and convenient travel across interstellar distances, magical or near-magical technology, and some sort of regressive political structure, often cherrypicked from some historical period. In terms of story, it often follows the same templates as epic fantasy.

            • I have to say, I largely did miss this point. I mean, I could see it was a nasty empire, but I felt rather adrift in the book, so that it all seemed dreamy and inconsequentail. People talked and talked, and no-one seemed to feel anything. The act of creating ancilliaries is obviously a huge act of evil, but even though we are seeing through an ancilliary, the evil still happens offstage. We don’t see the people loaded screaming onto the galactic cattle-wagons (or we didn’t by the time I gave up) and thus the terror is very blunted. I guess this is because the author was shooting for a ‘Fatherland’ vibe where the evil empire has become the ‘new normal’ (I’ve not read ‘Fatherland’ so I might have that wrong) but Fatherland uses an established terror, and so doesn’t need to convince the reader of the nature of the evil empire, it can just push buttons that are already linked into the reader’s mind. This is not true for a new galactic empire that we’ve not previously seen. I think a few impassioned anti-imperialistic speeches might have helped.

    • Isn’t the Culture basically Jack Williamson’s With Folded Hands presented as a utopia?

  4. he’s passionate about Lovecraft and has handed back his Hugos after Lovecraftgate

    That seems both counterproductive (since the Hugos are administered by the WSFA, not the people behind the WFA) and extraordinarily challenging for him, since Joshi has never won nor even been a finalist for the Hugos.

    (and sent a letter to Tor books that amounts to a declaration of war.

    By any chance, did he send a letter to David Hartwell in Hartwell’s capacity as co-chairman of the World Fantasy Convention? Because while Hartwell works for Tor, he also does stuff that is unconnected to working for Tor.

    • the ‘hugo’ thing was a crossed neuron, I meant his WFC awards, but people are giving back awards all over these days, and it’s hard to stay on top of who’s given back what. And yes, he sent the letter for Mr Hartwell for just that reason, which solves the mystery of why he’d be sending it to Tor books. I did think it was very odd, I wondered if it was a ‘letters to the editor’ type thing.

  5. Well, apparently html codes don’t work here. Bother.

  6. For some reason, Ian Sales’ comment containing the phrase “and some sort of regressive political structure,” does not have a reply option that I can see.

    If you’re defining space opera that way, of course you don’t have left-wing space opera. You can’t. Or at least I don’t see how you can.

    • WordPress only lets you thread comments 6-deep, I think, which is why there’s no reply link on that button.

      The regressive political structure is an observed element and defining only inasmuch as it seems to exist in the vast majority of space opera. I think it’s possible to write a space opera with a left-wing setting… although I’m not sure if it would still look much like space opera…

  7. In reply to a comment above (as we’ve reach the thread limit):

    The person who raised the peition called Lovecraft a “terrible wordsmith”, but it was always about his racism. Throwing in defences of his prose is just straw man stuff.

    And no, it’s not a reach to say that Lovecraft held racist views that were extreme even for the time. There’s plenty of evidence online of his views. It’s well-documented. Joshi’s defence basically came down to “Lovecraft was nice to New York Jews”.

    • More responses to comment upthread…

      No, I’m happy to correct lies perpetuated by the vocal right-wingers (and there’s only really a small group of them), but since their lies are general so too will be my responses. This does not mean I’m portraying the genre split into two blocs busy fighting a Cold War.

      I didn’t say Joshi was a member of that vocal right-wing. AFAIK, he has nothing to do with it. He;s a Lovecraft scholar who threw his dummy out of his pram when Lovecraft was retired as the WFA trophy. End of story.

      I think you’re confusing drama and conflict. You don’t need a bodycount to generate drama.

      I read the Compact Space books recently, and in the third and fourth books the kif really develop into an interesting alien race.

      • # I think youre confusing drama and conflict. You dont need a bodycount
        # to generate drama.

        No I’m using it correctly, but there’s two uses of the term ‘conflict’:

        OED: conflict – A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one

        This is the one I’m using. But there’s also:

        OED: conflict – A prolonged armed struggle:

        ‘Drama’ is the product of conflict, I think. A story is a drama, conflict is one of its components. Utopian societies lack conflict, and thus they are difficult places to set a drama. You don’t need a bodycount to generate drama, though it often helps, but you do need conflict. Even ‘act of god’ disaster stories like The Towering Inferno can be read as a conflict between people who want to live, and the inferno which is effectively out to kill them. That is one way that you can introduce conflict into a utopian society: set it on fire.

      • For no justifiable reason I find the Chanur books hard to read but if the rest of Cherryh is any guide, she does antagonists but but generally not simple Bad Guys. Except for Manzian. And everyone in the ruling class in Union. So it’s not surprising that there’s more to the Kif than annoying space weasels.

  8. # The person who raised the peition called Lovecraft a terrible wordsmith, but it was
    # always about his racism. Throwing in defences of his prose is just straw man stuff.

    Not sure what this relates to, Joshi’s reply perhaps? But as you say the petition clearly attacks Lovecraft’s prose, one would expect responses on that basis too.

    # And no, its not a reach to say that Lovecraft held racist views that were extreme even for the time.
    # Theres plenty of evidence online of his views.

    This was a time that still believed in eugenics and colonialism and segregation. He’s born only 25 years after the US civil war. What happened to all those people who fought for the confederacy? Did they all change their minds? No. Does naziism appear out of a vaccuum? No. Lovecraft is living in a time when theories of eugenics and racial superiority are the norm, when empire is still a thing. His views were pretty normal for the time, and you can tell because Robert E Howard’s fiction, which is powerfully racist, didn’t garner much aprobrium in its time. Up till 1910 former confederate states will institute Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise their black populations. in 1912 Woodrow Wilson, a segregationalist, becomes president. In the 1920s the Klan is at the height of its power. Anti-miscegentaion laws are active in most states, with Oklahoma, Maryland and Louisana adding more, up till the 1930s. In 1924 Virgina will pass the Racial Intergrity Act. Meanwhile in Europe and Japan ‘scientific racism’ is on the rise, inspired in large part by the US eugenisist movement. They will eventually give rise to the event that will change all this.

    In 1899 no lesser progressive luminary than HG Wells is an ardent eugenisist, and is writing “The Sleeper Awakes”, which I couldn’t finish once I’d hit a certain passage in the story. In 1901 he will write of the place of the ‘lesser races’ in the glorious future:

    “Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.”

    I’m only posting a little of Well’s statement here, the whole statement is so unpleasant that I don’t want to copy-paste it. However, by 1916 he’s radically changed his position. Likely world-war 1 has something to do with that, but most people very evidently don’t snap out of this worldview until after WWII. It is the holocaust and the Nurenberg trials that change everything. There are no eugenisist world conferences after WWII.

    I’m not advancing the claim here that Lovecraft wasn’t racist, nor that he should be kept on the WFC trophy. What I’m saying is that if you think Lovecraft’s racism was exceptional, then you have a very rosy view of the world prior to the second world war. There wasn’t some enlightened period between the end of the US civil war and the rise of fascism in europe, racism continued to be a dominant element in society. It is the defeat of nazi germany and the revelations of the death camps that starts to make it unfashionable.

    • No, Joshi responded to Older’s comment about Lovecraft being a “terrible wordsmith”, but it was always about the racism. Anything else is the sort of obfuscatory bollocks thrown up by right-wingers. And it’s what you’re doing now.

      And you’re also talking bollocks about Lovecraft’s racism. Look it up, for fuck’s sake. It’s well-documented. Yes, people were far more racist then than they are now. But Lovecraft was extreme. So fuck off with your bollocks about Wells and eugenics and Lovecraft not being extremely racist. STFU and go and look it up.

    • It is the holocaust and the Nurenberg trials that change everything. There are no eugenisist world conferences after WWII.M

      Perhaps not, but there were eugenics laws in force in Allied nations until the 1980s. Oddly, the fall of eugenics laws seems to correlate more with the people generally targeted by them gaining access to political power than they are with the defeat of the Axis powers.

  9. @lampwick

    # Not sure why youd want to secretly .. be thinking that Lovecrafts racism was a big issue,
    # but I wouldnt make it the issue, because Id know full well what would happen. I think this is a
    # conversation we need to have, not sweep under the rug.

    Because it won’t be a conversation, it will be war. In the five years I spent among science fiction people, I never saw ‘debate’ or ‘conversation’, I just saw war. SF people cannot do conversation, they can only grandstand and scream abuse at each other. You may mean well and believe that you can converse with people, and as an individual that may be true. But as soon as you start speaking a bunch of people are going to fall into line behind you and start shouting extreme things. Some of these people are doing it just because they want to see a fight, they enjoy trolling the community, and they always succeed. Sooner or later something’s going to snap. Furthermore there are trolls who are using these fights to keep upping their profile in the community: one in particular who is doing it very well. These people are playing the long game, and as they garner more and more support, they become more and more of a threat.

    In such an environment I would seek to prevent bust-ups before they happen, because I feel that sooner or later someone’s going to get seriously hurt. We can’t keep pumping up the hate and virtiol like this and not expect it to have any consequences. We’ve had a few close shaves as it is.

    • Colum, you are rapidly wearing out your welcome. Your five years mean little next to my thirty years, and I know people who have been actively involved in sf for much longer than me. You try to argue about the WFA but you don’t even bother to find out the facts. You accuse me of seeing fandom as comprised of two antagonstic blocs, despite my explanations to the contrary, but then you accuse everyone of “shouting extreme things” as if all of fandom were engaged in the sort of thing which caught you up in its edges.

    • I agree that there’s a tendency for people to “grandstand and scream abuse,” but I’ve seen it go the other way too. But more importantly, I think we have to have these conversations (yes, even with the grandstanding), because if we don’t we’re leaving the field to the status quo, a place where a major 20th-century racist can continue to be the face of the World Fantasy Award.

  10. I can’t decide if this article is a send-up or not. Either way it made me laugh.

  11. One of the funny things about the politics of the Culture novels is hmm, yes, OK, socialist anarchist techno-utopianism, it’s DEFINITELY that, and it DEFINITELY has that don’t-kink-shame, Zaphod-Beeblebroxy hyper-liberalism thing going … but on the other hand, and when the Culture does it deus ex machina bit (Surface Detail, Matter, Hydrogen Sonata, Look to Windward) there’s a heavy dose of shock-and-awe, Noli-me-fuckwith,-son, bomb-em-to-the-stone-age brio. & in general the whole Minds business has a bit of the old “our strong and wise and fearless leaders are stronger and wiser and fearlesser than yours.” The whole Minds business even has a bit of the old, “God is on our side, not yours,” although this God gets it wrong sometimes, and books like Look to Windward and Use of Weapons are a bit like theodicies which grapple with what’s up with that. Even the feminist stratum has Badass Chick fossils immured in it at intervals. What I mean is: whatever it is that lets Banks be Banks, it feels like it involves some accommodation with right-wing ideologies, or at least the pleasures of inhabiting them. (Maybe a generous interpretation would be: it involves stealing things from those ideologies and using them against them).

    So I guess that might give credence to the generalization that space opera is just a right-wing genre, against whose grain he managed to write (just by being smart & funny & inventive & drawing heavily on non-genre influences? I dunno).

  12. BTW, if I were rapidly sorting books into right and left like a chicken sexer, the feature I’d base my macerating cisnorms on would be HUMOR — if a book is hard to place on a political spectrum, its politics often come through most convincingly in its jokes. The way Banks’s humor works is why I see the Culture as doing interesting transformations of right-wing themes and tropes, rather than being crypto-reactionary work produced accidentally and with the best of intentions by a left wing person. The same principle has (slightly) put me off Neal Stephenson and (very, very slightly) Terry Pratchett. But these are very crude categorizations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.