It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Space Trekkin’

I know, I know, this blog is turning into one long series of posts promoting my books and stories, or posts about the DVDs I’ve watched. I need to write more about actual literature (genre or otherwise), about writing, about the stuff that interests me, and not just the cheap content I’m throwing up to prevent mildew from over-running everything… All of which is a somewhat roundabout way of saying – sorry! – that here comes Yet Another Promotional Post. YAPP. That’s what we’re going to call it round here from now on. Hey you, shut your YAPPing! It has a nice ring to it. Anyway, onward…

Tickety Boo Press, purveyors of the finest space opera known to humanity, have chosen to make their excellent wares yet more affordable, and have released a bundle of… not one! (obviously it wouldn’t be a “bundle” if it had only one book in it…), not two!, not even three! but four! count them, four! books in Space Trek! Technically speaking, it’s closer to 3.5, as it’s three novels and one novella. But no matter. The contents include Abendau’s Heir by Jo Zebedee, The Last War by Alex Davis, A Prospect of War by myself, and ‘Monochrome’ by Stephen Palmer. A veritable shit-ton of words for only £5.99, and excellent reading each and every one of them. Get it now while it’s hot! No, seriously, every copy has been heated to approximately 451° Fahrenheit… so it’s a good job this is one of those electronic book thingummies.

Anyway… BUY IT. NOW.

SpaceTrek

The omnibus – cunningly subtitled “volume one”, I see, promising yet more goodies to come – is available on Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US (and every other national instantiation of the Huge South American River, of course).

Normal services will be resumed soonish. I have several projects on the go at the moment, so my creative energies have been, and will be, directed at them, rather than at the latest person who is wrong on the internet. But who knows what strange written artefacts will appear here over the next few months. Not me, that’s for sure.


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What is it about space opera?

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.

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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.

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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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The great big space opera giveaway

And that’s not “great  big” because there’s lots of copies to give away, I’m afraid, but because the single copy of A Prospect of War I’m giving away is itself “great big”. The give away bit is certainly true, however. The rules are simple: send an email to sales at whippleshieldbooks dot com (you’ll have to translate that yourself) before midnight GMT of Sunday 19 July 2015. Open to everyone.

 

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Launch days

Well, April was an interesting month, last week was an interesting week. It’s not everyone who has two novels published within three days of each other, and sees the end of one series and the start of another. Two very different novels too – and not just in size, 45,000 words versus 190,000 words…

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.46.35 PMFirst, the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, was launched on 27 April – on Kindle and paperback only. The signed limited hardback edition will follow later this month. Some time over the next couple of days I’ll be putting up a page on the Whippleshield Books web site to pre-order copies – and yes, I’m happy to reserve specific numbers (but it has to be less than 75, of course), although people who have purchased specific numbers of the other books of the quartet will of course get first call. All That Outer Space Allows, which is a novel and not a novella, was a hard book to write – as indeed have been all four books of the Apollo Quartet. But I think they’re good work and they occupy a space in the genre I’d plan to explore further… even if I have to self-publish again.

apowThen, on 30 April, Tickety Boo Press soft-launched the first book of An Age of Discord, my big fat space opera trilogy, A Prospect of War. It’s ebook only at present. There’ll be a paperback and a signed limited hardback launched at Edge-Lit 4 in July. A Prospect of War couldn’t be a more different book to All That Outer Space Allows. It’s my attempt at a commercial science fiction subgenre. I kept the prose plain, and limited the complexity to the plot (which is, er, quite complex). There are no fancy literary tricks in A Prospect of War, I just rang a few changes on your standard space opera tropes. A Prospect of War will be followed in October by A Conflict of Orders, and in March 2016 by A Want of Reason. I also have plans for a couple of novellas set in the same universe, but we’ll see how things go…

Ebook copies of both books are available for review. Drop me a line if you’d like one. Or, er, both.


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Reading out loud

One week tomorrow, I’ll be giving a reading at the Sheffield Fantasy & Science Fiction Social Club, along with US author Dana Fredsti. This takes place on Sunday 1 March, from 4 pm onwards, in the Old Queen’s Head (next to Sheffield bus station). There will also be a raffle, with lots of prizes (people rarely go home empty-handed), and plenty of friendly chat. This is the second event put on by SFSF Social – the first was on 24 January and was very successful.

Time permitting, I plan to read a very short excerpt from Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, and then another very short excerpt from my forthcoming space opera, A Prospect of War. I’ve no idea how well it’ll go – if the Apollo Quartet has taught me not to give books long titles because typing them out all the time is a complete faff, I suspect reading from A Prospect of War will probably teach me to pick character names I can actually pronounce…

So, come along – it costs nowt and it’s an excellent way to spend a Sunday evening.

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