It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Airs of empire

I have for the last few years documented my reading in Reading diary posts, where I typically write about – “review” is probably too strong a word – half a dozen books. I haven’t written a blog post about a single book for quite a while – chiefly because I sort of lost the habit of blogging regularly enough for me to write about a book within days of finishing it.

But sometimes books, or films, make good springboards for more general commentary on genre, and I think that makes for a more interesting blog post than a straight-up review. In this particular case, it’s a relatively recent space opera novel which triggered some thoughts on twenty-first century science fiction, particularly space opera; and that space opera novel is Heirs of Empire by Evan Currie, published in 2015 by 47North. It’s the first in a two-book series and is followed by An Empire Asunder (2016). I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy and read Heirs of Empire, to be honest. The 99p price point certainly helped. Or it could have been the fact it’s a space opera which features knights. I’ve been there, done that, so there was a certain curiosity in seeing how Currie had handled it.

But. Oh dear. Heirs of Empire reads like a self-published novel. 47North, Amazon’s own publishing imprint, is a reputable publisher – it published last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner! – but I find it hard to believe Heirs of Empire was actually edited. It’s not just that the prose relies overly on cliché for cheap and easy description. Or the dialogue is completely tin-eared. Or the characters are stereotypes, and not very interesting ones at that. Or even that the world-building is cobbled together from assorted past science fiction works…

A general of the emperor’s personal hyper-trained elite, the Cadre, is being transported to a remote high-security prison after a failed attempt on the throne. The train, which is travelling at hypersonic speeds, is derailed by the usurper’s confederates. He escapes, steals an advanced super-secret warship, and uses it to attack the imperial palace and seize power. Even though he failed once – or perhaps he was captured before he made his move, I forget – apparently he can still throw together a successful rebellion. He kills the emperor, but the youngest members of the imperial family, fourteen year old twins, escape. Eventually the twins are discovered by loyalist forces, and are instrumental in retaking the throne. And that’s it. The plot. Pretty much.

It doesn’t take a savvy sf reader to figure out the story is set on the inside surface of a Dyson Sphere, although the empire is bounded on all sides by an impassably high “God Wall”. Several items of technology used by the empire are also artefacts of an earlier civilisation and not understood. Much like the author and science. There is suspension of disbelief and then there is a completely inability by the writer to present anything remotely plausible even in an invented universe. That earlier hypersonic train crash? The villain survives it, losing a leg and an eye and suffering a few minor injuries. That’s: a hypersonic train crash. A few days later, sporting a prosthetic leg a few inches too short, he manages to defeat the emperor, a highly-trained swordsman, in single combat. Later, another hypersonic train is hijacked by loyalist pirates (don’t ask). But this one is pulling 30 million tons of carriages. It’s like Currie added a couple of zeroes to every figure in the story and so rendered them completely implausible. There’s a missile that apparently accelerates at 40,000 G, not to mention some parachuters who are identifiable by their terminal velocity. And cannons which can shoot 10,000 feet straight up.

In other words, the science in Heirs of Empire is complete bollocks. There’s an attempt at some sort of steampunk atmosphere, with the ships having sails and poop decks and cannons, but none of it really fits together.

It occurred to me that deploying physics uncritically – ie, without any understanding of how it works – as Currie has done in Heirs of Empire is little different in principle to deploying science fiction tropes uncritically. Which is something space opera routinely does, even twenty-first century space opera, if not especially twenty-first century space opera. Those tropes have meaning and history, they have baggage. Spaceships are basically cruise liners – and not the floating hotels of today, whose passengers rarely step foot on land during their holidays; but the cruise liners of the early twentieth century, with their “exotic” destinations and colourful posters which blatantly othered the inhabitants of those destinations. Robots are either a metaphor for slaves (in the US sf tradition) or possibly service (from a UK perspective), but given the history of automata, the trope could also be seen as a metaphor for biddable women. Real robots, CNC machines, are perfect production line workers, but you don’t see them in science fiction.

It hasn’t always been this way. New British Space Opera introduced four new elements to space opera, each one embodied by a germinal work. Consider Phlebas (1987), in fact all of Iain M Banks’s oeuvre, introduced a left-wing sensibility to a right-wing subgenre. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990) made knowing use of its science fiction tropes. Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley melded space opera and hard sf, applying a high level of rigour in the world-building. And… it’s a cheat, but John Clute’s Appleseed (2001), for its use of literary metaphor as signifiers for genre tropes, and which has definitely influenced current space opera, although it was published too late to be classified as New British Space Opera. Which is a term that has apparently been wiped from genre history, thanks to The Space Opera Renaissance, which repositioned it as American and re-labelled it as simply New Space Opera.

We have been here before, of course: the New Wave.

New British Space Opera was new, but not everything it introduced took hold – Alastair Reynolds has had a great deal of success with melding space opera and hard sf, for example; but where are all the left-wing space operas now that Banks is gone? New Space Opera, the US re-imagining, was a step backwards. The only element it kept was the one introduced last, the use of metaphor to disguise tropes. Yet tropes are themselves metaphors. When a space opera author uses the word “moth” to refer to spaceships, they’re applying a metaphor to a metaphor.

True, space opera was not the first to do this. When you use your computer’s graphical user interface, you’re using a metaphor of the way the computer stores and accesses data. Cyberpunk took that and invented a second-order metaphor: cyberspace. Twenty-first century space opera no longer bothers with rigour, left-wing sensibilities or a knowing use of genre tropes, but it certainly does love its second-order metaphors.

It also apparently loves overt slavery, inequality, psychopaths and sociopaths, mega-violence and seven-figure bodycounts.

There have been some improvements, however. Space opera is now a much more diverse subgenre. There are no more Men In Fucking Hats™. This can only be applauded.

It could be argued that Currie’s appalling grasp of physics in Heirs of Empire is not so much a lack of rigour in a space opera universe than an outright rejection of it, inspired perhaps by the film industry’s creative approach to the laws of physics. And so too, by extension, for twenty-first century space opera: the use of metaphors to disguise genre tropes could be seen as a rejection of what those tropes actually represent. Mind you, given that space opera seems more than happy to incorporate uncritically what was being represented in the first place… Tropes have become decoupled. All is subject to authorial fiat. Physics has become magic; space opera has become fantasy.

Space opera has thrown away the hats, but it has also thrown away the science. And these days we need science more than ever.

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A critical bookshelf

Over the years I’ve picked up a number of book about science fiction and about science fiction writers. These are books I’ve mostly dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover. Not all of them cover authors I still read, and some of them aren’t at all useful as critical works… but still I hang onto them. And here they are:


First up, four books by Gary K Wolfe: Soundings, Bearings, Sightings and Evaporating Genres. Wolfe writes sharp incisive reviews of genre books, and the first three books are collections of his reviews. Evaporating Genres is a more general critical work, and I’ve yet to read it (it was only published this year).

On this side of the Atlantic, we have sf critic John Clute, whose reviews are collected in these four books: Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Scores and Canary Fever. A new book of his essays has just been published, Pardon This Intrusion, but I’ve yet to buy a copy. Clute’s reviews can be difficult, if not willfully obscure, but he is also extremely sharp and clever.

These three books do exactly what it says on the tin: annotated lists of the top one hundred genre books, as chosen by the editors. Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and Fantasy: The 100 Best Books are sister-works; I’m guessing Pringle wanted to do both but ended up approaching another publisher for his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels . Interesting books, but I can’t say I agree with the majority of their choices.

Two important critical works, New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis and Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and a couple of general guides to sf, David Wingrove’s The Science Fiction Source Book and David Pringle’s The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction.

I’m not sure what use is The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, but never mind. Likewise, the Good Reading Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Zool is actually the Oxford SF Group). Essential SF is, well, just that – at least according to the authors. Who’s Who in Science Fiction lists the pseudonyms used by genre writers.

Four critical works. Bretnors’ Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow is a collection of essays by many big name authors of the 1970s and earlier: Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, Gordon R Dickson, Ben Bova… Of Worlds Beyond is a series of essays on science fiction and writing science fiction by big name authors of an earlier generation: AE van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, EE ‘Doc’ smith, John W Campbell, and, er, Jack Williamson (most of the writing advice in the book is actually quite useless). Flame Wars and Storming the Reality Studio are academic studies of cyberpunk. Wizardry and Wild Romance is Michael Moorcock biting the hand that kept him in whisky for several decades.

I seem to recall Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder causing something of a fuss when it was published in the late 1990s. I enjoyed it and, like Westfahl, I’ve always felt science fiction began in 1926 with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories. The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology is just that, and the title of British Science Fiction and Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys pretty accurately describes its contents too.

A pair of British critics: Paul Kincaid’s A Very British Genre and What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction; and Gwyneth Jones’ Deconstructing the Starships and Imagination / Space.

Some books about writers: Snake’s Hands is a study of the fiction of John Crowley; The Cherryh Odyssey covers CJ Cherryh’s works; Parietal Games is criticism about, and by, M John Harrison; Heinlein in Dimension is about Robert Heinlein; and The Universes of EE Smith is about the works of EE ‘Doc’ Smith.

Some books about one writer: Gene Wolfe. The Long and the Short of It does not cover any specific work of Wolfe’s, unlike Solar Labyrinth, Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition and Attending Daedalus, all of which are about The Book Of The New Sun. I reviewed Lexicon Urthus, Second Edition for Interzone.

I picked these up years ago in a publishers’ clearance bookshop. I’m not sure why the series is titled Writers of the 21st Century, as only one – Le Guin – is still writing. Mind you, Philip K Dick is still being published, and having his stories adapted for the cinema, even though he died in 1982 (the book is copyrighted 1983). Jack Vance‘s last novel, Lurulu, was published in 2004, but we’re extremely unlikely to ever see anything new from him.

The Delany Intersection and the Starmont Reader’s Guide are both about Delany’s fiction. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is Delany’s first and probably best-known work of criticism, though he’s written nearly a dozen such books. Jack Vance – Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography is just that.

Finally, two books about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master Of Adventure about his fiction and A Guide to Barsoom specific to his Mars books. Who Writes Science Fiction? and Wordsmiths of Wonder are both collections of interviews with genre writers.

As well as the above books, I also have a number of science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedias and reference works. But that’s a post for another day.