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La petite mort de sf

I’ve been working my way through Figures of Paradox, a study of Aleksandr Sokurov’s films by Jeremi Szaniakawski, and at one point he references the Kantian sublime, “the feeling that is so great it inspires neither love nor hate”, and it struck me that science fiction, in its own small way, is forever striving for that moment of the sublime. It’s not an actual objective of the genre, just something its readers look for in the texts they read. But they call it “sense of wonder” (please let’s not use “sensawunda”, which sounds like a brand of margarine). However, sense of wonder isn’t the same as the sublime. It’s a small version of it, the B-movie version – more colourful certainly, lots of bright primary colours in fact, but less actually awe-inspiring.

I think that difference in intensity may be simply a lack of physicality. Mountains are, famously, there. But the sublime doesn’t require an actual physicality. When NASA published the photographs of the surface of Vesta back in 2011, the asteroid was 188 million kilometres from Earth – and no one in my lifetime will ever visit the asteroid in person – but the fact of Vestia’s existence, its realness, the knowledge that it shares this universe with us, still prompted a moment of the sublime.


And against that, all science fiction can do is… manipulation of scale. When Stephen Baxter casually drops a billion-year history into the plot of his novel, when Alastair Reynolds writes of a journey across the width of a galaxy in his story, when Ann Leckie mentions in passing that the Radchh live in a Dyson Sphere… Because the story is focused on individuals, the sudden realisation – carefully stage-managed by the author, of course – that the story encompasses so much more, at a scale so much greater than the merely human, evokes sense of wonder. Admittedly, suspension of disbelief relies on a degree of plausibility. The universe is fifteen billion years old – that’s not only plausible, it’s a scientific fact. But a Dyson Sphere is not, on the face of it, an especially plausible idea… but it was proposed in scientific literature, and has since become part of science fiction to such an extent its plausibility no longer seems relevant: it has a form of virtual plausibility.

Of course, not all science fiction makes use of sense of wonder. Not every science fiction story takes place over billions of years or across millions of planets. On the contrary, some forms of science fiction deliberately downplay the sense of scale in order to suggest a more homogenous setting for the story – such as space opera. I mean, seriously, no one thinks there are zillions of human-habitable worlds out there just waiting to be settled, or that there’s a Kuhnian Paradigm Shift waiting somewhere in history’s wings to turn reduce the distance between these worlds to journeys of hours, days or weeks instead of centuries and millennia. But then it’s not like space operas are intended to be plausible in any way. They’re just adventure stories, and they use a language all their own.

In a mode of fiction which offers “idea” on one axis and “sense of wonder” on the other, there will always be works which score low, or even zero, on one axis. And too, the popularity of regions of such a graph will shift with time and fashion. We’ve had New Space Opera and we’re now living through the tail-end of it. Space opera has returned to its roots; the space operas being published today are no different in sensibilities to those of the 1970s (although the style of prose may well have changed). One sub-genre which seems to be flowering at present is military sf. Just look at the thousands of self-published titles available on Kindle. And as subgenres of science fiction go, mil sf is probably the least sophisticated. It is war stories told in the language of science fiction. It relies on an insultingly simplified worldview; it is the pulp sf of our times.

I gave this post the title “La petite mort de sf” not because I think science fiction is dead. (Again…) I used the expression “la petite mort” because of its meanings – including “fainting fit”, “nervous spasm”, or, more recently, “post-orgasmic unconsciousness”. While I’m not suggesting science fiction – good or bad – should inspire such states, it seemed like a good fit for an analogy of the gap between sense of wonder and the Kantian sublime. Paul Kincaid once wrote a critical work titled What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction – and a very good critical works it is too – but I wonder if a more important question is: What It is We Want When We Read Science Fiction. And what I find interesting is the tools built into the genre which address those wants; and a) how those tools have come into being, and b) how the tools are deployed to generate specific effects. For “tool”, you might as well read “trope”… although I think of tropes as the manifestation of deep-seated ideas, sort of like how three-dimensional figures appear in two-dimensional space…

Like manipulation of scale, sf is also open to manipulation of affect. The cheapest way to do this is through language – choosing the right words, essentially. This is not something unique to sf, by any means. Nor is it a technique used all that much in the genre. For much of science fiction’s history, prose has been seen as merely the transmission vector for story. Some sf writers have declared prose should be “beige” or “transparent”, the idea being it should not be a barrier to understanding the story or plot. But, quite frankly, if any style of prose is such a barrier then it’s not doing its job. This doesn’t mean the reader shouldn’t have work for it. Prose can do many things – it can declare, describe, imply, suggest, evoke, generate trains of thought only peripherally linked to the text being read… It can create pictures in your brain, moving pictures, stories which not only re-enact those written on the page but go further, outside the story, beyond the story…

Which means prose carries a heavy burden, over and above that of story. Personally, I prize clarity; but I also prize detail. Perhaps even an over-abundance of detail. Prose should not be “transparent” or “beige”, it should evoke as much as it possibly can, using all the tools at its disposal, linguistic and genre. And there are a great number of tools at the sf writer’s disposal – not just the manipulation of scale or the manipulation of affect mentioned earlier in this post.

True, science fiction will never reach the sublime, but no form of literature will. In its use of sense of wonder, it can approximate it (in a peculiarly circumscribed way, that is). Unfortunately, it is also chiefly a commercial genre of fiction, and much of its DNA was drawn from pulp fiction. The genre as it exists today prizes story and plot and all the mechanical things which together form beginning, middle and end; and yet it has the potential to be so much more. Sometimes, it hints at that promise – and it’s not necessarily genre authors who manage to do so…

Science fiction is a broad church. It has room for two-fisted tales of interstellar derring-do just as much as it does for lyrically-written cautionary tales or avant garde explorations of inner space. And in some years, one form of science fiction will be more popular, and win more awards, than another form. Like the alleged variation in lengths of skirts during times of economic hardship and boom, so science fiction cuts its cloth to the world around it. Unlike skirts, however, it doesn’t appear to go up when times are bad, but the reverse. When times are good, sf is typically optimistic; when the future is not so rosy, dystopia and mil sf rule the roost. It is a barometer of our times.

But it still has a long way to go before it gets close to the sublime.


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?

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On writing and how to

I’m probably the last person who should be giving writing advice, which is as good a reason as any for a blog post on the topic. If you want to know how to write short stories which are guaranteed to sell, look elsewhere. I suspect no one else really knows either, they’re just not honest enough to admit it. “Hey, it worked for me – sure it’ll work for you!” Yeah right. If you’re looking for rules on writing readable saleable fiction, I’m the wrong person to ask. If that makes me a dilettante, then so be it. I’m interested in fiction, I’m interested in how fiction works, and I’m interested in using that knowledge to create fiction which does something different. At least, that is, within my chosen genre.

It often seems wannabe writers can’t make a move without bumping into some “rule” or other: “show, don’t tell”, “prose must be transparent to let the story shine through”, “there are only seven plots”, “use a three-act structure”… They’re all bollocks. Fiction, least of all science fiction, is not a programming language. It doesn’t need to be compiled, and it won’t break the reader if, for example, you chose not to use quotation marks around dialogue.

And no one knows why some fiction succeeds and some doesn’t. It is not true that good novels will always see print (never mind sell by the boatload). There are a lot of excellent novels that have never been published, there are a lot of bad novels that have seen print (and some have even been phenomenally successful). There are also a lot of hugely popular novels which garnered a raft of rejections before someone eventually took a chance on them.

As for posterity… Dickens was a hack, an unashamedly populist writer – he even let his readers choose how one novel ended. And Jane Austen was allegedly neither the best writer of her generation nor the most popular – but her novels have endured, while the others are forgotten. Mary Shelly wrote seven novels, but it is her debut, Frankenstein, which is remembered two hundred years later by most people.

Science fiction should be willing to stretch the boundaries of narrative and genre. That it usually doesn’t is a result of the fact it is, at heart, a form of pulp fiction. It had its beginnings in pulp magazines, and though it has at times tried to throw off its origins – the New Wave being the most celebrated attempt – the basic form usually ends up prevailing. And not necessarily for the right reasons.


It’s a long-accepted truism science fiction readers are more open-minded, more willing to accept the Other, than readers of other genres… Or are they? Has sf become a victim of its own success? Its most prevalent models have proven so popular across most media that all forms of science fiction are assumed to be of that type. It’s an easy argument to believe – the Sad Puppies certainly fell for it – but it’s not in the slightest bit true. Science fiction is a broad church, and it’s long been my contention that those who take the trouble to admire, and understand, how the genre operates will make better use of the tools available to a writer.

So it’s all very well just blithely introducing FTL into a science fiction text, because the story requires several different locations and the genre insists they be separated by light-years. Except… Firefly put all its worlds in a single planetary system. Not, it has to be said, a particularly plausible solution, but at least it was an attempt to address a common sf stumbling block: space is big, hugely mind-bogglingly big. There are remarkably few science fiction novels which take account of that – notable examples being the current fad (see below) for generation starship stories, such as Aurora and Children of Time.

But if Whedon failed to interrogate the tropes he deployed – no real surprise there – there’s no reason why other writers cannot. There is no GREAT BIG BOOK OF TROPES which must be obeyed. There are no rules which dictate how tropes should be deployed. No matter what some people might insist. Making use of them the same way everyone else has done is just lazy writing, cheap shorthand for complex objects (as is hiding those tropes under a thin veneer of metaphor – but that’s a rant for another time). Each trope certainly exists for a reason, and it makes for much more interesting fiction, to me, if it is the reason that’s interrogated.

The big point about writing, the thing that drives all others, is that you get out what you put in. But your readers probably won’t. There are tricks you can use to trigger a specific reader response, but sooner or later your readers will spot those tricks and they will no longer work. So you might as well write something which meets your own objectives and not those of some mythical reader. The market does not exist, it’s an emergent phenomenon – so it’s no good writing “to the market” because there’s no such thing. And should you decide to try – well, by the time you’ve written your novel, the fad is likely over, unless you’re uncannily good at trendspotting. You can only write to please yourself and hope it pleases others…

It’s not like I’m one to talk. The Apollo Quartet has sold in total some 3000 copies over 3.5 years, of which just over half were sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I was surprised during a conversation at Fantasycon 2015 to be told the Apollo Quartet is held in high regard. It often feels like “regard” should have a number attached and I know – from tracking my own sales – what that number is for the Apollo Quartet. Certainly among my friends and acquaintances, the four books have their fans. But not every review of them has been complimentary or fulsome.

I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to deliberately not be what readers of the preceding book had praised. People liked that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary, so I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to be a science fiction puzzle narrative. With each book I tried to push the boundaries of narrative and narrative structure. I made a number of artistic decisions which readers have questioned – not just the lack of quotation marks, but also the lack of closure, the refusal to spell out acronyms, the use of inference to link two narratives… the choice by myself to make the reader work to understand the story. I didn’t intend the Apollo Quartet to be light reading, and that dictated how I approached writing it.


There is, now I think about it, another reason why I’m a poor choice of person to write about writing science fiction: I can’t stick to the point, and I’m not entirely sure if this piece is in any way helpful. Writing advice is a poisoned chalice at the best of times – success is too individual for any particular technique to be held up as a general guideline. (I’m assuming a basic facility with language, of course). Having said that, one piece of advice I can give: get yourself a sympathetic group of beta readers. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just bang your novel up on Kindle, unseen by anyone else. (And don’t get me started on self-published 99p science fiction novels – that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s an unspoken compact between writer and reader. You can either stick to it… or have a bit of fun with it. Personally, I think the latter makes for more interesting fiction. Unfortunately, the former is more likely to result in successful fiction. You pays your money and you takes your choice…


Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.


Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.


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.


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.


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.


A prospect of space opera

I might have mentioned once or twice I have a new space opera out, A Prospect of War. And since books apparently don’t market or sell themselves – big publishers have whole departments to do that, or so I’ve been told – I felt I’d better wibble on about it a bit. A Prospect of War will be officially launched as a signed limited hardback at Edge-Lit in Derby in July, but if you pre-order now you get a free ebook edition. Or you can buy the ebook straightaway, if you’d sooner have in that format. (ETA: The publisher has moved the book to Kindle: UK and US.)


So, a space opera. That’s like with an empire. In space. With an, er, emperor. But A Prospect of War is not your typical space opera. Despite taking place in an empire that occupies some ten thousand worlds, it’s all a bit low tech. I was going for a sort of Edwardian aesthetic when I wrote it, steel plates and polished wood, but these days I suspect it’ll just be read as steampunk-ish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The reason I designed such a universe was because I didn’t want it to feel dated, no matter when a person read it. I wanted it to be hermetic, with no references to anything recognisable in the real world, or that could have been extrapolated from “current” science or technology. So all the computers are mechanical, and even artificial lighting is generated using the piezoelectric effect. And then there are the five handwavey devices which have made this an interstellar empire – topologic drive (FTL), charger (anti-gravity), directed-energy cannon (big shooty plasma-beamy things), power toroid (cheap energy), and force-curtain (useful for making sure your air doesn’t escape in space). There’s a back-story explaining how a relatively low-tech planet-bound civilisation ended up with these, and one day I may write a novella about it.

Then there’s the narrative of A Prospect of War, which was partly modelled on that of an epic fantasy. Or at least, that was the original plan. There’d be a peasant hero, who’d find himself embroiled in an empire-wide plot bent on… hell, let’s go for the obvious one: a plot to take the throne from the emperor. Your basic consolatory fantasy story. Why not? Except… what makes the peasant hero the, er, hero? If he’s a nobody, what is it about him that results in him leading the fight to save the throne? There’s no magic in A Prospect of War – I mean, that would be like polluting space opera…

Okay, perhaps a suitably science-fictional “magic” power might be okay. Like prescience. It worked for Paul Atreides, after all. True, he was also the son of a powerful noble, but you know what I mean. However, I wanted something a bit more original, and I think I managed it. In fact, this later proved only one of many serendipitous choices I made while I was writing – you know, where you write something because it seems like a neat idea at the time, and then later on in the narrative you realise you’d inadvertently foreshadowed something really cool.

In most epic fantasies, the narrative follows the peasant hero, getting to know him (it’s pretty much always a “him”) first, then showing how he picks up the various members of his gang, which he subsequently uses to defend the noble emperor. Or something. I decided to mix this up a little – the peasant hero would be your typical ingenu but he’d also be pushed and pulled by a couple of conspiracies. Which meant introducing some additional points of view as quickly as possible. This may have been a mistake. The opening chapters of A Prospect of War bounce around among four main characters, rather than focusing on the peasant hero. This means the novel has a somewhat steep learning curve – a situation not helped by my decision to try and avoid big fat lumps of exposition (although, to some extent, exposition was unavoidable, but I hope I kept it to a reasonable level).

The narrative of A Prospect of War, if it were plotted out, would look a bit like a map of a railway network. Sort of. The separate “tracks” of the story meet and cross and bounce off each other as the novel progresses, before eventually meeting up for the transition to the second book. Sometimes they’re chasing a mystery, other times the direction is dictated by the answer to a mystery.

Just to make things a little more interesting, when I was designing the universe I decided that topologic travel would be measured in weeks, but time would have passed more slowly in the real universe – a “time-lag”. On a logarithmic scale. So one week in the toposphere (the sort of hyperspace used by the topologic drive) equals eight days in the real universe; two weeks equals thirty-two days. And so on. A word of advice: never do this. It made working out the internal chronology of A Prospect of War, and its sequels, a complete nightmare. Especially when you have different groups of characters gallivanting about space.

All this focus on plot and the shape of the narrative doesn’t mean I skimped on my cast. It was important to me the characters were as well-rounded as I could make them. The peasant hero, Casimir Ormuz, might be typical of the breed – although he’s no special snowflake (well, perhaps a little bit) – but I hung the rest of the narrative on another four characters. Who, er, all happen to be women. Ormuz is a member of the crew of a tramp data-freighter. The ship’s captain, Murily Plessant, represents one of the story’s factions. Then there’s the Admiral, who is secretly building up a force to defend the throne. Her lieutenant of intelligence, Rizbeka Rinharte, is instrumental in bringing Ormuz and the Admiral together. And finally there’s Sliva Finesz, an inspector investigating financial irregularities high up in the government, who gets dragged into the whole thing. None of these, by the way, are precisely good or bad; it doesn’t fall out into two neat little camps like that. And it gets especially mixed up in the second book, A Conflict of Orders.

The other element of the space opera I spent time developing was my empire’s history. I wanted that sense of deep history you get in the best science fiction. I didn’t quite go so far as putting together a family tree covering 1200 years of the empire’s ruling dynasty… Well, okay, I started one, but I never finished it. But I did write notes covering some six or seven thousand years of history, most of which would never actually appear in the books. I actually made a start on an encyclopaedia, which I thought might eventually make a companion volume…

Next time, I might write about feudalism… in spaaaace.

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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.


While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.


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