Friday, May 27, 2011

Space Opera

Space Opera sure has changed since I was young. And not for the good. I’m thinking about this genre lately because my work in progress, “Under the Ember Star,” is definitely a Space Opera. What is Space Opera, you ask? Primarily, it’s adventure fiction set in an SF universe with faster-than-light ships, exotic aliens both friendly and not, and star-spanning planetary alliances and empires. Characters are typically larger-than-life and freely express themselves with blasters and other SF hardware.

Star Trek, especially the original series, is Space Opera. Star Wars is Space Opera. Han Solo may be the quintessential Space Opera hero, with his bravado and his low-slung blaster. Space Opera is fun. Or at least it used to be.

I recently read a big thick book of so called “Military SF,” which is a form of Space Opera. The story was so weighed down with multiples on multiples of characters and political intrigue that I ended up scanning the last half and vowing never to read this author again. Then I started a collection of short stories called “The New Space Opera.” The “new” should have been a warning. The first story, while very well written and relatively entertaining, was a socio-cultural examination of two alien tribes in conflict. Ninety percent of it was essentially a narrator’s internal monologue. Say what?

I suppose if you read the story carefully you might be introduced to some deep thoughts about what it means to be human. Screw that, I say! Blow some shit up! Give us some smoking blasters. Give us some colorful exotic action. Let the characters move and breathe in an unfettered imaginary universe. I don’t want my SF to ape literary fiction.

Now, let me make one thing clear about my meaning here. Just because there is action and a plot that moves does not mean there can’t be character development and important insights into the human condition. But, at least for me, authors need to imbed that development and those insights in a matrix of adventure. Star Wars developed characters. Star Trek developed them. I just love reading about Kirk and Spock and McCoy. They are more real to me than any so called “literary” character ever. I’ve learned more from them about what it means to be human, and to strive to be a better human, than I’ve learned from all the literary fiction I’ve read in a lifetime. And I learned it because it was so damn much fun.

I can tell you one thing, “Under the Ember Star” ain’t going to be no “new” Space Opera. There’s even a chapter entitled “Smoking Blasters.” Things are gonna blow up in my story. Blood is gonna spill. There’ll be larger-than-life characters and cool items like hovercycles and plasma cannon. Cause if I can’t find it in the stuff being published today, I’m gonna have to write it myself.


Angie said...

I've never thought of military SF as being just another term for space opera, so part of the problem might just be mistaken expectations. Space opera the way I think of it has a rollicking, go-for-broke sort of feel to it, with actual science and related reality tossed out the window. Military SF (what I've read of it, and I admit I'm not a major fan of the subgenre) seems to be a couple of notches farther up the SF Hardness Scale. It also has a lot of military discipline and procedure, detailed strategy and tactics, and pages of hardware specs.

I don't know who you read, but one of my favorites is David Weber, who's very popular to bash these days. [wry smile] Try On Basilisk Station, a book about a ship commander whose immediate superior does his best to destroy her career by putting her into an impossible position. She pulls it off anyway on sheer guts, bravado and frightening competence. I also love the secondary characters, especially Scotty Tremaine (whom we meet as an ensign -- he gets a few promotions as the series goes on) and a disreputable non-com named Horace Harkness. The series pretty clearly draws from the Napoleonic wars, and the last few books aren't my favorites, but you can read the first ten or so and have a great time. :)


Deka Black said...

Totally agree with you, Charles. Take for example the Tschai tetralogy by Jack Vance. Compare Anacho with Traz, for example.

Plenty of development... without forgot the adventure!

G said...

Yikes! Please, no literary fiction crossing over to other genres!

I don't need to think about social issues while reading genre fiction, I just want to taken away on a trip to wherever that genre may take me to.

the walking man said...

I know you're not fond of the Roosians but I am going to compare what you said here to war and peace. In the second half of the work around the eighth book or so Tolstoy gives about four or five pages over in each section (not chapter) to his own understanding (internal dialog which he actually presents it seems to me in his own authors voice not that of a character in the book) but then he jumps back into the story.

I think for the 19th century sensibility he was about only as graphic as he needed to be about blowing shit up as Napoleon invaded Russia and got his ass kicked for the first time. But truthfully now today i can read his pacifist philosophy extent from the book itself, but if I'd lived then how would I know if he'd not put it in. granted it does slow the story about every 50,000 words but then he was making a point.

I don't know about space opera or the author but are his philosophical points valid as espoused in the internal dialog?

laughingwolf said...

yeah, gimme kickass action... sneak in the 'moralizing' without making it an info dump!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Star Trek and Star Wars are perfect space opera examples. And that's the genre I write.

eric1313 said...

The story becomes its own message, its own metaphor. Readers do that, the informing of the work--authors should never tell the reader what it means. (lol, don't mean to get all postmodern on ya there) It's best when authors stand back and just tell the damn story! People are going to make of it what they will, no?

I mean, to me at least, the SW saga is a story of one man's fall, and his eventual redemption, a redemption that only comes when his son is almost dead before his eyes, a son who was stronger in the face of temptation than he was. The Emperor had once used Vader's desperate need to keep those whom he loves safe against him to twist him to the darkside. Seems the emperor forgot in that last moment that that was his primary tool because it reawakened within Vader the old selfless part of his character, one who would toss the emperor like so much garbage down an exhaust port to a reactor core in the heart of their greatest war machine, the very symbol of their might, and die in the process.

At some point we forget about the ancient Greek notions of sons overthrowing fathers, the ideas of hubris and nemesis. We let go of the story of a farm boy who learns to slay giants, an echo of David with a twist. We let go of the framed-in idea of bringing balance to "the force". We almost let go of the ideas of the human condition, of love being stronger than the lust for power, eventually conquering all as it must (it should anyway, lol). We want to know, does Luke get out of there from the chaos before the reactor blows up in a megaton explosion? Does Han Solo get the girl? Does C3PO shut up? Does Lando try to repaint that scratch before he hands over the keys to the Falcon? Maybe we wonder that... But it's true. The story in this case is much more than a collection of symbols and metaphors and allegories.

Paul R. McNamee said...

"you might be introduced to some deep thoughts about what it means to be human. Screw that, I say! Blow some shit up! Give us some smoking blasters. Give us some colorful exotic action. Let the characters move and breathe in an unfettered imaginary universe"

Right on!

Randy Johnson said...

Mirror my feelings a lot. I got into the military Sf for a while and it wasn't bad. Then it got to be drudgery reading soon after. Some authors get it right, others don't. I learn fast.

Bring back those good old days. I still like the original Star Trek novels, mostly, but not to much of the other series.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, Most military SF falls under the space opera category to me. Not all. If you read like David Drake’s Hammers Slammers series, or all the stuff that was published in the There will be War series, or Laumer’s Bolo stuff. I put it on the hard edge of space opera. Star spanning empires are the very essence of space opera, and having ships and bolo systems that would deplete the entire economies of small planets is an example of the “opera-ishness” of the story. I’m not criticizing that. I like that very much. Star Trek is Space opera and it’s my favorite TV SF of all time. Space opera is often demaned as tossing reality out the window, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It just has to let the imagination have some free reign. I’ve not read David Weber. I recently read some William Dietz, who writes military SF and I didn’t much like his Legion of the Damned. I’ve been meaning to get some Weber

Deka Black, that’s what I want. Keep adventure up front and center.

G, I don’t like much literary fiction anyway. I don’t really need to read about a world that I live in every day. Some of it can be worthwhile. I’m not a big literary fic reader though.

Mark, I typically don’t read fiction for philosophy, although I think most writers’ philosophy comes through at some point. Mostly I’m fairly happy with my personal philosophy, the one I live my live based on. My personal philosophy in movies and certain kinds of books though is :”blow some shit up:” :)

laughingwolf, exactamundo.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, Me too. I guess you could say we’ve chosen the “Dark side?” No, the “fun side.”

eric1313, if you strive to write a story that resonates with readers, that touches their emotions, then the deeper stuff has a chance to get through and work its magic, but if you are too heavy handed the reader just gets bored and or feels preached at and goes away.

Paul R. McNamee, I’ve done some thinking about what it means to be human. I’m happy with those thoughts. Now take me somewhere else and let me have some fun!

Randy Johnson, I’ve only read one Star Wars novel and didn’t care much for it. I did like the early Star Trek stuff and still read an occasional one of those. I don’t mind deeper stuff with my fiction, although I’ve pretty well established most of my philosophical views these days. I just want there to be color and movement too.

BernardL said...

There's a reason the old form works - people like it. Get out the blasters and alien villains, mix in a little romance with bad-ass heroes and heroines, and it's a winner. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, you've got me.

Lana Gramlich said...

I really can't wait to read it, hon. I haven't read good space opera in ages!

David J. West said...

ANy ball park figure on when “Under the Ember Star” might be available?

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, thankee

David, it should be finished before the end of june. No knowing how long after that it'll be published though

X. Dell said...

I would guess that with any genre, the basic elements of narrative apply. What good does it do to "blow some shit up" if there's nothing at stake, emotionally? said...

What is it with serious creative types?

Somewhere, Manet wrote, "Some days I just want to get up, pick up machine gun andjust shoot everybody."

And Bruce Cockburn a generation ago:

"If I had a rocket launcher
I'd make some sonavabitch pay."

But we send out our armies, our assassins on paper.

A parody on a Forties Musical:

"Gee, I wish I had a jihad."

The Golden Eagle said...

I don't mind literary fiction on the whole--but I do agree. When I pick up something with the label "Space Opera" I expect action, not pages of explanation and/or the narrator's thoughts.

KeVin K. said...

Met David Weber once. He developed a 90k-word reference of history, politics, tech, etc., for Honor Harrington's universe before he wrote a single story. I was pretty pleased with myself for recognizing one of his space battles was a retread of the Battle of Jutland. Of course, I just know what happened, he knew the bridge officers for every ship involved and which one gave what order when. He absolutely hates Star Trek (the uniform of the elite gestapo analog for the bad-guy People's Republic is a red tunic, black high-water pants and jodhpurs-esque boots) so he wasn't too impressed with my work. He'd disagree with you on Trek being Space Opera -- he likened it to a really bad head-'em-off-at-the-pass western.

I tend to like juvenile sf of the golden age. Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel is pretty much my standard for the hero's journey space opera. My BattleTech and Mechwarrior fiction is military SF -- which is usually what I call my primary genre rather than explain game tie-in.

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, the problem for me is that if things don’t “happen,” then there is no possibility of emotional investment. Angst without action is like eating gruel without even any salt. Here’s my rating scale:
#1. Good characters, emotional stakes, evocative writing, and shit blowing up.
#2. Good characters, emotional stakes, shit blowing up.
#3. Good characters, emotional stakes.
#10. Good ideas, revelations about human nature (which are almost always obvious anyway)
# Way down the line: lame characters, talky pretend emotions, nothing happens

ivan, Manet sounds like my lovely Lana.

The Golden Eagle, very little literary fiction does anything for me. Some of it is excellent. I like McCarthy, Hemingway. But most seems to be about lame people doing either lame things or doing nothing at all, and not really learning anything from their ‘lack’ of experiences. I often can appreciate the good writing you find in literary fiction, but to truly hold my interest it needs to be matched with events.

KeVin K., I’ve not read Weber, though I just recently bought one of his books. The fact that he hates Star Trek prejudices me against him. It suggests he doesn’t know how to have fun and doesn’t realize that, essentially, ALL space empire or earth-colonizing-other-solar-system space stories are unrealistic. A created universe has to be internally consistent, and I like that Weber did that much work on his universe. That says something good for him. But, the created universe does not have to be consistent with exactly the real universe that we know. And having ‘one’ element of the created universe be unrealistic, such as FTL ships, is no better than having multiple elements be unrealistic, as in Star Trek. As long as the universe is consistent with the laws developed for it, I’m willing to let the writer play to his or her heart’s content.

Liane Spicer said...

Your post made me laugh. Different strokes, Charles. I love literary SF (Chrysalids, Farenheit, Brave New World) but they are great stories, not internal ruminations.

Some literary fiction bores me insane; those are the ones where nothing happens and the author takes a long time to tell me that. Stories that focus on blowing up shit also bore me. 'Things happening' can be internal and intimate and yet be utterly compelling to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, I consider Farenheit 451 and Brave New World to both have all kinds of action and thrills in them. Farenheit is high on the blowing shit up meter, or rather "burning" shit up. I can enjoy short stories where the whole thing is internalized and intimate (Hills like White Elephants), but a novel is too long for that. It needs some movement.

Anton Gully said...

The first couple of Scalzi's Old Mans War books are decent MilSF that don't take themselves too seriously. The third one is a bad book, IMO. Never read book 2.5 but I suspect I wouldn't like it. You can read the first two without having to read the rest, or either one really - they're pretty self-contained.

Anton Gully said...

Oh, and if anyone wants to read a 8k word absolute blast of a Space Cowboys story check out "The Princess" by Ray Mancebo over at Raygunrevival.

Part One

Part Two

Charles Gramlich said...

Anton, thanks for dropping by. "The princess" sounds cool. I'll definitely check it out

Anonymous said...

"Now, let me make one thing clear about my meaning here. Just because there is action and a plot that moves does not mean there can’t be character development and important insights into the human condition. But, at least for me, authors need to imbed that development and those insights in a matrix of adventure."

That pretty much nails it, Charles. What I see in current "space opera" is either too much "literary-itis" or the gamer obsession with action and weird characters. Space opera has many sub-genres, besides Military. The space western is one such that I've been working in for some time now. You might want to check out "Jack Brand" as an example of exactly what you're talking about--a mix of strong action, stronger characters, and commentary about LIFE as we humans know it.

Carole said...

Great post. Can't wait for you to finish up the book so I can read. Although this wasn't a review of what you are writing, it made me want to read it. And it made me not want to read the other junk.

Charles Gramlich said...

Anonymous, thanks for the tip. I'll check it out. I'm always on the lookout for that sort of thing.

Carole, thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed.

Fabien Lyraud said...

I'm french. And the best author of actual space opera is Pierre Bordage. His most famous books is a trilogy called "les guerriers du silence" (silent warriors). And this cycle show a good balance between adventure, political intrigues and mysticisms. There is a ton of invention, plantes, fauna and flora. I regret, this author have no translation in english.
From France, i'va the impression, the actual american space opera is more and more rare. I am not a fan of militaristic side of genre. I have also the impression what the english language space opera is nowaday an english litterature more than an american one. I look the publication schedule at Locus web, and space opera are more rare then few years ago.

Sorry for the bad englis.