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Writing Excuses 8.26: Space Opera

Writing Excuses 8.26: Space Opera


Key points: Space Opera started as a pejorative. Like soap operas, melodramatic and overblown, but in space. Think Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars. Primarily about characters, with a veneer of science. Adventure fiction in a science-fiction setting. The lines are fuzzy, with some military science fiction or fantasy blending. Character drama and travelogue -- new and interesting places, unexpected aliens -- make space opera. Space opera is more likely to start with a cool thing, and add science instead of starting with science and trying to figure out what to do with it. Space opera should be fun, an adventure with lots of interesting things happening. Read science! Realistic, but adventure and story come first. The heart of good space opera is a fun adventure story. Strain at gnats such as accelerations, specific gravities, or masses, and your readers will swallow hyperdrive camels. Whole! All science opera, science fiction, or just plain fiction reaches a point where they say, "We don't know, but we think."

[Mary] Season eight, episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, in space!
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard, and I have a rocketship.
[Brandon] We're going to do space opera today. Yay!
[Dan] Yay!
[Howard] Finally.

[Brandon] Finally. This is what happens when you have an epic fantasy writer in charge of the podcast and topics. We end up ignoring science fiction for way too long. So we're going to delve into this. We really haven't done very many science fiction subgenres. So we're going to tackle the biggest of them today, space opera. Why do they call it space opera, and what does that even mean?
[Howard] I wish I knew, because I call myself an online comic space opera...
[Brandon] Yes, yes you do. It's in your like tagline or something.
[Howard] I do that mostly because I know it's not comic opera, but I managed to get both of those words in the tagline.
[Brandon] I think Mary's like looking in Wikipedia or something.
[Mary] I totally am. According to Wikipedia, the phrase space opera itself was coined in 1941 by fan writer and later author Wilson Tucker in a fanzine article as a pejorative term.
[Howard] This is the same Wilson Tucker who is responsible for being tuckerized?
[Mary] Yes, yes.
[Brandon] Yes, probably. I've always kind of disliked the term space opera. Now I can relate back to its roots and say it's because it was pejorative.
[Mary] Yeah. Well, it was originally based on the idea of soap operas, that this was something that was melodramatic and overblown, but happened in space.
[Dan] Well, I think that the term was used as a pejorative by hard science fiction authors who considered anything that is not hard science to be a lesser form of art, anyway.

[Brandon] I suppose that's probably true, and that sentiment is still around. For those listening who are just kind of baffled by this, space opera is what you probably think of when you think of most immediate science fiction sort of stories. These are the stories that happen in space that are primarily about the characters, where the science... It's there, but it almost sometimes works like magic.
[Mary] Star Trek.
[Brandon] Star Trek is space opera. I mean, despite the fact that Gene Roddenberry swore up and down he was trying to hard science fiction in space, it really was... Well, hard science fiction. He was trying to do hard science fiction, but it was really space opera. Star Wars is space opera that blurs the line into fantasy. Buck Rogers and these sorts of things are like the quintessential over-the-top space operas. They don't have to be over-the-top. In fact, most of our space opera these days is not going to be over-the-top. It's adventure fiction that has a science fiction setting.
[Dan] Even the Alien movies would be space opera, even though they are framed a little more realistically or plausibly than Star Trek.
[Brandon] Aliens is definitely military science fiction. Definitely.

[Mary] This is where it... As we are demonstrating right now, the line is very fuzzy. As with many of our genres, you can have elements of space opera or military SF blending, but because they have common roots, it's hard to say where one stops and the other begins.
[Howard] I love the things that we've cited as an example, because years and years ago... I might have been 10, my dad had and I still have a collection of Buck Rogers newspaper comics. I remember flipping through that and being very frustrated that it was a treasury and not a complete collection. There were some complete stories in there, but there were cliffhangers that never got resolved.
[Mary] Oh.
[Howard] Oh, it was bad. I'm ready to go out and spend $300 on the complete Buck Rogers just so I have them. Not because I am today anxious to read those stories, but because I know there's this landmine on my bookshelf that one of my children might discover. I need them to have the whole stories. I read those and I remember thinking, "Wow, this is awesome. How come the newspaper doesn't have anything this cool in it?" Fast-forward 25 years, I read books by Lois McMaster Bujold, I read books by Orson Scott Card, books by Larry Niven. Fascinated by... Actually, I got those in reverse chronological order. But I was fascinated by science fiction. When the time came, when I discovered web comics, I looked at Buck Rogers as the model, and looked at the great military and space opera writers of the last three generations for content, and sat down and created something that... I want to say is uniquely my own. I borrow heavily. I've said before... I've said before that if I pee far, it's because I stand on the shoulders of giants. But it's space opera. Fundamentally, Schlock Mercenary is space opera at its roots. Whatever else it is.

[Mary] So what are the pieces that... When you were saying, "Okay, I'm going to set it up," what are the pieces that...
[Brandon] Make something?
[Mary] Make something space opera, the pieces that you... The recognizable genre hallmarks?
[Howard] I look at character drama and travelogue. I want to go to new and interesting places. I want to throw unexpected aliens in. I mean, these were my goals in the very beginning. It was almost like Star Trek, only I wanted to, because I'm drawing pictures instead of paying expensive special-effects budgets, I wanted to do more interesting alien planets. The fact of the matter is, I've gotten lately so focused in character stories and bigger stories that we just don't travel all that much. But every time I do a new story, one of the first things I look at is, "What is a cool place we could go?" Let's do a shopping mall in an 800-year-old space station that still rotates for gravity, and it rotates for gravity because... Because... This is my thinking process as I'm creating the story. It rotates for gravity because it's historical. It's a shopping mall built on a museum. So as I start doing this, I think, "Well, okay, I now have a fantastic setting. Now we need to do all of the fun things that we would do there." Which mostly amounts to parkour in low gravity, rotating reference frame environments.

[Brandon] So here's a question for you. Is a dividing line between space opera and hard science fiction that for space opera, you come up with what you want to have happen, and then come up with science to explain it? Is that what... Is that your process? This would be cool, let's see if I can come up with some science?
[Howard] The... Oh, boy. You know what? When you look at which side of the cart the horse is on, what you're actually looking at is a long chain of carts and horses and a big... With the rotating reference frame and parkour, I came up with the rotating reference frame first. I thought, "Let's do a shopping mall in space that rotates." Then I thought, "Well, you know, if it's got an open galleria like some of the big shopping malls I've been in, and the gravity is low, then you would have kids jumping off the balconies. That would be bad because the rotating frame is... Or the reference frame is rotating, and it wouldn't behave like... Oh. Oh!" Then, yeah, there is hard science in there as I start looking at what does your trajectory look like...
[Brandon] See, because there's going to be people who say Schlock Mercenary is hard science fiction.
[Howard] I do my very best not to disabuse them of that notion. The big difference between me and what I consider the true hard science fiction is that when I look at the physics behind... The physics? The equations behind for instance an event horizon, I can't read the math. I go find somebody to read it to me.
[Mary] I'm going to quote something that John Scalzi says, who I think arguably writes something that is between space opera and military SF. He says that he does his world building only two questions deep. Which I think does get into the "this is a cool thing that I want to have happen" before the "here's a science thing. What can I do with the science thing?"
[Brandon] Yeah. That's... When I approach science fiction, it's always, "Oo, here's something cool I want to have happen." I don't write hard science fiction. I do enjoy reading some hard science fiction. The difference... I'm trying to divide this in our heads for our readers who... It seems like space opera versus hard science fiction is kind of one of these big dividing lines in science fiction. As big as you can get in a genre that is so fluid.

[Howard] Let's take a moment for a book of the week. My favorite military-themed space opera is the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I think... I'm torn as to where to start, but the Warrior's Apprentice is a hard one to go wrong with.
[Brandon] It's where I started on her books.
[Howard] Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold is the story of a brilliant, crippled scion of an important family who finds himself in a situation where he needs to create a mercenary company and...
[Brandon] And gets in way over his head...
[Howard] Gets in way over his head and...
[Brandon] And becomes awesome.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] That's... I mean... It is truly space opera, although some of these things we say paint a kind of a military veneer on it, like you do, but this is like the quintessential example of the great space opera.
[Howard] Yep. You can pick it up for free if you go out to Start a 30 day trial membership, and like I just said, grab this for free and anything else you grab in the 30 days is 30% off.

[Brandon] Now I would say that with space opera, the thing that is drawing me to it, when I pick up something that's a good space opera, I'm looking for adventure fiction.
[Mary] Yes.
[Howard] A romp.
[Brandon] I'm looking for... It can be serious. It doesn't have to be... I mean, Lois's books for instance are very serious at times. Very good character interaction. There's a lot of depth to Miles and people around him. But at the end of the day, I'm picking it up because this is going to have some fun elements. It's going to be an adventure. We are going to see interesting things. We are going to have battles. We're going to have all this stuff that is fun. I like to read things that are fun.
[Howard] I'm with you.
[Brandon] So, if I'm going to give one piece of advice to listeners, if you want to write science fiction like this, and as we mentioned before, we do think there is a science fiction wave perhaps coming. Don't necessar... Don't listen to us too strongly on this.
[Howard] Especially not since we recorded this in July 2012, and you're listening to this in...
[Mary] We don't actually know...
[Brandon] Yeah, we don't know.
[Mary] Because to know it involves doing math.
[Howard] Janutober of 2013.

[Brandon] But a lot of the films coming out are very popular are space opera-ish. We... There's something we just love... This adventure fiction in space is this great unexplored area. There's so much to do here. I think it's going to make a resurgence. Even if it isn't, good stories told well will always sell. So if you're looking to do space opera, make it adventuresome. You're looking for fun. You're looking for interesting. You want to try and stretch a little bit and tell some new stories on different planets and places you could visit.

[Howard] The one thing that I would encourage you to do if you're going to write any sort of science fiction is to read science. I mean, reading science fiction is good, but if you have no steeping, no background in science, you're reading science fiction... It's sometimes hard to tell when they're basing stuff on real physics and when they're basing stuff on wild postulation or just straight out handwavium. The... Any of the science periodicals, there's plenty of science articles online, learn to read these things and dig in. At the end of the article, especially if it's an article about a new technology, at the end of the article, start asking questions about what does this look like 100 years from now? What will make this technology obsolete? What will this technology be replaced by? The stories start to come. You quickly become able to, using Scalzi's method of only asking questions two deep, you're quickly able to flesh out your universe and...
[Mary] I'm going to recommend a book by Michio Kaku, which is Physics of the Impossible. In which he takes various science fiction tropes like faster-than-light travel, plasma cannons, and all of these, and looks at how they would really work. It's a very good book to kind of use as your jumping off point for exploring wider. The other thing that I'm going to recommend is, if you can, sign up for a 101 class in astronomy. It's incredibly helpful for when you need to figure out so how long is it going to take me to travel from point A to point B? Because unfortunately, as much as we are talking about all of this, modern readers do want more science. You can get away with some, but...
[Brandon] Well, and the... Space opera does not mean without science.
[Mary, Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] Granted, you can write some like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon which just ignore the science completely, but the best space operas of the recent eras are those that say, "Look. I am space opera, but let's put it... Let's try and be as realistic as possible, with the idea that adventure and story comes first, and then we're going to get to it." Howard is a great example of this. You do put in the science. When it doesn't interfere with the story, you put in the science.
[Howard] One of the fun things that my friend Bob Defendi shared with me is that say you've got two spaceships, and both of them are capable of accelerating to significant percentages of the speed of light, and they've departed... Oh, let's say they've departed within a day of each other, and they have four days of travel. The one ship wants to catch the other ship. The likelihood of anybody being able to pull that off, even if they're cooperating between the two ships, is fantastically low because... And then he started going into the math, and showing how at this point in time, their relative velocities are hundreds of thousands of miles per hour different. They're quite close, that the passage is going to go so fast that you're going to miss it. I started looking at that, looking at that math and thinking, "Well, I need to build that into a story. I need to..." So our... Following the Mall One parkata urbatsu, I had our heroes taking off, and then being chased, and everybody needs to meet up, and it's just not going to happen that way. These are the sorts of things that are fun to explore. Now, if you put AIs in charge of both ships, yeah, maybe you can pull it off. But the accelerations are going to be really crazy. Yes, some of that is hard science fiction, but once you start rolling it into a fun adventure story... Don't trouble us with the math, just explain to us that the math is complicated, give a nod to it and tell a fun adventure story, that's at the heart of good space opera.

[Dan] If you are writing YA science fiction and YA space opera, I'm really curious as to how much science your audience demands or even wants. One of the things that really surprised me when I published Partials, which I was kind of feeling bad about because it didn't have a ton of science in it, was that the audience reaction was, "Oh, wow, a science fiction book with actual science in it." In the YA market, Partials is like hard science fiction because it's just... They don't tend to do that. Dystopias, while being science fiction, don't go into the science. They don't explain it.
[Howard] Let me go biblical on you for a moment. The proverb... I'm not going to go especially accurately biblical... Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Okay? Give people gnats to strain at, and get those gnats exactly right. Simple stuff. Accelerations. Specific gravities. Mass of water versus mass of lead versus mass of gold. Get those things right, and then people will swallow your hyperdrive whole. They will. The annie plants...
[Dan] They absolutely will.
[Howard] The annie plants in Schlock Mercenary, the only thing I've said about them is that they use neutronium for fuel, and it is not matter-antimatter, it is matter annihilation. We annihilate matter and we derive energy directly. I am not taking any further into that, because the moment I do, we start having considerations of materials and expense and things like that. I mean, I've got outer considerations on those. I know that they are expensive to build. I know that the bigger they are, there's an economy of scale that makes them increasingly valuable and increasingly hard to build, but I'm not digging inside them. Because somebody's going to tell me, "Oh, you forgotten about the actual miniscule mass of the neutrinos. Where do those end up?" I don't know.
[Dan] And it doesn't matter, for the story you're telling.

[Brandon] At the end of the day... Almost... This is kind of the dirty secret of science fiction. Every science fiction book, even the hard science fiction, has to, at the end of the line, say, "I don't know." This is something that we don't talk about a lot, but the actual physics of getting out of our solar system, let alone to... I mean, I saw Stephen Hawking do a thing on it once that said, "We love science fiction. The physics of it don't make sense."
[Mary] I'm going to stop you right there, because your definition of science fiction is way the heck too broad when you say that any science fiction is going to run into the problem.
[Brandon] Well, no, but here's the thing. It's fiction.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] At the end of the day, we have... The difference between fiction and nonfiction is us saying, "We don't know, but we think." Or that "this could be, but we're not sure."
[Mary] Yes, but your initial posit is that science fiction involves getting out of the solar system?
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. There is that. Okay. Any science fiction...
[Howard] You make a good point. The moment... We haven't explored outside the solar system. We don't know what sorts of things... We're already discovering things with the telescopes we've just got pointed at the sun. We're learning...
[Brandon] I mean, I'm trying to make a point, and Mary's right to force me to qualify... Quantify it. Science fiction dealing with... Any science fiction dealing with space, at some fundamental level, you have to... The hard science fiction has to become soft at some point.
[Mary] Yes. That I will agree with.
[Brandon] It's just where you decide to go soft. That's a very good way to define it, because cyberpunk on world is going to be very different, near future social science fiction is going to be very different, but if you're leaving the solar system, by our current understanding of science, you have to go soft. So someone, even the hardest of hard science fiction writers, are going soft at some point, it just depends on where along the line. All right.

[Howard] Do we need a writing prompt?
[Brandon] We do need a writing prompt.
[Howard] Ummm.
[Brandon] You said that as if you had one.
[Howard] No, no, no. Gimme a... The first writing prompt I came up with is too hard.
[Dan] Okay. Here's a writing prompt for you. Posit a faster-than-light drive that no one else has ever thought of.
[Brandon] Good luck with that. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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