Space opera — out of this world

This article appeared in The Courier-Mail in April, 2007.

SPACE, the final frontier . . . Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away . . . In space, no one can hear you scream . . .

If you know the science fiction stories these catchphrases come from, and can tear yourself away from the updated Battlestar Galactica long enough to get to the book shop, then this could be a happy year for you.

With several book releases looming on the horizon, the next 12 months will be big for Australian space opera.

Brisbane writer Marianne de Pierres launches her universe-straddling series with Dark Space in May, and fellow Queenslander Sonny Whitelaw has the latest in her Stargate SG-1 novels – Roswell, co-written with Alice Springs writer Jennifer Fallon – hitting the shelves this month. Perth editor Jonathan Strahan combines with America’s Gardner Dozois to launch an anthology of space opera short stories in June, and Adelaide’s Sean Williams puts musician Gary Numan in space with two stories set in his Astropolis universe, and returns to the Star Wars universe with a game tie-in.

In Perth, Adrian (KA) Bedford is beavering away on a new space series, after three nominations (and one win) in three years for best science fiction novel in the Aurealis Awards.

“All of my books so far involve passages in which the characters travel through space for various purposes,” says Bedford.

“Probably Eclipse, a fairly straightforward military psychological thriller set on a spaceship, is most clearly a space opera type of yarn, while Orbital Burn and Hydrogen Steel feature elements of the mystery/detective story more prominently. Hydrogen Steel does have a lot of space travel, exotic locations and epic conflicts, but is, at least in my mind, mostly a detective story that takes place against a space opera background.”

“Big” is how Williams describes space opera, and with four previous series under his belt, he should know.

“Everything is big in space opera: the vistas, the tech, the plot, the timescales, the conspiracies, the odds,” he says. “My imagination is pretty wild. It comes up with some things that, even in ordinary SF, would seem a bit outre. Space opera is the only place I can give my creativity utterly free rein – perhaps because it might be the only genre in which my love of physics and cosmology are essential.

“But it’s not just about big things. It’s also about things that are intensely personal, like what makes us human, and how we cope with the magnificent void of the universe.

“It’s about love, politics and beauty and all the other things every book is about. Space opera is the only genre that can do everything you desire. There are literally no boundaries.

“For instance: how will it feel to slow yourself down in time, relatively speaking, so you can watch a star be born, grow old and die in the time it would take to have a cup of tea? Not everyone is curious about that kind of question, but I am, and if I want to explore it in fiction, I pretty much have to do so through space opera. That we can ask such questions demands that space opera exists, so we can at least attempt to answer them.”

De Pierres, whose cyberpunk series starring Parrish Plessis cast a dark future over the Gold Coast, agrees that a major attraction of space opera is the scope it has to allow imagination to cut loose.

Her new series involves a mining planet invaded by giant water bears, the alleged discovery of God and a huge conspiracy. “I began Dark Space after I had finished the first Parrish Plessis book, Nylon Angel, but had to put it away when I sold Parrish as a series,” she says.

“Coming back to it several years later, I realised that I wanted to write the story on a much grander scale.

“As a result, it has been nearly completely rewritten. My research took me in many directions: particle physics, Italian aristocracy, the history of architecture, philosophy, human reproduction, the biology of tardigrades (water bears).

“I set the story mainly on a mining planet. Having lived for 10 years in a mining town in Western Australia, that part was comfortable and easy to write. Populating it with repressed aristocrats was the challenge.”

Strahan, one of Australia’s pre-eminent genre editors, says there’s a darkness in space opera these days that perhaps wasn’t there in the past: hence, the title of the anthology, New Space Opera. In television terms, it’s a little like comparing 1980’s Battlestar Galactica to the current remake, written and directed by Australian Michael Rymer.

“Space opera has evolved from what Wilson Tucker once described as ‘the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’ into sophisticated, often dark, tales of cutting-edge space adventure. We wanted that cutting edge, but we also wanted the colour and energy of space adventure. I think we got that in spades.”

Of the 18 authors whose stories have been selected, some are famous for sprawling space stories, and some, perhaps not so much. A sample: Gwyneth Jones, lone Australian Greg Egan, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Macleod, Alastair Reynolds, Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress and Dan Simmons.

“They cover the whole spectrum of space opera, from galactic empires to tiny nanotech spacecraft shooting across the galaxy; from humorous adventures to dark, far-future suspense,” Strahan says.

“The main trend in space opera over the past two decades has been to incorporate what happened with cyberpunk, that kind of dark, gritty reality of the street.

“New space opera takes that sense of cutting edge technology, adds realistic characters, but keeps the sense of adventure and even romance that was true of classic space opera.”

Williams, whether alone or with co-writer Shane Dix, has been one of the most consistent Australian writers getting space opera on the shelves in recent years. A standalone novella, Cenotaxis, is set in the same universe as his new Astropolis series, in which he has one character speak only in lyrics from Gary Numan songs. (Why? Part homage, but mostly because he liked the challenge.)

He returns to the Star Wars franchise, for which he and Dix wrote the New Jedi Order: Force Heretic trilogy, with The Force Unleashed, in which he expands a computer game script into a novel.

“In five series, I’ve invented five different future histories of humanity, five different means of getting around the galaxy, five different ‘environments’ for these future humans (including aliens and extrapolated science), and explored many more than five very different stories along the way.

“I sometimes wonder if there has actually been a resurgence in space opera, at the reader’s end. It’s always been popular, regardless what critics and reviewers thought. Just look at the Hugo winners down the years, and the way Star Wars and Trek books just kept on selling regardless.

“It’s arguably the backbone of SF, and the amazing thing is not that it’s back, but how some people managed to convince themselves that it was gone for so long.”

Strahan agrees that space opera has been lurking on the shelves but hasn’t lost popularity.

“I think fantasy dominates genre book sales and that when people are trying to understand genre publishing they focus on Harry Potter or Terry Brooks or the like. I also think that the publishing story here in Australia has been pretty much exclusively the story of genre fantasy. But space opera is the heart of science fiction, and it’s been the main game, both in terms of media SF and literature, all along.

“You only need to look at the enormous success of space operas like the Star Wars and Star Trek media franchises, to see that. You can even see how the new space opera is permeating media SF with the new Battlestar Galactica series, which is very much new space opera, as opposed to classic space opera (as you’d see in something like classic Star Trek). Space opera is what readers have been reading, and viewers watching, consistently and in enormous numbers for the past 40 years.”

It’s not only Australian authors who are making inroads into the market. England-based publishers Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, have announced plans to establish arms in the US and Australia.

Orbit publishing director Tim Holman told The Bookseller: “Australia and New Zealand are very strong areas for science fiction and fantasy sales. We’re quite aware of the fact that HarperCollins, with its local publishing with Voyager, has a very strong presence, and it makes a great deal of sense to try to establish a local Orbit presence in Australia.”

Voyager’s associate publisher Stephanie Smith says HarperCollins has a strong history with science fiction, and the impact of Orbit’s arrival remains to be seen.

“Science fiction has never gone away, but it has taken a back seat, you could say. Any genre goes through the ups and downs, depending on what’s going on in society.

“In some ways, I think the world caught up with science fiction in terms of science and technology. It takes a little while for new science and technology to filter through society and the world and writers’ minds.”

One thought on “Space opera — out of this world

  1. Pingback: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blood Oath (Review) | the m0vie blog

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