Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Space Opera Makes No Sense

This is a rewrite of the premise for Into the Void. I'm breaking it into bite-sized chunks. The first part is a denouncing of conventional space opera. 

Space opera is a genre I love but it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny. We want galaxy-spanning empires with thousands of worlds and mighty starships, engines blazing, cruising the space lanes between them.  There must be aliens, humanoid and not. While there may be cosmic powers running around, bog-standard humans must still be movers and shakers in this setting. Technology may be grand but also something humans can relate to. A battle-station the size of a moon capable of blowing up planets will still have control rooms no different from what we'd find in a modern power station. Bridges will look familiar, either like WWII or modeled on whatever is contemporary. The hero's starfighter will feel like a modern jet fighter, nevermind the general consensus that "the last fighter pilot has already been born" and we're not likely to build another manned fighter after the F-22 and F-35. And let's not forget that the starfighters must dogfight like WWII aircraft with an absence of guided missiles because that just doesn't have the right flavor. And if robots are present in the setting, they will be curiously misapplied. Why don't droids fly ships? Ah, but there's a slippery slope. The moment droids start taking over human jobs you  can automate yourself out of a story. Take a droid military too far and the only human characters left are supreme commanders at consoles playing a real-life video game.

So, to sum up the reasons why space opera doesn't feel realistic:

  1. Getting into space is really expensive, really complicated, and doing so in a meaningful way will take a very, very long time. And even most of the things we can think of to do up there can be automated. We're exploring Mars with robots. The asteroid mining suggested by Planetary Resources will likely all be done with telepresence, automation, and a minimal human presence in space. 
  2. Romance withers in the face of practicality. If you asked an early 20th century futurist to envision what oil drilling in the deep ocean would look like, their heads would be spinning with the thought of giant floating cities, possibly domed cities under the water, hundreds of thousands of people involved and the potential for all the drama that goes with it. The reality is so much less interesting. 
  3. It's hard to postulate a reasonable space civilization economy. What are we going to orbit for? Why do we need all these people up there? What would we need to trade between planets, between stars? 
  4. All FTL travel in a useful time-frame involves made-up tech. Wormholes are just as dodgy as FTL drives. FTL starts moving you away from hard SF but that's not even the first problem. 
  5. The power requirements of space travel seem out of scale with everything else and ends up feeling like schizo-tech, like a self-propelled catapult with a diesel engine that is lobbing rocks with torsion springs. An X-Wing has a powerplant that can launch it from a planetary surface to orbit and propel it at superluminal velocities between worlds but its primary offensive weapon is manually-aimed laser cannons with an effective range no better than the .50 cal guns of prop fighters. 
  6. A space economy could very well be post-scarcity as we would understand it. Wars pretty much boil down to taking something you want that belongs to someone else. Land, food, minerals, energy, it's all stuff that people need to live. You don't steal food off of someone else's plate when you're all eating at a chinese buffet and even if you're an dick lacking all social graces, your dining companion can just go back up and grab another eggroll. It's not even worth the effort of smacking you for it. Space has all the free solar energy anyone could ask for, asteroids waiting to be mined, and if you don't like your neighbors you can always put a few million miles of distance between you. 
  7. Space habitats make far more sense for living than planets, especially given that it's unlikely that we're going to be finding earth-like worlds in the habitable zone of stars with oxy-nitro atmospheres and ecospheres that are compatible. In our own solar system we'd be capable of building habitats to put billions of people in orbit long, long before we could meaningfully terraform Mars or Venus and we couldn't even begin to build those habs for a long time yet. 
  8. Humanoid aliens, not happening. Hundreds or thousands of years of culture drift creating strange human societies that are different from each other and suffering culture shock? Plausible, but then we're so far in the future that we can drive ourselves nuts trying to imagine the current technology. 
  9. How advanced will AI get? On the far end we have something like the Ian Banks Culture universe where all the important decisions are handled by godlike AI's and humans are relegated to the status of pets. Even if AI doesn't become that advanced, expert systems are real and getting better all the time. It's a very real possibility that humans can be removed from the fast food experience the same way tellers have been from basic banking transactions. It's conceivable that human-driven cars will become as archaic as animal-powered vehicles; the technology exists and is safe. How far can automation go? Brian Marshall's essay Robotic Nation explores the possibilities. 
  10. Even if you could handwave away all the other practical objections and start talking about space combat, it rapidly loses cinematic interest. The endless discussion threads on Rocketpunk Manifesto have only served to convince me that I don't have the imagination to create a plausible, hard SF space opera setting. 
I could keep going with this but i think I've made my point. 

For anyone still thinking we might get away with a hard SF space empire within our own solar system, Charlie Stross is ready to brutalize your dreams. Forget Star Wars, forget Gundam. Even 2001 seems a bit unrealistic. 

I will give a shout-out to John Lumpkin and his universe the Human Reach. He tries to build a hard SF military universe. His first novel is "Through Struggle, the Stars." He sticks to hard SF as much as possible. I would say it's a damn fine attempt at refuting everything I laid out above. 

In my next post I will make a special case pleading that will attempt to give us plausibility as well as space opera. 


  1. It's an interesting insight into the frailties of the Space Opera concept (when using the microscope of Hard SF, when under Science Fantasy it's pretty much moot), though I'm sure there are certain authors and fans who have their own ideas in how to make Space Opera a plausible concept no matter how small it may be.

    Of course, then again many of the arguments against Space Opera (physics notwithstanding) is heavily based upon certain social and technological assumptions that is to remain constant. One example would be voice recognition. In the pioneering days, it could be forgiven due to the lack of sensitivity of the technology and limited in the number of commands.

    Nowadays, with our own voice commanded blue-tooth headsets, it rarely works as intended without several frustrated moments. This is possibly caused by the number of like-sounding commands that the software just isn't smart enough to discern.

    And even if the technology part of the equation isn't a great limiter, its highly likely that such assumptions about the future may be rendered moot by the stupidity that is politics that would actually make a particular resource that was economically cheap before suddenly become expensive enough for other avenues to be pursued. An interesting example would be petrol/oil, much of our economy revolves around its use and the fact that it's a finite resource makes such dependence even worse. OPEC during the late 70s demonstrated what it would be like if there was a world-wide shortage of the black gold to the point that alternate energy solutions were more economic in comparison. Now if there was a perfect storm of resource distribution and diplomatic pressure that would make earth-based construction problematic at best, add in the military cost in personnel and logistic that is undoubtly going to increase in the coming decades, there's few avenues one can pursue and it may be more economical in the long term to simply go up.

    Even so, I can't help but wonder if you're trying to tell me something....

  2. Whenever I say something can't be done in a story or a setting, it's usually with the proviso "I can't think of a way to do it." I can't think of interesting post-singularity stories to tell. Star Trek seems like a particularly unrealistic concept of a space travel future. Something like Orion's Arm has a proper galactic scope in the far future with transhuman lifeforms, incredibly powerful AI gods, and all manner of strange ideas, and ways of living and being. But I've never seen anybody capable of writing from the point of view of a proper god. Something along the lines of a physical god which is just a human with super powers, yes. Something powerful enough to be mistaken for God proper? Never. At best we've seen agents of the Most High and Ineffable Other speaking for it, we might see planets crack and stars go nova but we'll never get an inner monologue.

    Humans like us (or bio-engineered creatures who may look different but are essentially us) can be the roaches crawling along the baseboards in that setting but will never be the movers and shakers. Now does this mean you can't tell a crackling good story about thieves and low-lives in the Imperial City living in the shadow of the Grand Caliph's pleasure dome? No, of course not. And to them, the affairs of the palace could just as well be the comings and goings of the gods themselves. I just falter for ideas of what might make a good story in the Orion's Arm setting. I've got nothing.

  3. Hmm. y'all think deeper that I do. That said, I'd submit that hard science space opera is incompatable. The BEST space opera I've read to date has been the Deathstalker series, and even that falls down in many a place, and make zero attempt at hard science. You can be entertaining, or you can be scientific, but at the scale fo a space opera, I'm not sure you can be both.

  4. It depends on what you call "space opera", but for example Alastair Reynolds' books (Revelation space and the sequels) can be considered as space opera, and are quite hard-SF. Among other things, there is no FTL (though there is an ill-fated attempt at it). Not diamond-hard, as they have things like fuel-less drives (any ship is a WMD anyway, and planet busters soon become obsolete), but close enough. Not perfect books, but quite entertaining (and the flaws are more on general writing, like too much technobabble in the first book).

    The problem with STL interstellar travel is that it's impossible to go anywhere in human timescales. But while most people try to solve this by shrinking travel time (and use FTL), there is another way I want to try one day : increase human timescales. If people live for millennia instead of decades, then centuries of travel are brought back to human timescales, even for those who are not frozen during the travel time.
    his causes a whole lot of problems (how do you write time-abyss characters, how do you deal with divergent technological evolution, why would people travel between systems anyway...), but I'm sure it can create interesting stories in a new way while sticking to hard-SF.
    But I digress...

    Jollyreaper :
    "Space opera is a genre I love but it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny.
    Take a droid military too far and the only human characters left are supreme commanders at consoles playing a real-life video game."

    My point of view exactly; though I think very interesting stories can be written about those supreme commanders (and all the support cast, from their families to the engineers and spies back home). Also, depending on the setting, those commanders may need to be close to their constellations because of light-speed lag, increasing suspense and giving the need for more people.
    And you can make a non-space-centered story in a space opera setting. For example, the Honor Harrington saga would arguably have been far more interesting if it had been centred on the antagonists' revolution with the interstellar war in the background instead of the naval-war-in-space with the revolution in the background. (To the point that I stopped reading it once their situation is solved - the story I cared about was over...)
    But I digress again...

    Now, even if I argue that you can make interesting hard-science space opera, it will be something very different to what space opera usually do (no Navy-in-space warships, no space fighters, no causal galactic travel...).
    For the 'classical' space opera we know and love, we need to either tune science down as did Star Wars, or tailor-craft a setting for it, as the void-ship setting seems to be, to have all the space-opera tropes in a plausible setting.

  5. Space opera is a fairly squishy descriptive. A xenoarchaeologist raiding alien tombs with his nerve-whip and space fedora could qualify as space opera. So could the adventures of Star Captain Jones and his crew having adventures in the neutral zone between the warring empires.

    When I think space opera I think Star Wars. It's a summation of all the pulp that came before. Something like Babylon 5 is a more literate cousin, still has the same unrealistic tropes like humanoid aliens and starfighters but elevates the art.

    Long-lived protagonists is one way of addressing the STL problem but it becomes increasingly difficult to fabricate decent conflicts and motivations. Not saying it can't be done but that I have nothing to suggest.

    Humans in bunkers running a droid military: I agree, you can do a good story there. But that becomes quite a different story from space opera. For example, we've got our drone pilots flying missions in foreign lands from the comfort of an air base in the States. When they log off they can drive home and sleep in their own beds. This is real-life right now and we've got PTSD cases from that worse than from combat pilots personally flying in real shooting wars. Is there room for fascinating social commentary there? Hell, yeah. Will it be a completely different story from the dashing pilot-officer dog-fighting with enemy aces in his supersonic flying machine? Yes, utterly.

    Regarding Harrington, I gave up a few years back when the ginormous doorstop with the Haven revolution came out. Rob S. Pierre (eyeroll) is murdered and the whole revolution happens off-screen. I'd been reading enthusiastically up to that point and the weakness of that event ended up making me rethink many weaknesses in the previous novels.

    As for your last paragraph, you've hit it on the nose. Hard SF space opera is possible. I really like what Charlie Stross did with Accelerando, Singularity Sky, and Iron Sunrise. But I want the space navy battles and starfighters without also feeling like I need to drink my IQ down to my hat size to get it.

    The next post will be concerning exactly that.