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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.