An Anatomy of Space Operas

Space operas are arguably the quintessential form of science fiction. With stories that feature alien species, artificial intelligence, advanced technology, and large-scale wars, space operas are in fact what most people think of when they hear the words ‘science fiction’.

Growing out of the Western fiction and sea adventure narrative traditions, space operas have always been adventure tales that focus on the voyage to and exploration of new worlds. They explore issues of war, peace, and diplomacy within and between factious empires bent on colonizing the universe. They also often examine larger nationalistic and imperialistic concerns, such as the foundation, preservation, and destruction of empires. Stories within this genre often have a sense of largeness or grandiosity—there are huge casts of characters, wars on unimaginable scales, and beautiful settings that evoke awe and terror.

These stories often contain time machines, wormholes, teleportation, and faster-than-light travel; parallel and pocket universes; and cryogenics and cloning. They focus on societies where highly advanced technology is ubiquitous and merely provides the background to the story.

Space opera stories first began to appear in the 1920s in Amazing Stories and other science fiction magazines. Though they were originally well-received in general, by the 1940s they had lost their appeal, and were seen as banal, unimaginative stories bereft of any literary or scientific merit.

The term ‘space opera’ was coined in 1941 by the writer and critic Wilson Tucker, in reference to the ‘horse opera’ genre of bad Westerns, as well as to the ‘soap opera’ genre of histrionic radio and television shows that were sponsored by soap and detergent companies.

Tucker used the term as a pejorative to describe cliché-ridden, derivative pulp. Many science fiction writers tried to disassociate themselves and their work from the space opera genre because they were embarrassed by its melodrama and loose scientific reasoning. At the time, there was a strong sentiment within the science fiction community that science fiction should be painstakingly accurate in its engagement with scientific fact, and that writers should only extrapolate on current scientific theories using rigorous logic. Most writers of space operas, however, gleefully departed from this tenet and abandoned logic in favour of constructing emotional plots with high-stakes.

Tucker famously defined space operas as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn” with a focus on “world-saving”. Though perhaps unnecessarily critical, Tucker’s definition does offer a useful starting point for understanding the conventions of this genre.

Most significantly, space operas deal with space-ships—this is where the influence from nautical fiction and sea adventure stories comes in. Space operas often involve long and tortuous journeys through uncharted parts of the universe, and often much of the story takes place within the confines of the space ship. Traveling through space also allows stories to incorporate concerns with diplomacy and territory, and the arrival at harbours allows for the introduction of issues of commerce and trade.

The word ‘yarn’ emphasizes that this genre is made up of adventure tales; the stories are exciting and filled with conflict that moves the plot forward. Space opera stories almost universally focus on ‘world-saving’, with epic battles between heroic individuals and irredeemable villains bent on the destruction of planets or the enslavement or genocide of various species.

Most of Tucker’s distaste for space operas is directed towards the genre’s repetitiveness and formulaic plots, which he believes bars high literary achievement. Because of the unimaginable vastness of space, popular space operas could go on ad infinitum by expanding the known universe in which the story takes place. There could always be another planet to explore, another black hole or supernova to evade, or another war or disaster to prevent. Although one might think that the never-ending frontiers of space would provide limitless inspiration for stories, many writers of space operas would simply stick to the tropes of Westerns and sea adventure fiction. Perhaps the overwhelming potentiality of space was simply too daunting to fathom, and in the face the unknown writers retreated to the familiar. Regardless, this perpetuation of tropes was seen as indicative of an arrested imagination.

By the 1970s, the negative cultural connotations associated with the term ‘space opera’ had been shed, and it was seen as simply a descriptive term for the subgenre. Despite concerns over its artistic merit, space operas have always held a position of prominence in speculative fiction and continue to have a strong hold over our cultural consciousness.

Perhaps the most iconic space operas are Star Wars and Star Trek, but there are many other ground-breaking examples of this genre. Lois McMaster Bujold’s military space opera The Vorkosigan Saga and the satirical space opera The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy show just how much diversity is possible even in a supposedly trite genre. Dan Simmons’s Hyperion series is often classified as an example of a postmodern space opera. And space operas continue to be popular around the world. In Japan, the anime franchise Gundam has spawned dozens of shows, novels, and video games.

With Ann Leckie’s phenomenal Imperial Radch Trilogy, space operas have once again become popular. The first novel of her trilogy, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BFSA, and Locus awards for best novel. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leckie’s trilogy is her exploration of gender. All characters in the Imperial Radch Trilogy are referred to using feminine (she/her/hers) pronouns, regardless of gender.

Leckie’s success will only make more readers interested in reading space operas and more publishers interested in publishing it. And if nothing else, her success shows that the space opera genre has not yet been exhausted of all possibilities—there’s still a lot left to explore out there.

In honour of one the most important subgenres of speculative fiction, over the next few weeks The Spectatorial will be publishing a series of articles that explore some of our writers’ favourite space operas. Fasten your seatbelts; we’ll be going at warp speed.

-Alex De Pompa, Editor in Chief

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Scott Lynch’s The Thorn of Emberlain Slated for Release in September

A mostly official release date has been set for the fourth book in Scott Lynch’s critically acclaimed The Gentleman Bastard Sequence. Note the ‘mostly’ in that sentence—Lynch’s publisher, Gollancz, has posted supposedly accurate release dates before.

The first was in an interview which suggested that The Thorn of Emberlain (ToE) was in an advanced stage of editing and would be out in the fall of 2014, barely a year after the publication of the third book in the series. No one really believed this (as the gap between the second and third books was an agonizing six years), and 2014 ended without a hint of a Gentleman Bastard publication. Gollancz next stated that the book would come out in July of 2015. This seemed more plausible, and there was a release of cover art to bolster fan excitement. This date, however, also turned out to be false (which I discovered to my dismay, since the posting of this article was supposed to be timed appropriately to a July release). Despite Gollancz’s habit of tugging on fans’ heartstrings, the new release date (September 17, 2015) seems to be solid (especially since it has an actual day attached to it, rather than just a month).

I was first introduced to The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by a family member, who insisted that I would like it. I had, at the time, just finished reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and was highly skeptical that any fantasy book could follow in the wake of that literary masterpiece without being a disappointment. Nevertheless, I cracked open the first book, entitled The Lies of Locke Lamora. My inner literary snob was immediately dismayed by names like ‘Thiefmaker’ and ‘One-eyed Priest’, which sounded like they had been dredged up from a mediocre D&D game. How, I thought, could this book possibly be good? However, I decided to give it a chance and read onwards.

I was only capable of independent thought a few hours later, sometime past midnight. I had devoured three-quarters of the book, and realized the error of my ways. Scott Lynch had already climbed his way into my shortlist of favourite fantasy authors, and his books have only gotten better since the first. Each one is beautifully crafted—the interweaving of the present and past storylines makes for powerful characterization and moments of symmetry that leave one, as a writer, sighing in despair for not being as good at their craft as Scott Lynch.

Here are a few tidbits about what we can expect in The Thorn of Emberlain (note: Beware of small spoilers if you haven’t yet read the preceding book, The Republic of Thieves).

There is no reason to suspect that Lynch will deviate from his twinned storyline pattern (no complaints here!) in this book.

When a fan asked Lynch if Locke’s on-again off-again love interest Sabetha would be making a reappearance later in the series, Lynch responded with “Hell, yes!”. It’s thus possible that we could see Sabetha in ToE. However, we will likely only see her in the flashback timeline, as she and Locke parted in The Republic of Thieves under less than ideal circumstances.

In ToE, protagonists Locke and Jean will explore the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows (new territory), specifically the canton of Emberlain, which has declared its independence from the rest of the kingdom amid a nasty civil war. Locke and Jean are apparently going to be playing a confidence game involving a fictional mercenary company. Given how fantastically wrong their plans often go, and Locke’s lack of fighting ability, this should be spectacularly entertaining.

If you’ve read this piece, I assume you’d be interested in reading the next book in the series…

Due to an agreement with Lynch’s publishing house (and, if I may be permitted a small immodesty, my own critical reputation) I have been given a number of advanced reading copies of the upcoming fourth book in the series to distribute as I please to reviewers. Given how highly The Thorn of Emberlain is anticipated, I should be able to turn quite a profit.

Since you seem to be such an avid fan, I would love to give you one. There’s only one slight problem—because of a hiccup in international copyright laws, Scott’s publisher cannot ship me the books, which are currently languishing in a Wisconsin warehouse. Being a relatively impoverished student, I don’t have the money for airfare—but, if you’re interested, I have a proposition that could be of mutual benefit to both of us. If you help me get to New Richmond to pick up the books, I’ll give you a free copy, reimburse you, and give you 25% of the proceeds from my salesmanship.

What do you say?

If, by this point and after reading these books, you’re not suspicious and ready to refuse me politely but firmly, you should also consider helping out a friend of mine. Upstanding fellow—a prince in a spot of political trouble…

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

Forty Miles of Mountain Road: Faust and the Blues

The Faustian myth, wherein one sells their soul for fame or fortune, is an incredibly popular motif throughout world folklore and literature. While the story draws on a number of earlier figures and myths, Faust by name originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. In the legend, he was a scholar who, displeased with his life and research, made a deal with the devil and exchanged his soul for insurmountable knowledge. Various retellings of the story give Faust different fates; in the earlier versions, he is inevitably damned to hell for his actions.

Of all the deal-with-the-devil stories, Faust burns the brightest. This can likely be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, whose play Doctor Faustus, published posthumously at the beginning of the early seventeenth century, brought the story to an English audience. Two centuries after this, Goethe published his play Faust, now regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. And these are only two of countless works of literature, art, and music that are derived from the original legend.

Not only has Faust inspired numerous musical works, including symphonic and operatic music by major classical composers like Gounod, Stravinsky, and Wagner, the legend has also inspired stories about the musicians’ personal lives and practices. Niccolò Paganini, the celebrated Italian violin virtuoso, was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for his remarkable skill. These occult associations were strong enough that after his death he was initially denied a Catholic burial by the church.

But perhaps out of all music, the blues is arguably most closely associated with the Faustian myth. Arising amongst African-American communities and gaining popularity in the Deep South at the end of the nineteenth century, blues music flourished for decades and set the precedent for the birth of rock and roll in the fifties. Blues songs draw from many influences, including West African and American folk traditions and work songs, often from plantations, which recount racial, romantic, and economic hardships. Ironically, considering its associations with the devil, Christian spirituals were also important to the development of the blues. While it is an overgeneralization to say that all blues music is melancholy, it is of course sad by definition, and thus reflects the historical context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Faustian legends surround Robert Johnson, one of the most influential and talented blues musicians ever. It was said that Johnson, out of the desire to be a great musician, met with the devil as a young man at a crossroads and gave his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. One of his most notable songs, Hellhound on My Trail, can be interpreted as telling the story of the devil coming for what he’s owed and the folk magic used in a last attempt to evade him. Another song, Cross Road Blues, describes the speaker asking God for mercy as he kneels at a crossroads.

The crossroads is an ominous motif in folklore and superstition, regarded as a place where one is likely to meet a ghost or, in this case, the devil. The popularity of the Faustian myth and the fact that Johnson died quite young add to the story. Although the legend has been widely discussed in this context, there is little evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the occult. However, he was said to have practiced in graveyards, as they offered a quiet, private space in which to play.

While the content of these songs is evidence that Johnson was aware of the folklore he was a part of, it is little evidence that he made any supernatural deals himself. When musicians appeal to the Faustian myth, is more for the sake of a good story than anything else. These many great musicians obviously did not really sell their souls for their talent. The ’devil’ or any other great evil feared by African American blues musicians was far more likely to stand for racial discrimination than any supernatural being. However, the key issue behind folklore is not whether any of it is ‘real’; it is the endurance of stories like the Faustian myth that fascinates us.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

The Flash Season One: “Run, Barry, Run!”

“Life is locomotion… If you’re not moving, you’re not living.”

So begins the famous motto of the comic book hero the Flash, and when adopting the story of Barry Allen for the small screen, it’s clear that this motto was taken to heart. With apparently no fear that it will run out of stories, The Flash ran through its first season at breakneck speed.

When Barry Allen was a little boy in Central City, he saw his mother, Nora (Michelle Harrison), be murdered in a yellow ball of light, and his father Henry (John Wesley Shipp) was charged with her murder. Barry goes to live with his parent’s friend, police detective Joe West (the amazing Jesse L. Martin), and Joe’s daughter Iris West (Candice Patton).

Fifteen years later, a bunch of scientists at a place called S.T.A.R. Labs blow up something called a particle accelerator, Barry gets struck by lightning, and bam: super speed. Barry is then taken under the wing of the mysterious wheelchair-bound scientist Harrison Wells (the hugely fun Tom Cavanagh), who trains Barry to use his speed. Barry is also assisted by Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), researchers at S.T.A.R. Labs. Barry is up and running as a superhero with his own costume and symbol and is fighting supervillains (who were also empowered by the particle accelerator explosion) by the end of the pilot, and the whole city is calling him ‘the Flash’ only a few episodes later.

On an emotional level, The Flash is strongest when it explores Barry’s relationships with his three father figures, Joe, Wells, and his real, imprisoned father. All these actors have amazing chemistry with each other, and Barry’s relationship with his three father figures tugs at viewers’ heart strings. Another huge part of the joy of this show is its smiles. Barry likes being the Flash. He loves it! He dashes across the city with a big smile on his face, and we find ourselves smiling with him.

However, The Flash isn’t perfect by any means. I would argue that this show doesn’t do a great job with its female characters, starting but not ending with Barry’s mother dying in the pilot.

The show explores Barry’s love for Iris West. In comic book land, the two are star-crossed lovers, but the show does little to support that. Iris is under the impression that Barry is her best friend, and treats him as such, but all the while Barry mopes behind her back.

This, combined with Barry practically being adopted by the West family as a kid, makes Barry’s secret crush a little… icky. It would help if Iris was given other stuff to do, but she really isn’t. Iris is also the last person on the show to find out that Barry is the Flash—literally everyone else knows before her.

Caitlin Snow, however, is given plenty to do, and is a strong character—certainly the strongest female character on the show—but her ark is still heavily tied to her fiancé Ronnie Raymond, the hero Firestorm. All in all, it’s not enough, and if the problem is still around next year, I’m going to be seriously angry.

The first season’s other weakness was its need for a ‘freak of the week’. Many episodes would introduce a villain, give them no development, have them be beaten, and then lock them up, never to be seen again, by the end of the episode. Most of the villains didn’t even seem that threatening. You’d be amazed by how many villains can be beaten by running around them in a circle, though admittedly I loved when the show just solved its problems with the Flash running in a circle and Dr. Wells shouting, “Run, Barry, run!”

But when the show did its villains well, it did them well. The Flash has a famous gallery of rogues. Wentworth Miller gave a standout performance as Captain Cold this season with so much cheesy goodness that I would cheer whenever he came on screen. This is a character who holds a gun that shoots ice and makes just as many ice puns as Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin, but somehow manages to still be amazingly fun and genuinely threatening.

But it was in episode twenty-one, “Grodd Lives”, when Flash faced off against a giant telepathic gorilla villain that I realized that the true genius of this show is that it is blatantly unashamed of being based on a comic book.

This works so much so that when the season finale, “Fast Enough”, rolled around, there was nothing that could take me out of it. As I looked back on the whole season, I realized this was always true, and that the show’s roots in the comic book medium stretch beyond its use of time travel, super speed, or cold guns.

The influence of comic books can be seen when a 1930s comic book Flash helmet pops out of a wormhole in time and space. It can also be seen when Harrison Wells reveals he’s from one hundred and thirty years in the future and that his real name is Eobard Thawne, dawning a yellow flash costume with glowing red eyes. What? Harrison Wells is playing the Reverse Flash?reverse flash

Yup.

He actually calls himself the Reverse Flash?

Yup.

And that’s barely a spoiler because we as the audience know this by episode nine—because when it comes to the Flash, nothing ever slows down. So when the Flash races into a black hole for the last shot of the season, it’s just as enjoyable as it was way back at the beginning of the year. This is a show that is based on a comic book, and loves itself for being based on a comic book, and that’s why I love it.

This show never slows down, and even though it never says the words, the Flash’s life really is locomotion. So you can’t help but mouth the words along with the characters on screen almost every week as the Flash shoots off in a blur of surprisingly good CGI yellow lightning:

“Run, Barry, Run!”

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

A Letter from the New Online Editor

Dear readers and contributors,

My name is Shahin, and I am going to be The Spectatorial’s Online Editor for the coming year. It is an honour to inherit Miranda’s legacy, and her mentorship gives me confidence in taking on this role.

This is The Spectatorial’s third year, and we have a lot of new faces and ideas on board. We have planned many exciting additions—but not to worry, they will not replace the beloved literary exploration we’re known for. We are merely broadening our focus to include speculative art, events, and the like in our coverage, and we hope that this helps The Spectatorial to grow into an inclusive, vibrant community of lovers of all things speculative.

We promise to continue our mission of celebrating the mystical, the unreal, and the unboundedness of the human imagination, and I hope that you will ride with us for another incredible year.

All my best,

Shahin Imtiaz.

A Letter from the (Old) Online Editor

Good afternoon,

This is an update on the transitions that are happening at The Spectatorial. We are in the process of changing our staff as many of us graduate from U of T and head off to explore other worlds. This includes the management of the blog and all our online platforms.

As of today, I am retiring as Online Editor. I leave the position and the blog in the capable hands of Shahin Imtiaz. The two of us have spoken at great lengths about what will come next for The Spectatorial’s blog, and I have to say that I’m excited for all of you. Next year will be full of new ideas, enthusiasm, and much speculation.

I hope all of you will keep on reading The Spectatorial, whether it’s the blog or the print journal–or both! It has been a pleasure to read and edit all of our writers’ work. I have been very, very lucky to learn from all of them and to serve as this year’s Online Editor. I wish all of our readers and writers the best.

Thank you one and all.

Sincerely,

Miranda Whittaker

Even More Exciting News!

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You’ve heard of our Summertime Zine Contest but have you heard about our Raffle?

We’re raffling off another excellent speculative fiction book from ChiZine publications at the end of our contest and one lucky entrant will win. How do you enter? Simply reTweet or post a link to the contest on your Facebook page. Help us spread the word and your name will be in the raffle.

You don’t want to miss a chance to win this book! Share the Summertime Zine Contest with all your friends and get your name in our raffle!