Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan

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What does Mars tell us in The Martian?

This post contains spoilers.

THE MARTIAN illustration
Illustration by Shayla Sabada

Imagine this: you are stranded on a distant planet without water, food, internet access, your smartphone, or even other humans. What crosses your mind first? Of course, you want to survive. Maybe your goal is to find a way to reconnect with the Earth, or perhaps you’d prefer to settle down in this foreign land and crown yourself as its first ruler.

Matt Damon does both in The Martian, a sci-fi adventure blockbuster brought to you by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Weir’s first novel was self-published in 2011, and soon topped the Kindle sales chart. Well-researched yet fantastical, Weir blends real science and fiction without sacrificing either one for the sake of trying to be more entertaining.

On the eighteenth Martian day, or sol, of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the rest of his team, the other members of which are forced to evacuate the planet when it is hit by a sudden sand storm. While everyone on Earth (including NASA and his teammates) presumes that he is dead, Watney wakes up the next day impaled by an antenna in his abdomen, finding himself to have been abandoned. Being left behind on Mars might suck for many reasons, but Damon’s character doesn’t drown himself in self-pity. Instead, he decides to ‘science the sh*t’ out of every single resource he is left with on the Red Planet.

The next NASA manned mission to Mars is four years away, which means nobody will notice Watney until 1460 Earth days later. It is frightening, but the good-humored and strong-willed Watney does not just curse Mars and then cry until he cannot breathe. Thankfully, the astronaut was a botanist back on Earth, and he manages to cultivate four hundred and something sols worth of potatoes using his own feces and the universally scarce resource that is water. Meanwhile, Watney has to figure out how to regain contact with NASA and find a route to the spot closest to the landing site of Ares IV in the hopes that he will be picked up and brought back to Earth. Thanks to Watney’s super-brain, he translates his scientific knowledge into creative engineering, which ultimately saves his life.

Despite Watney having devised a comprehensive plan to keep himself alive on the Red Planet, those four hundred sols are riddled with frustration and uncertainty. Watney’s courage and endurance are tested as he struggles to overcome the volatility of Mars.

How should he positively deal with the decompression of the airlock on the habitat which blows up his shelter and kills all his crops inside? When the crew returns to Mars to rescue Watney, how can he ensure his vehicle achieves the necessary altitude to intercept the spaceship?

Undoubtedly, one could very quickly get discouraged in such situations. However, Watney is the poster-boy of human ingenuity, and his cool-headedness and optimism are qualities that audiences should take home with them. He does not beat himself up for miscalculating the amount of heat needed to create water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel (OK, well, he does—for like one or two seconds). He even jokes that he has colonized Mars, because he cultivates crops on its soil. Weir’s character lives up to the idea of “Keep Calm and Carry On” brilliantly.

Loneliness is hard to cope with, but Watney keeps his mind active on Mars by recording daily video logs. Scott shrewdly grants the video logs the dual purposes of allowing Watney to explain complicated scientific ideas in plain language while also giving the audience a chance to get a closer look at the intimate side of the character.

Besides recording what he is going to do next, Watney complains about the poor musical taste of the mission commander (played by Jessica Chastain) while blasting her old-school disco music collection in the background during his recording. This is just a little comic relief, which gives you a break from feeling bad for the poor guy.

Regarding the purpose of the recordings on a broader scope, they show that it is important for us as humans to learn how to cope with loneliness. Watney learns this incredible lesson, but we all do not get a chance to experience what he goes through—nor do we want to.  Not everyone can dance with loneliness classily, and if you can, that is truly an amazing ability. Human beings rely on the need to belong, but who knows when you will have to be all alone. The movie conveys that coping with loneliness is also a vital survival skill.

The Martian is not a typical Scott movie in terms of its cinematography and script (I had expected the story to be more devastating, to be honest), nor is the movie a typical disaster sci-fi movie. You’re sure to become infatuated with Damon’s charisma during the video logging, and be prepared to get yourself into the nostalgic mood when Gloria Gaynor’s disco dance number “I Will Survive” plays in the background.

-Contributed by Michelle Luk

The Women of Star Wars: Part One

Space opera is a fascinating sub-genre of speculative fiction—part science fiction, part Western, and all action. Star Wars is undoubtedly the most famous example of the space opera—rightly so, as it’s fantastic. I’m unabashedly critical of movies, but every time I get to the last thirty minutes of Empire all I can think is, “This is so good.” I’ll give credit to Lucas; I don’t think he wrote Star Wars exclusively for guys. However, anyone who’s ever watched the movies (especially the original trilogy) is struck by how Princess Leia is apparently the only woman in the universe.

Being a woman certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with Luke Skywalker. He’s a human being, after all, and so am I. But what bothers me is how every female character in Star Wars is incredibly two-dimensional, with the notable exception of Princess Leia. Congratulations Carrie Fisher, you had the unenviable task of carrying the weight of your entire gender on your shoulders and you succeeded admirably.

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Photo from http://makingstarwars.net

In my opinion, the really stunning moment of the trailer for the new adaptation was the revelation that the new trilogy is going to focus on a female protagonist: Rey. In honour of this overdue leap forward, let’s take a look at the past women of Star Wars.

Beru Lars

It’s never a good sign when the first significant female figure in the series is killed twenty minutes into the first movie and is never mentioned again. Beru and Owen Lars exist to tie Luke Skywalker to Tatooine, and the plot necessitates that they die in order for Luke to relinquish his hold on his old life and start his adventure.

Beru exists as a loving bridge between her husband and her adopted son Luke, who have fundamentally different ideas about what Luke’s future should hold. She is also the one who first points out that Luke “has too much of his father in him,” thus starting a trend throughout all the original films of people remarking that Luke resembles his father. Of course, the horror of that statement is only really revealed in Empire where we learn exactly who it is that Luke resembles so much. Beru exists as a plot device—her death is the tragedy that spurs the hero forward. In that light, it makes thematic sense that not a lot of time is spent establishing her character. Beru does show up in the prequel films as well, but no new information is really given about who she is as a person. Of course, as we’ll see later when we get to Shmi Skywalker, if you don’t establish a character complexly, the audience is not very emotionally invested in their death. This works to the advantage in A New Hope, since it is a light-hearted film, but backfires in Attack of the Clones.

Mon Mothma

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Photo from http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Mon_Mothma

I decided to include Mon Mothma mostly because she is one of the only women to have ever appeared in the original Star Wars films, and also because she plays such a monumental role in the Expanded Universe. I’m not going to explore the Expanded Universe in this blog post—it exists outside of  the canon for most fans—but it’s important to realize that Mon Mothma is essentially the leader of the rebellion, even in the original films. She has also been the subject of many jokes since she is “the only other woman in the universe” besides Leia. If you haven’t yet checked out the Family Guy parodies of the classic Star Wars films, I highly encourage you to do so, if only because that joke gains especial poignancy when you realize that Angela, Peter’s boss in the cartoon, parodies Mon Mothma and that Angela is voiced by Carrie Fisher herself. Interestingly, in addition to being the only other woman in the universe, Mon Mothma, much like Leia in the first film, is shown almost entirely in white, continuing the trend of female political figures attired in spotless white.

The Slave Girls on Tatooine

Sexual violence is downplayed in Star Wars—with good reason. The sort of trauma that results from rape doesn’t really fit into the Star Wars feel of everything being alright at the end of the day. After all, we never see Luke grieve for his slain relatives ever again and Leia does not even mention Alderaan after the first movie. Leia’s torture in A New Hope is non-sexual (we are even more thankful for this when we realize that Darth Vader, the interrogator, is her father).

However, though it is never explicitly spoken of, there is an undertone of sexual violence in Star Wars. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. Slaves are seen dancing for the entertainment of Jabba’s court. In a famous scene, Jabba tries to draw a Twi’lek dancing girl towards him by her neck chain. When she resists his advances, he cuts the chain and throws her down to feed the Rancor. After she is captured, Leia is forced into the famous bikini-outfit, which certainly carries an implication of objectification and potential sexual assault. Jabba licks or kisses her in an off-camera moment (again, he draws her to him by her chains).

Check out my second post, featuring Shmi, Padme, and, of course, Princess Leia!

-Contributed by Lara Thompson

Illustrated by Gwen Wolinsk

More Societal Quirks of Widespread Cryonics and its Contemporary Status

*Scroll down/ click here to read part 1 of this blog*

Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Cryoburn discusses a number of social issues that arise in a society in which cryogenic preservation is commonplace.

While driving around Kibou-daini, the planet on which the novel takes place, one of Miles’s retainers notices a discomfiting sign that advertises a gated community in a rather novel way. It asks, “Did you die 100–150 years ago?” His local guide explains that some of the small number of people cryo-revived are not fans of modern Kibou-daini, and try to form enclaves of their age class to maintain isolation from the younger generations. This seems to be a satire of one of the common reasons for undergoing cryonics: the desire to see what sort of future humanity has made for itself. Since we typically associate the progression of centuries with positive social and technological change, one would assume that the future one wakes up into would be an improvement upon the past, but there is no guarantee of this; as Bujold points out, what happens if you don’t like the future? In another instance of wry humour, Bujold also states that some unfrozen customers choose to go back into cryosleep, hoping that they will one day be woken up in a society more to their liking.

Bujold identifies another issue, something often glossed over by a number of sci-fi authors: what happens if the technology, like all human technology, is prone to problems? Upon agreeing to cryonic preservation, prospective clients need to have a lot of trust in their company, since if something goes wrong with the procedure, the clients will never find out.

This very scenario forms a substantial part of Cryoburn’s storyline. Before the events of the novel, one of the largest cryocorps, NewEgypt, developed a bad batch of cryofluid, which, after about thirty years, allowed a set of clients’ bodies to decay until they were unrevivable. Cryofluid, a mixture of various chemicals, is pumped into a person’s blood vessels during preparation for cryonic preservation, which prevents the formation of tissue-damaging ice crystals and assists with the preservation process.

In a move typical of a large corporation, NewEgypt decided to cover up this problem and attempted to sell off the contracts of their unlucky clients. This illustrates not only the problem of allowing corporations to amass vast political power, but also another interesting difficulty with cryogenic technology—humans tend to be short-sighted due to our inherently short life spans. Cryonics, however, operates on the scale of centuries, which makes it a difficult enterprise to maintain, as both the necessary technology and maintenance structures would need to last for an amount of time that is outside the typical human window of understanding.

Bujold also seems to suggest that Kibou-daini’s cryonics may have led to an unhealthy focus on death. Due perhaps in part to the marketing and omnipresence of the cryocorps, Kibou-daini is a world obsessed with cryonics and an ‘afterlife’ so to speak. There is an almost ancient Egyptian fixation with preparing for a future life.

The main antagonist of the story is, fittingly, the NewEgypt cryonics company which preserves its clients in giant pyramids. Even those without the resources to pay for high-quality cryonics try to find some way to get themselves frozen. As Miles notes, “Kibou-daini was a planet so obsessed with cheating death, even the street people managed to scavenge hope” in the form of an unlicensed cryofacility he stumbles upon (Bujold 36). This intense focus on ‘cheating death’ may be responsible for the unfortunate economic conditions of Kibou-daini, as the welfare of the dead seems to be trumping that of the living.

Though her overall picture of a post-cryonic society is quite negative, Bujold does highlight the fascinating possibilities of cryonics to potentially extend lifespans, and likens the cryorevival that she depicts to a technological resurrection. Bujold also suggests that, should cryonics be developed, it will inevitably rise to prominence, due to the human desire for immortality. As Miles also point out, those groups which refuse to undergo cryonics (known on Kibou-daini as the Refusers) will be like religious sects on Earth that practice strict abstinence—by nature of their very beliefs they will cause their own extinction.

How close are we to becoming Kibou-daini? Though cryogenic revival is still very much a technology of the future, cryonic preservation has been going on since 1962. A number of corporations (The Cryonics Institute, Oregon Cryonics, and KrioRus are some of the main ones) offer cryogenic services, and currently around 270 people are being maintained in cryonics facilities. Due to current laws (in America, at least), cryonic preparation can only be started after a person is legally dead. Most cryonics companies offer two types of preservation: head and whole body. Head (or neuropreservation) is the simpler of the two options, as there is less tissue to prepare; however, corpses prepared this way would require technology that could provide a new body for their use.

After a client’s death, all their blood is drained from their body and replaced with specially formulated cryoprotectant fluid containing various anti-freeze chemicals that are intended to reduce ice crystal formation in blood vessels. The client’s body is then gradually frozen and stored at around -196 degrees Celsius. At present, cryonic preparation is quite a complex operation, and requires a team of surgeons. This, combined with the need to wait for legal death, can increase the cost of cryonics, as the client must pay for a team of cryogenic surgeons to be nearby when they are on their deathbed. Preservation typically costs between $12,000 (for neuropreservation only) and $800,000 for full body preservation from a top of the line company. These costs are one-time payments (though one can arrange a yearly plan before one’s death) as yearly payments after death are obviously problematic.

People who undergo cryonic preservation now are banking on the eventual development of a number of theoretical technologies. These include advanced nanobots capable of regenerating body tissue, medical advances in curing diseases, android technology, and mind uploading (a theoretical technique wherein a person’s mind and memories would be scanned and transferred into the medium of computer magnetic memory). Outliving ourselves may not just be the stuff of sci-fi anymore.

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

Barbarella: Space Angels and other “Great Ideas”

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Illustration by Abja Chaudhry

Science fiction is marvelous: from the machinations and imaginative grandeur of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to the quip-y, flashy action of J.J. Abrams’ incarnation of Star Trek, the genre continues to ever evolve. However, as most must, it has also gone through phases of cringe worthy atrocity. Before the 1970s, most science fiction tended to fall under the umbrella of ‘space opera’.  Much like ‘spaghetti westerns’, ‘space opera’ was originally a term meant to deride and mock the tropes that characterized the genre. Faraway planets, burly heroes, space battles and voluptuous women graced the covers of many a magazine. When Star Trek played every week on T.V, there was at least one instance per episode of Captain Kirk ripping his shirt, punching someone, or passionately embracing a beautiful human or alien (or a combination of the three) – and this most definitely qualified as what most understood to be ‘space opera’. As the rules of fame go, once something becomes popular enough, someone will inevitably parody it. This was one of the apparent purposes of the 1968 film Barbarella.

 Directed by Roger Vadim and starring a very young Jane Fonda, Barbarella features all the devices found in space opera at the time. Sweeping shots of alien worlds, a collection of very buff men (all in various states of undress), ray-gun fights, and extremely beautiful women abound. The heroine, Barbarella, is a space bounty hunter on the trail of Dr. Durand Durand to recover the Positronic Ray, which could potentially enable genocide. On the way, she meets Mark Hand the Iceman, Pygar the angel-man, The Great Tyrant Queen, and eventually Durand Durand.  Each character embodies some separate element of space opera. Mark Hand is the cynical and hirsute space man, strong and Han Solo-esque. Pygar is the innocent and ethereal being, brought low by humanity. The Great Tyrant Queen is the dictator, prepared to take over worlds in her quest for power. Lastly, Dr. Durand Durand is the technology-mad scientist, focused only on the next advancement with no regard to consequence.

Barbarella herself is the ‘woman-who-seems-to-find-herself-in-situations-involving-ripped-clothes-and-a-ray-gun’. She usually manages to stumble out of trouble by sleeping with her opponent or ally, and anything she achieves is done through the use of her ample (yet somehow innocent) charms. Avidly sexist, yes, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless. The film is in no way meant to be taken seriously. It is an LSD trip of appalling special effects, 60s references (i.e. Durand Durand anyone?), barely-veiled sex monikers (one character is hilariously named “Dildano”), and dialogue could have been written by monkeys who were originally trying for Hamlet. One such gem of a dialogue is “a good many dramatic situations begin with screaming….”

In a movie where the opening scene is of Jane Fonda writhing in zero gravity, removing her space suit to a soundtrack incredibly reminiscent of Star Trek: The Original Series’ opening titles, any semblance of coherence is not expected. And in that, Barbarella delivers.  Whether or not on purpose, the film manages to gleefully poke fun at all the common space opera images, with special attention paid to those that allowed the director to make Jane Fonda wear a bikini. Campy and inappropriate, crass and misogynistic, Barbarella was perhaps the first film to spoof the space opera genre. Years later, Rocky Horror Picture Show did much the same to horror. Both are appreciated for their unsubtle nods to their respective categories. And so, it is with the wise words of Pygar that I conclude that Barbarella is worth its weight in giggles: “an angel does not make love, an angel is love.”

-Contributed by Rej Ford

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

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

holy grail
Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker