Genrefuck: The Space Opera

Good evening. Instead of likening Republicans to supervillains (who says they even need likening? Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk) or writing thin holocaust parables, I’d like to announce my new weekly column about genre, clichés, and all the various little things about fiction that either bother or enthrall me.

Today we start with one of my favorite genres, the space opera. I honestly have no clue why it’s called that. It conjures more images of Buzz Aldrin in a Viking helmet singing Wagner than it does of the actual genre and its substance. The space opera, in short, is a translation of The Lord Of The Rings, the animal kingdom, or world politics into a science fiction setting. It is typically agreed upon that the Flash Gordon serials were the first example of the genre, but it was popularized by things like Star Trek and then later brought to mainstream culture on a massive scale by Star Wars. The space opera tends to be characterized by aesthetically pleasing if unexplained technology, humanoid aliens, large casts, larger than life villains, an emphasis on spectacle, and protagonists that function as a stand-in for the viewer.

There are, I think, three loose categories of the space opera that I described in brief earlier. The borders between them can be rather thin sometimes or even nonexistent in the odd case, but it’s never too terribly difficult to tell what you’re dealing with.

Category one is the Space Fantasy. This setting is probably the least likely to include Earth, at least as we know it. The aliens (and there will always be aliens in the Space Fantasy) will tend to be based upon fantasy races such as elves, dwarves and the like. All the various planets visited will likely consist of only one biome, for some reason, there is usually a war going on or about to erupt, and it is quite probable that supernatural elements come into play.

Category two is the Space UN. The Space UN is the most likely to feature Earth, and will probably include a history connecting the present to this future. The aliens involved (there usually are, but not always) will either tend to be based on current countries or ancient cultures. You will see a lot of politics in a setting like this, a lot of social commentary dressed up in analogue, and probably a lot of mystery too. Questions will be asked. Answers may be offered. Space UN is typically the hardest sci-fi of the bunch, and will generally be the one to talk the frankest about issues that vex us in the real world.

I’m not actually that sure if category three even qualifies, as it is characterized only by unique alien design (an important part of a space opera but definitely not the only part) and little else. The Space Zoo, as I call it, is filled with aliens that are more or less just evolved versions of Earth animals. Sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer refers to this surprisingly prevalent phenomenon as the “intelligent gerbil” school of extraterrestrials. An animal is made humanoid and intelligent, with its mental and social characteristics based upon the base animal’s behavior.

Why don’t we create an example? Consider a race of dolphin people, for instance. They might look something like a particularly streamlined human with flipper feet. They might act in a manner similar to humans (ability to communicate with language, proficiency in math, an understanding of social mores and forays), but their behavior patterns would more closely resemble that of their earth counterparts: hyperactivity, overactive libidos, playful nature, and a sense of fickleness when it comes to unfamiliar entities. So, in short, The Space Zoo is less of a category than it is just a trope, but it deserves mention nonetheless.

Let’s talk about the good before we move on to the nitpicking. You can tell a ton of great stories using the space opera as a backdrop. The basic substance of the genre makes it a good way to do what science fiction was invented for and put a real issue in a fantastic setting in order to offer a new perspective on things to the reader/viewer/player. Things like politics are a nice place to start if you can avoid heavy handedness, but you could easily jump off from there into issues of religion, race, war, family, and the like. Or, you could go in a completely different direction and write a very character driven story, one of adventure and discovery both in the physical and metaphysical sense. I’ve even seen the space opera used for rather effective horror, with humanity portrayed as a naïve newcomer in a galaxy far beyond anything they could have ever prepared for full of aliens who see them as specks at best and resources at worst.

Like most genres, there are problems inherent in the space opera that often rear their ugly heads. Many of them have to do with the inherent implausibility of having humanoid aliens that speak English or when authors forget how big space is, but I don’t find it too difficult to suspend my disbelief that far.

I see real problems, though, when Alien races are used to represent human ethnicities in a derogatory fashion. Now, I won’t pretend that this phenomenon is anything unique or even surprising. The idea of using a similar alien culture to underscore the problems of a human one is good satire, even. Science fiction is born of politics and strong opinions, but when it becomes a breeding ground for hatred and intolerance, a line should be drawn. There is no wonder to be found in such things, nothing to be learned. I know an argument can of course be made for free speech and what have you, but propaganda (and the use of racial parables is propaganda, make no mistake) makes for frankly shitty fiction. I, for one, would rather that there be more good fiction, especially science fiction, out there than not. So on that note, authors of the genre should make an effort not to turn their works into mouthpieces. Teach knowledge, not ignorance. It’s the duty of a writer to do so.

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