Review: Space Opera

Space Opera (Rich Horton, editor; Diamond Book Distributors) starts off with an introduction that gives a historical overview of the evolution of the term “space opera” from its disreputable beginnings in the 1940s to the self-conscious modern revival of the subgenre after 1985.

It’s a pretty good summary with a few odd lapses. Missing, for example, is the informative detail that the term was coined by analogy with “soap opera”, but in its original context probably owed more to the now near-extinct term “horse opera” for a formulaic Western. Also, given the editor’s cogent argument that space opera never really went away during the pre-revival years, it seems inexplicable that he fails to mention such obvious exemplars as The Mote In God’s Eye (1975) and Startide Rising (1983), among others.

But these are nearly quibbles, relatively speaking. The larger lapse is that the editor of this anthology never engages the question of what “space opera” actually is – that is, what traits define it relative to other subgenres of science fiction. The consequence of this lack is that the stories in this anthology, while sometimes quite brilliant individually, add up to rather less than the sum of their parts, and it can be difficult to discern why any particular story was selected.

Looking at the first two stories…Yoon Ha Lee’s The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars opens the anthology with brilliant flourishes of Vancian baroqueness that delighted me and made me want to read everything else she has written as fast as I can get my hands on the works, but it is not easy to see how it is tied to “space opera” other than by a sense of time-depth and the presence of interstellar war in the background of the story. Still, it has a far better claim than James Patrick Kelly’s The Wreck of the Goodspeed – a quirky tale of religion, adolescent horniness, and a rogue AI that fails every test for space-opera traits I can think of.

And what are those traits? Space opera, like SF, is a radial category with different examples loosely bound to (and sometimes failing to exhibit one or more of) certain core traits. A fascination with large-scale conflict narratives is certainly one – the clashes of empires and civilizations and species are a recurring theme. Going with this is a cinematic, wide-screen quality of narrative; vastnesses of space, depth of time.

Much space opera overlaps in its tropes and settings with military SF; but where military SF tends to focus on the military life, the small-unit action and the psychology of command and obedience, space opera is more interested in grand strategy and big implications. Compare The Mote In God’s Eye (1975), an archetype of un-selfconscious pre-revival space opera (as well as a cracking good first contact novel and a puzzle story in the classic Campbellian mode), with Starship Troopers (1961), an archetype of military SF; the contrasts are clear here. It is also instructive to consider David Weber’s Honorverse novels, which are very near the midpoint of the continuum between these two subgenres. The subject of my last review, Trial by Fire, sits somewhere a bit outboard of the Honorverse novels towards the space-opera end.

Finally and most importantly, though space opera participates in SF’s affirmation of a rationally knowable universe and often contains elements of the classic sort of hard-SFnal idea puzzle, space opera has a very different emotional tone. The best puzzle stories have the cerebral quality of a locked-room murder mystery; the worst are lifeless think pieces full of talking heads. By contrast, the best space operas trade in grand themes of individual heroism, adventure, villainy, courage, adversity, betrayal, and triumph; the worst are over-predictable and mindlessly violent. Where that sort of thalamic charge is absent, space opera is not.

Alas, there is no such structural or thematic analysis even suggested by this sequence of stories. Gwyneth Jones’s Saving Tiamat, again, has nothing to do with any recognizable trait of space opera – the fact that it’s about cannibalism, assassination, and (arguably) dark villainy is insufficient for what is ultimately a rather bloodless (though well-executed) outing.

Gareth L. Powell’s Six Lights off Green Scar is, as its title alone manages to suggest, much more like it. Smaller-screen space-opera, here, with the touch of noir these sometimes have – the burnt-out interstellar explorer, the newshound hungry for a scoop. You know from the first moment this will be no cerebral, claustrophilic puzzle-piece; shit’s going to get thalamically real out there, and there will be violence and heroism and betrayal and at least the possibility of redemption. It’s not necessarily the best story in the anthology, but it’s the first to truly resonate with the anthology’s title – the first one can properly call “operatic”.

But Greg Egan’s Glory swerves away from opera again, big time. I’m a huge fan of Egan’s work, but how anyone can read a story that’s half about reconstructing mathematical theorems from a dead alien civilization and half mockery of human primate politics and think “space opera” is beyond me.

Chris Willrich’s The Mote Dancer and the Firelife zigzags back in the direction of space opera (almost any direction would do that, after Egan) but never really gets there. The setting has space-operatic potential, but a psychology-centered plot about a woman resolving her grief for a dead lover really doesn’t qualify even when one of them has gills and the other is an irritating ghost in a cybermachine.

Michael Flynn’s On Rickety Thistlewaite is a short excerpt from his gloriously space-operatic Spiral Arm sequence (The January Dancer and sequels). Go read the novels; they are odd, poetic, grandiloquent, and unique. Here for the second time we are clearly on theme, though the excerpted part does not show this as clearly as it might.

By contrast, Una McCormack’s War Without End suggests perversely bad judgment about what belongs in an anthology of ‘space opera’. Clue: a sour, brooding, and involuted story like something out of a bad New Wave anthology from forty years ago not only does not belong, it is a near-perfect antithesis of what does. (I will further note that if I truly wanted to wallow in this kind of depressive crud, I would just read literary fiction and have done with SF.)

David Moles’s Finisterra and Naomi Novik’s Seven Years From Home are two quite well-crafted alien-ecology tales, and it is nice to see Ms. Novik showing some range beyond her Temeraire books, but what claim either has to be space opera is at best unclear. Kage Baker’s Plotters and Shooters is a slight bit of parody that suggests the editor misfiles anything as space opera that has asteroids and guns in it.

Paul Berger’s The Muse of Empires Lost is more like it. Space habs in the interiors of giant bioengineered squid, mating with starships; interstellar travellers carrying crossbows for good reasons; a backstory thousands of years deep; history manipulated by an immortal parasite; weird powers; betrayal, revenge, and triumph. The tone is properly epic even if the space battles are missing in this instance.

Boojum (Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette) continues the streak of spacegoing critters, adding space piracy and rayguns. This one starts with a space battle. It’s an obvious (and successful) homage to the pre-Campbellian space opera of the 1920s and 30s. Jay Lake’s Lehr, Rex follows it with ironic comment on some of space opera’s most persistent tropes then and since. Both of these belong in a space-opera anthology.

Justina Robson’s Cracklegrackle, alas, dissipates the momentum. Though a fine and inventive story in its own way, it has little of the set dressing and none of the tropes or (being mainly about failure and loss) the emotional tone of space opera.

Alastair Reynolds has been one of the bright lights of British neo-space-opera, and he demonstrates why in Hideaway. Deep time measured in kiloyears, forerunner artifacts of mysterious power, implacable enemies, one last desperate hope, heroism, and (I predicted this before finishing) a revelation. This is how it’s done. This is what space opera in a modern voice looks like.

Ian McLeod’s Isabel of the Fall is beautiful and sad and not quite as far from space opera as War Without End; at least it has its beauty, a sense of time-depth, and an epic, mythic quality to it. Even so it is not clear what the work is doing in this anthology.

Robert Reed’s Precious Mental, on the other hand, certainly belongs. Reed has always been good at suggesting vastness. This tale tells of a ship larger than worlds, a near-immortal with a crime in his past, an ancient enemy who may or may not be the hidden overlords of the known galaxy, and a quest for vital knowledge that sprawled over eight million years.

Aliette de Bodards’s Two Sisters In Exile rings a new change on the old idea that forgetting the cost of war may lead to a greater one. It is arguably only marginal as space opera, but harmonizes well with the stories here that fall definitely within that genre.

I may be unable to evaluate Lavie Tidhar’s Lode Stars properly because I was laughing too hard at the Illuminatus! references, but I think this is like the previous – marginal, but harmonizing well with stories nearer the heart of the space-opera subgenre.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade announces itself as space opera from its first page, but it’s deliberately a sort pf stylized oriental miniature of the form that averts the climactic battle or big reveal. Good nevertheless.

Ian McDonald’s The Tear finishes off the anthology in the grandest of space-operatic style, with heroism and obsession and revenge and the destruction of a civilization tied to a cosmic secret that may allow humanity to survive the end of this universe.

Having read through the entire contents, I now think Yoon Ha Lee’s opening piece a better fit at one edge of the radial category of space opera than I did. Still, even being generous about the edge cases, only about half these stories really qualify as space opera, and there’s one anti-space-opera for which the editor merits a swift kick in the behind.

I think anybody who is going to compile a theme anthology named after a subgenre of SF damned well ought to have and make explicit a better theory of what the subgenre is about than this. Certainly another critic or reader could argue with my characterization of the space-opera subgenre and my handling of edge cases, but the flat refusal to judge we see here is as silly as compiling an anthology titled “Murder Mystery” in which nigh on half the stories don’t feature a murder. It’s false advertising, it’s a cheat, and it’s disrespectful of conventions that have value both for reader and writer.

I am left happy with most of the stories but unhappy with the anthology. Shame on you, Rich Horton. You should have done better than this.

44 thoughts on “Review: Space Opera

  1. Hmm. Somehow I’ve got a completely different definition of “space opera” in my head. To me it means a story that is not really SF at all, and is only on the SF shelves because it happens to take place off Earth. Rewriting the Hornblower books to be set on spaceships doesn’t make them SF. (There was a time when it did, because the very idea of space travel was SF; but now it’s a given in the general culture.)

  2. >What does “thalamic” mean (in this context)?

    A quick STFU revealed nothing on the adjective, but it seems relate to the thalamus, the part of the brain through which sensory impulses pass.

  3. All right, Eric. You’re in the editor’s office. Make a better anthology.

  4. In addition to the more “Epic” scale of the subject matter of a Space Opera vice a Science Fiction story, I find that SO tends to not bother to explain *how* things work as often as SF. Instead, it focuses on the characters, using the ‘spaciness’ to set the tone.

    To contrast:

    In Star Treck, the warp engines go a certain specific speed (progressively faster, approaching Warp 10 in later movies and series) and work by creating a warp field upon which the ship “surfs” through space-time. They have an antimatter containment field around Di-lithium crystals, ${tech}, etc. It doesn’t need to be real; just internally constistant(ish).

    In Star Wars, (the movies, not later cannon novelizations) nobody really mentions how the engines or anything works. It’s all about the grand sweeping dramatic action (which goes back to ESR’s point). George Lucas famously remarked that the Millenium Falcon moves at the Speed of Plot. If the story needed the Falcon to get there, it can.

  5. >All right, Eric. You’re in the editor’s office. Make a better anthology.

    Trivial. Start with this one, remove the 50% that didn’t belong, add a trait analysis to the introduction.

  6. >George Lucas famously remarked that the Millenium Falcon moves at the Speed of Plot. If the story needed the Falcon to get there, it can.

    You’re describing inferior, crappy space opera. The good stuff plays by SF rules – at most one McGuffin per story (but FTL doesn’t count), and the universe must be rationally consistent. The Alastair Reynolds and Ian McDonald stories in this anthology, for example, meet this standard.

  7. James: I believe you’re referencing Joe Straczynski’s comment on the Starfuries from Babylon 5, not Lucas on the Milennium Falcon.

  8. >What does “thalamic” mean (in this context)?

    Viscerally exciting, stirring, emotionally charged. Opposite of “cerebral”.

  9. To me, space opera has to have a number of traits.

    It has to be operatic. That means a villain with Grand Sweeping Motives that can be discerned in part by Our Heroes (and the Dear Reader). Those Grand Sweeping Motives may be as simple as conquering the Earth/Human Confederation/Good Guy Star Democracy. They may be as abstract as harvesting all the gas giants in a region of space for building computronium, and accidentally destroying hydrogen mines of strategic importance. An edge case is “triggers gamma ray bursts to make sure no competition comes up.”

    However, there has to be an identifiable antagonist, if not a villain. You can’t get a good staging of Otello without Iago, and the villains get all the juicy lines. Star Trek II is the best of the Star Trek movies because it is unabashedly, full on, no stops, we-shall-leave-teeth-marks-on-the-galaxy operatic. As subsequent installments show, without Khan, you don’t get opera. (A hat should be tipped to Shatner, because this is really the last time he gets to play Kirk as having any kind of human flaws, rather than being the Walking Solution Machine.)

    Mere greed isn’t sufficient to motivate the villain; we’ll have no picayune Space Rail Barons twirling their Space Mustaches as they throw Space Orphans off of Asteroid Klondike-b616 so they can get the McGuffinite Mine all to themselves. (Besides, whenever you do this, the p-value that there’s a pretty Space School Marm who crosses paths with A Heroic Loner In Need Of Redemption approaches 1.0)

    There usually has to be a Big Fight At The End; it must involve our hero playing the key role.(“Hey, Luke, how the hell DID you get those proton torpedoes to make a 90 degree turn…oh, right, Protagonist. The Director loves you.”) Stakes have been raised throughout, but the big damned fight at the end is part of the story. Usually, the grand fight at the end has a high enough cost that there’s a scurrying retreat from the immediate aftermath.

    A story where the end is solving a puzzle tends to bring you out of the Operatic Mode.

    Space Opera can, but does not always have to, involve the sweep of cultures, the unplumbable depths of time. There are many, Eric included, who consider that to be the ur-characteristic of space opera. What space opera should evoke is sense-of-wonder, but that is set dressing if you don’t get the emotional beats of the story down. (This is Eric’s “thalamically real” metric). It is a case of mistaking the set dressing and dancing extras as the important part of the opera, not the people who make the conflict personal.

    For example, while I consider Mote in God’s Eye to be one of the finest SF novels ever written, I don’t consider it space opera. It lacks a villain; instead it has a sociological puzzle. There is no Big Fight At The End. It does, however, evoke sense-of-wonder and veritas in spades, and it has a number of military SF details that can lead you thinking it is….but it is a first contact and puzzle novel wearing a hermit crab’s shell of military SF, and dancing so smoothly you don’t notice.

    Any of the first four or five of the Honorverse novels, the ones that still end with Harrington leading her badly broken ship into a death ride to save all that has been established as dear in this volume are space operas. There’s a villain with grandiloquent motives, there’s a ratcheting of the stakes, and there’s the Big Damned Fight At The End.

    One of the reasons why Space Opera got maligned for being formulaic juvenalia (and why it went out of vogue for somewhere around 15 years, until the 1990s) is because it is so easy to be hamhanded in it, to march the characters through the Assigned Stations of the Plot without getting your readers invested in their well-being. The same thing also happens with its literary cousin, the Quest for the Magic Thingies to Defeat The Bad Guy of Doom.

    You are trying to hit the emotional beats of a Republic Serial, while still keeping them fresh and new….and as an author, you’re well aware of how many times you’ve gone to that well, and it’s hard to still feel the emotions well enough to write them convincingly. This is actually a problem, because as you get more skilled as a writer, the more you care about your craft, the more you see the problems with this form of story.

    A properly written Space Opera should follow the Lester Dent Master Pulp Plot in ALL of its Pulpish Glory. It should REVEL in its Pulpishness, with the squelch of vanadium-soled space boots crushing the tentacled eyestalks of the Brainless Minions of Sateg the Scoundrel and his Redmondian Hordes.

    And it should, probably, be written in a white heat from beginning to end in about one month for a novel, revised carefully over a week, submitted, and then forgotten because you’re writing the next one, and those checks from editors don’t come in unless you meet deadlines.

    Art and craft on the part of the writer are, in many ways, the death of proper Space Opera, because the only way you get your readers reading breathlessly to the last page is if you’re writing breathlessly to the last page.

  10. I am not really a sci-fi person. I am more into the fantasy genre. I also write fantasy stories/novels, and my problem is setting the grand sweeping panoramic stage convincingly because I don’t want to imitate the geographical/cultural settings of the usual Western-themed fantasy worlds.

    I wonder if anybody here are interested in reading some of my work. Please don’t laugh though. The one I wrote was some years ago and I never got past the first draft. It is quite complete though. As an aspiring amateur author, I would appreciate the feedback of the knowledgeable folk here.

  11. >For example, while I consider Mote in God’s Eye to be one of the finest SF novels ever written, I don’t consider it space opera.

    I disagree with Ken in this; I think Mote is space opera for the same reasons Startide Rising is. Mote is of course other things besides a space opera as well; as Ken says, first-contact novel and puzzle story. Reasonable persons may differ on which of these is most important in the mix.

    Otherwise I largely agree with Ken’s analysis. We differ mostly in emphasis; I weight sense of vast scale and wonder a bit more and narrative centered around individual heroism a bit less than he does, but we both understand these as core traits without which membership in the category becomes questionable.

    I think it is also worth noting that while space opera certainly trades in Vast Evil Plans, the heel-face turn in which a villainous individual or species is recruited to work with the good guys against a greater threat in a later installment is a long-established trope of the genre, going back to the originating Skylark novels and reappearing pretty frequently since.

  12. >As an aspiring amateur author, I would appreciate the feedback of the knowledgeable folk here.

    Post it somewhere and drop a link here, then.

  13. Here’s a link to the PDF file uploaded to dropbox.

    https://db.tt/XkGFPzsH

    (Disclaimer: I actually wrote that magic stuff before Harry Potter’s time. So no “inspiration” from popular fiction there)

  14. >It should REVEL in its Pulpishness

    On reflection, I have to disagree with this. I think the sort of space opera that revels in its pulpishness has its place, if only as a statement of values that rightly places entertainment over whatever fucked up idea of “literary merit” is in vogue at any given time.

    But the best space opera fuses thalamic pulpishness with intellectual seriousness – it entertains and challenges at the same time. A handful of the stories in the reviewed anthology actually meet this standard.

  15. >You’re describing inferior, crappy space opera. The good stuff plays by SF rules – at most one McGuffin per story (but FTL doesn’t count), and the universe must be rationally consistent. The Alastair Reynolds and Ian McDonald stories in this anthology, for example, meet this standard.

    I made my point poorly; I agree that Space Opera should be internally consistent. I’d go further to say that *any* fictional story, regardless of sub-genre, should be internally consistant.

    My point was more that you won’t be exposed to the underlying technology with nearly as much detail.

    I don’t consider Star Wars to be very good example SO, so much as a very well known example.

    @Alsadius:
    >James: I believe you’re referencing Joe Straczynski’s comment on the Starfuries from Babylon 5, not Lucas on the Milennium Falcon.

    That’s the one! Thanks.

  16. >I agree that Space Opera should be internally consistent.

    If so, then you should see “spaceship moving at the speed of plot” as a sign of failure – or at least inferior construction.

  17. Two elements are required.

    First, space. The story must take place in a context of interplanetary or interstellar or even intergalactic travel, and substantial parts of the story must happen in space. I suppose one could write a space opera in which the space action is confined to earth orbit, but there should be plenty of it: shoot-outs between orbiters, boarding actions on an orbital station – or desperate rescue or repair missions. A heroic band dodging meteor swarms and risking solar-storm irradiation to fix the civilization-vital satellite…

    Second, opera. The story must be like traditional 19th-century Romantic grand opera: filled with action, drama, and striking characters, with life-or-death stakes. There are operas in other styles, but Cosi Fan Tutti or Dialogues of the Carmelites in space wouldn’t fit.

    Space opera generally discards two common (though not universal) themes of grand opera – passionate romance and tragic endings. It should be noted that while most grand operas have a romantic conflict at center, others relegate that to the background, with some political or military conflict up front. That’s the case in nearly all space opera. And the Good Guys win and survive, which is rare in grand opera.

    One common factor in both is that the trip is as important as the destination. The story of an opera matters less than whether the story is told with great music. With space opera, spectacular incidents narrated in adjective-dripping “purple prose” take the place of big arias, duets, and choruses. (Modern space opera tones down the language.)

    Do I make sense? I will confess here that I don’t think I’ve read any “revival” space opera. I find distasteful the idea of allegedly forward-looking “science fiction” devoted to implausible reworkings of 70-year-old tropes.

  18. >I find distasteful the idea of allegedly forward-looking “science fiction” devoted to implausible reworkings of 70-year-old tropes.

    Thankfully, the neo-space-opera revival averts this – except for tongue-in-cheek homages like Bear & Monette’s Boojum.

    >With space opera, spectacular incidents narrated in adjective-dripping “purple prose” take the place of big arias, duets, and choruses. (Modern space opera tones down the language.)

    That does make sense.

  19. “With space opera, spectacular incidents narrated in adjective-dripping “purple prose” take the place of big arias, duets, and choruses. (Modern space opera tones down the language.)”

    By that definition, Doc Smith is the greatest composer of space opera ever. Merciful $DEITY, his prose is so purple it triggers gamma ray detectors.

  20. >If so, then you should see “spaceship moving at the speed of plot” as a sign of failure – or at least inferior construction.

    I partially concede your point, but still think it depends on how it’s handled by the author.

    If the author never really provides specific information AND it never becomes relevant to the story’s focus on the larger dramatic elements, then I’d say it doesn’t matter exactly how fast a ship can fly. In this case, Plot m/s is sufficient and I don’t consider this inferior construction, necessarily.

    On the other hand, if the author gives enough information where the reader can determine a plot inconsistancy, then yes, it’s a certain failure on the author’s part.

    Unless your point is that you view the very existence of such ambiguity, even if it doesn’t directly contradict itself, is itself inferior construction. Is this your point?

  21. >By that definition, Doc Smith is the greatest composer of space opera ever.

    In what way is this consequence troublesome, or even surprising?

  22. >Unless your point is that you view the very existence of such ambiguity, even if it doesn’t directly contradict itself, is itself inferior construction. Is this your point?

    Yes, though not fatally inferior. There is a spectrum in these things, from the higher grade of space opera that tries to be explicit about tech and its limitations (an important form of verismilitude) to the lower grades that are just thrusters and rayguns a’blazin.

  23. Yeah, I normally think more like Milhouse on this – “Space opera is a drama that happens to be set in space“; if the story would work if you changed the setting to the old west, or medieval Europe, or modern America, it’s likely to be Space Opera.

    It’s also, thus, implicitly not strictly science fiction, though I won’t deny that you can be both, and I don’t mean to imply that either option is bad.

    Science fiction is (in my usage of the term, which I don’t think is entirely ideopathic) that subset of speculative fiction where the speculation is based on (narrowly) scientific progress and its ramifications, typically those relating to or concomitant with interstellar or interplanetary travel.

    (Or broadly any sort of difference and its ramifications in such a setting, such as the presence of specific alien life, even if the technology is ignored. And if the aliens show up in Arizona in 1875, you can have Old West Science Fiction.)

    (I also find nothing to complain about in Ken Burnside’s definitions and explications.)

  24. “In what way is this consequence troublesome, or even surprising?”

    I would expect better writing than that.

  25. All these comments have focused on the horse opera -> space opera derivation, but the soap opera -> space opera derivation is quite valid as well, in particular, the old Flash Gordon serials. I always loved to see those beautiful art deco rocketships porpoising through Mongo’s atmosphere at the incredible speed of 28 miles per hour. The general silliness and the loud sweep of Liszt’s background music add a connection to musical operas that make the categorization a dead cinch.

  26. “Star Trek II is the best of the Star Trek movies because it is unabashedly, full on, no stops, we-shall-leave-teeth-marks-on-the-galaxy operatic.”

    Hmm. I had never quite that it through until now. That also explains why Star Trek VI (The Undiscovered Country) is the second-best ST movie after Wrath of Khan; the writers were trying almost too hard to be operatic.

  27. Jay wrote:
    “By that definition, Doc Smith is the greatest composer of space opera ever.”

    Well, he is. I’m hard pressed to think who else would even be #2. Jack Williamson, maybe?

    In rating Doc Smith, never forget that he was very original. A reader new to him today would say he was using all kinds of hackneyed tropes, but to a great extent he invented some of those tropes, while lifting others from outside the genre. He looks old-fashioned because he started writing these in 1928, and because so many lesser writers copied him afterward. (Eric is right not to put him on a list of reading material for those new to SF.)

    One parody did a great job of making fun of the _Skylark_ and _Lensmen_ series. Ever read _Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers_?

    I never get tired of a good space opera.

  28. “There is a spectrum in these things, from the higher grade of space opera that tries to be explicit about tech and its limitations…”

    With the Honorverse as an extreme example. The tech isn’t justified in real-world terms, but the behavior of the drive systems and defensive screens is spelled out in gory detail in the first book and then adhered to thereafter. Some writers hate this; one story I wrote back in college spent about half a page explaining the FTL drive used, and the visiting SF writer/editor (I think it was Joan Vinge and Jim Frankel, but I’m no longer sure) called it “an expository mountain” and panned it. But there are plenty of popular authors who get away with it; James Hogan is another.

    This is the opposite of Star Trek, where the characters would invent a gadget in one episode and then next season they would find themselves in a situation where that gadget would easily have solved the plot problem, but somehow it was mysteriously never mentioned or used. In other cases, a too-powerful gadget in an early episode constrained later episodes in expected ways that the writers handled poorly. This was already a problem in the original 3-year series, never mind Next Generation and beyond. David Gerrold called it “Hardening of the Arteries.”

  29. “And if the aliens show up in Arizona in 1875, you can have Old West Science Fiction.”

    Surprisingly, I liked “Cowboys & Aliens”. I thought it would be ridiculous, but they actually did a good job on that movie.

  30. (Disclaimer: I actually wrote that magic stuff before Harry Potter’s time. So no “inspiration” from popular fiction there)

    Harry Potter’s magic is pretty much just bog-standard Halloween-themed furniture. But it’s so well-executed that Rowling will forever be thought of as its inventor much like Steve Jobs is thought of as the inventor of the PC and for many of the same reasons. See the 1986 film The Worst Witch for one of many, many inferior quality examples of the trope. It should surprise no one that ypu and a hundred different authors independently came up with the idea.

  31. I’ve got no problem with Doc Smith’s tropes. As you say, he did invent many of them. It’s just that the writing…erf.

    No, I haven’t read Star Smashers; I suspect I’d enjoy it in the same way I enjoy Backstage Lensman and Bored of the Rings.

  32. >Well, he is. I’m hard pressed to think who else would even be #2. Jack Williamson, maybe?

    No. Williamson would only be #3. His space operas have aged less well, on the whole, than several that John W. Campbell wrote before he became the editor of Astounding – I’m thinking in particular of The Mightiest Machine, The Ultimate Weapon, the Arcot Wade & Morey series, and The Planeteers.

    The stories in The Planeteers, written 1936-38, are especially interesting in that you can see them as a key stylistic transition between pre-Campbellian space opera and the early modern SF that Campbell would invent after 1939 as editor at Astounding.

  33. >No, I haven’t read Star Smashers; I suspect I’d enjoy it in the same way I enjoy Backstage Lensman and Bored of the Rings.

    I’ve read all three. I don’t think Star Smashers is as good as Backstage Lensman; to do that sort of parody really well it helps to have at least a sneaking fondness for what you’re spoofing, and it appears to me that Harrison did not.

  34. “…Star Trek, where the characters would invent a gadget in one episode and then next season they would find themselves in a situation where that gadget would easily have solved the plot problem, but somehow it was mysteriously never mentioned or used.”

    Star Trek gadgetry was the least of their problems. The stories were about people, and failed to present any sort of a realistic society. In one episode, the Enterprise is clomping away through space, and they get stuck on a “quantum string”. Well, you know that running a capital ship aground like that would be a sure career-ender for any captain in a real navy…but no, Captain Picard is back the very next week in another zany adventure….

    …oh…and the Prime Directive is stupid.

  35. > “By Klono’s gadolinium-furred testicles…” is what you really meant.

    Shouldn’t that be: “Holy Klono’s neutronium nuts! His prose is so far into the violet that it’s triggering the gamma ray detectors!”

  36. Hm. That comparison suggests something to me: rating the quality of prose in electron volts.

    On that scale, Smith is at least 1 TeV. Maybe 10.

  37. Like the pinchbeck-diamondoid codpiece set into my stupendously-powergunned iridium battle armor, space opera provides human vanity and flash to tart up hard science fiction.

    English major editors have been gathering unreadable stories, putting a spaceship on the cover, and telling about The History of SF for half a century. In the eternal beyond there is a Fire for their souls.

  38. Jeff Read:
    “Harry Potter’s magic…is so well-executed that Rowling will forever be thought of as its inventor much like Steve Jobs is thought of as the inventor of the PC and for many of the same reasons.”

    Er, you misspelled Steve’s name. It’s “Wozniak”, not “Jobs”.

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