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Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera

So I'm chewing over the idea of eventually returning to writing far future SF-in-spaaaace, because that's what my editors tell me is hot right now (subtext: "Charlie, won't you write us a space opera?"). A secondary requirement is that it has to be all new—no sequels to earlier work need apply. But I have a headache, because the new space opera turns 30 this year, with the anniversary of the publication of "Consider Phlebas" (or maybe "Schismatrix")—or even 40 (with the anniversary of the original "Star Wars"). There's a lot of prior art, much of it not very good, and the field has accumulated a huge and hoary body of cliches.

Some of you might remember the Evil Overlord's List, a list of all the generic cliche mistakes that Evil Overlords tend to make in fiction (16: I will never utter the sentence "But before I kill you, there's just one thing I want to know."). I think that it might be a good idea to begin bolting together a similar list of the cliches to which Space Opera is prone, purely as an exercise in making sure that once I get under way I only make new and original mistakes, rather than recycling the same-old same-old.

This is not an exhaustive list—it's merely a start, the tip of a very large iceberg glimpsed on the horizon. And note that I'm specifically excluding the big media franchise products—Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and similar—from consideration: any one of them could provide a huge cliche list in its own right, but I'm interested in the substance of the literary genre rather than in what TV and film have built using the borrowed furniture of the field.

List follows, below the cut.

  1. Planetary civilizations

    This subheading covers common cliches/mistakes made in discussing inhabited (Earthlike) planets and the people who live on them.

    • Planets are small and easily explored
    • All the land masses on a planet are easily accessible
    • You can fly anywhere on a planet in a short time without leaving the atmosphere
    • You can fly anywhere at Mach 2.2+ without experiencing hull heating due to atmospheric friction
    • You can fly anywhere at Mach 2.2+ without worrying about Air Traffic Control and NOTAMs
    • Everywhere on a planet shares a common climate and the same weather patterns
    • The same plants and animals can be found everywhere on a given planet
    • Coriolis force, trade winds, cyclones, what are those?
    • Oceans are small, land-locked, and mainly useful for fishing
    • Plate tectonics is easily ignored, unless the plot requires a Volcano/Earthquake
    • Deep carbon cycle, subduction, ionosphere UV splitting of water, long-term terraforming stability: why worry about little things like that?
    • Ice ages are inevitably global
    • Some planets have a breathable atmosphere but no water
  2. Space and cosmology

    Common blunders in cosmology, planetography, orbital mechanics, and related.

    • Moons are good, the more the better!
    • Suns are good, too, the more the better!
    • ... Especially if one of them is a giant. (Those never explode or flare messily.)
    • Planetary ring systems are picturesque, not dangerous
    • Planets have a diurnal period precisely 86,400 Earth seconds long
    • Planets rotate east-to-west
    • Planets have magnetic poles that approximate their rotational axis
    • Planetary gravity can be approximated to a point source for purposes of calculating orbital dynamics
    • All satellites orbit the equator
    • You can change orbital inclination easily
    • Stuff in orbit doesn't change orbital inclination spontaneously
    • Geosynchronous orbit is easy to get to
    • If you are in geosynchronous orbit away from the equator you still hover over the same spot on the planetary surface all the time
    • Planets are close together
    • Concentric planets orbit the same distance apart
    • The flight time between planets in an inner star system is the same as between planets in the outer system
    • Asteroids are so close together that you can hide between them
    • ... but they never clump into planets
    • Asteroidal dust makes an irritating ping as it bounces off a ship's hull
    • ... for some reason you never run into it at multiple km/sec
    • Actually, hitting a space rock or other spaceship is no big deal, a bit like being in a minor car accident
    • ... Even though the kinetic energy released by an impact increases with the square of the velocity, and you're travelling hundreds to millions of time faster
    • Gas giants are good for mining volatiles
    • ... Because dealing with Mach 6 wind shear, 10,000 Bar pressure, and a lethally deep gravity well is trivial
    • ... Because we need volatiles such as 3He, to fuel our aneutronic fusion reactors (hint: Boron is cheaper and much less scarce)
    • All comets have tails
    • ... they're sort of hairless and scaly, like a [sarcasm limit exceeded - Ed.]
    • Rocky planets are either airless or shirt-sleeves worlds with breathable air
    • Pay no attention to Venus, runaway greenhouse worlds are imaginary
    • Big stars are as long-lived and likely to have planets as dwarf stars
    • Supernovae happen routinely and are no big deal
    • Interstellar space is totally empty
    • ... You can fly as fast as you like without worrying about dust particles
    • You don't have to worry about interstellar gas, either
    • ... Except when there's not enough of it to keep your ramscoop accelerating
    • Incidentally? Ramscoops totally work! (Larry Niven said so in 1968.)
    • You can go fast enough to experience relativistic time dilation without worrying about the pesky cosmic background radiation blue-shifting into hard X-rays and frying you
    • You can forget all about hitting the occasional interstellar 4He nucleus with some multiple of the energy of an alpha particle, several million times a second
    • ... Don't worry about hitting the electrons bound to the neutral hydrogen either, gamma photons totally aren't a thing
    • You can use handy black holes and neutron stars to make handbrake turns in space
    • You an also use gas giants to make handbrake turns, at high relativistic speeds
    • Don't let the fact the space is full of exciting high energy physics put you off going there, squishy meatsack-persons!
  3. Biology

    Biology is complicated—so much so that many SF authors suffer from Dunning-Kruger syndrome in approaching the design of life-supporting planets.

    • All planets harbour a single apex predator that eats people
    • All planets harbour is a single venomous insect/reptile analog that poisons people
    • The native flora and fauna use a biochemistry that we can derive sustenance from
    • ... This includes weird-ass micronutrients
    • Pay no attention to the native microbiota, they're harmless
    • ... You won't even suffer from hay fever! Much less systemic anaphylaxis.
    • Ecosystems are robust; why not let your ship's cat stretch her legs whenever you land?
    • ... This goes for your ship's rats, too
    • Planets only have one class of plant-analog and one class of animal-analog
    • ... Only Earth has reptiles, amphibia, fish, birds, insects, mammals, fungi, etc.
    • Terraforming is really simple; you can do it with algae capsules delivered from orbit
    • There are no native parasites that might eat Maize, so we can turn the entire largest continent into a robot-run plantation
    • ... Soil exhaustion isn't a thing
    • ... Terrestrial constraints on agriculture don't apply on other planets
    • You can keep a starship crew healthy and sane indefinitely using a life support system running on blue-green algae, tilapia, and maybe the odd soy bean plant
    • Life support systems are simple, stable, and self-managing
    • It is safe to put bleach down the toilet on a starship; your algae/tilapia/soy will totally deal with it it when it comes out of the recycler
    • Vitamins? Naah, we'll just genetically modify the crew to make their own
    • If you implant humans with the gene for chlorophyl they can magically become photosynthetic
    • ... Okay, if you add the genes for RuBiSCO and the C3 pathway they can magically become photosynthetic
    • ... Because of course two square meters of skin is enough surface area to photosynthetically capture enough energy for a high-metabolic-rate mammal to live off
    • Humans can too hibernate/deep sleep between star systems! All you need is a cold enough chest freezer
    • ... Just as long as their intestinal flora go into cold sleep at the same time
    • ... and so do the low metabolic rate arctic pseudofungi spores they picked up at the last planetary stop
  4. Economics

    Fingernails-on-blackboard time for me. (See also: Neptune's Brood)

    • New Colonies may be either agricultural or mining colonies; rarely, resort colonies
    • Everyone uses Money to mediate exchanges of value
    • Money is always denominated in uniform ratios divisible by 10
    • Money is made out of shiny bits of metal, OR pieces of green paper, OR credit stored in a computer network
    • There is only one kind of Money on any given planet, or one credit network
    • The same kind of Money is accepted everywhere as payment for all debts
    • Visitors are always equipped to interface with the planet-wide credit network
    • Planetary credit networks are incredibly secure except when the visitor needs to hack into someone else's bank account
    • Barter is a sign of primitive people who haven't invented money
    • People who rely on Barter are simple, trusting folks (and a bit stupid on the side)
    • Inflation? What is this, I don't even ...
    • Deflation? What will they think of next?
    • Sales tax? What's that?
    • Income tax? What's that?
    • Import duty? What's ... (rinse, spin, repeat)
    • You can get a loan from your friendly bank manager whenever you need one
    • Bank loans accrue interest
    • If you fail to replay a bank loan you may be arrested and held in debtor's prison
    • ... Or sold into slavery
    • ... Or your organs can be seized
    • ... Because your body is just one of your fungible assets, right?
    • ... And harvesting organs for transplant surgery is a universal practice
    • People on planets have not heard of Ponzi Schemes
    • People on planets have not heard of Credit Default Swaps or the Black-Scholes equation
    • If money is made of shiny bits of metal or green paper, banks have vaults where they store lots of money
    • Money sitting in a bank vault is worth something
    • Visitors to a Colony can print fake currency without fear of consequences
    • Visitors to a Colony can leave their money with a bank between infrequent visits without fear of consequences
    • Banks are stable, because ...
    • ... The planetary government will never let a bank go bust, because ...
    • ... The galactic emperor will never let a planetary government go bust, because ...
    • Traders on starships land on planets to load and unload cargo
    • ... Or they carry their own orbit-to-surface shuttle
    • ... Which is as easy and safe to operate as a fork-lift truck
    • Cargo is bought and sold in starports
    • It is profitable to ship crude break-bulk cargo like timber or foodstuffs between star systems because starships are cheap and easy to repair and operate
    • Break-bulk shipping in open cargo holds has never been improved upon
    • Multimodal freight containers, EDI/EDIFACT standards for commerce, bar codes, bourses, and RFID technologies are just inferior and unnecessarily complicated alternatives to a bazaar or indoor market
    • Insurance underwriting? Arbitrage? What's that? (rinse, spin, repeat)
    • All cargo starships need plenty of unskilled deck hands to help load and unload cargo
    • All cargo starships need gun turrets to fight off swarms of space pirates
    • ... Cargo starships with guns can fight off space pirates
    • Cargo starship crews can fix battle damage
    • ... All it takes is enough duct tape and determination
    • ... Because space pirate weapons are as deadly as shotguns, not H-bombs
    • ... And starships cost no more to build and operate than a 1920s tramp steamer
    • Space pirates will happily open fire on a cargo ship to damage it before boarding
    • Space pirates need to board cargo ships in order to steal their cargo
    • ... And impress/conscript/enslave their crew
    • Piracy is a huge problem for space traders
    • You can tell the difference between a pirate and a space trader with a glance
    • A cargo captain in a hole might easily turn to smuggling to improve their bottom line
    • Navies are a lesser threat to smugglers than random encounters with pirates
    • Nobody has ever heard of end-user certificates or bonded cargo
    • Nobody ever thinks to ship their high-tax cargo via a free port or use complex financial arrangements to avoid customs duty without having to hire a dodgy armed ship with a poor credit rating
  5. Politics

    • Planets have a single unitary government (or none at all)
    • Planetary governance is no more complex than running a village or small township
    • ... This is because the planetary capital is a village or small township, not, say, Beijing or Mexico City
    • If there are two or more ethnicities represented on a planet their collective politics are simple and easily understood by analogy to 20th century US race relations
    • All planetary natives everywhere speak Galactic Standard English, or Trade Pidgin
    • New Colonies can't afford police, detectives, customs inspectors, or the FBI
    • New Colonies don't require visting spacers to conform to local dress codes or laws
    • New Colonies don't have gun control laws
    • New Colonies don't have laws, or if they do they were written by a mad libertarian
    • Despite the lack of laws, nobody underage drinks in the saloon
    • ... Nobody underage works in the saloon rooms you rent by the hour, either
    • ... Nor is there an extensive school truancy problem or much illiteracy
    • On reaching pensionable age, all colonists are forced to retire and deported to the Planet of the Pensioners
    • There is no unemployment because happy smiley frontier needs cowboys or something
    • If the planetary government is a democracy, the new Mayor will be elected by a town meeting
    • If the planetary government is an oligarchy, the new Patrician will be elected by a town meeting (of oligarchs, in the back room of the saloon)
    • If the planetary government is a theocracy, there will be only one sect of the planetary religion and no awkward long-standing heresies that are too strong/embedded to suppress
    • ... And there will be direct rule by Clergy, along the lines of an oligarchy: no Committees of Guardians of the Faith, no separation of executive and legislature, none of the complexity and internal rivalries of Terrestrial theocracies (e.g. Iran, Saudi Arabia)
    • If the planet is a colony of the Galactic Empire, the new Planetary Governor will be appointed by the local Sector Governor
    • ... It's Governors all the way up (until you hit the Emperor)
    • Monarchy is the natural and perfectly ideal form of government
    • Only an Imperial Monarchy can ensure the good local governance of a myriad of inhabited planets scattered across the vast reaches of deep space
    • Monarchies are never a Single Point Of [Galactic] Failure
    • Monarchs are never stupid, mad, ill, or distracted by a secret ambition to be a house painter instead
    • Viziers are Always (a) Grand and (b) Evil. (At this point, let's just #include the regular Evil Overlord list, m'kay?)
    • Democracies are always corrupt
    • You can always bribe your way out of sticky situation if you're from off-world
    • All planetary legal systems work the same way (some remix of Common Law, constitutional governance, and trial by jury).
    • The standard punishments for a crime range from a small fine, to slavery in the uranium mines for life (about 18 months), to an excruciating death
    • Trials are swift and punishments are simple and easy to understand
    • Justice is always punitive/retributive/exemplary, never compensatory/preventative/rehabilitative, much less poetic/cryptic/incomprehensible
    • ... If the Author disapproves of the death penalty, substitute mind-wipe for the death penalty (like, there's a difference?)
  6. Culture

    • There is usually only one culture per planet
    • ... Sometimes there are two, to provide for an oppositional plot dynamic
    • ... Pay no attention to the blank spots on the map
    • ... And especially don't go looking for the unmarked mass graves
    • Planetary natives are either Colonists or Indigenous
    • Indigenous peoples are either Primitive or Advanced (and Decadent)
    • Advanced Indigines either don't have space travel or gave it up (see: Decadent)
    • Primitive Indigines are either Tribal or Mediaeval
    • Mediaeval Indigines invariably recapitulate the politics of the Hundred Years War
    • Visits to Mediaeval Indigenous Colonies can be approximated to a side-quest into Fantasyland
    • If the planet is a Colony it is either a Lost Colony or a New Colony
    • Lost Colonies may resemble Primitive Indigines but never Advanced
    • New Colonies resemble Tombstone, AZ, circa 1880
    • New Colonists live in log cabins, ride mules/horses and carry ~six-guns~ blasters
    • ... You can find logs (cabins, for the construction of) everywhere on planets
    • ... They're like abandoned crates in first-person shooters
    • Psychologically speaking, everybody is either WEIRD or Primitive
    • Primitive (non-WEIRD) people are stupid and unimaginative
    • WEIRD people accept and embrace change and innovation; non-WEIRD people reject both
    • Colonies are usually modelled on WEIRD 1950s cultural norms
    • Colony People come in two genders
    • The Women on New Colonies are either:
    • ... Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (because colonies need babies)
    • ... Dungaree-wearing two-fisted starship-engineering-obsessed lesbians desperate to get off-world
    • The Men on New Colonies are either:
    • ... Manly plaid-shirt-wearing heterosexual farmers breaking sod in the ~west~ new world
    • ... Dastardly drunken muggers waiting behind the spaceport saloon for an unwary spacer
    • QUILTBAG: huh? Who are those people and why doesn't somebody cure them?
    • ... (Alternatively: everybody is QUILTBAG, pale patriarchal heterosexual penis people are extinct)
    • Clothing invariably obeys some regional dress code that has been observed on Earth in the past thousand years; in extreme cases 1950s business attire will serve to avoid attracting undue attention
    • You can recognize someone's gender on any planet because:
    • ... Women wear dresses or skirts with make-up and long hair
    • ... Men wear pants (or occasionally suits of armour)
    • ... Hijra? Hermaphrodites? Transgender? Asexual? What are those?
    • On some planets people go naked, except for body paint
    • ... This causes no problems, whether social or practical
    • Colony Planets are invariably a Crapsack World that people are desperate to escape from, unless they're the planetary governor or some species of NPC
    • The only place worse than a Colony World is Old Earth
    • Old Earth is
    • ... An over-crowded overpopulated hell-hole
    • ... An over-regulated bureaucratic hell-hole
    • ... A poverty-stricken backwater and hell-hole
    • ... Destroyed
    • ... Lost (because everyone in the galaxy somehow forgot the way home)
    • ... Mythical (and many people think it never existed)
    • ... Somewhere to run away from
    • ... (Rarely) Somewhere to run to
    • Slavery is
    • ... Ubiquitous
    • ... No big deal
    • ... Illegal but all the bad guys do it
    • "the best thing we ever did for them; they're much happier now"
    • Humans are free; aliens are slaves
    • Humans are slaves; aliens are free
  7. Technology - space travel

    • Running a nuclear power plant is kid's business; even a drunken college drop-out can be a ship's engineer
    • Rocket motors are simple to maintain and operate, too—they never break
    • Reaction mass is incredibly dense, cheap, and easy to stash away in a spare corner
    • ... It never runs out
    • ... It doesn't require special handling procedures
    • ... It's never toxic, cryogenic, teratogenic, radioactive, or corrosive
    • Oxygen is freely available in space
    • You can go as fast as you like if you just accelerate in a straight line
    • Spaceships accelerate at right angles to the direction the occupants experience gravity in
    • Spaceships are:
    • ... bilaterally symmetrical
    • ... rugged and able to survive impacts with other objects
    • ... easily maintained by semi-skilled labour/shade tree mechanics
    • ... about as complex as a 1920s tramp steamer, or maybe a deep-sea fishing trawler
    • ... easily piloted
    • ... can stop on a dime
    • ... available second-hand in good working order from scrapyards
    • ... have wings and an undercarriage, like a biplane
    • ... You can hear them coming a parsec away
    • Generating electricity aboard a spaceship without solar panels is easy
    • ... So is getting rid of waste heat
    • ... The bigger the spaceship, the easier it gets (because the square-cube law doesn't exist)
    • ... The Death Star would totally not melt itself with its waste heat whenever it fired its planet-zapper!
    • Faster than light travel is easy
    • ... But the jump drive is fuelled by unobtanium
    • Causality violation: what's that?
    • There are no regulatory frameworks or licensing regimes for starships
    • Nobody would ever think to run a starship up to 50% of light-speed and ram a planet
    • ... Even if they did that, the effect wouldn't be significantly worse than a 1940s atom bomb
    • There's no regulatory framework for shuttlecraft, either
    • ... Because nobody has heard of Kessler syndrome
    • ... Also, a space shuttle in-falling from low earth orbit totally doesn't arrive at ground level with kinetic energy equal to about ten times it's own mass in TNT, because if it did it would be a field-expedient weapon of mass destruction
    • Flying a spaceship is not only easy, it's easier than flying a Cessna
    • Spaceship life support systems are simple to maintain and repair and very forgiving
    • Spaceships communicate across interplanetary or interstellar distances by radio
    • ... Interplanetary radio works instantaneously
    • ... Interplanetary radio communications are as easy to operate as tuning your car stereo to a new AM channel
    • GPS works in space beyond low earth orbit: who needs navigation skills these days?
  8. Technology - Pew! Pew! Pew!

    • Radar gives us an instantaneously updated map of everything in a star system
    • ... But stealth technology is totally a thing!
    • We can't detect spaceships by looking for their infrared emissions against the 2.7 kelvin cosmic background temperature
    • Also, spaceships can hide behind planets or asteroids indefinitely without using their engines or knowing the bearing of the enemy they're hiding from
    • Laser beams are instantaneous, don't spread or disperse, and can melt anything
    • ... Except a force field that somehow refracts/bends/absorbs the confused photons
    • Missiles, with a constrained (small) propulsion system, can overhaul a much bigger/less constrained spaceship at great range
    • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties don't bother to count Free Trader Beowulf's point-defense nuclear missile battery for treaty purposes—only naval nukes count
    • Gun turrets have to have a glassed-in canopy and a gunner inside or they won't work
    • Also, human gunners can totally draw a bead on a hostile pirate ship maneuvering a few light seconds away. Fire control computers, not so much
    • Boarding actions have mysteriously made a come-back from the 1850s.
    • Guns are still bang-sticks that require a human to point them at a target
    • Stun-guns have no unpleasant after-effects
    • Bullets are brainless
    • You can dodge laser beams
    • Fisticuffs are universally considered to be the optimal way to resolve a sincere difference of opinion over complex commercial interactions
    • All starships need to carry armed guards, or at least a gun locker full of blasters for the crew when they're visiting a Colony planet
    • Knife missiles—who ordered that?
  9. Aliens

    • Aliens are multicellular organisms with nervous systems and musculoskeletal systems
    • Aliens communicate in language
    • ... Using noises
    • ... Emitted by their mouths
    • ... At frequency ranges we can perceive
    • Aliens are individuals
    • Aliens are eusocial hive organisms
    • Spacefaring aliens are conscious
    • Aliens are WEIRD people with latex face paint or funny haircuts
    • ... Because primates are a universal deterministic outcome of evolution on all worlds
    • Wittgenstein was wrong about talking lions. (If they could speak we'd find what they can say fascinating—mostly because we'd be waiting for them to mutter, "I wonder what those bipeds taste like?")
    • Aliens build starships sort-of like humans, but with wonky furniture
    • Aliens are interested in us (see Wittgenstein above)
    • Aliens want to trade with us
    • Aliens want to exchange bodily fluids with us (ewww ...)
    • Aliens want to induct us into their civilizational-level fraternity/sorority and make contact in order to teach us the house rules
    • Alien species only have one dominant culture
    • Alien species are noteworthy for their universally applicable stereotypy, utterly unlike us complicated and divergent human beings
    • Aliens have a much longer history of spaceflight than humans, but unaccountably failed to stumble upon and domesticate us during the 11th century
    • Aliens have religious beliefs because they have the same theory of mind as human beings and attribute intentionality to natural phenomena (see also: Daniel Dennett)
    • Alien religion resembles those of a human culture that thrived prior to 1000 CE and is now considered quaintly obsolescent by most humans
    • Aliens can't control themselves
    • Aliens are unconditionally hostile
    • Aliens are robots
    • ... Robot-aliens are just like alien-aliens, only more alien, because robots
    • Aliens are incomprehensible
    • Aliens have no sense of humor
    • Aliens have a human sense of humor
    • Aliens have been extinct for millions of years, but:
    • ... have left treasures behind in their death-trap-riddled tombs
    • ... their ephemeral technologies still work flawlessly
    • ... If humans trip the burglar alarm, they're coming back—and they'll be mad
    • ... they're extinct because they Sublimed
    • ... they're extinct because they became Decadent
    • ... they're extinct because they suicided
    • ... (robot-alien remix): they're extinct because they tripped over the Halting Problem
    • ... they're extinct because (insert dodgy social darwinist argument here)

What do you think I'm missing from the list?



Aliens went extinct millions of years ago and...
...we're able to figure out why
...there's any trace of their civilisation left after weather erosion and plate tectonics have done their job

Everyone's exploring for altruistic/self-interested reasons, not because's their fucking job
...they're chasing the bad end of an economic boom
...investors have taken a punt on them and want payback

If one ship in Earth's possession is FTL, so are all of them
...ditto artificial gravity

Everyone's fully-trained and knows how the ship and equipment work to a high degree of detail, just like everyone today is a great driver and finds it trivially easy to, say, change a spark plug

Being versed in the high technology of one age and culture makes one fluent in the high technology of all previous ages and equivalent cultures (yeah, let me put your iPhone in Arabic and we'll see how you do)

When alien high technology is found, it's
...usable by the finder because it happens to work with a five-fingered appendage of roughly hand-size
...covered in almost-human iconography/instructions (because your iPhone is covered in printed instructions, of course)
...recognisable as such

Excellent timing on this post Charlie. At this moment I'm fighting off an attack novel on very similar lines...


On biology, here are a couple that you missed.

1. Viruses are the scary things
2. Really alien life is a sign of sophistication.
2b. Starfish aliens are a sign of sophistication.

1. Viruses are basically hacks on a genetic code. While I wouldn't be surprised if DNA is widespread, I'd be amazed if the code translates to the same amino acids on every planet. Heck, that's not strictly true even here. As a result, we don't have to worry about alien viruses hacking our genome.

What we do have to worry about are organisms using us as raw materials, which means bacteria, fungi, and insects munching away. Fungal infections can get rather gross (google "Face eating fungus"), or we can talk about gangrene. Anyway, those would be more typical on alien worlds.

2. Alien life will be really alien. Yeah, if we can settle the world, probably life will be tiny bags of water, built to maximize internal and external surface area. How big will those bags be? Probably across the same large range that we see here on Earth. They won't be tiny (cf: Robinson's Aurora failed at this), because too small and all the mechanisms of life won't fit. An atom's an atom, after all, and too few of them and you're nanite won't run. Life runs on membrane surface area, so if the cells are too big (cf: Greg Bear's Legacy, where the aliens were sort of acellular), and there's not enough membrane space for everything that needs to happen to keep the organism working. That constrains cells to the relatively few orders of magnitude that (surprise!) we see on Earth.

The point is, if you know enough biology, you know *why* certain things are the way they are. Fiddling with this is more a sign of of cluelessness than cleverness.

2b. Starfish (intelligent) aliens are fine, so long as they don't have campfires. This is the whole argument about humans coevolving with fire. Indeed, intelligent aliens who have been around for awhile should have coevolved with everything they depend on, from fire to domesticated organisms. An ancient civilized race probably won't suffer from the equivalent of lactose intolerance, for that matter, but something built like a T. Rex won't make campfires, even if it has a wonderfully poetic intelligence. Form doesn't just embody function, if evolution is involved, form is entirely derived from past history.

Speaking of civilization:
3. Progress is inevitable. This is a third rail in current Space Opera, because unless you're EE Smith, Gene Rodenberry, or George Lucas, you don't get out into space unless Progress takes you there. It's an increasingly reactionary literature, is it not? And nuclear wars are passe, so no one's going to arise after a nuclear war, be peaceful, and go to space as part of a multi-ethnic society, correct?

4. If you deal with a species that is as old as humans but never went to space, they are, by definition Primitive, at best Noble Savages, and they will be exploited, because manifest destiny.

Incidentally, I think it's okay for spaceships to be symmetrical. If you're pushing through center of mass, you don't particularly want it flying in some weird curve or skywriting on launch, right?

By the way, if we're going to endlessly revisit the years since 1492 by pasting them into space with colonial empires and all, can we concentrate on the problems of the 16th and 17th Centuries, rewritten into space? Those were happy fun times.

Personally, I'd love to see space opera set in this kind of galaxy. It can even be with nothing but humans. Has it ever been done?


Oh here's another one...

Alien high technology... either utterly self-contained (and handily carries around an entire wikipedia of their culture because that's convenient)
...or the infrastructure it connects to is handily still operational and happens to be at the exact same state of compatibility that the device was when both were abandoned


I still seem to be able to read Space Opera, even though some part of my brain keeps shouting that even if you reduce transport costs to a millionth of a cent per ton
It still doesn't work


Oh and another serious bugbear of mine: The biggest sources of problems with a spaceship are engines and life support, not plumbing and fluids. Slosh doesn't exist (despite your artificial gravity!), the toilet pumps never get the wrong thing flushed down them, and the various sweet, grey and black water tanks (which I'm betting your ship doesn't have the volume to hold anyway) never have any flaws, busted welds, weak connections or blocked ports.

Signed, someone who deals with far too much of this shit on an actual ship.


Oh yeah, under Culture:

--Earth will always look like it does now, for Suburban America values of Now, because History Must Be Preserved (we have so little of it).

Incidentally, can I make a pitch for Polynesian design, which is where some culture figures out what it needs to live in space (or in the tropical Pacific), and all the colonies that it creates are some version of that culture, mutated rather dramatically to fit wherever they ended up? That actually has happened. Of course, the Micronesian experience was fairly different (compare Guam with Kiribati). Anyway, space colonization doesn't have to be an endless repeat of European expansion, unless that's the only thing that's selling...Actually, nevermind (just as we won't talk about the Indian Ocean trade before the Europeans got there...).


I wonder if some type of direct neural stimulation is a viable solution to the bland diet issue. Use all those fancy future interfaces to add a bit of spice to the tilapia and soy.


Aren't bubbles in lines a fairly big issue, especially in free fall?


While I wouldn't be surprised if DNA is widespread, I'd be amazed if the code translates to the same amino acids on every planet.

Eh? I'd be astonished if our codon language is universal; I suspect even ribosomes may be an exotic innovation -- possibly one candidate for the Great Filter!

Viruses are encoding-specific; if transcription doesn't work exactly the same way between alien biospheres, viruses won't work.

... Oh, you were being ironic. Smileys, dude, you need to add smileys.


I'm looking through something I wrote (I was aiming for SF-Thriller; trying to write space opera like a techno-thriller rather than the Western/ Pulp-Adventure many of the cliches above have their origins in) and I've got all the pipes gurgling and using pumps to trim the spaceship and having to reset the various fluid systems every time they start the engines or stop and find themselves in micro-gravity.

I'm just lampshading the problem really, but at least I've not completely ignored it.

So anyway to answer the actual question:

Everybody is crazy about having sex in space.
... Especially in micro-gravity...
... Because you just float and don't push away from your partner(s) or start to spin...
... And the various effects of micro gravity on your body won't act to lower your libido.

Also everything else about free fall.


Planets rotate east-to-west

Maybe the trope should be "There is a universal Aristotelian set of directions. And a universal calendar valid for everyone, even those traveling at FTL."

Thing is, without that universal frame of reference, how do you determine "east"? Easy and most useful method is "Where the sun rises." (Yes, it's planet-specific. So is "up".)


Oh yeah, Alien Technology (with reverb, erb, erb)

--It'll work one million years after it was created, because aliens.

--It'll work 1,000 years after it was created, because aliens.

--High tech lasts forever, primitive tech rots. Unless it's a booby trap.

--The Squad of Marines Rule is ignored. This is the idea that a Squad of US Marines could put up a better fight than whatever troop of stormtroopers or high tech warriors are portrayed. Star Wars stormtroopers are a key example of this, but far from the only ones. Don't forget, according to the Mythbusters, Star Wars blaster bolts travel around 120 miles per hour, a bit too fast to parry readily, but not bullet speed.


Though it gets a little shaggy in the third book, I think Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy actually passes this entire test.


Aren't bubbles in lines a fairly big issue, especially in free fall?

Any big enough bubble is a potential airlock. In a gravity well you have the luxury of being able to have an unpressurised tank side, with outlets at the bottom and a pump that can handle a metre or two of head (distance it has to suck the fluid up vertically) and push it into the pressurised side (so you can have taps and showers). I assume in freefall the whole system needs to be pressurised, storage and all, although I have no real idea.

Actually, now I think about it, wasn't the Apollo 13 problem caused by a malfunction in some part of the service module's fluid infra?


... in Distant Futures where we have not Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions, only mid-20th century mainstream christianity survives and it hasn't changed a bit, apart from maybe becoming a bit more liberal.

... Except where it's the Roman Catholic church that survives, with genial parish priests with Irish surnames.

... the interplanetary church has the same theology and liturgy and festivals on every part of every planet, and it's never the kind of thing that causes people on the same planet, let alone on other planets, to:
- issue diplomatic protests about animal cruelty
- point and laugh
- get film of it for an amusing 'and finally' item in news broadcasts.

... and single planetary religions happen all the time without anyone having to be sent to any kind of camp.


As I read your list, several times I shook my head in disbelief... and then reminded myself that I generally do not read space opera. I read Alastair Reynolds, "James Corey"[*], and yes, Charlie Stross. In other words, writers who tend to pay attention to the kind of faults you listed. I don't remember when was the last time I read a book with anything like a "Galactic Emperor" -- most likely the second Mote book.

[*] "The Expanse" books often get criticized on the topic of "stealth in space", but I think unfairly. First, their stealth is directional, i.e. they suppress thermal emission on one side of a ship by redirecting to the other side. Which is much more realistic -- indeed, real life stealth is directional. Second, even directional stealth goes to hell the moment engine is turned on.

OTOH, "The Expanse" adds an item to your list: Rocky or even icy asteroids can be spun up for internal gravity without flying apart.


Actually, one place Robinson thoroughly screwed up in his Mars Trilogy was insulation and the lack thereof.

That's a big problem that deserves it's own trope:

--Tunnels in asteroids (on Mars, on comets) are rarely insulated, made airtight, or checked for weird particulate and chemical issues (cf the smell of moondust).

If you've got gigatonnes of rock that are at or below freezing, that's a freaking huge thermal mass that needs to be warmed. While I'm all for boring into solid rocks and living in tunnels, I'd strongly suggest laying down some insulation (or better, suspending the living spaces off the surface, so that there's a vacuum gap), so that you don't waste all your energy warming the rock up.

In the Mars Trilogy, Robinson had way too much bare rock, not to mention people getting naked against it.

Oh, and another screwup that he handwaved:
--interplanetary EVA spacesuits. They're amazing (considering the radiation environment out there), but for some reason, no one ever realizes how bulletproof they'd be. Personally, whatever Robinson was using for radiation shielding, I want to own that patent.

Not a Robinson problem, but don't get me started about skinsuits, let alone paint on spacesuits, especially when they're used in interplanetary or interstellar space.


That may have something to do with KSR's Mars trilogy not being space opera. Ahem.


Also, a few more I don't think are on there:

* The armed forces the same ranks, mores, and structures as the ancient US Navy
* All political terms, by law, derive from ancient Rome (emperor, senate, consul, republic, ...)
* Despite interacting for thousands of years together, humans and AIs stumble over idioms and the AI's inability to understand emotion or human cognition limits
* Colonies never follow the models of Communist China or Singapore
* Aliens can always be slotted into earth's biological tree
* Despite the fact that modern societies can barely sustain their numbers, Earth can fully populate thousands of worlds in the next 500 years
* Force fields in pastel colors can stop anything physical, unless for plot reasons they can't
* Computer systems are interoperable (even across species), can be hacked or fully searched in seconds, and are programmed by voice
* If a species Ascends, it is either bored with life, or whimsical, or utterly incomprehensible
* If knowledge of Earth is preserved, people have an undying fascination with the 20th century


Human society is divided between people in FTL spaceships whipping up soy lattés from pure energy and colonists limited to manual technology to build mediaeval hamlets; somehow this enormous wealth inequality does not lead to disillusion or revolution.


Starship living spaces are either pristine clean rooms or greasy (and shockingly non-flammable) boiler rooms.


I have no problem with "Geosynchronous orbit is easy to get to". Any milieu with enough space capability to qualify as "space opera" should have trivially easy access from planetary surface to geosynchronous orbit, or any orbit. If it does not, hard to see how it can be "space opera" in any meaningful sense. By the same token, Mach 2.2+ travel should be commonplace -- although not necessarily through dense atmosphere.

Unless you have planet surface to planet surface wormholes, like Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth saga. In which case space travel, i.e. physical objects hurtling through vacuum, is completely neglected. Which is a major plot point in Commonwealth books.


Anyway, Charlie, for Scalzi-level sales numbers, wouldn't you want to write about the dashing rogue who charges the deck of his pirated space yawl, armed with a monokatana and a brace of blasters tucked into the sash of his spacesuit?

Of course, if you're choking on that image, try this for a chaser.


LURVED the "Evil Overlord's List"

Re: Planets that can be lived on & are likely to have life & atmospheres we can "use"
Poul Anderson, more than once IIRC, suggested that planets around (relatively large) red-dwarf stars are the "place to look" say K1 type?

Cats off spacecraft - yes, but with implanted tracking device.
Rats - on spacecraft - really?

"As fast as you like, but has to be in a straight line...
May I suggest that you might want to very slightly bend the supposed rules here & allow FTL, but only under those narrow conditions, so that closed, back-before-you-started anti-causality loops remain forbidden (Yes, it's a McGuffin, so what?)

Oh yes, running a starship & 1920's tramp freighter & costs - could be wrong - think about how relative costs of running even quite simple things have changed with the available technologies.
Ss, some things will get a LOT cheaper, a few things will get more expensive.
See also "economics" .....


"Uranoid" planets
I can vaguely remember at least two stories where these were introduced, if only because the supposed weather-patterns would be ... odd.
Oh yes, Planets: WEATHER
Now there's a n other whole set of boo-boos to avoid,


... Because space pirate weapons are as deadly as shotguns, not H-bombs

That part I find entirely believable. Pirates want to capture their prey, not to reduce it to plasma, so their weapons by necessity would be fairly non-lethal.

If such non-lethal weapons are not possible, then space pirates are not possible either.


-Major alien civilizations should not have a single monoculture that apparently all of them ascribe to aside from rare individuals unless there's a very strong reason for it (i.e. they went through some type of horrific purge). I'm looking at you, Star Trek.

-Not just aneutronic fusion power, but fusion power in general.

The "planets are close together" makes more sense now from what we've seen of exoplanet astronomy. Nearly half of the multi-planet systems discovered by Kepler Space Telescope are made up of planets with extremely compact orbits. Imagine a setting where the "habitable" colonial planet is at a comparable distance from its Sun as Earth . . . but there are seven more planets, ranging from the size of Mars to Uranus, packed into the space between it and the star.


Yeah, well, planetary religions & beliefs.
The still grieved-for Banksy did a very thorough job on those, didn't he?
Oh, wasn't it Banksy who pointed out that "Single Planetary Government" usually meant a cruel & vicouls dictatorship with bodies hidden somewhere?


I am not convinced either cats or rats off the spacecraft would be a big issue. As Charlie points out, the alien biosphere probably wouldn't be all that nutritious. I would imagine the alien world would be shockingly fatal to them.


It is in conjunction with "The native flora and fauna use a biochemistry that we can derive sustenance from" trope, that ignoring cats and rats becomes a howler.


Oooh, a Stross smackdown! I'm honored. Didn't realize that "Space Opera" had such a rigorous definition. I do think that trilogy fits with the definition provided in the introductory paragraph here, on wikipedia.

P.S. @Heteromeles makes some good points.


A rule of thumb I came up with over a decade ago is, "never pitch a multi-year job you're not enthusiastically happy to work on, lest someone pay you to do it and you spend the next several years swearing at your younger self".

So, no. I wouldn't do that.


In Empires, all real rulers are from a (small) family. This is because real rulership is inherited, not taught.

So, all rebellions are really about succession in that small family.

Also, the point about Monarchies (and the mention of the Free Trader Beowulf) made me laugh out loud, because in Traveller, the Emperor of the Third Imperium was a single point of failure. Archduke Dulinor did fire those shots (in the MegaTraveller backstory) and doomed the Imperium to a drawn-out civil war and eventual destruction. (Traveller sure checks many of those other points there, though. :)


wasn't it Banksy who pointed out that "Single Planetary Government" usually meant a cruel & vicouls dictatorship with bodies hidden somewhere?

I thought that was me what did that ...


Here's a critical monograph contextualizing the thematic elements of space opera from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

KSR's Mars trilogy lacks the romantic/escapist adventurism, and the sense of scale, associated with space opera: it focusses narrowly on the nuts-and-bolts technology of Mars colonization; and it was rigorously written against the details of Areography as understood prior to the revived wave of Mars exploration of the 1990s (using Viking- and Mars- era probe data). Furthermore, its focus on ideology and politics is decidedly antithetical to the space operatic sensibility. More here.


My excuse for that small boo-boo is that my memory is not always correct.
Is yours, even though you're 18 (19?) years younger than me?


Can I correct that, with a very slight modification?

"In Empires, all real rulers are from a (small) family. This is because real rulership is inherited, but if the empire is to last it is also taught."

And, may I add, there should be an escape clause if the new Emperor turns out a bad'un, with the new new Emperor being carefully inserted into post.
L M Bujold ... (?)


aaah, this is brilliant


Future Human Space Travel looks like NASA (or the US Navy) writ large. Everything's either Starfleet/The Navy or single-craft sole-traders. There's no private (ahem) enterprise like Maersk or Lufthansa. And yet all the ships are made by multinationals like Messerschmit-Bolkow-Blom-Honda-McBoeing.


More on language, from a self-confessed amateur language-geek. Non-comprehensive, because I'm absolutely fallible.

Language and culture have a symbiotic relationship - but the exact details are going to differ from region to region.

I will privilege sound/pronunciation based language systems because that's where I feel most comfortable myself. Obviously, YMMV. That said:

Some efforts at depicting different languages just try too hard; a little "exoticism" goes a long way. Alphabet-soup is hard to keep track of - a little base-consistency in nouns for common items will give an integrated impression less likely to throw a reader out of the story. On the other hand, even things we consider basic, like vowel-consonant features, can lead to surprising cross-circuits: I try to form a sentence in Italian, and end up too easily in Japanese - all because they contain for me a similar "mouth-feel" in the consonant-vowel patterns. This despite wildly divergent vocabularies and grammars.

World-building languages and their cultures must take account of local ecologies and religious values when considering writing systems: I severely disappointed a friend who showed me a fan fiction, in which a life-loving, Zen-like character from a major film series, living on a "jungle planet", was imparting his teachings on VELLUM. Poor friend got a ten-minute lecture on plant-based alternatives common in Asian cultures.

Systems with extremely diverse grammars will be harder for individuals to traverse. Harder, but not impossible. Children in constant contact with multiple cultures will pick up the languages scary-fast, if they're allowed, and frequently are the interpreters for their slower parents; adult learners will give hints as to their native languages by the "mistakes" they make in their target non-native language.

Not even grammatical concepts are universal - our "pre-positions" are "post-positions" in Japanese (or, to use the specific jargon, "particles", but that also includes items that function as topic markers, used in different ways from English.) I've encountered the notion of two sentence-structure categories: my mother-tongue Subject-Verb-Object, and outside of that, Subject-Object-Verb. I'm afraid I don't know enough of this (outside of personal frustration at "left-branching" structuring of sentences) to point to further consequences that would give good story for a reader.

I don't know where else to take this, just now. I only know that after having learned (as an adult) my first non-native language (I'm functionally up to 3, at the moment; that's probably a limit given my age and non-super intelligence, no matter how much curiosity I possess), science fiction books and films/tv kept throwing me out of the story; I'm trying to record some of why.

And probably sounding like a crank. Thanks for listening!


Not crankish at all, that stuff's interesting!

(It's a complication that most space opera desperately tries to ignore, though, hence hacks from "trade pidgin" or "galactic standard English" to universal translators and Babel fish.)


I can't imagine a universe where Charlie could have written Old Mans War


(assuming FTL is possible because it's not really space opera without it):

-There's just one loophole in physics that permits FTL travel,
-Which has just one method of implementation, so
-All FTL enabled spacecraft have have the same kinds of engines using the same underlying physics, so
-Our heroes will always be able to immediately use and understand the FTL engines on an enemy or even an alien spaceship without any difficulties (beyond a brief time of figuring out "which button does what".

Also, FTL works just like normal sublight travel, so while underway at FTL speeds between the stars, ships can:

-Find each other
-Communicate with each other
-Plot an intercept course
-Transfer personnel from ship to ship either directly by docking, or via smaller lifeboat sized FTL ships,
-Engage in space battles with each other.


Here are mine.

Military combat
. All combat follows the Napoleonic-WWII modes of
. Massacre based war like what happened in the
Americas, what's that?
. If this type of war happens, only the bad
guys do it
. No wars resemble the caste war
. You can write an entire list simply based on the War Nerd's analysis
. All conflict is fought on the ground, in the air,
or in space?
. Water navies? Underwater navies? What are those?

. Oceans. Those are the very large swimming pools/fishing holes/recreation centers people can safely ignore?

Orbital Mechanics
. Everything happens in the Star's orbital plane. There's a gentleman's agreement that all battles must be fought within this orbital plane

. Everything with teeth either can become a pet or is honor bound to kill you
. Every species is as intelligent as you or no more intelligent than the average dog, cat, or lion (I realize I compressed a large amount of differences in that statement). No grey areas


On languages, I hope it's OK to plug my own site and book, the Language Construction Kit. E.g it will explain the six basic words orders (all are attested on Earth though three of them are rare).

The intersection of good conlangs (constructed languages) and published SF is nearly nil. Klingon is quite well done, as it was made by a linguist. Though another linguist will recognize that he made it seem alien to English speakers by borrowing features from Native American languages.

When monolingual English speakers attempt to create weird languages from scratch, they invariably are far less unusual than existing natural languages. Similarly, the sorts of linguistic conundrums SF writers come up with ("What if a language had no metaphors?") are less interesting than real linguistic things: mother-in-law languages, children developing their own Sign languages, polysynthesis, evidentials, having to learn an entirely new language when you want to write, literary languages that can't be read out loud and understood...


This post was great as always, but here's one small nitpick: 'asexual' in relation to humans is a sexual orientation, not a gender. You might've meant agender.


This might be pushing the bounds of what is considered "Space Opera" but...

* Humans have never considered applying all the amazing technologies they've discovered to self-augmentation.
* Un-augmented humans remain competitive or superior to AIs in at least some areas.
* If any race decided to engage in self-augmentation, humans are competitive or superior to them in at least some areas.


* There are no long-term societal goals other than expansion, maintaining the status quo, or making everyone happier.
* There are no ongoing social disruptions as a result of recent technological innovations.


People will be able to make starships and other very high tech but will still be stuck with the original human body design and lifespan and other limitations. As well as critical shortages of necessities. Because biological and economic limitations are great sources of drama.


Planets that are completely covered in water or only have a few islands are convenient spots to set up bases for refueling since the weather is at worst the equivalent of a Caribbean port during storm season.


Since OGH said this is interesting:

I thought about that aspect a while back. It seems that all human languages are based on very similar grammatical concepts, including the aboriginal Australian ones, though I couldn't find anything on Andaman. I have speculated on one which would have no substantives or verbs (i.e. you could not express "the cat sat on the mat" but could directly express philosophical concepts), and another where the primary inflections were not tenses, cases, etc. but things like evidential levels. The latter isn't THAT far from some human languages, of course.

While the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been largely abandoned, only a few people can think or communicate in terms outside their culture. I have personal experience of quite a few cases of this. This is one of the reasons that it takes generations for people from a 'primitive' culture to break out, unless taken as very young children, though it is politically incorrect to say so. It is unclear where are innate limits are, too.

So I would say that it's not the speech that is likely to be the main issue (assuming machinery to map one to the other), but the underlying conceptual model. A few stories include that, but most assume common (or at least learnable) conceptual models.


A few biology ones:

Species can have stable populations that survive mostly by cannibalism.

Things that have only evolved one or a few times on Earth will always be present in alien biospheres (feathers, lactation, powered flight, flowers).

Things that have evolved many times on Earth will not in alien biospeheres (trees).

Features found together on Earth will also be found together in alien biospeheres (feathers and flight, feathers and beaks, fur and lactation).

Complex plants and animals can evolve to survive disastrous celestial events that occur many generations apart (e.g. are able to freeze without damage when the orbit shifts every 10 thousand years, and will not lose these costly abilities in the intervening generations)

Wetlands and jungles are full of biting insects (never mind that the tundra and boreal forest are almost certainly worse on Earth)

Every species on alien planets has a name and a well-understood biology after a short period of colonisation.

Obligate symbiotes are common among large animals, even though they are pretty much unheard of on Earth.

Life cycles involving metamorphosis into radically different forms is common in alien biospheres, and there is no need for the different stages to be similar in any way.


Orbital mechanics approximate to driving between USAian cities on highways:
-A ship that leaves later, but accelerates faster, will follow approximately the same arc of a ship that left earlier on a journey to the same destination. (passing slowly & closely enough to wave at through the window)
-You can totally stop for a Ceres-burger at a convenient rest stop on the way.
-And take pictures of the conveniently located scenic ringed planet
-Fuel use is based on time in flight, not change in velocity.
-Ships have a top speed, which is more relevant than maximum acceleration


Interstellar travel is possible (presumably, this being space opera) and there are many aliens in this galaxy and none of them are disposed to exploring and or colonizing everything. Because they would be here already, you see, if that's what they were into.

A suspiciously high percentage of the aliens we encounter will have comparable technology to ourselves, and a similar inability or unwillingness to transcend that original biological form despite also having recently discovered interstellar travel.


The problem is that Space Opera is written to be readily intelligible. If you really try to explain a civilization, it's not going to be readable.

So a lot of those problems are of the Stage Setting kind. East is wherever the sun rises, and you don't need to compare. The people won't be speaking intelligible English (though they may call it that). The military ranks need to have conventional names to be understood. It's a translation problem. It even exists in the history of the US. What's a Colonel? In Kentucky it was the head of a militia group, elsewhere it meant other things (though I'm not sure what).

And a lot of the listed problems aren't totally problems, but just require sufficient justification and limitation. Someone has already mentioned stealth technology, I'd include hiding behind/among asteroids. If you know what direction the opponents are looking from it's not an impossible problem, though it requires a lot of work and probably some low visibility sensor drones.

And to assume that nuclear plants will always be as difficult to maintain as the currently are ignores, e.g., the history of radio and computers. If nuclear plants start to become common, then they WILL be easier to maintain because they'll be designed that way. What that will involve is less clear. Pebble bed reactors might be more easily made simple to operate and maintain...perhaps. Or maybe each plant will have its own maintenance robots (plural so that they can repair each other). Some way will be found, or it won't happen.

And I'm not sure that there won't be a "Galactic Empire". It would be a rather loose one, and would need to be driven by some strong advantages in membership, and allow for withdrawal in the case of disagreement, but Empires are one of the forms that are more stable in the face of slow communication. Here the communication would be slow enough that it would probably be more symbolic than real, and actually sort of a standards organization, but it's a lot more plausible than a Democracy. If it turned towards coerced membership, though, it would be a recipe for rapid disintegration...unless cheap FTL becomes possible, and then the "Emperor" would have to be a figurehead for a superhuman AI because complexity.

OTOH, fast transport and no government is a recipe for disaster and civilization ending wars.

But if it can't be understood quickly, it's not a Space Opera. And that's going to mean glossing over a lot of things you don't want to explain in detail. It's sort of like the inverse of the problem of Ralph 124C 41+...nobody in that civilization would marvel at the things he encountered, but what Gernsback was showing required a travelogue kind of presentation.


"I try to form a sentence in Italian, and end up too easily in Japanese"

I have essentially the same experience (spanish/japanese) Once,in japan, making conversation with the people in the other bath, found out they were Spanish. So, my brain, now conditioned with 2 weeks of my bad Japanese, has to remember my high school Spanish. Massive vocabulary fail. I generally either got grammar from one language & words from the other, or half in one & half in the other.



* Interspecies sex is wildly kinky and / or addictive
* Interspecies sex never happens because Aliens don't understand primitive desires (add: squick factor for dogwhistles as appropriate)
* Interspecies sex is a TABOO and our star-crossed lovers will bend time & space to enact their desires
* Pornography, loneliness, NEET behaviours, anxiety etc don't happen to aliens: their minds don't vary too much
* Opposite of this: Aliens who do X with humans are like total perverts (I'm thinking of giant hairy space mammoths here)


* Start every chapter with a pithy quotation or reference to the lore-at-large which both lampshades the action but also hints at the vast depths the reader should be pondering (the Dune thing)

I'm sure there's more but epic list (!) and I don't want to splodge on the flow.


(Although - the entire entry lore to chapters is 100% great, imo).


Interesting thought experiment (a la Stand on Zanzibar or The Stars My Destination):

How possible would it be to write a Space Opera these days that had wildly different meanings entirely dependent on the readers' own Mind-set?

*nose wiggle*


Something very peculiar going on here ...
"" & all sub-heads are "not available" & I got a weird error message, too.
Is Google blocking it, is there a spam/badnet danger, or is it the spooks?
Any alternative open links?


If you want interstellar travel without FLT then set the story in a star cluster where the average separation is 0.1 lyr


Starships will need a "bridge" where all the human navigators and pilots (because computers can't do that stuff) must be physically together so they can talk to each other. Because you can't teleconference from your stateroom (hyperspace functions much like an EMP, interfering with electronics). For that matter, starship maintenance and repair is physically done by human workers rather than robots.


I don't know if there are any alternative open links. These links worked for me.

I googled War Nerd War of 1812 Day 6 Tecumseh,
and War Nerd Caste War.


"Native" i.e. animal flight is quite common, actually.
The evolutionary advantage is so great that lots of taxa do it.
... birds, insects, fishes, bats, pteranodon, etc ....


Or if you don't want FTL, the Warp drive that allows worry free relativistic travel (shoos away space dust and reduces fuel requirements) damps electronics by interfering with the band gap in semiconductors so nothing solid state functions. This does double duty making starships operate on a low tech level while in flight and providing a low rent equivalent of FTL.


I'd include hiding behind/among asteroids.
Which reminds me - in Charlie's original list we had:
" Asteroids are so close together that you can hide between them
... but they never clump into planets"
Err ... and our "Asteroid belt" hasn't clumped into planets, either, has it?
We all know why, but watch out for that one?


Despite any difference in technology/power, the oppressed underdog has a chance of winning. (Advances in technology have the potential to increase power differences if those without power don't have the tech. e.g. the bad-guys in Avatar didn't mind killing everyone, why didn't they do it with a giant rock dropped from orbit, and wipe everyone out, so they could strip-mine the place)

All of the alien races have similar technology levels, despite there being no reason for them to have developed at the same time.

Within a generation or two of joining the space-faring races, humanity reaches a level that they can hold their own against attack.

Humanity could survive first contact with a more technologically advanced species without the culture shock and negative effects that colonised people have experienced in Earth history.

Human(/western) culture/values won't change much in the next few hundred years.

The political systems/structures that work well for humans will work well for aliens. (Democracy wouldn't make sense if 90% of the population were non-sapient worker drones.)

Warning: A lot of language/culture pet peeves follow. A lot of it comes under the WEIRD assumptions that Charlie already identified.

When dealing with differences between cultures, western values always go together. e.g. you won't have to pick between siding with a religiously tolerant culture with slavery and a religiously intolerant culture without slavery.

Personal identity in all cultures is driven by the same things as in western culture. (Westerners tend to talk about what you do for a living as a first/early topic of conversation, there are cultures where the first topic is your genealogy. I'm sure there are other examples.)

Translating a newly encountered language without a cooperative teacher, or a Rosetta stone is straight-forward (let alone with those things). ( universal translator )

You can either understand/translate a language fully or not at all. You won't have that learning phase where you understand half of what's going on.

It is possible to translate all of a language based on a subset of a language. (How are you going to translate words you haven't heard before?)

Words/concepts have a one-to-one mapping between languages.

Languages always have grammars similar to your language. No agglutinative languages, every language has past/present/future tense, gender/noun-classes never get more complicated than male/female/neutral.


I think there's a lot of opportunity just in breaking the WEIRD assumptions. Even within Earth cultures, there's a lot of languages/cultures that break what many would think are universals.

The Guugu Yimithirr language has no terms for left/right/forward/backward, instead everyone knows which way is north/south/east/west. The Pirahã language doesn't have numbers. Silbo Gomero can be whistled.
Try getting used to Ergative case.
Of course throwing a lot of language detail in can come across as strange for the sake of strange. But, when putting in language detail, it's a mistake to just swap out English words for made-up ones.

There is the potential for any of the cliches from non-scifi stories involving interaction between westerners and foreign cultures or colonised/indigenous people.


FAIL again
I wonder if internal-searching the War Nerd will work - will report back


How possible would it be to write a Space Opera these days that had wildly different meanings entirely dependent on the readers' own Mind-set?

It's entirely possible, but it's stunt writing. Also, most of the readers will miss it.

(Lots of folks failed to understand "Glasshouse" completely because they misread Robin/Reeve disastrously ...)


Gliding is common. Powered flight has evolved four times: insects, birds, bats, pterosaurs. Yeah, part of the reason it's hasn't more is probably competition/predation from the animals already there, but it clearly isn't that easy to evolve.

It doesn't seem at all unlikely go me that flight would never evolve on a planet with higher gravity or thinner air.


Well, two things:

#1 It worked well for some; I wouldn't call some of them stunt writing - as long as the message was broadly the same for each tier. That's the real genius of Dune.

#2 That's how you get the prizes while still filling the cheap-seats

I'm just throwing back the 25% angle at you - I kinda owe you a nice retirement & all.


Not that the kinky sex things were anything to do with 50 Shades of Grey.

*cough* Incase *cough*

Nope, kinky alien sex never sells.


Old War Nerd Articles under "exiled" show, but nothing at all under nsfw will even peep - in Chrome at any rate ....
Ah - works in Firefox ....
Wonder why that was?


"Glasshouse". I wonder whether I was one of them, because I didn't spot anything more than ordinarily deceptive.


See also The (Grand) List of Science Fiction Cliches (also here. Something's up with the icon scaling on my browser (Firefox/OSX), so I'd suggest the latter link, even if it's probably not "official".


There's no end of problems with Aurora. ^^


ISTR that C. J. Cherryh has had spaceships running into problems with plumbing and waste-water.


IIRC it's paywalled.


You're familiar with the British Army slang meaning of the word "Glasshouse"?

Did you wonder if Robin/Reeve's understanding of the reason they were in it was entirely correct?


All the mentions of dust may imply (in the absence of simple ignorance or carelessness) 'Force-shields and/or deflector beams work perfectly and (in energetic terms) affordably.'.

And, of course, there are the usual 'All the author's political and philosophical beliefs are borne-out by events.' and 'All characters who disagree with the authors takes on Good, God, Evil, politics, economics, u.s.w. either die, learn the error of their ways, or are just plain evil.'.


The "primitives on the planet, sophisticates in space" thing was nicely lampshaded in _Stations of the Tide_.


Greg got uplifted to Firefox.


A million old druids cried out as they were freed - and they cried: the Maypole domination of old is gone, we might use standing stones once again.

That's Heavy Messing.


At a serious (work) level:

Consider Phlebas did what it did because it was read as the anti-hero as unwilling hero in Vietnam and who was fighting on the wrong side to due ideological reasons.

Spoiler / fun fact: ask 5000 people what they remember about the novel, less than 3 will remember that the protagonist is a member of a species that's dying out and who can mimic other Identities - it just has 0% impact compared to the rest. It's literally the trans test of identity at work.

Yep: read it again.

Bora Horza Gobuchul is a changer who supports the Idirans because ze considers biological "supremacy" over Machine integral to ze's actual survival... even if ze hates the Idirans.


Because the Culture's artificial alteration (using technology) of what ze is as a species threatens to destroy ze's species entire existence.



@Private Iron: How's that, Bwana?


Actually, one of our major cognitive screwups we're only now realizing is the idea that Earth's climate is normally constant, and that alien planets that have, saying highly elliptical orbits will have bizarre adaptations.

According to things like the ice core climate records, it turns out that our current more-or-less constant climate is probably only about 5,000 years old. If we weren't screwing with it, it might stay relatively constant for about another ~10,000 years before the Milankovitch cycles start things changing again. Possibly less before another ice age cropped up (which, ironically, is no longer a threat).

Secondly, with the ice ages, it appears that the problem wasn't the big ol' ice sheets at the poles, it was that Earth's climate got stuck "oscillating" between three metastable climate states with the oscillations over a period of ~1500 years (with a huge margin of variation) for most of each ice age, and the oscillations were on the scale of the climate change we're looking at in the next 50 years (and about on that same time scale for the changes too.The temperature changes were fast, then things held steady for awhile, then changed again). That constant oscillation may have been the biggest problem with the ice ages, not the temperature. Worse, the oscillations weren't driven by the Milankovitch cycles (apparently), but (apparently) by an unstable ice sheet on Hudson Bay that kept forming and breaking up.

The tl;dr is that most of Earth's species, including our own, are adapted to a pretty wildly fluctuating climate, so long as they can migrate. Civilization as we understand it totally is not adapted to these kinds of oscillations, and people like Brian Fagan have argued that civilization as we know it is only possible when the climate stays very constant.

Getting back to space opera, the point here is that we don't really understand changing climates, how we relate to them, how other biospheres might adjust to them, and even what a hypothetical civilization that dealt with big changes would look like.

That's actually a reasonably good place to put some SF exploration.


Some of the Economics issues make sense if you think of spaceports like airports or (earlier) seaports. There's a subculture of cosmopolitan travelers, and they spend most of their time in the equivalent of airport lounges, hotels near the airport, conference rooms, etc. There may be a separate subculture at the equivalents of truck stops, but that's more likely to be automated.

In the final analysis, though, if the story makes much sense it isn't really space opera.


When the main character is in trouble/ knackered in the "Foreigner" series, he remembers the arguments about slosh baffles in rocket fuel tanks.


Just read the postscript: Ze's species goes extinct just after the war.

That's the hidden level that most don't get.

Consider Phlebas is about genocide [in the hard terminology]: the hidden joke is that 99% of readers miss it.


Sentient aliens have the same cognitive biases as humans - or may be missing at most one of them.


The one that comes to mind is "Old man's war", which could be read a couple of different ways depending on what you like or your age. Same with the book which inspired it of course...


Powered flight has evolved four times: insects, birds, bats, pterosaurs.

Minor digression: Is it clear that there was just one development of flight among insects? They're quite diverse, and I could imagine flappy wings appearing more than once among the bugs.

But to redeem myself here and stay slightly on topic:

On incomprehensively alien aliens, it is a trope and one of which I'm fond -- William Ten, the brothers Strugatski, John Varley, even OGH. But has it been worked over so much as to qualify as a cliché? I'd hope not.


And to assume that nuclear plants will always be as difficult to maintain as the currently are ignores, e.g., the history of radio and computers. If nuclear plants start to become common, then they WILL be easier to maintain because they'll be designed that way. What that will involve is less clear. Pebble bed reactors might be more easily made simple to operate and maintain...perhaps.

We already have simple hands-off nuclear power plants that are easy to maintain. They're called Radio Thermal Generators (RTGs). What they're not is energy-dense or cheap. They can be made cheaper using Sr-90 but they're heavier due to extra shielding requirements compared to space-rated Pu-239 RTGs. They work fine for SOSUS-style submarine detection systems though, especially with the deep ocean water to act as a cold sink for the thermocouples.

The first generation of pebble-bed reactors have not been a great success. Moving very hot intensely-radioactive fuel around seems to be not that easy to do without damaging the pellets, causing dust and fragments to jam bits of machinery etc. The Chinese are building a commercial pebble-bed reactor at the moment but the Germans are waiting a few more decades before they dismantle their damaged reactors.


All religions will conceive of deities in the western model.

All religions will be comparable to some flavor of Western Christianity in a funny hat.
...except for the Space Jews.
...or the Space Norse.

All religions will have a value system that is either the pinnacle of moral enlightenment as determined by the author, or the very worst of Kafkaesque excess. There is no middle ground. There are no religions with moral complexity, good intentions, and unfortunate blind spots.

Notwithstanding the importance of respecting Space Christian dominance of the galaxy, there will be a large annual pilgrimage to Mecca/Shrine World Bravo/McGuffin Centauri.

The pilgrims on this trip see nothing wrong with being religiously obligated to expose themselves to all the hazards mentioned in the Space Flight section.

Even the most destitute of believers can scrape up the cash for a steerage ticket across the galaxy.

Religions are able to maintain coherence and doctrinal consistency over distances of thousands of light years.


I guess I'm one of the three.

I'm not sure about the Culture being an existential threat to the changers. I got the impression that the changers becoming extinct was a side effect of them picking the wrong side in the Idiran war, and not being too populous in the first place.

But yes, the story is a serious downer, which is one reason I don't recommend people start there on the Culture series. I like Excession for that because of the feel-good postscripts that end it on an up note... which is actually kind of unusual for Banks.


Planets rotate east-to-west

When you come to a new planet how do you define the compass points? Magnetic? Rotation? Habitation? Related to orbit around Sun? Related to galactic north?

I read a long time back that "spin north" was common. In this model, rotating planets have their axis defined so that "sun rises in the east" is pretty much by definition.


Try getting used to Ergative case.

I googled ergative case, and it seems functionally identical to accusative case, which is standard in Slavic languages. What is the difference between the two?


Thanks very much. Yes and yes. That's only what I consider ordinarily deceptive.


"ask 5000 people what they remember about the novel, less than 3 will remember ..."

You're kidding, Shirley?


You have to read really close to get the hidden subtext (bearing in Mind that this was the first Culture novel):

The implication was that the Changers in many ways read/copied/duplicated the ECG patterns / Minds of those who they morphed into.

And, for Culture Minds, (*cough* Grey Area *cough*) this was verboten.

And, even more hidden is the implication that the genocide by Culture Minds was deliberate.


Again, not a common reading. But it's very much in there.

Grey Area got away with it because they were a Culture Combat Vessel, and even then, they were exiled / socially excluded.


Oh yes my little ones: hidden subtext of the Culture Novels really is Genocide.



That's why a large amount of the later novels are about the afterlife and so on.

Consider the range:

From Genocide to Hells to Sublimed Entities making their living species do horrible things to Minds and the Infinite Fun and Madness in Castles (*cough*).


Iain was toying with some really kinky ideas. (And no: hidden subtext doesn't mean Fascist you dumb ass - go back to your hole).



Trope to avoid:

* Avoiding complexity because a focus group says people don't understand it.
* Writing PaP and listening to MBAs who are pawns.

It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?


The alien languages/communication thing I think you just have to swallow it and handwave it all under "translation convention". Linguistics is such a minority interest and translation convention such a widespread device that nobody is likely to jump down your throat for dodging the whole thing, whereas if you do make an effort at it, the linguists will jump down your throat because if you're not a Tolkien-level expert you will inevitably cock it up severely, and the non-linguist majority will be put off if there are a lot of silly words that they have to learn the meanings of (and even more so if the words are deliberately made to look alien, as it makes the reading experience rather like driving along a motorway that has random sand banks across it).

It may be the case that an alien species communicates by means of a patch of chromatophores that change colour in the infra-red, but it rapidly gets tedious if every mention of the aliens communicating includes a reminder to the reader of how they do it. To mention it when the aliens are first described, possibly to include a scene that shows it's affected by IR levels/spectrum but not by ambient noise or something, and then to present the alien communication from then on as if they were speaking in English, is much more natural to read.

Similarly when it comes to humans and aliens learning to communicate with each other: if the process is described with any pretension to realism it makes for a really dull bit of story. It flows much better to dodge the whole thing, whether by using Babel fish, by having the narrative skip ten years and resume when the problem's been dealt with, by having it not be possible at all beyond haphazardly figuring out one new concept every couple of months, or whatever.

Alien "other rank" species: so there is a creature that gets its energy from oxidising sulphur erupted by fumaroles; it is strong to shift rocks, it is fast to escape more destructive types of volcanism, and it has high endurance so it can do the distance to find new fumarole fields. So it gets used as a beast of burden, like a horse or a camel. Again, it flows more naturally to describe it to begin with, and then to refer to it as "horse" or "camel", initially with quotes and later without, than to make up a name for it and use that. After all, if humans did discover such a beast, while it would be assigned a scientific name, people in general would say "them horse things" and later on just "horse".

Be it noted that all these problems also crop up in straight non-SF books set wholly on Earth, and "pretend everyone is speaking in English" is by far the most-used/most-accepted solution. It doesn't make a lot of sense to insist that a different solution to the tried and tested one be adopted for the same problem just because it's SF.


Speaking as someone who wrote about aliens using chromatophores to talk---actually, it's pretty easy. Anyone who's watched a cat's ears and tail can figure out a lot of it. Treat it as a conversation with a mime or a really intelligent cat and have a blast.

Still, I agree about linguistics. Unless you have a point to make,* there's little reason getting fancy with the languages in the story. The best place for alien words is in nouns, place names, and proper names. Of course, if an alien action, like plotzing, is critical to the plot, then you'll have to have them plotz away, whether or not you tell the readers what plotzing is or leave them to figure it out from context.

*For example, one might hypothesize that the Piraha were functionally enlightened due to using an artificial language created for them by an enlightened shaman at some point in the past. That language prevents them from thinking unenlightened thoughts that require recursion and thinking outside the now. They reportedly regularly saw gods that outsiders did not, so this could be possible, if you're into that sort of thing. That's a linguistic point that could be worked into a story.


The scene you'll want is being tied up in chains in a dungeon when BHG is about to be tortured / killed.

It's literally stated that ze is forgetting the memories of the person he copied...



Well, there's the actuality of it.

Space Opera needs depth and ambiguity: otherwise 30 years later, no-one cares (*cough* MilSpec Puppies *cough*).

So, don't be too offended that no-one notices. (And, it's just a bit gauche to point out the hidden stuff on your own blog).

Trust me.

We do, and we love you for it. (Puppies in Glass Houses shouldn't throw stones).


"They are an ancient and proud people, Minister, and there are very few of them left. May I ask you one more time? Please? Let him live. He might be--"
--Balveda in Consider Phlebas, Chapter 1 Paragraph 25.


Actually, I usually use Chrome, because t's easier, but I still have an ancient version of IE as well as Firefox - it's called: "Horse for Courses"


A gear-grinder that doesn't seem to have been specifically covered yet: when the matter of alien pathogens and the like is raised, but is said not to be a problem on the grounds of $biochemical_handwave - usually though not always something to do with either different stereochemistry, or some "silicon-based lifeforms can't feed on carbon-based ones" analogue. Er, no. Even on Earth we can see that for any possible chemical entropy gradient there is some microbe that is able to exploit it - regardless of whether the reactants concerned have anything at all to do with anything else in its metabolism... it may not even be a chemical gradient at all; might be a thermal one, or gamma rays. Bring a silicon-based lifeform to Earth and it would start to be eaten by some bug which is ubiquitous but unnoticed by us because it only eats rocks; take an Earth lifeform on the reverse journey and the equivalent thing happens.


Err .. Aldiss: Heliconia?


Ohh. Fun GAME!

Find host's earliest works, then re-examine it and spot the hidden references that don't hit all these tropes. (Ohh, this is good - trust me, it passes all the trope tests. I wouldn't suggest it otherwise)


Anyhow, in the spirit of the piece:

* Don't imagine that your readers aren't all obsessively brilliant people who will spend their lives fine-combing this stuff.

* Thus littering the entire place with :cheese: and :crumbs: and :squirrel: trails is 100% sensible

* Assume the opposite (Rowling - Snape etc) and just feed their beasts.

On the SF front:

* It's the future: never trust a straight story: they've grown up on this format, so Sherlock is the default thinking. The only shocking trope is the actual straight story for them (!)


IIRC "Use of Weapons" was the first culture novel as written, but "Consider Phlebas" was published first?
Someone correct me if mistaken/forgotten, please?

And, even more hidden is the implication that the genocide by Culture Minds was deliberate.
You sure about that?
I think you are seeing something that isn't there ... (maybe)
also #95
I think you've jumped the shark, there.
i.e. Wrong ...
But, I suspect you want to see that, so you manufacture it .... (maybe)


H Beam Piper
Humans discover abandoned/dead civilisation on remote planet.
Inscriptions, books, hard tablets, etc - how to read?
Until someone realises they have a Periodic Table in front of them .... And that start is enough to "break the code"


Ergative is not the same as accusative. Very briefly, consider:

(A) The boys broke (B) the window.
(C) The window broke.

In a nominative-accusative language (like Russian), A and C are in the same case, B is in another. (English is like this with pronouns.)

In an ergative-absolutive language (like Basque), A is in one case, B and C are in another.


Thanks, makes sense!


Slavery, torture, war, genocide, poverty, settler-colonialism, empire, aristocracy, dominance -- oh my! Is it possible to hold a space opera reader's attention without easily recognizable grotesqueries drawn from history?

Maybe not. Stanisław Lem is the only name that immediately comes to mind. I certainly enjoyed him. But I think that stories of Necessary Heroic Space Violence in the service of Good Space Hierarchy dominating Bad Space Hierarchy have been much more numerous and popular.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote engaging and delightful fiction that didn't rely on violence/domination/possession as the narrative drivers*. I don't think he ever wrote a space opera, though. It's hard to do a comedy of minutiae and introduce an alien and/or far-future setting at the same time. Even my adored Iain M. Banks always wrote books mostly about the Culture's Necessary Heroic Space Violence, with only bits of ordinary life woven in.

*Not directly, anyway. There is of course an implied multitude of cooks, maids, miners, craftsmen, farmers, imperial subjects, etc. required to enable a tiny fraction to live like Bertie Wooster. Writing this, I'm reminded also of Jo Walton's Just City series, and the philosophers' neglected servants whose significance is initially ignored.


None of the above.

Use of Weapons was never a Culture specific novel until later that Z got uplifted by SC to fight their wars.

Consider Phlebas really was the first published.

Unless you consider State of the Art.

Which wasn't published beforehand, but might have been read beforehand (thus the much more noire / cyberpunk tone).


Greg: at this point, you've hit our golden *trope:

[ EDITED BY MODERATOR - Let's not get personal/rude here, m'kay? Rest of comment left intact because it's a contribution to the discourse. ]


In my case that would be a really intelligent pigeon rather than a cat - I can "read" pigeon (it's mostly visual; hearing the coos is optional; they add emphasis but you can pretty much fill them in yourself) and also write it (in words; "speaking" it presents insuperable anatomical difficulties) pretty fluently. When it comes to representing a conversation with a really intelligent pigeon, it certainly involves some written pigeon, but in a manner analogous to "Jamila looked at Henry over the top of her spectacles" and the like. The actual interchange of ideas is represented as if the pigeon was speaking English, and it is not clearly stated whether she actually is, or is using standard pigeon with an extended vocabulary, or is using telepathy, or some combination of those.

I agree entirely about your Piraha example. In the real world I'm not sure how far I accept the kind of theories about language that it works on, but I'm happy to assume they're solid for the purposes of the story. Things are somewhat similar with the matter of humans and aliens learning to communicate: while the details of the process don't need to be set down, the slow growth of understanding - and the accompanying subtle misunderstandings - could form a useful thread of the plot.


Yup. Planetary days and alien sleep cycles are always coincident with human; the humans will always arrive on-planet in a suitable time-zone, and never suffer "jet-lag"...


*AWWW SNAP BAE - playing the fiddle and The Beverly Hillbillies tune right now.

Bae Know Your Meme


Add to stack:

* Aliens not using memes / their own cultural ticks. (Kinda done with Alien Nation, that whole curdled milk thing, but never really done)

* Aliens never just flat out taking the piss

* Aliens never having *benign* inter-racial jokes. i.e. Non Strata Class / ultimate death things, just... you know. "Yeah, we red stripes take the piss out of the blue stripes, but the real fight was a thousand years ago".


Stross: Enjoyed both linked articles and am new to the site, which is going to take up my next few weeks. Thanks for the reply.


Yes - it is one of those things where "go hard over the other way" can be an option: make the whole plot all about it. That could be great. In the current context, though, I'm not sure how much room it'd leave for the space operatics (note that I haven't read the book you cited, so I could be going sideways here...)


Aliens sleep, and don't think it at all weird that humans have to spend a third of their lives dormant.


Well done Charlie. You've now ruined a genre for me.

This means you're going to have to write the book, maybe a trilogy.

It's a shame you have to do something new. I have a feeling that the full-length novel of Palimpsest may never be written now.


You can use them for running wire, and they're pleasant pets.


Corollary: Aliens require bedrooms, and are accustomed to providing same for travelers.


To be fair, we've heard of Ponzi schemes on this planet, but that doesn't stop people falling for them, even en masse and at high governmental levels.


And btw the next time you see Hannu, he owes you a pint
He made my buy on release list
And while he has written the most modern take on SF, he hasn't been well rewarded by the Hugo's et al


Eyes: Two, side by side.

Most aliens tend to follow that trope, and even when the author throws in some other physical design for a spot of colour, the cognition still tends to be human. Eyes are our primary sense, and using/servicing them determines much of how we think.

Life : Finite

Most aliens die, rather than say reengineering their biology and budding off offspring with full memory/skills in a hive collective.

War : Acquisition of resources / land

If you can do the space opera thing, then there's plenty of resources to pluck unopposed, and plenty of land, if you want it. About the only valuable thing is sentient intelligence (though even that's questionable) and thus war is much more about memes, getting others to do your bidding, and control. And for that you don't need lasers, you need psychologists and marketeers. Pirates as marketing exec - admittedly not a massive leap.


Ah yes. Thanks for the reminder.


Oh I agree. I learned from my pet pigeon years ago about how important body language is, and I can still speak pigeon reasonably well, although it annoys the local feral birds no end. The only reason to use a cat as an example is because rather more people have cats than have pigeons, sad to say. Even though cats don't do body language to quite the same degree, I suspect rather more people here have had conversations with their cats.

The big thing about chromatophores is that I thought it was going to be hard to write, and it turned out to be easy, at least for me. Perhaps I'm wired weird, but translating body language into text by intermixing symbolism with intent worked out very easily.


f you can do the space opera thing, then there's plenty of resources to pluck unopposed, and plenty of land,

Or not. What don't they have? What magic wand haven't they been able to invent? Their population will increase until it hits some limit; what was that limit? Are they just hitting it, or did they hit it long ago?


Humans are descended from colonists from another planet who just coincidentally had gene sequences closely similar to those of earth animals.


. . . All primates are descended . . . (Larry Niven used that one in Protector.)


By the way, question for the engineers in the audience:

How do you use a laser in a ship-to-ship space battle?

Basically, you're in a bullet that's shooting a laser at another bullet.

Assuming you're at relatively close ranges, your target covers a large distance in a small time. Assuming at least part of your laser is pivoting on a mount to track the enemy, don't you get to a point where either it physically can't spin fast enough, or requires a huge motor that torques the ship in an attempt to track the target?

At long distances, even a slight misalignment will throw off the laser. Is there a point at which you can't get your stepper motor or whatever to move precisely enough to keep a beam on your smallish target, many astronomical units away?

And of course, you need to build your laser so that it handle both incredible precision and incredible speed readily. Is this even possible?

I'm thinking about laser duels where on one hand, someone's "shooting across the system" (or shooting between stars, as with Robert Forward's laser sail--that's a hell of an aiming job) and on the other, the dueling starships flashing past each other motif. It's all shiny lazer tech and stuff, I know, but I wondered if there are theoretical limits that would keep you from using laser cannons on your ship of the wall thingie.


Toyotacorollary: aliens are accustomed to providing acommodation for human travellers even if they don't sleep, don't use bedrooms, or don't even use acommodation in any human sense at all. As well as the slightly strange but comfortable bed there are washing facilities, and also a toilet if the story is not about those strange mutant humans with no arses. The aliens also provide food, which is perfectly adapted to human nutritional requirements; it is either (a) delicious, (b) bland and porridge-like, or (c) unbearably vile even to look at. The room also has a device which functions essentially like Google with properly-working DWIM and no spam results, and isn't too hard to figure out how to use; rather than simply not displaying certain of its results, it says BLOCKED when you try to access them (and possibly also sets off alarms), and from the pattern of what's blocked and what isn't the humans get to figure out a Clue.


As well as the slightly strange but comfortable bed there are washing facilities, and also a toilet if the story is not about those strange mutant humans with no arses.

The Twin Chorons, an alien bar, with three doors labelled "Oozers", Squirters" and "Emitters". He decided he could hold it until he got back to the ship.

From Illegal Aliens by Nick Pollotta and Phil Foglio.


There exist aeroplanes fitted with weapon-grade lasers. All the targeting and beam steering is automatic. The laser itself does not move, but a mirror mounted in the nose does. I don't know whether torque reaction is a problem or not but if it is it can always be countered by a gyro or something.

At spacey ranges a laser is not much use because even with a "perfect" laser, diffraction imposes a certain minimum divergence on the beam. Without checking figures this results in a laser shone at the moon diverging to cover something like the area of Wales when it gets there, and you need a distinctly non-trivial laser even to get a return from the corner cube reflectors Apollo left there.


I think you're out of the country of hidden subtext, over the border and into head canon territory, there.


Better question: how plausible are ship-to-ship battles?

Unless they're following the same course at nearly the same time (and were presumably on the same side up until liftoff), such "contact" as ships make is likely to be a matter of passing each other at Mach 100,000 or so.


Well yes, that is a perfectly valid point, as is beam divergence.


A random meeting engagement in the depths of space are even less likely than similar on Earth's oceans, partly for just that reason, but mostly because the effects of orbital motion. Even if the opposing ships are heading for each others' point of departure at the same time at the same speed and acceleration, even the most hyperbolic orbits won't coincide, if we're talking interplanetary scale. Maybe even at interstellar scales at STL speeds, I'll have to work some numbers after I get out of the bath.

Instead, like pre-modern naval battles, they'd have to take place near the points of interest, e.g. planets, moons, asteroids that aren't loose conglomerations of dust, rubble and ice, etc. where, presumably, the opposing spacecraft would have to slow down to mere single-figure km per second relative in order to have any effect, e.g. hover or orbit menacingly over the facility in order to demonstrate their dominance of local space prior to landing a peacekeeping force. Or pick an approach speed which puts them at an advantage over their opponent, whatever that might be.


Charlie, I worry that if you avoid all the cliches, it won't be space opera anymore. Heck, apply enough of your things to avoid and you can't even have far-future humans in space.

How about a minimum set of cliches that should be present?


Would you consider "The Expanse" a space opera? How about "The Prefect" by Alastair Reynolds?


Everyone has the same conceptions of personal space and what socialising is.
The only time a person is forced to be by themselves is as punishment, and the only time they volunteer to be by themselves is to activate wise hermit mode/be morose and introspective.

Aloneness/not aloneness as a good or a mark of social status isn't a thing


I'm not sure those are space opera clichés, so much as as present-day social clichés.


One cliche is exponential growth into space, stopped only by running into other expanding empires.

Thing is, in nature, there's often a death term in nature. What if interstellar flight is possible, but long-term sustainable civilization is not? After some point, all the useful boron has been fused, the gold's not just in the sea-water but in the wrecks of mining bots around the system, all the petrochemicals have either been burned or made into plastic, and so forth. Entropy has had its way, and there's not enough useful stuff left to keep civilization going in a system. It doesn't necessarily die entirely, but you don't want to try to get your ship reprovisioned at a post-civilized planet either. It's going to take tens to hundreds of millions of years for that planet to become useful again.

Just adding a mortality term to the advance of interstellar civilization makes things a lot more interesting, as I noted above in comment #2. In such a universe, colonization becomes imperative, and wars over high quality planets are not only possible but inevitable (since daughter colonies of a mother culture will become competitors for future colonies of their own). It doesn't even require evil, either, just thoughtless, exponential growth, compassion that tries to save as many people as possible, and leaving those who can live within limits marooned on the used-up, post-civilized planets that are "backward" of your cone of progress, rather than settling for a single planet.


Attack Vector: Tactical is the hardest science fiction space combat game I know of, and includes several "Science Behind the Rules" sections.

The one on lasers assumes that with about ten times better lasers than we have today, you can put signficant amounts of energy onto a square metre spot at ranges up to 1600 km or so before the beam starts to diverge. And it's microsecond pulses, not a slow burn through, so you don't need to track and hold.


Everything operates at the same timescales we do.

Everything operates at the same length/distance/mass/velocity/energy scales we do.
...well, biological stuff does.
...biological can be easily defined.
...carbon and water obviously, duh?


I had real trouble with this trope in Robinson's 2312--I still have a sneaking suspicion that the solar space-going economy is somehow ultimately dependent on the agricultural surplus of the Lowly Terran Peasant, despite the heavy-duty Handwavium of Robinson's standard And Then A Miracle Occurs economy.

And so the Generous Spacers unleash predators that nobody is prepared for back on Earth ('surprise, aren't we wonderful?') and graciously ram new habitats down the lowly natives' throat. Sadly, the natives have the gall to be less than grateful...


Regarding languages, just because I think this will make sense to some people here: two languages in which I have had formal courses are Spanish and Japanese. I once told my Japanese instructor that Japanese grammar was like Spanish in reverse Polish notation. He had a science background and thought it was very funny.

I was mostly thinking of Postpositions vs. prepositions, and the order of modifiers and the things they modify, as well as the ordering of the verbs vs. other parts of the sentence.


"It is profitable to ship crude break-bulk cargo like timber or foodstuffs between star systems because starships are cheap and easy to repair and operate"

OTOH, it's kind of insane that we ship saw-logs from, for example, North America to saw-mills in China, then ship lumber back to hardware stores in North America... and not only is it cheaper than using local mills, several layers of people make a profit from that.

"Planets rotate east-to-west"

Uh, no.

(#10) Neil W,
"sex [...] in micro-gravity [...] Because you just float and don't push away from your partner(s) or start to spin..."

Always puzzled me why people think they are being clever remembering Newtonian mechanics when talking about zero-g sex... but then ignoring the size of the force. If you can push your partner away, they can stop themselves being pushed away with exactly the same force. I mean, exactly how powerful do you think your dick is?

"And the various effects of micro gravity on your body won't act to lower your libido."

Yeah, it'd be as bad as trying to have sex while laying down.

Another classic "sounds clever" myth...

(#65) Nicholas Daley,
"Humanity could survive first contact with a more technologically advanced species without the culture shock and negative effects that colonised people have experienced in Earth history."

Most cultures didn't experience "culture shock and negative effects" from merely having first contact with a more advanced species. They experienced negative effects from being freakin' invaded and colonised.

(#17) Heteromeles,
"(Democracy wouldn't make sense if 90% of the population were non-sapient worker drones.)"

In a way, only democracy would make sense. Provided there are signal markers that influence the behaviour of other workers. Hives are not hierarchical, the "Queen" isn't a...

Oh, Space Opera trope:

- The "Queen" of an alien hive species is just like an oligarchic ruler.


Are you deliberately trying to be as offensive & "not-even-wrong" as possible?
If so, "nice" try.
For certain values of ....
But even I am not senile or stupid enough to rise to your petty, childish & spiteful insults.

I suggest you need to switch host body - permanently.


[ DELETED BY MODERATOR -- Greg, you're going a bit too far. ]


I really couldn't figure out what Robinson was trying to do with 2312. The whole book seems to be an exercise in writing the most unsympathetic morally-good character ever.


Except that, as far as we can see, all vertebrates do it?
Do other non-chordate animal species sleep?
Not such a "worng" trope, perhaps.


People will always live on planets. They're only in space to go from one gravity well to the next.

Speciation will not happen when people move to a new environment.

OT. Eric Lerner from Lppfusion(.com) talked about the current state of their fusion research last friday on the spaceshow. Interesting and educational.

p-B11 Fusion


Wasn't that actually the terminally-boring "Thomas Covenant" ??


Last couple of days I have been rewatching Double Zeta Gundam - it is very good fun space opera anime, although not as good as Legends of Galactic Heroes, Gundams are much more approachable and fun.

Although not in written form, my biggest annoyance is the way microgravity appear and disappear constantly as the animators wish inside the ship which does not rotate and Gundam universe does not have artificial gravity tech. Other is the instant mecha to mecha comms, even between enemies...

Gravity inside ships is not well handled in many space opera, usually artificial gravity is assumed. Some books use this as good plot points.


Most people are not interested on new things but old and comfortable things that make them warm and happy. I love Hannu's books but they take some effort to take in if you are not adventurous. The Quantum Thief will probably remain one of mynall time favourites.


Exponential growth doesn't require empire building. Each time a colony is built up to the point where it can send out colonies of it's own, all it requires is an inevitable percentage of "people" that want to migrate to "greener" pastures, and the persistence of knowledge of the know how to do it. While some sapient cultures in a randomly generated galaxy will choose to stay at home, inevitably some will want to expand. And while some will want to leave alone alien sapients they encounter, inevitably some of them will want to eat them or use them to build pyramids or something--unless life or sapience is very rare. In which case expansion will be inevitable until the galaxy is full. A few light years is no big deal. A few million light years is no go.
And while boron may be the simplest way to do fusion and the first done, surely on future-historical time scales direct hydrogen-hydrogen fusion engines will become common. Cultures will tend to migrate to the most common types of materials. That's why we insulate wiring with polymers synthesized from oil rather than using gutta-percha or natural rubber.


Finally a reason to sign up here!

Under "Aliens" I would add:

  • There are lots of alien species, but humanity is exceptional.
  • ... We're exceptionally good at something.
  • ... It's aggression.
  • ... It's some cultural trait from idealised 20th century American mainstream culture (e.g. entrepreneurship).
  • ... We're exceptionally dangerous for some reason.
  • ... It's aggression.
  • ... We lack the telepathy organ.

Also seems like the "Space Travel" section can get some useful subheadings:

  • Space travel is basically just like being at sea.
  • ... You can pretend it's 2-dimensional.
  • ... Naval fleet maneuvers.
  • ... Blockades.
  • ... A sail on the horizon: is it pirates?
  • ... A ship needs a large crew who perform low-status work (plus a hierarchy of officers).
  • Space travel is basically just like a railroad network.
  • ... Regular, repeating schedules.
  • ... intercepted by bandits who lie in wait.
  • ... Network hubs with significant infrastructure built up around them.
  • ... A ship needs a small crew who perform high-status, technical work.

Some of these are repeating Charlie's points in different terms; what I'm hoping to contribute here is really the mid-level headings, with the bottom level just being examples of how to apply them. There are probably other things space travel is "basically just like" as well.


Let's define space opera then. Here's a try:
"Fiction involving interstellar travel by story characters as part of the story (rather than merely as background)"
This would exclude stories that occur only in one solar system, such as the earlier books of The Expanse, or The Prefect. It would also exclude Neptune's Brood. And all three of those are clearly space opera in character. I know it when I see it. But you can't just say "Fiction involving space travel..." because that would make The Martian and The Right Stuff space opera, which they aren't really. I think a whole space travelling or star travelling background culture is also a prerequisite. A culture in which space or star travel is commonplace, and the space or star travel of the characters is no big deal.


I know, but I wondered if there are theoretical limits that would keep you from using laser cannons on your ship of the wall thingie.

Short answer, yes. If you want to get into crunchy examination of technologies which don't technically exist yet, there's a classic discussion on the laser versus missile question over at Rocketpunk Manifesto: Battle of the Spherical War Cows: Purple v Green. It's worth a read if you're into that kind of thing (and many of us here are).


I propose that Mind reading is forbidden for Minds because Minds have a built in and irrational love for biological humanoids that underpins the entire Culture. It's a consequence of how the very first Minds were originally created, an evolutional scheme that still isn't understood, so new Minds are just replicated from designs that are known to work, though embellished on the outside. Minds that read minds risk having that core corrupted. But Consider Phlebas is not about genocide so much as it is about simple extinction. The extinction of the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence (Banks spent a paragraph telling about each of the 20 or so characters then killed them various ways--why?)the extinction of the Eaters (richly deserved), the extinction of the original inhabitants of Scharr's World, and yes the extinction of the Changers. The Changers were rare at the beginning of the Culture-Idiran war, the Culture was not ill disposed to them, and their asteroid was in Idiran space. All we know is they were wiped out as a species during the final stages of the war. And the Idirans were not. The Idirans probably wiped them out. There's even a Mind out there somewhere named Bora Horza Gorbochul. At least the Culture mourns.


> Actually, now I think about it, wasn't the Apollo 13 problem caused by a malfunction in some part of the service module's fluid infra?

I just wanted to pick up on Apollo 13 because it illustrates some of the massive complexity involved in building a real working spacecraft, as opposed to a Space Opera starship (based on various sources)...

Problem 1: The structure containing the service module's Oxygen Tank 2 was partially dropped during assembly – denting an outflow pipe that was only used when draining the tank after a pre-launch test (i.e., a pipe that was not used when in flight).

The fault was discovered during pre-launch test – they couldn’t drain the tank because the drainage pipe was dented

Solution (we are still on the ground here!): increase the heat in the tank to drive the oxygen off through the normal plumbing.

Problem 2: Due to a miscommunication between subcontractors, the heater and thermostat in the oxygen tank had been rated at 28 DC Volts rather than the 65V used on the rest of the spacecraft. When they were turned on, the thermostat melted itself shut, in the ‘on’ position. The tank reached approx. 540 °C, melting the Teflon insulation on the wiring of the tank’s stirring fan.

Problem 3: The temperature gauge on the tank was only calibrated up to the notional temperature the tank should have reached. It didn’t show that the tank was in fact significantly hotter.

Okay, finally we have launched.

56 hours into the flight, Oxygen Tank 2 is given a scheduled stir by the internal fan. Whose insulation has melted. Cue spark, fire and massive explosion. The mechanical shock also caused a failure in the plumbing of Oxygen Tank 1.

Let’s hope the designers and manufacturers of FTL starships don’t have these problems!!!!


Thinking about this some more, some other cliches:

1. Ships that easily accelerate to near-lightspeed happens, time dilation happens, interest on money in bank accounts happens, yet people who work on these ships are still poor. No-one seems to start a modest saving account then return in 200 years after a trade run and retire.
The only time I have seen this one explained was in the April fool's episode of Red Dwarf, where Lister controlled 80% of the money in the world after leaving a few pence in a savings account.

2. Some manner of anti-senescence technology was created in around the year 2400, but is never perfected and fails at just the wrong moment.
Only the very rich can afford it, and the peasants don't rebel.
Or... Everyone is immortal, families continue to have 2.4 children, and the expansion of humanity perfectly matches the creation of new colony worlds. Overpopulation never destroys worlds or leads to war.


You don't use a laser in a space battle. You use milligram mass plasma toroids internally stabilized using magnetic fields, and accelerated to about 10%+ light speed.
Let's, for the sake of argument, call them "plasma torpedoes".
Each one packs about 1GJ of energy


When it comes to space opera the ones I no longer read are ones with conflict based story lines.
I much prefer an amazing puzzle to be solved by people/things that are not morons and who work cooperatively.


How do you use a laser in a ship-to-ship space battle?

That's actually an easy one to answer, thanks to lasers as weapons being an actual Thing that a fuckton of research dollars have been spent on over the past few decades (and which are actually being bolted to USN warships for sea trials as I write).

The laser itself is bulky, but you just mount it inside your ship's hull and point its emitter at a mirror -- — that's what you need to aim, not the entire weapons system, and it's comparatively small and light. Also? Aiming mirrors very precisely at a tiny target a very long way away is something our astronomers have a lot of practical expertise at -- enough that the SDI proposal to use lasers in orbit to zap ICBM warheads the size of dustbins at a range of ~10,000km wasn't intrinsically impossible. (Just ridiculously expensive to implement on the scale needed, using hardware in orbit.)

The real problems with laser weapons are (a) at significant ranges the target will presumably be taking evasive action and even a meter/sec of lateral motion is enough to smear the beam over too much of the target's surface to do much more than burn out sensors and cause some transient warming (b) beam spread, and (c) most importantly of all, lasers are not 100% efficient. For every joule you deposit on the target, you need to dump about four joules of waste heat -- which is difficult, in space.

The US Navy gets a get-out-of-jail-free card for the waste heat problem with point-defense lasers for warships because they're sitting in a special heat sink called "the ocean". So contemporary naval lasers just have to carry big-ass heat pumps/refrigeration coils.

It's considerably harder to build a ground-mobile laser (air cooled), and much harder to build a high-powered airborn laser weapon, which is why the F-35 laser program is going to have some interesting constraints to beat. As for space-based, that's the big prize ... but in an environment that provides for solely radiative cooling (and that comes at a weight penalty).


Ah. You've seen Galaxy Quest, right?

There is a very very special deleted scene in GQ where Dr Lazarus is shown his quarters: start at 2m20s and keep watching for at least a minute! The bathroom still brings tears of pain to my eyes.


You don't fight a laser battle across many AU, unless your target is on a fixed trajectory and isn't going to dodge. It isn't about how well you can aim, its about lightspeed lag. I suspect that once you get into light second ranges (and an AU is 500 light seconds) you're not going to be hitting much.

Using slow plasma toroids sounds like a less than great idea, because they'll have sharply limited ranges (you don't get to stabilise a plasmoid for long), their effectiveness also diminishes with range and they are far slower than lasers. On the bright side, they do provide scope for energy shields, and everyone likes those!


How about a minimum set of cliches that should be present?

Space opera doesn't have to be about cliches.

Dave Langford and Brian Stableford took a stab at describing it in the gigantic monograph on space opera in the Encyclopedia of SF, but it lacks a coherent definition because it's not a tightly-defined form.

I think that for a work of SF to qualify as space opera it requires certain features to be present. Breadth of scope is one of them: Interstellar scale is almost mandatory (although I think there are exceptions: "Tiger Tiger"/"The Stars my Destination", perhaps). A sense of wonder is necessary as well. The key factor is that it's almost invariably romanticist in sensibility, often overlapping with the gothic: if it lacks a romantic/gothic tone then it's probably not space opera.

I wouldn't call "Ringworld" a space opera, even though it hits the high notes on scale/sense of wonder/adventure -- Niven's tone is all wrong -- but on the other hand, "The Quantum Thief" trilogy nails the target even though it's not strictly speaking interstellar and a metric shitload of it happens in upload/computing environments. (Jean le Flambeur is a classic space operatic anti-hero in the mold of Gully Foyle.)


Oh, and re: languages, this may or may not be familiar to people here, but is probably relevant...

The site has a number of other interesting little articles on various SF tropes, and has a charmingly 90s aesthetic.


The laser itself is bulky, but you just mount it inside your ship's hull and point its emitter at a mirror

But doesn't that point to the other reason lasers would be useless in a space battle: if you can aim it without melting your mirror, surely I can be shielded from it simply by having a shiny hull?


Conventionally lasers are used defensively (because they are short range and quickly aimed) while guided missiles are used for attacking (because they are long range and can change course to track a moving target). Projectile weapons such as railguns and such are intermediate. The speed and volume of fire from them gives them a chance of getting through laser defenses, but projectiles can't change course and don't aim fast. So I'd put railguns on my "missiles" making them essentially AI driven fighters.

The best space battle ever written was at the end of Westerfield's "Risen Empire" and the beginning of "Killing of Worlds".


We know surprisingly little about the biological determinants of sleep, but aside from being a useful adaptation among mammals/reptiles -- it keeps organisms from expending useful energy during diurnal periods associated with increased predation or reduced feeding/reproductive opportunities -- it seems to be a requirement, at a very low level, for our neural architecture. There's some recent research suggesting that glial cells need a regular sleep cycle in order to get rid of molecular by-products of activity, and depriving a vertebrate of sleep indefinitely is damaging and ultimately fatal -- see fatal familial insomnia in humans.

But I don't know of any reason why sleep would be a universal characteristic of sentient organisms. (I would guess that multicellularity is probably a mandatory pre-requisite for the evolution of a nervous system able to retain information about discrete previous states, but sleep? That's something else.)


Another trope I dislike (and another dig at 2312 😉): The Tour of the Solar System, ie I've worked out how I'd colonise the entire place, now let me loosely hang a narrative off it that conveniently requires my protagonist to visit all of it. Space gentrification!

But doesn't that point to the other reason lasers would be useless in a space battle: if you can aim it without melting your mirror, surely I can be shielded from it simply by having a shiny hull?

A broad laser beam at the emitter is focussed to a spot at the target.

Consider that you can focus sunlight to melt sand without melting the lens you are focussing it with.


People will always live on planets. They're only in space to go from one gravity well to the next.


That's by no means a universal bad space opera cliche. And you know what else? The "humans living on a big-ass space station" setting is dangerously close to a cliche, at least when it's done badly.

Space is a high-radiation fault-intolerant microgravity environment. It takes a paranoid degree of attention to life support integrity for humans to live there at all -- much like long-term life aboard a nuclear submarine, only with added happy fun medical conditions (detached retinas, bone mass loss, fluid retention, muscle wasting) due to microgravity.

So the "tin wheel" model of space station probably isn't going to work very well, and the "spinning cylinder with big windows and mirrors" a la Gerard K. O'Neil has big engineering headaches (differential thermal expansion cycling is the big killer for his 1970s L5 colony designs, AIUI). We might get somewhere by digging holes in big-ass lumps of rock and putting our spinning hamster wheels inside them -- it certainly provides a barrier against thermal shock and high energy cosmic rays -- but massive lumps of rock are kind of hard to move to where you need them.


Hm. Couple notes:

  • Money. If you know a good way to mediate exchange without money, I'm sure Nobel Prize committee will be very interested.
  • Money can take many forms, but the cliches you mentioned (bits of metal, pieces of paper or data in database) are there for reason. Bits of metal are hard assets. They have intrinsic value, no counterparty risk, they're easily divisible, fungible and anonymous. Bits of paper are also quite often anonymous and more practical than bits of metal, but they always have the risk of losing their value for one reason or another. They started out as warehouse receipts for those bits of metal and IOU documents. Bits in database can be most practical, but they're rarely anonymous and also carry counterparty risk. Pieces of paper can science-fictionally take many forms (crystalline coins is the traditional cliche, I believe?), but if you have a better idea for money, I'm again sure the Nobel Prize committee will be interested.

As for colonial planets, I find single-government planets relatively plausible for several reasons:

  • It's a colony. It was started up by a single group of people, who probably didn't develop their own traditions, religions or culture in separate (see below). Unless you're dumping multiethnic detritus (ie. criminals, undesirables etc. from multiple polities) or are stupid enough to allow multiple different groups to colonize a single planet.

  • Modern communications. Unless you are building a real "back to nature" colony with hippies (who don't have faintest clue about misery involved), you'll have a reasonable tech base. Which includes planetary communications and (these days) planetary internet. This promotes cultural intercourse and counters cultural divergence along homogenizing planetary culture.Most importantly, it keeps people informed about politics and allows for more-or-less immediate political feedback.

  • Initial government. The Initial colonial government has a significant initial legitimacy advantage. Unless they fark up seriously, in long term and there is no possibility of even semi-peaceful transition (ie. can't vote the bastards out or even arrange a quiet little mostly-bloodless coup to replace the idiots with more reasonable people), nobody will bother with building up a parallel government. And even in this case, the end result will most likely be either idiots keeping their jobs or parallel government personnel either taking over old government and dissolving the revolutionary government or dissolving the old government.


interest on money in bank accounts happens, yet people who work on these ships are still poor.

I sort-of addressed this in "Neptune's Brood". TLDR is that the economic implications of slower-than-light interstellar travel, colonization, and trade are far weirder than most authors realize.


use milligram mass plasma toroids internally stabilized using magnetic fields

So the Wendelstein 7-X is a prototype anti-spaceship weapon?

No, seriously, you got me at "internally stabilized using magnetic fields". That's some serious handwavium you've got going there!


When ships meet in space
- They will always share a common vertical orientation.
- Which will have its up-down axis parallel to the
rotation axis of any nearby planet.
- This will coincide with the direction of the apparent
gravitational field in the ships.
- There is only one direction for gravitation
throughout the whole ship.
- Ships will always come to a relative stop at a distance
sufficiently close they can cover a good portion of the
human visual field to the naked eye.
- This has to happen before any significant interaction
between the ships can occur.
- Ships will willingly and routinely slow down from
interstellar / interplanetary / orbital velocities to
do this.
- Ship manoeuvering mostly involves yawing type motions,
less commonly pitching, and almost never rolling.
- Unless the ship is a single-seat fighter type craft
when it will manoeuver as if flying in an atmosphere.

When meeting aliens / visiting alien environments
- Temperature is never a problem. Aliens all have their
thermostats set to around 20degC inside their
dwellings/vehicles, even if their usual planetary
environment is arctic or tropical.
- gravity, or any change thereof, is never a problem.
Aliens always live in a gravitational field of at most
10N/kg, and even if they live on an obviously lighter
weight planet, never have any difficulty adapting to
"standard gravity".
- Although there will be colonists specially adapted to
higher gravity planets who will always take all the
prizes on sports day.
- Lighting is never a problem. All aliens light their
interior spaces with something that approximates the
spectrum of a G-type star. Even if the light levels
are much lower than is usual for a human, this is not
an indication of different physiology, but more to do
with the moral character of the aliens.
- All aliens apparently use something very similar to
human retinopsins within their visual systems, and
agree with human ideas about 'red', 'green' and 'blue'
being the three primary colours and so forth.
- Consequently aliens never have any problem reading
human display screens or vice-versa.
- Leaving aside atmospheric composition: all inhabited
alien environments have an atmospheric pressure
somewhere around 10kPa, and no one ever has to spend
any time purging themselves of dissolved nitrogen (lest
they get the bends) nor ever suffers from rapture of
the deeps or needs to breath a special gaseous mixture
to cope with the ambient pressure.
- Corrolary: no one's voice ever sounds distorted due
to changed atmospheric composition / modified speed
of sound.


Plasma toroid weapons are actually a plausible thing.


Yes, you can have an anti-laser hull. Of course, the individually-aligned hull plates are going to have to be mirror-finished about as well as the James Webb Space Telescope, or the attacker will find some flaw and begin to burn through. Also, beware of dust. Also, this is going to play havoc with your ability to reject waste heat ...

But frankly, the biggest cliche of all is ship-to-ship combat in space. I mean, combat, why?


Yes. I can think of a better way to local stealth spaceships, destroy sensors and kill people EVA, using existing technology, and I don't see lasers being much use for anything else. Inter alia, a mirror surface provides a lot of protection, for a short time.


Okay, now that I didn't know.

I will note that toting the SHIVA STAR array around in your backpack as a power source doesn't make this sound terribly portable!


I liked the way that you pointed out that our current systems wouldn't work - Cordwainer Smith's system assumed a centralised empire - but am doubtful it would work. What I really do agree with is your comment that any viable system is going to be truly weird to our eyes! Just as our system would look truly weird to someone from the 18th century or earlier.


"No, seriously, you got me at "internally stabilized using magnetic fields". That's some serious handwavium you've got going there!"

Not really.

"But University of Missouri researchers have managed to create rings of plasma that can hold their shape without the use of outside electromagnetic fields"

Of course, if I could describe it perfectly and show it could exist, I would probably be building it and it would not be SF (or even a fusion project)

a mirror surface provides a lot of protection, for a short time.

It provides a very small amount of protection for as long as the top layer of the mirror does not ablate away.

If the lasers involved only develop enough intensity at the target to melt it, then you can quite effectively defend against some small range of wavelengths (eg. near-infrared for the JWST example). Once you start using things that are out of that range (eg. a nice green) then its reflective ability will drop rapidly and it will soon absorb enough energy to fail.

If the lasers involved are capable of rapidly vapourising material at the target rather than merely melting it, then even if you mirror is highly reflective of the specific laser wavelenths it will still fail very quickly.

What you want from laser armour is something with a high vapourisation energy for its mass; shininess optional.


Actually, I think that a compromise would be feasible, subject to the space station being constructed with access to ample nickel-iron and hydrogen/oxygen/nitrogen etc. I did the structural calculations for 14 psi hull/floor thickness, and they came out better than I expected. But it would be only marginally less movable than a damn great lump of rock.


I have used carbon fibre matting to stop laser energy at around 1kW per sq cm continuous. It just glows white hot and re-radiates.
The real weapon would have to be pulsed, and the real defense would be ablative armor. Ice, for example. Note that once the surface is ablated the resulting gas then becomes the absorber.


1kW/cm^2 is barely worth getting out of bed for, if you're trying to blow stuff up. Might do for a laser thermal rocket, maybe?

Ice might not be such a great choice for armour on its own, because if you've got a laser strong enough to vapourise it you'll probably get some cracking and spalling and bits of your armour that aren't being heated by the laser will still be damaged. Something more like pycrete might be better, but a nice big slab of carbon fibres is better still (albeit harder to produce) because it will absorb more energy before vapourising.


Getting back to the original topic:

The amount of power required to do almost anything will be totally ignored. From the gigawatts of power your shuttlecraft will need to just pop back up to orbit to the megajoules of energy stored in a handholdable weapon that can all be released in a microsecond, let alone the continual 1G your spacecraft develops between planets, everything will have compact, clean, safe and reliable batteries or reactors.

Don't modern laptop batteries already have energy density comparable to a hand grenade? When the power module for your blaster says "don't insert the wrong way round or dispose of in a fire" you'd better believe it.


Caution: Improper disposal of this energy clip may lead to charges as a war criminal, terrorist, or worse.


The Fantasy Novelist's Exam

By David J. Parker

PS i the only one, cried cause the first leckie ancillary novel was so good, then cried again cause the 2nd and 3rd were so bad
esp the 3rd; almost exactly the trajectory of the dune series, butas befits the we re less attentive then our forefathers meme, leckie gets there in fewer pages


doesn't D Brin note that a considerate species builds on plate margins, so that over millions of years, tectonics will remove all structures, leaving the planet fallow for the next species ?


if u actually study biology, you find that most of the "rules" get broken - eg the recent discovery of millimeter bacteria
i don't know if the cell surface area rule is that strict; after all, you could have a single giant cell in the form of a hollow cylinder, or bundle of hollow cylinders...tho with multiple transcription centers to avoid issues of diffuse of new protein, you start to stretch the def of cell (eg in neurons, there is an issue of diffusion of proteins down the axons)


Well, these things are often a little more complicated that merely antisocial nose wiggles - I had to re-read the book to find what I was looking for.

Short snippets to not make a huge derail:

'whereas we don't have any Changers.'
'We do, but the one we have is on the other side of the galaxy on an urgent job not connected with the war; it would take half a year to get her there.
Besides, she has never been to Schar's World; the tricky part about this problem is that Bora Horza Gobuchul has'

It might have been nice for the Culture to look after 'their' Changer, especially as not part of the war. Something an enlightened Mind / Civilization might have considered worthwhile...

But, the meta-narrative is that HBG is the one responsible for his species' end and the death of the female Changer he loved, thus the book is book-ended by the fantasy tale within it:

The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking's immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season

It's 30 years old, so taking apart the Male/Active - Female/Passive old crusty trope is of course in there:

Sro Kierachell Zorant. She was what they called a dormant Changer, one who had no training in and no desire to practise Changing, and had accepted the post on Schar's World partly as a relief from the increasingly warlike atmosphere in the Changers' home asteroid of Heibohre....

Horza was sent to Schar's World partly because he was being punished and partly for his own protection. A group of Changers had plotted to fire up the ancient asteroid's power-plants and take it out of Idiran space, make their home and their species neutral again in the war they could see was becoming inevitable. Horza had discovered the plot and killed two of the conspirators.


In meta-meta-news, Empathaur is a twitter troll / anti-feminist / 'ironic' racist. No link, obviously - but that I kinda suspected this irony before a quick search hit it does say something about the cultural impact of SF.

I'm either horribly amused by this or horrifically unsurprised, or both at the same time.


Leading to another one:

* All Space Operas are actually tragedies / love stories


Heteromeles has a pretty good knowledge of biology. Millimeter bacteria only bend the rules, and then not much. Much better examples are the Myxogastria and Labyrinthulomycetes, though it is hard to see how they could develop intelligence. And, of course, the largest single cell is an unfertilised ostrich egg :-) However, the lower limit is pretty fundamental (though loose).


I'd also suggest xenophyophores. Syringammina can get quite large, and has an interesting and complex structure. Probably not much scope for intelligence there, either; they don't really live in a niche that would benefit from an excess of brains.


Why? Spectacle: the energies and speeds involved provide the author with lots of opportunity to unlimber his thesaurus and project his lambent, corruscating prose on the unsuspecting reader.

Also, jeopardy. It's an easy and obvious way to put the protagonist(s) in danger, for that vicarious thrill that make readers want to read the author's books.

Also, also, write a good, well-researched space battle and you'll be brought up in discussions like this for years to come, which is good exposure for the brand.

As for in-fiction reasons, sooner or later, group A is going to want to move something through space that group B doesn't want moved through space, so they'll try to stop it. When diplomacy and politics doesn't do it, main force will seem expedient to someone.


People will always live on planets. They're only in space to go from one gravity well to the next.
I know others have remarked on this but ....
"Orbitals" as in Culture, & Ringworld, of course.
Dyson Spheres - what they?


Correct, but you must remember that HB is just trolling .... ( for effect )


Ahh, missed this bit:

Note that once the surface is ablated the resulting gas then becomes the absorber.

The cloud of gas is necessarily less effective than the solid that produced it, on account of being less dense/taking up more volume: there'll be less stuff in the way of the beam, and when the beam heats it up it'll get out of the way faster.

In a vacuum the cloud of hot stuff will expand very rapidly indeed, to the point where it will only actually offer meaningful protection for a very short period of time (say in the half-millisecond between laser pulses). In an atmosphere it'll hang around a bit longer, though breezes/convection/shockwaves would thin it out and of course if you are moving you'll leave it behind. In a confined space though (yay, boarding actions!) the combination of nice carbon armour and a thick cloud of sooty smoke would probably render most lasers a bit useless.

You could try and trap the gas cloud and make better use of it. If you could generate and electromagnetically confine a layer of sufficiently dense, cold plasma between you and the shooter you could maybe use it as an energy shield (which glows in pretty colours!), potentially opaque to all sorts of EM radiation (not x-rays and other short wavelengths). It'd be very hard to engineer such a thing, but not not impossible. Wouldn't help against projectiles, of course.


You have missed the point. If a mirror reflects x% of the radiation, then the laser has to be 100/(100-x) times as powerful as the level needed to destroy the material if it were not reflective. Holding a laser on a location isn't likely to be feasible, so we are talking near-instantaneous effects, and probably using pulsed lasers.


On a low note, in "Star Drek" Captain Jerk hands off command of the Booby Prize to Mr. Schlock so he can run off with a bleach blond in a red convertible on the planet Schwartz. How can he think there's much chance they're mechanically compatible? She might have an unusual PH even if tab "A" fits slot "B". Her species might even collect a little something from their mate.
Probably safer to write really alien aliens...

  • All planets have active plate tectonics
  • Planet-satellite size ratios similar to the Earth-Moon system are common
  • Introducing human gut bacteria into an existing alien biosphere never has any effect
  • Alien life has developed into the same major classifications as Earth life: reptiles, insects, fungi, etc.
  • The future banking system uses biometrics (retina scans, fingerprints) to verify identity, because of course those never change
  • Colonized planets never have annoying mild endemic diseases that travellers have to deal with
  • Tourist infrastructure consists of that one hotel catering to off-worlders, never a huge tacky psuedo-authentic district that the locals avoid unless they work there
  • Local businesses will always treat offworlders just like any other customers
  • 201:

    A few extras (unless others have mentioned them):

    - The Government of the galactic/terran/alien empire/federation/alliance will have a senate that can totally fit all the senators from a thousand worlds and not suffer from a) too many citizens per senator to be properly representative of b) too many senators for the hall to fit and to get any meaningful debate/policy done

    - There will be one human empire, one alien empire, one robot empire. None of these races will be disunited

    - When there isn't one empire per race there's a shiney multi-species cosmopolitan polity, regardless of if the mentalities and social structures of each race are mutually intelligible (let alone compatible)

    - Technology transfer between alien races will be very limited. Of course a primitive government couldn't just ask a tramp freighter captain to download the Wikipedia of the more advanced polity when he drops off his ore delivery. Because reasons.

    - Surgery is good enough to make any of the protagonists look, sound and respond to tests like an alien (never mind social training, they can read the wiki page for the alien whilst at warp). Said surgery will put them back to human by the end of the chapter/episode. Obviously there are no ramifications to such drastic mastery of the body.

    - Spacecraft will be referred to as ships and have captains, pilots, engineers and miscellaneous crew.


    If I recall correctly, Greg Bear was postulating cells that were entire organisms as the norm. As my cell biology friend pointed out when I told him about it, the lack of surface area on which to perform reactions makes that structure questionable at best. While there are large cells (the biggest ever being neurons in things like blue whales and sauropods, and algae like Caulerpa), almost all life runs on tiny cells. That especially includes all the bacteria that keep the biosphere going.

    The basic challenge is surface area to volume. Surface area scales as the square, volume scales as the cube, but a lot of enzymatic reactions, such as the ones that power both photosynthesis and respiration, take place on surfaces, which is why you see so much folded membrane in mitochondria and chloroplasts. If you go for huge cells, you've got to pack them with subcellular membranes, just to keep them functioning, because you're getting progressively more unfavorable ratios for the membrane that forms the surface of your cell.

    If you have macrocyte organisms rather than multicellular organisms (think a single cell acting as, say, the ecological equivalent of a raccoon), you also lose the ability to have cells specialize to make things like bones, muscles, or a multicellular immune system, so the macrocyte needs organelles to specialize for each of these tasks. It's also a bit harder for to deal with wounds in single large cells, as we know from trying to heal long neurons. IIRC, some sea slugs even attack macrocyte algae, suck their chloroplasts out, and rearrange them inside themselves so that they can photosynthesize. For whatever reason, nothing I know of does that with plants that have normal-sized cells.

    Finally, as a macrocyte it's a lot harder to deal with symbionts and endocellular parasites, since there are fewer internal barriers. Indeed, plants, with their plasmodesmata interconnecting cells, have a lot of problems with things like bacteria spreading through the plant and clogging the system. It is true that land plants and Caulerpa have independently come up with the similar large-scale structures (leaves, stems, stolons), one through interconnected multicellularity, the other through complexifying its cell development. However, AFAIK, land plants have massively more complex symbioses. These are intermediated, in some cases, by novel structures like root caps, domatia, and orchid mycorrhizomes. That may well be why they took over the land, while Caulerpa's line has (with the exception of Caulerpa taxifolia) remained relatively obscure.

    But you're right, this is all speculation.


    Greg, here are some megastructures for you to boggle at:

    Alderson disk (sort of like the LP record equivalent of a ringworld's tape loop -- much larger surface area)

    Dyson spheres (hollow shell around a star, or a constellation of orbiting free-flying solar collectors/habitats at various orbital inclinationsso numerous they capture all available solar output - much bigger than a ringworld or even an Alderson disk in terms of surface area)

    Matrioshka brain -- what happens when you make a Dyson sphere of free-flyers devoted to maximizing the computational capacity of a solar system by utilizing all available energy and mass for thinking -- typically relies on solar-powered computronium processor nodes.


    Scanning the comments... linguistics peeves, you say?

    • There is always one obvious correct way to say things in other languages. E.g., languages which distinguish between the familiar and formal "you", such as tu/vous in French, or /Usted in Spanish. Try to precisely define the boundary where you switch from one to the other...
    • The language as spoken on the planet always matches the language as taught in the textbook/memory chip
    • Knowledge of the standard form of the language means full understanding of all dialects
    • There is only one recognized standard form of the language
    • Slang never exists in other languages
    • Computer translation never requires any knowledge of social context
    • Body language is universal

    And some other stuff:

    • Oxygen-breathing is the default-- humans have the run of the space station, while aliens with other respiratory needs are stuck in the Weirdass Biology sector
    • Computers never run out of storage space
    • Flash-drive equivalents are always able to hold all your data in one unit
    • The Universal Internet always has the data you're looking for replicated locally
    • And it is never behind a paywall
    • The Universal Internet never has latency or capacity issues
    • Skin/hair/eye color modification is quick and easy, yet is somehow not subject to the whims of fashion
    • GPS-like navigation can happen any planet regardless of the nonpresence of artificial satellites, obstructions between you and the sky, etc.

    Problem 1: it must reflect x% of the specific wavelength of light delivered by the laser. You are not really going to make a super reflective armour material that works really well against, say, near-infrared and mid-visible light.

    Problem 2: the (100-x)% of energy that does get through must not be enough to destroy the reflectivity of the mirror. Rendering a mirror non-mirrorlike requires less effort than blasting through the mirror entirely. As soon as it loses a significant amount of its reflectivity, the armour becomes no more useful than its component materials.

    Problem 3: the operating environment of the armour must be such that the mirror remains highly reflective. This is fine if you stay in space all the time (you may still need to clean it, depending on where you are) but this will be a problem if you ever enter an atmosphere.

    (1) means anyone with two different lasers, or one laser than can be frequency-shifted can defeat your armour.

    (2) means that anyone with a sufficiently powerful laser can defeat your armour. This includes but is not limited to very high pulse power devices.

    (3) means you can't armour everything all the time.

    Compare an contrast with a nice layer of ablative carbon-carbon, which works against all laser types, doesn't require cleaning, remains effective until burned all the way through and can be used as a re-entry shield. There's a reason why 80s-era starwars systems considered ablative armouring on target ICBMs, but mirrored armouring was entirely ignored.

    Anyway, I fear this topic is becoming invasive, so perhaps it is best to move on.


    Nobody doing maintenance ever needs to consult a tech manual.

    And if they do, it's magically kept up to date... and entirely consistent across multiple generations of jury-rigging, kludged repairs, and deferred maintenance. And language barriers. And they're all free, so nobody economizes by letting their update subscriptions lapse.

    All of the tools in the known universe — even for ancient alien stuff — are metric and properly calibrated.

    All of the spare parts in the known universe — even for ancient alien stuff — are metric, properly calibrated... and easily and cheaply available without special order or a machine shop. And they all fit the first time, too, and work on the ancient alien stuff without any electrochemical or thermal incompatibilities.

    There is an infinite supply of clean uniforms and clothing available, all of which continue to look new all the time and none of which require any storage space or weight penalty. Conversely, nobody knows how to patch anything... because they never need to. Whether the laundry systems can magically remove stains from lubricants — let alone unknown alien ichor — is unknown (see the first sentence).

    Uniform designers still haven't heard of pockets.

    There are no decorative arts, and nobody does any craft or arts off duty as a way to relax. At most, there will be something resembling small-scale gambling; the illustration I've used is "there is no off-duty punk-equivalent band among the load toads," which is actually counter to every gunpowder-era military force in human history. Nobody decorates their lockers with anything other than a single sentimental photo of family/lust-objects.

    There are no food allergies. Not even to alien stuff. Unless, that is, it's almost instantly fatal.


    All alien species come in male and female. The female may be non-sentient (See Niven, who invented no less than FOUR alien species with a non-sentient female!)

    * All male aliens have a phallus.

    * All female aliens are valued for their beauty.
    -- Male humans may find them beautiful as well.

    * Alien offspring are grown inside the female's body, and fed from the female's body after birth.
    -- (Occasionally literally, if the offspring kills the mother and devours her at birth as a normal part of the species reproduction.)

    * The male's primary concern towards his offspring is towards the eldest male, designated his heir. This child will receive one on one tutoring on various subjects. This will nearly always include hand to hand combat.
    -- Female offspring are currency to buy marriage alliances. This is SpaceFantasyEurope.


    Back on topic again: atmospheric re-entry is easy. Its like landing a plane, maybe a bit bumpier.

    You don't have to worry about any of the following:
    - coming in too steep and burning up
    - having a damaged heat shield, and burning up
    - tumbling out of control and burning up
    - losing control authority (because no-one does ballistic re-entries)
    - covering up exhaust ports to prevent your engines being incinerated
    - retracting sensor booms to prevent them being incinerated
    - worry about loss of communication whilst you're in a plasma sheath

    Once you've safely re-entered (the "safe" is redundant, because nothing bad can happen, see above), you won't:
    - need to use drogue chutes or anything to slow down
    - need to replace your heat shield, which is entirely non-ablative and multi-use


    "Indeed, plants, with their plasmodesmata interconnecting cells, have a lot of problems with things like bacteria spreading through the plant and clogging the system."

    Not really, any more than animals do. They have mechanisms for restricting such growth that are at least partially effective, and even mechanisms for 'losing' viral infections during cell division. God alone knows how the latter works, but it is a sadly underresearched topic. I don't see that our sort of cell structure is essential, but I fully agree that an alien without it is NOT going to be a massive amoeba, and is going to have at least as much structure we do. Just perhaps not in cellular form.


    I agree about the Romanticism. It's worth remembering that the original Romantic movement was, to some degree, anti-science. It was the movement that brought us Frankenstein as a response to worries about where medicine was going, after all.

    That anti-science bias certainly shows, especially in things like Star Wars. Quantum Thief is another example of this, too. I got a lot happier about reading it when I started treating it as a Vancian fantasy, rather than hard SF.

    So yes, Star Wars is space opera, but neither The Martian nor Red/Green/Blue Mars are. While we could say that it's about the tone, it really is about whether they're pro-science or anti-science. Classic space opera comes down firmly on the anti-science side, at least in the cases I can think of.* After all, we're arguing about all space opera's stupid tropes here.

    While I agree that a sense of wonder is appropriate, it's typically about the stuff that's "beyond" science, whether it's alien artifacts that seem to prove the existence of (cough, cough) god, stuff that's beyond human comprehension, life beyond death, or the ultimate post-science destiny of sentient life. It's not the Mythbusters sense of wonder that some experiment actually worked for a change. Instead, it's a wonder that portrays science as inferior, while the human spirit emerges triumphant regardless of it all.

    *The interesting test case is Brin and Benford's Heart of the Comet, which was slanted as hard science when it was written, but which gets pretty operatic in places. Is it a space opera that's also pro-science, or is it hard SF but not space opera?


    Another question is, how operatic does space opera have to be? I know that was a sarcastic reference to it being a ripoff of "horse opera" westerns, but should good space opera rise to an operatic emotion pitch in the climax, or not?

    Also, does a space opera have to reach the emotional peak through violence? Or is it possible for there to be light space opera, the equivalent of The Barber of Seville?

    Finally, we can ask why these are popular now. Is there something going on in the world that makes people want to stop thinking and hope that they can conquer the future with emotional power alone?


    The C.A.O.S. Manifesto is indeed splendid. Arguable, poetically out-spoken, but splendid -- especially in how it nails the ideological assumptions underpinning the program proposed by the Mars colony proponents.


    - everyone belonging to a specific culture will follow the same dress code. (haircuts don't vary either)
    - robes are popular with a huge number of species across time and space.
    - spacefaring folk will use robes if they're not into the whole skintight-jumpsuit thing.
    - if you are a wise and noble Elf In Spaaaaace, you aren't allowed to opt out of the robe requirement.


    I note that the whole "manifest destiny" riff that the space colony boosters play around with is immensely romanticist in outlook -- it's the same strain of perverted romanticism that drove Hitler's quest for lebensraum in the east, and, earlier, the conquistadors' bloody-handed rampage through the newly-opened Americas.

    So there's a spectrum in play here. You can do Mars colonization in the nuts'n'bolts engineering mode -- be in survival mode ("The Martian") or nation-building mode (KSR's Mars trilogy) -- but you can also do it in a romantic mode -- as in Jean le Flambeur's breaking of the Oubliette on Mars in "The Quantum Thief". It's all about tone, and striking heroic poses, and ideology.

    Flip side: the gothic novel can be viewed as a subset of -- or a reaction to -- the romantic, and is obsessed with decay and claustrophobia. It's what you get when the space colony ecosystem has crashed and the last shuttle has left -- as seen in the early part of "Schismatrix" by Bruce Sterling, or in "Absolution Space" by Alastair Reynolds (which rediscovered and rebooted Sterling's tropes a decade later).


    This is the first time I heard of space opera being fundamentally anti-science. I am not sure I agree, but if you are right, then "Heart of the Comet" is a space opera turned on its head -- with back-to-nature environmentalists being the villains.

    Now that I think of it, "Evil, or at least badly misguided, Greens" trope is quite common in modern SF, but usually takes place in present, or in near future. "Heart of the Comet", written in mid 80's and taking place in 2062 through 2137, just places this trope a bit farther in time, edging on space opera timeframe.


    IR to mid visible - yes, quite easily. Aluminium, silver, and gold mirrors work quite happily from about 400nm to at least 25µm*. You might not be able to manage a dielectric coating to cover this range - but then, space-ship sized sputtering machines don't come cheap either.

    The difficult bit is visible to X--ray - just about every material I know of that works as a mirror for the long-wavelength side absorbs shorter wavelengths. You can't even do diffractive optics across that range instead, there's just too many orders of magnitude(100µm at the far IR end up to about 0.1nm at the X-ray end, I cound 6 orders minimum if we're in hanwavium laser territory).

    No, if we're in handwavium territory, ablative armour is where it's at - afterall, one of the cliches is the reaction mass apparently not being a constraint, so why not use that?

    *The experiment I dismantled for lab space for my PhD used a 500W CO2 laser(λ=10.6µm) for dipole trapping: its mirrors were 3 inch deep cylinders of copper (as heatsink) with a 100nm layer of gold on the end surface for the mirror; each dissipated between 5-10W of heat absorbed from the laser beam. They also served for the 480nm excitation beam (very pretty blue). They also didn't last long - the high intensity beam guided dust particles onto the surface, and then burnt them on.


    earlier, the conquistadors' bloody-handed rampage through the newly-opened Americas

    The recent-ish scholarship I've brushed up against on that subject puts a lot of emphasis on how the principal conquistador figures were poorer than dirt in their antecedents, uneducated, and were using popular romantic stories to mediate their intensely short-term focus on getting rich. Since the romantic stories assumed a context that the conquistadors -- and various others -- were totally ignorant of, the results were unexpected.

    (Quick! is it better or worse to have dropped a frightful brick, or to have dropped a brick? And that context is quivering on the edge of living memory even still.)

    One of the things where I think space opera is very weak is that it presumes a cohesion of purpose that's never existed. It's nigh-certain that the folks sent off to build the stupendous works of mega-engineering will have objectives their imperial patrons don't.


    Always puzzled me why people think they are being clever remembering Newtonian mechanics when talking about zero-g sex.

    Well, because I'm not actually that clever, I'll note that people manage to injure themselves while engaged in sexual activities in a gravity field. Even held place by the force of one gravity one can find it somewhat tricky. I suspect that zero-gravity sex is likely to be a complex skill to learn. Rather like gravity sex, perhaps.

    As for the physiological changes due to zero-g, I'm thinking in particular of lowered blood pressure. I leave it to people cleverer than me to work out how that might effect sexual activities (especially those involving the penis).


    (See Niven, who invented no less than FOUR alien species with a non-sentient female!)

    I think you are exaggerating. Kzinti and Slavers had non-sentient females, yes. Grogs had non-sentient males. Puppeteers are an odd case: Both egg-producing and sperm-producing genders called themselves "male". What they called "female" was the host species devoured by the Puppeteer larva.

    So it is not that Puppeteers had non-sentient females -- all Puppeteers were sentient, but their word for "female" meant something very different.


    Another structure from the Romantic era that we haven't considered: secret societies. How often do space operas use the trope of the Illuminati, secret groups that are really running things?

    I've also been reading Hutton's Triumph of the Moon, which is an analysis of where Wicca came from. He points out that ceremonial magic kind of disappeared in the Enlightenment, swallowed by the proliferation of secret societies like the Freemasons and the (rumored) illuminati and Rosicrucians. Along about 1850, Eliphas Levi created the more modern idea of High Magic in France, and that was followed by the creation of the Golden Dawn in England around 1880. Much of what we think of as modern magic (and Wicca) come from Levi's high magic and the Golden Dawn synthesis.

    But a lot of it shows up in space opera too: look at the Jedi. Everyone thinks of them as Taoists, but real Taoists are neurohackers. Jedi are the Knights Templar with a sheep-dip of theosophy and Zen. In Star Trek, we've got the psychic powers of the Vulcans, in Star Gate we've got the evolved masters, in the Lens series we've got Arisians and Eddorians, and so forth.

    Indeed, scientists in space opera tend to get relegated to the role of pre-Enlightenment magicians, running around after grimoires (excuse me, new scientific knowledge) and selling their souls for Mad Science and power, and having to be rescued from their folly entirely too often.

    So that's another set of tropes we should explore: secret knowledge, secret societies, and the extent to which they control reality, for good and evil.


    He also invented Chirpsithra (non-sentient males). I don't see any problem with one sex being non-sentient, if the other cares for the young.


    I remember the Trinocs having a non-sentient female as well. And I do count the Puppeteers. First, because they CALL themselves male, whatever their gametes may say, and second, when there are 3 other species in a fictional universe that have non-sentient females, it's starting to look like a bad trend.


    I had plans -- abandoned due to complexity (and reasons related to business practicalities) -- for a third Freyaverse novel, working title "Probing Uranus", which was going to lightly riff off the plot complexity of The Marriage of Figaro. In other words: a screwball comedy of deception and masquerade, whereby a planet of [resurrected] humans in the Freyaverse pretend to be Aliens for the benefit of an arriving Cathedral of the Church of the Fragile, while the clergy aboard the Cathedral pretend to be ordinary robots, and an incoming trade ship full of con men robots pretend to be human beings in order to bilk the Aliens of whatever they've got. (Whackiness ensues as each faction falls down badly at behaving like the faction they're impersonating.)

    Not gonna get written. (Don't worry, I'll do something better instead -- when I come up with it.)


    You are STILL missing my point. If the laser has to operate only in very short pulses (as it almost certainly does), destroying the surface where it hits doesn't help, because you need a second hit on the same spot to get through. Think probabilities. And my understand is that aluminium (for example) reflects well from ultraviolet to the infrared - short ultraviolet being its weakest area - and that current X-ray lasers are only weakly coherent and gamma lasers are handwavium.


    But I'm afraid I obscured my main point by bringing up a popular author.

    Why are there male and female? Why does there have to be sex specialization?

    Exchange of genes, I believe, would be necessary for evolution to take place, but why does it have to take place between subtypes X and Y of species Z? What if species Z has all one type, and any two of them can exchange genes?

    And all the animals on their planet are one sex. That's how life evolved. What is special about two? It's just what worked here.


    Heh. Call those megastructures? I'll give you megastructures, the way only seriously-over-the-top anime can do megastructures.

    The giant vaguely-humanoid mecha "Super Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is 52.8 billion light years tall, according to the official guide book from GAINAX". That's a little over half the size of the observable Universe.

    It gets beaten up by a slightly larger Bad Guy mecha later in the story.


    I think it's a very telling authorial quirk.

    Come up with it once or twice in a wildly creative 30 year career? No problem.

    Come up with some variant of it four or five times ...? That begins to look like a kink, or at least a weird-ass cognitive failure mode.

    We don't have much data on raising sentient animals from scratch, and it's almost all based on humans, but children are really labour-intensive, educating them is no less so, and if one sex is non-sentient, congratulations: you just doubled the workload on the other sex.

    (Not to mention that traits are conserved across sexes within a given species; consider why male humans have nipples, for example. To lose the whole set of traits that lead to sentience in one sex but not the other would require some really wild-ass selection process -- such as deliberate selective breeding over a period of hundreds of generations, in a direction detrimental to species survival.)


    Actually, you could make a case for Earth being unusual. In general, stellar populations follow a power law with respect to mass.

    Short version, there are lot more red dwarf stars out there than G type main sequence stars like ours. The habitable zone for such stars is closer to the primary, where planets would probably be tidally locked, with one face in perpetual sunlight. Maybe the norm for habitable planets is a narrow circumpolar twilightzone, with no diurnal cycle. Which would make us rare and a bit weird.


    Not sure about the impossibility of mono-cultural and mono-governmental spacefaring civs. Humans used to have a vast number of cultures and languages in the past. In the neolithic probably every tribe had its distinct dialect /language and religion. Today some sort of capitalist society dominates everywhere, with an ever shrinking number of national languages with millions of speakers, similar laws, similar costumes, similar food, world religions etc.


    Your example shows that mirrors that *can* reflect over a wide range of wavelengths aren't really very good at doing so, because of the amount of light they absorb. Your mirrors needed (comparatively) huge heatsinks, even though they were reflecting laser light that hadn't been focussed to a destructive degree. I see commercial gold laser mirrors tolerating ~1500W/cm^2 of near-IR, but commercial metalcutting really wants intensities of over ten times that in order to be useful and military lasers will want higher intensities still. That mirror armour is toast. Backing it with a big copper heatsink will give everyone an excellent lesson about bremmstrahlung during the next solar flare.


    Oh yeah, and our weirdly large moon may tend to stabilise the Earth's axis of rotation. Although it's complicated.


    Today some sort of capitalist society dominates everywhere

    That's an unsupported assertion. Consider that the majority -- around 75% -- of human interactions are not monetized; family groups usually run on pure communism internally ("from each according to their ability; to each according to their needs"), otherwise we'd see parents charging their kids for accommodation and play-time.

    Capitalism is the preferred resource-extraction mode of imperialism, and insofar as we're living in an era dominated by a planetary trade empire, capitalism is ubiquitous -- but I'm not convinced it's inevitable or persistent (once we pass through the current spike of scientific and technological innovation, either to collapse again or to reach some sort of high technology post-industrial equilibrium state).

    National languages ... yes. Similar laws: that's a side-effect of the trade empire (enforcing its norms globally). similar costumes, foods ... nope, what's happening is globalization. Languages are another matter, and world religions are competing for mind share -- that's orthogonal to the imperial process, although one cluster of faiths is more tightly associated with the Empire than others -- but you can't necessarily disentangle this from simply being a side-effect of population growth and vastly more fluid communications.


    To me, it seems more likely to be a symptom of an unhappy marriage. Just a guess, as I've never met Mr. or Mrs. Niven.


    They've been together for about 50 years, AIUI. Doesn't sound very unhappy to me. (Also: I'd like to discourage further speculation along these lines.)


    Yes and ... ??
    Wasn't there a super-Dyson sphere round a globular cluster proposed at one point?
    [ We'll ignore problems with novae, extra radiation from such an enclosure melting the shell, etc, for now ....


    There are no decorative arts, and nobody does any craft or arts off duty as a way to relax.
    H Beam Piper nailed that one down in "Space Viking" .. lots of the crew/officers had "hobbies" that were esoteric/intellectual/artistic to while away the time "In hyper" ....


    Why are there male and female? Why does there have to be sex specialization?

    Because gametes have a cost, and there's two energetically successful approaches; MANY low cost gametes, or relatively few high-cost/higher success gametes. There isn't an evolutionary stable strategy for medium numbers/medium cost.

    We call the producers of the many low-cost gametes male, and the producers of the relatively few high-cost gametes female.

    (This leaves out questions of transportation costs for gametes, the stuff single-celled organisms do to exchange the medium of heredity, sex effects on cellular metabolism, and issues of stability of sex-selection by chromosomes over evolutionary time. It's biology, it's fractally complex.)


    Instead, it's a wonder that portrays science as inferior, while the human spirit emerges triumphant regardless of it all.
    Pleas, Sir, can I go out to be violently sick?


    as in Jean le Flambeur's breaking of the Oubliette on Mars in "The Quantum Thief".
    I'm going to have to try reading those again & see if I can work out W T F is actually happening, if anything outside the various narrator's heads or drug hazes, or whatever, maybe.


    It helps to bear in mind that Hannu is bright enough to have actually made a caper plot that hinges on the technical details of quantum cryptography. (Which is a real thing, BTW.)

    "The Quantum Thief" was beaten to the Hugo shortlist in its year of publication by the comparatively primitive and crude "The Expanse" ... by two nominations.

    I have this theory that it doesn't pay to be too smart when you're writing SF/F because the majority of readers approach it looking for brainless escapism. Hannu provides a datum point for this theory.


    I don't think capitalism is inevitable, persistent (or, for that matter, particularyl desireable) either. Between capitalism and imperialism, which one is the preferred resource extraction method of which depends on whom you ask. Lenin, for instance, would disagree with you. :)

    Capitalism, of course, does not encompass all human relationships (familial, domestic labourwise, social etc), but that wasn't my point. A couple of centuries ago capitalism as a top-level socio-economic system coexisted with various feudalisms, pastoralisms and ancestral hunter-gathering. Not anymore.

    As to globalisation (and global trade), I don't think that is something distinct from capitalism. IIRC, the ratio of global trade to global GDP was not that different than today back in 1913. People had already started adopting foreign fashions and foods at a large scale. But, say, 200 years ago, e.g. Japan was vastly different than France. Not today.

    The point is, there is a clear trend of cultural homogeneisation and political unification (we have UN, WTO, IMF, etc) in human history. We might as well end up in a cliche communist world republic a la Star Trek rather than a posthumanistic fragmented species.


    There are no long-term societal goals other than expansion, maintaining the status quo, or making everyone happier.

    Realistically, SHOULD there be long-term societal goals? Historically, human societies either do not have any long-term goals at all, or have some combination of the three you listed.

    By "long-term" I mean "significantly longer than human lifespan", so if human lifespan greatly increases, so will the realistic timeframe for societal goals. But generally, I do not believe any human society can maintain a defined goal which does not map onto one of the above three over multiple generations. In fact, any society which DOES so, would be by definition alien or post-human.


    Why are there male and female? Why does there have to be sex specialization?

    I'm not a biologist, but...

    There are some organisms that satisfy your description of species Z: most snails are hermaphrodites, and can exchange genes in either direction.

    Why there are two sexes is an interesting question: most single-celled organisms that reproduce sexually also have two mating types, so the "one provider of small numbers of large gametes and one provider of large numbers of small gametes" idea is not a sufficient explanation. One suggestion (see also here; not sure if either of these is open access, since sometimes my university account lets me through paywalls so smoothly that I don't see that they're there) is that having two and only two mating types is necessary, or at least selectively advantageous, to avoid potentially damaging competition in cytoplasmic inheritance (e.g. mitochondria).

    This is interesting: on Earth all multicellular life evolved (multiple times; multicellularity is obviously advantageous enough that several lineages discovered it independently) from eukaryotic cells with cytoplasmic organelles. It appears that, for whatever reason, it's hard for terrestrial prokaryotes to evolve multicellularity. It is not obvious that this would hold for alien life, and if it did not, the references linked above suggest that evolution would favour the development of very large numbers of mating types (this has happened in mushrooms: the linked article says that "It is estimated that some 160 different A mating types exist in nature" in the ink cap mushroom, Coprinus cinereus (just to complicate the issue further, there's another mating type locus, B, not much discussed in the paper). The sociology of a society with 160 different genders might be, er, interesting...

    The evolution of sexual reproduction is itself non-trivial to explain: the argument that it "would be necessary for evolution to take place" doesn't wash, because evolution is not a conscious or directed process—a mutation that has short-term costs will not, in general, prosper even if it provides long-term gains. Therefore, the so-called "two-fold cost of sex" (only half of the individuals can produce offspring) has to yield immediate benefits if it is to survive. There's a discussion here. Basically, you need some aspect of the environment that changes rapidly enough for the increased variation produced by sexual reproduction to have immediate benefits. This seems to be a fairly easy condition to meet, hence the ubiquity of sexual reproduction. There are, however, some very successful asexual species: the common dandelion is mostly asexual, and a glance at my lawn tells me that it is entirely capable of outcompeting grass...


    Mental work can go into a book, I just want it to be the authors work not mine. I'd rather not have to work for it, but I like to see that you did. The Expanse is appreciated because it tells an old fashioned kind of story with more up to date knowledge. Because it fills a gap between anything goes FTL space fantasy and near future tales set on Earth. It tells the kind of story the FTL fantasies do without taking the liberties they do. And this is good. This is appreciated because it's needed. I started reading The Quantum Thief, but couldn't get far because I didn't know what was going on and didn't care about anybody. It's similar to Seeds of Earth (which Banks blurbed) in that. The first chapter read like a video game and the second chapter was unreadable. It was set on a colonized planet, just throwing unpronounceable names of unfamiliar plants and animals at me and I just didn't care. Same with Luna, the new book by Ian MacDonald. There was one character that grabbed me, a lower class type trying to survive, just followed for a short way to show the background, then it's into the upper crust types having a party and meeting each other and posing and learning 30 different names and what people are wearing. Threw it down and finally looked at Existence by Brin, totally different. I care about every single character, and even though alien stuff is thrown at me it's done in such a way I know what's important, and nothing is just forcing me to admire the window dressing.


    My response to a book should not be "is this on the test?"


    My understanding, which comes from stories about sea slugs doing "penis fencing," (yes, that's a thing with non-humans too), is that the female of the pair gets stuck with a greater investment in producing the offspring, having to lay the eggs and such. As a result, in species that are both male and female, there can be competition to not be the one stuck producing the eggs, and this can get rather violent.

    Note that this isn't necessarily worse than what males do to each other in their attempts to be the sperm donor. The general point is that, as with all things in life, reproduction is imperfect, there are costs, and often evolution favors one group trying to get away from paying the costs at the expense of sticking it to others.

    Personally, my favorite under-explored life cycle is heteromorphic alternation of generations. That's *fun* to play with.


    "Finally, we can ask why these are popular now."

    Start Warts. People haven't stopped going on about it since the first one came out; there's just been a new one to get everyone going on about it even more, and AIUI there's another one on the way. Charlie's publishers see this and think "hey, let's get Charlie to write Start Verrucas, that'd coin it in".

    "Is there something going on in the world that makes people want to stop thinking and hope that they can conquer the future with emotional power alone?"

    Yes. People exist.


    Yes indeed. I'm rather disgusted that I said it myself. Then again, I started honestly looking at all the space operas I'd read and seen, and that came through rather clearly.


    Problem with all those megastructures that work on the principle of a ring or shell orbiting a central star is that it isn't stable. Any perturbation that disturbs it from perfect concentricity will result in out-of-balance forces tending to increase the deviation, etc. etc. until one side of it hits the star. To make it work you need some form of active stabilisation. Or else you can abandon one or other of the establishing characteristics, so you get either an Iain Banks Orbital or Saturn-type rings. It seems that not a lot of people know this.


    Not to mention the tensile strength thing. Incidentally there are apparently rings and spheres in the Cultureverse. CP ch 5, para 109 "[the Vavatch Orbital] was bested for what the Culture would call gasp value only by a big Ring , or a Sphere". Very long thin Oniel cylinders without all the silly glass are your best bet. You can use artificial light. And stack layers of them them inside of each other with cool gaps and canyons for hang gliding.


    Incidentally, I think it's okay for spaceships to be symmetrical.

    Charlie's complaining about bilateral symmetry, i.e. where the left side is a reflection of the right, but no other symmetry pertains. Like, to name one random example, any incarnation of NCC-1701 Enterprise, or nearly every spaceship on the cover of an SF book.

    If one hasn't got control of gravity fields, then the forces acting on a spaceship are more like those acting on a building than on an airliner, and the design problems simplify if the spaceship architect goes for two-plane symmetry (in human reference terms, so that the front is mirrored by the back, as well as right and left) or radial symmetry of whatever order pleases.

    Also, if we're talking warships, symmetrical coverage of weapons is better than asymmetrical defences so that there are no obvious weak angles to attack or blindspots to take advantage of. The most egregious example of this I recall is the asinine design of the space battleship in the single-season series Space: Above and Beyond, designed exactly like a wet navy battleship with all its guns on one side, and which got attacked in one episode by the cunning aliens on the "underside". Fiendish alien thinking! Who could have anticipated that?

    Asymmetry is also okay, if the writer or designer can pull it off.


    "I think it's a very telling authorial quirk."

    Agreed. But I disagree about its implausibility - there is no need for children to be as dependent as ours are, and lots of animals have major differences in the sexes. Even among vertebrates, there are angler fish etc. I do accept that 'our' sort of child-rearing is implausible with only one sentient sex, but it's not the only plausible one.


    "Ahh, missed this bit:

    Note that once the surface is ablated the resulting gas then becomes the absorber.

    The cloud of gas is necessarily less effective than the solid that produced it, on account of being less dense/taking up more volume: there'll be less stuff in the way of the beam, and when the beam heats it up it'll get out of the way faster."

    OTOH the cloud of gas doesn't have to absorb: it's enough for it to disrupt the focus of the beam and so bugger up the concentration of energy. (Which it will do pretty much regardless of what it's made of because of the differences in refractive index between it and the surrounding medium.)

    This is a known problem both for industrial laser materials processing and for military use of lasers as fancy guns. The solution is to use very short laser pulses to deliver the energy faster than the gas cloud can develop.

    Another aspect is that this sudden vaporisation of target material on sub-nanosecond timescales is equivalent to a small explosive charge going off at the point the beam hits. In materials processing you see the effect that the shorter the laser pulses the more effective it is, even if the average power is unchanged; in weapons systems it gives another and probably more useful damage mode.

    Damage to mirrors when reflecting a laser beam is something that becomes a consideration at power levels under a watt. The energy concentrations are such that even dirt invisible to the eye on the mirror will absorb enough energy to ruin it. The beam-steering for the military lasers that Charlie and I mentioned earlier is done by generating a very wide beam and using a curved mirror to focus it on the target, thus keeping the energy concentrations at the emitting end low. Another area of research for such applications is the generation of stable refractive index gradients in gases, to produce optical components that instantly repair themselves.


    Oh, yes, indeed. I was thinking of one where the plant/animal distinction had developed only after sexual reproduction, and most species alternated between the two. The seed, pollen and pollinating insect analogues would be the animal forms of the plants, which is a much more efficient mechanism, hence stable. The uterus of a mammalogue would be the plant form of the animal. Etc. It's been used in SF but not, in my view, at all well.


    You can make a cloud of statites approximate a ring/dyson sphere reasonably well, at least for doing frivolous things like trying to build a nicoll-dyson laser or stellar engine. It also avoids all of the problems with the handwavium required to build the really big megastructures, let alone the sheer mass you'd need you build a full sphere. I don't know how close you could situate the statites though, and I've no idea about how easy it would be to travel from one to a neighbour, though. Might be hard.


    I can't remember what the Culture definition of a Sphere is, but an Orbital isn't the standard ring-around-a-star; its Hub is the residence of the supervising Mind, and the whole thing orbits side-on to the star in a planetary-type orbit. Which still isn't without problems, but the immensely strong magic material they're made of pretty much covers that.


    7.Technology - space travel

    * You only need one kind of spacesuit; it will suit any gravity, pressure, temperature, atmosphere or terrain you might encounter.


    Here's my list (sorry if repeating anything, making this up before diving into comments):

    Old earth is technologically backward re. the spacers, because the productivity boost of beeing 9 billion people and have less worry about life support than on a spaceship somehow does not translate into technological advancement. (Schismatrix?, Asimovs Caves of steel)

    Spacer culture is somehow more wild and open to experimentation that earth culture, because living in ultra fragile ships etc. is somehow great for social experiments (Schismatrix, Angel Station)

    A society that operates like our own made it to space (not impossible, but interesting constraints - which organization today could do any project on a century timescale ROI)

    There's something like an interplanetary (multiple solar systems) polity - expect a bunch of mad improvisations around the problems faced by signal lag and the fact that everything involving travel takes decades to centuries.

    You can make profound statementes about how aliens will behave with just a little bit of thinking, and those statements will be shown true before the last page (Fermis "paradox" + vN probes, Verthandis ring)

    Spacers and dirtsiders are exchangable - someone having lived on earth will readily adapt to live aboard a spaceship or other planet and vice versa. Why build spaceships around standard-issue humans when you can have a smaller and lighter model (without legs?), cultural and behavioral norms work equally well dirt- and spaceside (Safety culture ability to handle masses of people, more or less used to living in a panopticon ...)

    Lifesupport tech for space is not used on earth for other purposes (or lifesupport).

    Any space tech is not used planetside

    Progressors (Noon Universe) or Contact (Culture). Not imnpossible but ...

    Space travel puts a dent on earths population (not impossible but please show the math ...)

    Space as a refuge for excentric outcasts (Zionists in space! Bucaneers/Maroons/Quilombos in space! Libertarians in space!) - unless they have a rather large contruction/support base

    The fact that a space-bound society depends on systems that are incredibly reliable and complexx somehow does not affect its politics


    "There are, however, some very successful asexual species: the common dandelion is mostly asexual, and a glance at my lawn tells me that it is entirely capable of outcompeting grass..."

    The sex life of plants beggars description. There are at multiple separate forms of asexual reproduction, for a start.


    The first book I self-published was based on a world where the animals (called cryptids, for reasons that will soon become obvious) were based on a vertebrate-like ancestor that had color-changing abilities to shame a cuttlefish. ALL land "vertebrates" had descended from this thing, so there was a wide range of camouflage and lack thereof on this world (fur and feathers got in the way, so species that evolved pelage for thermoregulation had to do other stuff). This is why I happen to know about using color changes to communicate, because the dominant alien species (a dragon-crocodile thing that just loved to garden and domesticate species, including humans, but which couldn't make fire) communicated almost entirely by pattern changes.

    The other fun thing I did on that world was that all the land vertebrates had life cycles based on ferns: one generation (the gametotype) was male/female and reproduced through sex, the other (the sporotype) was structurally female and produced male and female offspring asexually through mitosis. And the generations could be structurally fairly different. For the intelligent aliens, the sporotype was the really intelligent and really large dominant morph, while the sexual gametotypes were much smaller, less intelligent, led by their mothers, and prone to sex-based competition, which could get really annoying in season.

    Fun world. I'll have to go back to it some day.


    "I do accept that 'our' sort of child-rearing is implausible with only one sentient sex"

    I think you'd need only very minor changes to make it work. In plenty of human cultures and also non-human species, child-rearing is a collaborative effort undertaken by all the females in the group. As long as the various factors like group size, overall lifetime, reproductive rate and length of childhood are suitably balanced so that the group as a whole still has plenty of capacity left over to do whatever else needs to be done, it should work.

    Lions are a sort-of example - one male acts as sperm donor to a group consisting of females and cubs, but it's the females who do pretty much everything else, including helping each other with the cubs.

    Also the extreme dependency of human children is a consequence of the sub-optimal solutions produced by random evolution: the baby comes out through a hole in the middle of a major structural member, instead of going round the side. It has to make its exit while it's still small and undeveloped enough to fit through a hole which is limited in size by the need to avoid the mother's legs falling off. In engineering terms the arrangement is bloody daft, but it's also the result of random chances, and I don't see any necessary reason why evolution on another planet would have to follow a like course.


    Well, another engineering constraint on embryo placement appears to be that they develop around the mother's center of mass (although this is arguable--I don't know if it's been studied). From a balance perspective, this makes sense, as a developing embryo some other place (like, say, the head, as in plants) could make movement that much harder. The countervailing problem is that a lot of stuff works better around the center of mass--like major structural members--so it's not clear that any endoskeletal alien could easily escape this problem.


    Or not evolution for better ways of doing it. See various works, although "Gur Ybat erfhyg" ol Wbua Oehaare fcevagf gb zvaq. (Rot 13 for obvious spoileriness if you like reading 60's/70's SF)


    it's not clear that any endoskeletal alien could easily escape this problem.

    We escape it, whenever surgical intervention is used: births by caesarian section don't go through a major structural member. It is possible to envisage an arrangement of the abdomen whereby as birth approached the uterus (perhaps temporarily) developed an attachment to the abdominal wall, and birth occurred through some sort of natural fissure. This is, in effect, what marsupials do: they give birth to what, in placental terms, is an early embryo, which then develops in an external "womb" (the pouch). All your alien needs is an internal connection to avoid the need for the embryo to be born in order to transfer from womb to pouch. That doesn't seem like an impossible thing to evolve, though it's not the way terrestrial mammals developed.


    Yes, I'd managed to work that bit (Q-crypto) out, but I still got lost several times, trying to work out what was "real" what was "inside the computer", what was possibly a dream/heightened/depressed mind-view that was quite possibly inside (for various values of "inside") the computer(s).
    Err ...


    This isn't exclusively space opera but:

    - Interstellar colony missions are launched because climate change/resource depletion made earth uncool to live on. Never mind how a totally collapsing world could afford it why would they choose such a bad ROI? Rather than build one canned ecosystem/economy that's thrown into the void build fifty on/under the surface of the planet.


    Excellent point, we didn't evolve that way, but it seems like a perfectly workable birth mechanism
    Would probably be a popular option with most women if we could retro engineer


    Then there's FERNS, with two totally different forms between alternating generations, as previously mentioned ....


    OTOH the cloud of gas doesn't have to absorb: it's enough for it to disrupt the focus of the beam and so bugger up the concentration of energy. (Which it will do pretty much regardless of what it's made of because of the differences in refractive index between it and the surrounding medium.)

    So the defending spaceship can just squirt small amounts of gas from conveniently-located nozzles on the hull in the general direction of any attacking ship to negate their ultra-death-kazzoom-lasergun or defocus its beam sufficiently for the brightly-polished tungsten-alloy hullplates to absorb the energy harmlessly.

    This is a known problem both for industrial laser materials processing and for military use of lasers as fancy guns.

    Fortunately for the US Navy's experimental shipborne lasers it never gets foggy or ever rains at sea.


    Laser/target interactions are complicated, with lots of strict thresholds and non-linear behaviour.

    Hit a solid with a pulse of enough laser energy in a small enough spot over a short enough time, then it digs a hole and creates a cloud of plasma expanding at supersonic speed.

    That ablated plasma blocks the laser until it dissipates, so there's a limit on your pulse repetition rate. Plasmas are really good at blocking lasers. We had a millisecond of pulse followed by 10 ms of just hanging about waiting for the plasma to spread out. And then to get any kind of drilling effect, the next pulse has to track and hit the same spot as the first. Also, your spots have to be tiny to get sufficient plasma density so retargetting gets hard.

    (Source - I did my PhD on laser welding with 10 kW lasers focused to 0.25 mm spots, so a useful power density)

    Hit that target with not-quite enough energy and most bounces off and it just heats up until it re-radiates that energy away. Hence Dick's carbon matting. Back that up with multiple layers of reflective foil in a vacuum (as per Skylon's thermal insulation) so the re-radiated heat isn't absorbed by whatever is behind the matting and you've got a target that's very well armoured against lasers. Add to that the blocking effect of the generated plasma and it continues to look like laser weapons are a lot less effective than laser armour.

    To bring this back to the clichés at hand, here's my quick laser clichés:
    - Laser weapon punches clean hole right through vehicle and out the other side (fuck no, deep drilling is hard coz of ablated plasmas and changing focus depth)
    - Laser weapon leaves hole with hot edges but nothing else catches fire (fuck no, heat spreads all over the shop from reflections and from IR from hot plasma. Shit's going to be on fire.)
    - Laser impacts are quiet (fuck no, supersonic ablated plasma is LOUD)
    - Lasers are quiet (anything with megaWatts of power supply isn't quiet)
    - Laser impacts cause no physical force (fuck no, ablation pushes hard away from the beam, that's how fusion bombs get more compression than any other device)
    - Lasers are visible (everyone already uses infra-red for weapons and will do until X-ray lasers get very much better)
    - Lasers are useful inside atmospheres (I'll be over here, hiding behind this fog/dust/smoke, shooting back with bullets)
    - Lasers don't need huge power supplies (I'll be over here, using chemical energy to accelerate bullets towards my targets with several orders of magnitude better than laser power supplies)
    - Lasers don't melt from waste heat (I'll be over here, not treading on my hot brass that removes waste heat from my firearm)
    - Shiny armour on planets (the shiny helps to reflect 99% plus, but as soon as you get a single spec of dirt on there, instant thermal runaway. Source - I blew up an expensive lens by not cleaning it enough).
    - Shiny armour that is shiny against more than a narrow band of wavelengths. Yes, aluminium is pretty reflective from mid-IR to UV, but pretty effective means 95%. Specific coatings on that aluminium will get you up to 99.5% but those coatings only work for much narrower wavelengths. That's a factor ten for absorbed energy, which starts to matter (I think Paranoia avoided this trope with colour-specific weapons and armour)
    - Lasers don't change wavelength (which is true, until free electron lasers get a lot better)
    - Laser weapons don't result in everyone going blind faster than they can blink (if you're not wearing eye protection that can cope with those wavelengths and power density as well as whatever wavelengths your plasma is emitting at, then you're blind before you can blink, whether you're a target or just looking in the general direction of the target)


    On "Space and cosmology":

    - "Planets rotate east-to-west."

    As long as the planet isn't tidally locked at 1:1, isn't this true by (arbitrary linguistic) definition? The north rotational axis is defined by the right-hand rule making the sun appear to rise in the east. Unless you want to define east relative to the magnetic north -- but then see "Planets have magnetic poles that approximate their rotational axis". Or are you thinking of something like Uranus, where the rotational axis is nearly parallel to the ecliptic plane? That's likely to be unusual for "habitable zone" planets, isn't it?

    - "Planetary gravity can be approximated to a point source for purposes of calculating orbital dynamics."

    I'm a bit curious about this: how would the truth or falsity of this have any practical narrative consequence? It's close enough to true to be handwaved over in silence, isn't it? Whereas "You can change orbital inclination easily" really is quite wrong.

    And I would offer:

    - "If a planet orbits closer to its sun than you do, then it's currently closer to you than the sun, and you'll pass it on a sunward trajectory."


    Planetary gravity can be approximated to a point source for purposes of calculating orbital dynamics

    Yes, it is close enough to true for the purposes of storytelling. A perfect sphere exerts gravity as if its entire mass were in the center. Granted, planets are not perfect spheres... but close enough.

    Also, in which space opera did this even come up?


    "Space travel puts a dent in Earth's population, show math."
    Suppose there are 100 spaceports in the world, each flying 10 scheduled flights to orbit every day. Each Skylon III has a capacity of 100 passengers. That's 100,000 emigrants per day, about 40 million per year, 4 billion in a century.


    One big thing that is missing is any citation or lspecific examples. You are making the case that hundreds of tropes of space opera have become cliche. I'd expect to see multiple examples of each to classify it as a cliche. Without citation, this comes off as your own list of mistakes you are too smart to make, which I don't think is your intention. The comments are great, but are full of readers working to do the work of defining your terms and citing examples for you. It's not even clear what your definition of space opera even is, especially as you are applying the stringency I'd expect to see when critiquing hard sci-fi. If Star Wars is an exemplar, use that to set the bar. This is a worthy endeavor, but needs some citation to make it arguments solid and clear.


    A tangent on pregnancy (I still have a raised eyebrow at "Probing Uranus"): the bio-mechanics of it are pretty incredible. e.g. volume of blood increases by 40–50%, Cardiac output increases by about 50%, mostly during the first trimester.

    There's absolutely no reason why an alien lifeform couldn't have larger changes.

    Note: Research into this proved three things:

    #1 The UK medical profession produces amazing resources: e.g. Maternal Collapse in Pregnancy and the Puerperium PDF - Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 2013. Read with caution if you are pregnant, it's a loooong list of potential issues, but luckily you'll see that people are trained for it. (Someone go make this mandatory reading for American Law Makers)

    #2 There's a dearth of actual info out there on the specifics of bio-mechanical changes during pregnancy. You'll get blitzed instead by a million pages just telling you how long each mammal pregnancy is (17 months for Orcas - but, interesting one: cetacean species can lose up to 50% of their hydrodynamics during pregnancy. Would this effect pregnant spaceships?).

    #3 The internet has gone past the Singularity of click-bait lists: for instance, here's 52 facts on:
    What Vaginas Have in Common With Sharks and Tomatoes Spry Living, 2013. Spoilers: PH and lubricants, people find that the planet has a similar biochemistry odd.


    On a meta-thought level, 30 years later in Space Opera: I think that references to 'feels' is 100% a thing. Cracking the young adult (16-24) walnut might rely on it.

    YA authors would know more.


    Also, in which space opera did this even come up?

    Every one in which satellites stay where you put them (that is, where orbits don't drift due to local mass concentrations/gravitational anomalies, tidal forces from other moons/planets/bodies, and so on).


    ... Only if nobody ever comes back!


    Dude, this list of around 300 tropes was about four hours' work.

    Footnoting it would take me about four months.

    Hint: I did this as an aide memoire so I'd remember what not to put in my next space opera, not as a doctoral thesis. If you're volunteering to do the legwork, be my guest! Otherwise, feel free to STFU and stop complaining.


    As Susan points out, it's not the location of the gestational organ that causes the difficulty, but the routing of its access port. The chances of terrestrial evolution have constrained terrestrial species to a routing with significant problems (it's not just human heads that show it up; calves, for instance, get stuck in the cow if their legs aren't arranged right), but I'm not aware of any biological constraint that would forbid, say, an abdominal location for the access port (such as is created temporarily in Caesarean procedures).


    Earth rotates west to east, so the sun rises in the east and sets in the west by definition. We've defined the magnetic dipoles arbitrarily by the correlation between our rotational and magnetic poles. Of course, even on Earth, the magnetic poles don't line up perfectly with our rotational axis (and see also the South Atlantic anomaly for additional zippy goodness).

    As for the non-point nature of gravity, it depends on the scale. If you're coming in at 500 AU/second and trying to rendezvous with your target plant, then a planet's gravitational field can readily be defined as a point so far as you're concerned, at least until you slow the heck down. If you're in low Earth orbit, then all those mountain ranges will deflect your butt, and that will matter. If you're using gravity to sense both mass and changes in mass (as with satellites that are quantifying the groundwater loss in California's central valley by how much mass changes are affecting their orbits, then gravity is a complex subject indeed, and that complexity holds a great deal of useful data.


    And as Douglas Adams put it so well
    Space is big. Really big.


    Only if the rate of emigration is significant with respect to the birth rate....


    It's a hard call, because we're off in Evo-Devo land (evolutionary development).

    The tl;dr version is that if you want a reproductive system that doesn't run through the pelvis in a vertebrate, then you've got to come up with the scheme by which this also works for its fishy ancestor and then interacts with the evolution of hind limbs. One thing that gets weird is that the position of developing embryos probably matters more to a fish than it does to a non-swimming amphibian, because of the possibility of shifting the center of mass and how this might affect swimming ability.

    Still, vertebrates aren't the only animals, and I don't know enough about how insects deal with egg production to say much that's useful. They develop eggs in the abdomen, but they fly too, so they get around balance issues somehow. Arguably, if you can figure out a giant, endoskeletal analog of an insect, with that reproductive abdomen off at the end, limbs coming off the center, and all, then that would be the best way to get away from routing the embryo through a stiff pelvis and causing difficulties.


    Mammals are heavily influenced by having spent ~100 Myears basically very small; we lost lumbar ribs because you need flexibility more than support when small. One set of adult teeth, small creatures don't last long anyway, etc. Lots of consequences.

    In our particular case -- that is, placental mammals -- having strong abdominal muscles is really important to being able to move. You'd never get a birth canal that gaps the abdominal muscles to work because of the locomotor hit. (Plus the usual large quadruped problems; belly skin is the thick stuff because it's holding the heavy digestive machinery in when you get to ungulates, etc.) You could presumably manage a form of pregnancy where the abdominal musculature redevelops behind the womb while the existing abdominal musculature atrophies until the birth process is like peeling off a sheet of wet rawhide and managing the umbilical cord appropriately. (Presumably the mother regrows a navel out which said umbilical feeds.)

    I'd be very surprised if that could evolve.


    I think you're right about this. Shall we call it "Initiate Verrucas VII: the virus awakens?" and wait for part VIII: the search for host cells?

    From a marketing perspective, this works, as SWars and STrek both have sequels running right now, so anything resembling them might sell for another few years.

    Which is good, and stuff.

    Not sure why Lovecraft 2.0 is so popular right now, though, unless it's due to American elections.


    Not sure why Lovecraft 2.0 is so popular right now, though, unless it's due to American elections.

    Lots of sources of formless dread.


    'non-SF books set wholly on Earth, and "pretend everyone is speaking in English" is by far the most-used/most-accepted solution'

    One I really like too. Sadly not used enough in my opinion.

    There are a couple of exceptions, but in film it's rare. There was a British tv series set in the second world war, the name of which escapes me. When the Germans spoke German to each other, they did it in English. The officers had posh British accents and the Privates had working class British accents. As a native English speaker that carried a lot of background information about the characters. In later episodes the veiwpoint character ended up in England where he spoke English to British people in heavily German accented English. It made it really clear who was speaking what and allowed me to follow everything in a way that subtitles (my second favourite) don't.


    Ok, almost @ 300, so time for fireworks.

    Host is prodding something that's almost a given nowadays:

    Question: What's the #1 most nostalgia filled SF cancellation in TV history (enough to get it a film)?

    Answer: Firefly.

    Question: Why did they cancel it then?!?

    Answer: Money.

    Question: What do the money people (although they're mostly men) demand?

    Answer: well, its trending at the moment:

    Video of actors reading real casting calls for female roles will make you laugh and cry (VIDEO) Pink News 4th March, 2016

    Actresses Read the Real (and Really Sexist) Casting Calls They're Subjected to Each Day AdWeek 4th March 2016

    Yeah, but don't be a chump: Project Casting: Twitter

    Project Casting The Website.

    They're kinda getting smarter and better, but it's like watching a dinosaur attempt to make fire. Or a predatory creepy Dominionist hug his daughter and her not freeze with horror at the abuse. [note: tracked - a *lot* of money was spent on that one. How to burn $40 mil real quick. Right in your face]


    It's easy if you don't understand Lynch's work (notably Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) to get confused at this.


    Step back a bit.

    Now, let's imagine a world where the people are making all the money don't actually understand how that money was generated (*cough* Ghost Busters revamp, Mitt Romney Bain Capital Corporate Raids *cough*).

    So, they don't understand the process of how Capital functions, but they understand how to leverage the levers (hello Harvard MBAs - top tip: never fuck with a Goddess) to exploit the outcome: so what's the result?

    A shitty project that makes no money.


    Now, of course, that's not their fault. That's either the consumers (lazy, evil, dumb, misogynistic, racist, blah blah blah) or just Politics.


    Where was I going with this?

    Oh, yes.

    It's a System.

    And what's the rule of Law from System Theory?

    You break it at your peril.

    Fun fact - you can map this on the entire system (which is why the Libertarians do have some saving graces).

    Not sure why Lovecraft 2.0 is so popular right now, though, unless it's due to American elections.

    Two reasons:

    #1 Original is now outdated

    #2 Author is "problematic" so derp, children need a new Santa Clause whose acceptable

    #3 Real fucking deal turned up and finds your shit to be whack.


    Real Time with Bill Maher: Overtime – March 4, 2016 (HBO)
    YT: US comedy: 14:08

    Hey, Mickey: they're paying attention.


    Ah yes, film/TV gives you the accent thing which (if done well) provides a level of nuance you don't really get in a book. The converse is that it severely restricts you when it comes to wholly non-acoustic communication (a stronger constraint than "non-verbal"; it's remarkable how much you can work out of what the Clangers are saying).

    (Aside re subtitles... in the context of an English presentation of what was originally a foreign-language film, I strongly prefer subtitles to dubbing. Not only for the preservation of the original actors' voices and expression, but also because it allows me both to pick up nuances that are lost in translation if I know the relevant bits of the foreign language, and to learn about those bits if I don't know them.)


    Hmmm... not convinced. The major muscles involved in locomotion (apart from those of the limbs themselves) run along the spine. The abdominal musculature is comparatively thin (humans are somewhat unusual in this regard as the muscles are located somewhat differently in quadrupeds), and it already is split down the middle - the muscles run fore-and-aft, and the seam down the middle (linea alba) is connective tissue. An abdominal birth canal would simply be a gap in this seam, reinforced by alterations of the immediately surrounding musculature, normally of small size but with considerable capacity to stretch - ie. essentially the same deal as at present, just in a different place.


    Diastasis recti -- the point at which separation of those abdominal muscles becomes a medical condition -- is defined as about an inch of separation in humans; Wikipedia says 27mm. It's going to be very difficult to get a baby out a gap that size. The list of associated problems is a long one, too; diastasis recti won't kill you but it will certainly impair your mobility, at which point your survival odds in a state of nature go way down.

    And remember that there's transverse muscles in there, too. It's not all vertical. Those would also have to get out of the way by some means.

    Veterinary version has to deal with being the long-term primary load support; that space where there's no ribs has the digestive system in it. If you've got ribs (like a non-avian dinosaur) the gap is even more a problem.


    There are all sorts of problems with world building for stories, even stories set on contemporary earth. Why sweat that stuff? Start with a good story that you want to tell. Space operas are just good old melodramatic, generally romantic adventure stories. This kind of story needs a bigger canvas than some, so they are perfect for outer space. There hasn't been room for this kind of story on earth for over a century.

    Once you have your story, you can figure out what world it makes sense in. The nice thing is that there are really only so many stories if you are willing to generalize a bit. There's sort of an anthropic principle you can exploit too. Just as we aren't interested in cosmologies that can't produce philosophers, there is no point in building a story world where you can't have an adventure.

    When you are a kid, you can make an adventure world out of a large paper box, a table and a sheet, or the couch you are allowed to climb on. As an adult writer, you have just as much freedom, so don't sell science short. Anyone arguing the details of a laser combat system designed 500 years from now is fooling him or herself. Science journals are full of weird ass near field phenomena like plasmons, topological insulators, shaped light forms built using frequency combs and matter waves modulated and focused by standing light waves.

    Want to power FTL? Why not use dark matter? We know as much now about dark matter as Edgar Rice Burroughs knew about radium and alpha rays, but he used the excitement of the ideas to build a fantastic Mars. We know that most visible matter in the universe follows invisible filaments. Those are your FTL railroad tracks, and you can backsolve for causality, think railroads/time zones except with real math. Want to justify lots of steamy sex? I was just reading a journal article on why sexual creatures live longer. Maybe sex is a new genetic modification somewhere?

    Ever since Jules Verne took time tested stories and added advanced technology extrapolated from the science and technology headlines, we've had something like space opera. Choose your story, then build your world.


    P.S. Dandelions are not asexual, they are apomictic. They can double fertilize themselves.


    One such possibility for the ubiquity of the need for sleep is that real life brains implement the same wake-sleep algorithm as a Helmholtz machine.


    Antimatter fueled warpships allowed in LEO seems strange, I suspect if they become real they won't be allowed anywhere near inhabited planets/structures with significant amounts of antimatter on board. 300 million km sounds about close enough.


    One more: Despite the Galactic Empire comprising a gazillion times more sentient beings than present-day Earth, technology has advanced at the rate of one innovation every century or two.

    (Pock's World by Dave Duncan is all about what this really means...)


    Hadil, did you used to post here under another name?


    I'd love to see a space opera where the dominant mode of economic organisation consists of cooperatives and mutual societies rather than the corporation of late modern capitalism. The evil megacorporation has become a literary cliche all of its own and it would be interesting to see a space opera with alternative economic structures replacing it. Imagine a future where 21st century corporations are blamed for everything that went wrong in that period and are regarded with the same perplexed horror that we reserve for the worst abuses of medieval feudalism (e.g. serfdom). Perhaps our descendents will decide to structure their economic affairs around more democratic institutions built upon notions of non-hierarchical mutuality in reaction to the excesses of the "Corporate Era" and its complex legacy. At least it would be an alternative to the particularly nasty strain of libertarianism that infects a lot of the space opera being published at the moment.

    Personally, I'd love to see a space opera built around a conflict between an interstellar society with a steady-state economy built on democratic cooperatives that arose out of the environmental disasters of the late 21st century and an obnoxious expansionistic libertarian society that believes in the manifest destiny of humans to colonize the stars. (Think of the Carlyle family from Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake, but with a touch more Ayn Rand and some space cadet nonesense thrown in for good measure).

    (Yes, I know the Culture novels flirt with some of these notions, but they aren't central to the narrative and Banks never fully explores the economic implications).


    One of the funniest and saddest moments in the recent season of Doctor Who was when Davros remarks on how hard it was to acquire the only other chair on Skaro so the Doctor would have somewhere to sit...


    Reading this really made me appreciate parts 1 and 2 of Seveneves.


    We can't detect spaceships by looking for their infrared emissions against the 2.7 kelvin cosmic background temperature

    One possible countermeasure would be to dump the waste heat in a fairly narrow beam, at the cost of a more energy-intensive cooling system. The reaction mass however, is probably going to be an omnidirectional radiator, and warm.

    And there is more background than just the cosmic microwave background: asteroids, stars, dust. If the spaceship is dim enough, I would expect it to take too much telescope time to identify it against this background to make an all-sky search practical. However, once detected, tracking would be a different matter: the adversary now knows where to look and what they're looking at so can use long exposures with a sensitive panchromatic detector.


    well, I would guess that the system isn't going to be any good at learning as long as the components can find an excuse to either save vs learning, or shoot the messenger.

    One thing I'm thinking about is how much of the broken system is due to the way that people overvalue positive high-payoffs. (forget the term for it, will wiki)

    Throw in people who think that anything they don't understand is easy, and I'm not entirely surprised that the money keeps funding uncreative stuff, or chooses to economize in silly ways. Disappointed, but not surprised.

    Just as maintenance isn't sexy, I suspect that near-guaranteed small profits aren't sexy... (which, thinking more about it, that's pretty much a reflexive statement. Maintenance is dependable small profits)

    re- parenthetical warning:
    Sadly, from my experience in the M(X)A sausage machine, I doubt that many Harvard MBAs have the humility to heed the warning. My experience was that about 10% wanted to learn, and 90% wanted to get 3 magic letters to put on the CV. I doubt the B & P models of sausage machines are substantially different in that regard, nor is Harvard likely to select for more humility than my substantially lower-tier school.


    Sure, but a pathological condition is pretty much by definition irrelevant. The current Earth standard land vertebrate body plan has not evolved to support a one-inch (scale as appropriate for non-human animals) hole through the abdominal muscles, so it's not surprising that the development of such a hole causes problems. But it has evolved to support a one-inch (scale etc.) hole through the pelvic floor muscles (which are also both longitudinal and transverse); the hole and its surrounding musculature can stretch big enough to allow a baby through it; and bipeds can exist and quadrupeds stand on their hind legs without their guts falling out of it. A body plan that had evolved to route that hole through another, broadly similar, set of muscles instead would be just a matter of doing much the same things as the existing standard; some more so, some less so, but overall not a whole lot of difference.


    You could deploy a large umbrella made of lightweight plastic film, coated with gold on the inside and carbon black on the outside, and hide the spaceship behind that. As long as you knew which half of the sky the enemy were in you'd probably be OK.

    Since there's no problem with air resistance and only inertial forces to deal with, you could make it very large, and maybe manage to hide the reaction mass plume from a usefully large area of sky until it had cooled down. Particularly if you used some form of reaction mass that didn't plume out sideways much - accelerating solid particles backwards one at a time, say. Stealth manoeuvring using a machine gun.


    Well, not a space opera per se, but Kim Stanley Rinson goes there, with the evolution from nation-states to megacorps to co-ops and mutual aid societies. If you haven't read it, you really should.

    In any case, if space opera has a strongly romantic streak, one of the challenges in writing the story is to make democratic politics romantic. Oddly enough, a lot of writers don't even think of trying this, and that's kind of stupid. Authoritarian regimes are every bit as dirty and stupid as democracy, yet we get stuck with ad nauseum images of good autocrats (King Arthur, for example), and not enough images of good congress members.

    There's a challenge for somebody, actually. Wanna write the story of the Old Republic Senators who shut the Sith out of power, to pick one example? That kind of thing happens too.


    Speaking of goddesses,

    So far as I know, which movies get made is a largely random process, and there's a strong random element in whether they make money or not.

    There's also a strong random element in places like the US stock market, which is why index funds like the Vanguard specials tend to do better over the long term than, say, Berkshire Hathaway or Donald Drumpf: the so-praised experts are mostly guessing, and they get it individually wrong more often than the crowd average does.

    Still, specialists get paid to try to find the pattern within the randomness, as diviners have for the last 4,000-odd years, so they use the same general tricks: predict that things won't change much, cultivate strategic friendships, and set up your predictions so that the people you're working for tend to spot the successes and overlook the failures.

    And it works, most of the time.

    The problem is that there are also black swans, which are unpredictable but retroactively explainable, and most market swings (and indeed, the world we live in) is a result of black swan events. Diviners routinely analyze black swan events and try to replicate them, generally with no success, because explicable does not mean predictable or replicable (this curse also plagues the studies of evolution and ecology).

    So, in the end, we have systems that replicate mediocre successes, fail to replicate system-altering events, and perpetuate themselves because the people doing the divining have learned the survival skills necessary for their professional survival.

    Whether this also applies to politics is something we'll learn this year in the US.

    Lesson endeth here (23 skidoo)



    The Titanic is currently being eaten by bacteria that derive energy from oxidising the iron. Can't get much more alien than that. They certainly haven't been fitted by billions of years of evolution to eat ocean liners.

    That doesn't mean we can eat aliens, but they would find us tasty.


    Another random thought: while it's certainly possible to do Lovecraftian SF, I wonder if it's possible to do Lovecraftian space opera, on the border between Romantic and Gothic.

    Alright, who's done it already?


    Which Kim Stanley Robinson novel are you referring to - I've read most of his earlier books, but not his more recent works. I still haven't seen this approach used in a space opera. Generally you are dealing with galaxy-spanning empires or federations where some form of capitalism is the normal mode of economic organisation. Yet I have doubts that corporate capitalism will survive the 21st century if the human species is to navigate the difficult challenges ahead - new forms of economic management will evolve as they have in the past when a crisis hits (and I suspect that decentralized cryptocurrencies with built-in political and social assumptions don't count).

    I think it is possible to make democratic politics romantic, although it is difficult.

    Speaking personally, I find rhe politics of the Star Wars universe very depressing. It appears to be a stagnant society ruled by an aristocratic elite where technology doesn't seem to advance for centuries. The best that an ordinary citizen can hope for is to be ruled by a "nice" jedi rather than a "nasty" Sith Lord. In both cases, the authority of these individuals is based upon heredity rather than any democratic mandate. The vestigial democratic institutions of the Old Republic (such as the senate) are repeatedly shown to be both ineffectual and corrupt. Essentially, the original six Star Wars movies involve a dynastic struggle between rival branches of the same bloodline. Heck, even in the most recent Star Wars movie the "democratic" New Republic refuses to move openly against the New Order and gets wiped out as a direct consequence of its dithering. Star Wars consistently paints democracy as an impotent system of government that can only be saved through the personal actions of dynamic individuals who possess extraordinary powers. There's the potential for a nasty satire lurking somewhere in there, but it's not the kind of light-hearted adventure story that Star Wars is known for...


    It appears that, for whatever reason, it's hard for terrestrial prokaryotes to evolve multicellularity.

    There was a short piece in the most recent issue of Scientific American (March 2016) about this. Apparently some bacteria can communicate among themselves with electrical signals, so that a mass of bacteria can regulate their growth communally. They signal each other not to multiply anymore if the food is scarce.

    I think this is the relevant article in Nature, but I don't have access to it:


    I already suggested that an "inhabitable" Uranoid planet could be real "fun" to write about, if you can get your head around the potential climate & weather ....


    Hadil Benu the Troll - used to be Catina Diamond


    Oddly enough, this is one of Weber's good points.
    He shows the political manoeuvrings behind the scenes in his protagonists planetary states. And both groups have good guys & bad guys, too. Quite possibly the least cardboard part of the whole thing ....


    I think it is possible to make democratic politics romantic, although it is difficult.

    VOTES for WOMEN!

    The 19thC struggles for civic health & the early factories acts - predecessors of current environmental legislation?


    Thought so. The style is unique. I'm too lazy to go looking, but what brought on the change of identity?


    Greg Egan wrote some pretty convincing single celled intelligent protagonists however he messed with some pretty basic physics to do it. (In a very internally consistent way)


    There was a British tv series set in the second world war, the name of which escapes me. When the Germans spoke German to each other, they did it in English. The officers had posh British accents and the Privates had working class British accents... The veiwpoint character ended up in England where he spoke English to British people in heavily German accented English.

    That'd be Private Schulz, a comic view of Operation Bernhard - the Nazi attempt to forge five-pound notes. I must watch the DVD again sometime. 'Allo 'Allo also played with accents to represent languages interestingly - think of when Michelle of the Resistance switches accents when 'interpreting' between René and the British Airmen. I also like what can be done in comics - using different fonts to represent speech in other languages - think of Asterix. Granted, these are all comic examples. It probably wouldn't work as well in a straight situation.


    Actually, the government is lying to us. On the "dark" side of Uranus a surface of water ice forms where the temperature is about 150 Kelvin, the atmospheric pressure is about 10 atmospheres, and gravity is about 1 earth gravity. This huge ice shelf is punctured by the circular sun side pit, which has the classic characteristics of gradual increase in pressure all the way down into a mushy center. The back side, though is like a huge Antarctica with really strong winds (free energy!). The dirt is water ice, the air is hydrogen, and there are loads of "underground" deposits of methane (plastic!) and ammonia (air! fertilizer!). It's not a bad place and real estate is cheap. Just wrap up when you go outdoors.


    Of course the first character who proposes investigating this has to pitch the plan by saying "I want to probe Uranus".


    That is, (some) eucaroytes seem to have more complex communication than previously thought.

    It's not a multi-cellular organism, but not strictly every bacteria for itself, either.


    Oh thanks. That was bugging me. There are some bad bits about getting old.


    Some doubleups with what others have said but what the hell.

    All planets have a breathable atmosphere.

    Someone always takes their helmet off despite being advised/ordered not to. This is never an issue either with asphixiation or disipline.

    Oxygen levels are good for humans, even on lifeless planets that lack any photosynthetic life.

    Spacesuits are one size fits all, even other species. They're no harder to put on than a jumper.

    Away teams are arranged in a way that Captain Cook would recognise. (of course they meet little green sandwich islanders)

    Blasters cause 'flesh wounds' that are rarely more than a nusance.

    No more than the minimum supplies can be carried, despite cavernous cargo holds filled with bulk goods and trash. Tough choices will need to be made and someone will need to step out an airlock for a stroll.

    Replicators can replicate anything, except drugs for distant mining colonies, missing crew and vital engine parts. These require courier services, funerals and unplanned diversions.

    It's a movie thing rather than literature, but all spacecraft being serviced require stick welding and angle grinding of steel. Which of course produces pretty point lights and showers of sparks. Starting spaceships can sometimes be an issue and if it is they make a sound like a 48 chevy with a flat battery. Engine failure in space means they stop where they are and have to wait for pirates to rescue them.

    Clones have all the memories of their cell donor at the moment the sample is taken.

    On unrelated issues...

    I can't believe as mammals we're complaining about our pelvis. You could have been born squid with a toroidal brain that has your oesophagus going straight through the middle. Eat something too big or that goes down the wrong way and you end up with brain damage.

    You could deploy a large umbrella made of lightweight plastic film, coated with gold on the inside and carbon black on the outside, and hide the spaceship behind that. As long as you knew which half of the sky the enemy were in you'd probably be OK.

    The assumption here is that the enemy is in one half of the sky. When you have suitable technology and industry to build an interplanetary civilisation, you also have the ability to mass produce little IR observation satellites and scatter them in various orbits. Hiding yourself from all of them will be problematic.

    Hiding the satellites from aggressors is much easier, because they don't need hugely energetic engines, and they don't need ridiculously hot 300K life support systems for meatbags.

    Particularly if you used some form of reaction mass that didn't plume out sideways much - accelerating solid particles backwards one at a time, say. Stealth manoeuvring using a machine gun.

    Either your exhaust velocity will be comparatively low, which means you'll need a huge amount of reaction mass with all the problems that entails, or you have to find a way of accelerating said reaction mass to, say, 1% of lightspeed without heating it up. You will probably find this to be quite difficult. At that point, you might be better off using this technology to fire missiles at your opponent from your home planet.


    ... Only if nobody ever comes back!

    After you dump the first billion or so out the airlock, it's going to be a bit of a navigation hazard.


    I'm sure I read a short story in the 60's that included giant colony ships with 'cold sleep' that shipped people off by the million. Sadly for those in 'cold sleep' they were just frozen in the normal way (ie. dead) and the giant colony ships went fast enough to get well out of sight but nothing more.

    That's 100,000 emigrants per day, about 40 million per year, 4 billion in a century.

    Given a word population of, say, 8 billion and a growth rate of 1% per year, dents will not appear. It might also be interesting to consider the economic cost and environmental impact of that many rocket flights over time.

    Mass planetary emigration is probably impractical without a bunch of space elevators. Whilst they're not quite as impossible to make as you might think, they're not exactly trivial to assemble, especially on earth.

    In either case, the logistics of feeding and housing said billions of emigrants is non trivial. You could just use them as a source of biomass for a new colony, but that seems like a different sort of story.


    It could be really green. Skylons use hydrogen and oxygen.


    The term for a > 1 inch hole through the abdominal musculature is a fistula. Not nice.


    If we have sufficiently advanced genetic engineering to be be able to make reliably hereditable morphological changes to the basic human chassis, probably the easiest "fix" for parturition would be to go Full Marsupial -- expel from uterus at 26 weeks, then continue to mature in an external skin pouch. The baby[*] is typically 230mm long and weighs roughly 800 grams, about a fifth as much as at full maturity; more importantly, the lungs are producing surfactants and can actually function.

    Note that this is a distinctly non-trivial problem. It replaces one set of issues (skull/pelvis size) with a brace of others -- from fetal development (all maternal/HERV epigenetic modulation of fetal development must now essentially be completed in the second trimester) to immune system priming (fetus is exposed to skin bacteria and the outside world prematurely), maternal morphological changes (a pouch, with extra mammary tissue, needs to develop during the second trimester), to behavioural issues (baby needs to shit outside of momma's pouch -- implies rewiring the gut or adding some sort of feedback look so that momma knows in advance when baby wants to go pee-pee) ... and that's before we look for the subtle side-effects: seriously premature babies almost always do worse than ones born at term, and we don't entirely know why.

    Actually, this whole thing is another of those cases where folks who don't know anything about biology excitedly jump up and down and say "that's easy!", unlike jumping straight from the Wright Flyer to building a Boeing 747. Might as well go for hermaphroditism and photosynthetic skin while we're at it.

    [*] I'm using the term advisedly, for a fetus mature enough to survive -- with an incubator -- if born at this stage, albeit extremely prematurely.


    The old identity had to "die" by the end of the year (2015) to maintain narrative consistency.


    Alright, who's done it already?

    That's easy: Vernor Vinge nailed it in "A Fire Upon The Deep". (Won the Hugo and the Nebula, too, a rare -- albeit non-unique -- conjunction.)


    a comic view of Operation Bernhard - the Nazi attempt to forge five-pound notes

    ITYM twenty pound notes. Worth about £500-1000 in today's money: useful because most people didn't have access to bank cheque-issuing accounts, so the economy was much more cash-driven. It wasn't petty change -- more like the 500 euro notes so beloved of drug cartels today: a brick of 100 of them was serious money, and a million of them could represent a threat of debasement to the currency. The £20 bill back then had a unique number on each note, assigned by the Bank of England in accordance with a secret algorithm: Operation Bernhardt relied on this having been reverse-engineered by German forgers; it foundered on the slight problem that the British had compromised all the German spies in the UK and either arrested/executed/or doubled them (Operation Doublecross).


    Not to mention that the shade will have to be quite robust to stand up to any significant acceleration. And if the acceleration isn't significant the battle or war will be over by the time the stealth ship gets anywhere.


    Oxygen levels are good for humans, even on lifeless planets that lack any photosynthetic life.

    There are proposed mechanisms for abiogenesis of an oxygen atmosphere on exoplanets ... Leads to one short hard-SF story I haven't seen written (because it'd need to be hard-SF that ignores all the other obstacles to human interstellar flight): humans land on exoplanet, take off helmets (because: oxygen!), do the flag-planting tap-dance, then ... burst into flames, because the partial pressure is somewhere north of 30% because there are no chemoheterotrophs to mop up the messy waste product of whatever abiotic process produces the oxygen.

    (Naah, that's dumb.)


    "Consider that the majority -- around 75% -- of human interactions are not monetized; family groups usually run on pure communism internally"

    True within family groups only, though. It becomes remarkably different otherwise- humans seem to have two very distinct sets of behavior for dealing with "in-tribe" and "out-of-tribe" interactions. Unless you can figure out a way to make someone think of a total stranger as "in-tribe", they're not going to be treated like family.


    Not sure if this is still a cliche; it might have died out last century, but maybe I just don't read the right books:

    - it is possible to make a sensor that can detect "life" (by which we mean "animals"; no-one cares about the boring green scenery).
    - this sort of thing works from orbit
    - it works on aliens, too; alien animals are basically the same as earth ones, and alien plants are basically like earth plants and so don't set off false positives.

    Not entirely sure if this *is* a cliche:

    - mechanisms for dating geology and archaeology work the same on alien worlds as they do at home. Carbon dating works the same everywhere, and geological columns all look the same, right?

    And possibly related:

    - your earth forensics will work just fine on those aliens. You'll be able to tell what killed them and how long ago, no problems.
    - this extends to the effects of alien pathogens on humans. They're just like earth pathogens, except more colourful, or nastier, or both.


    Converting that stable steady-state economy to a war footing is going to be an interesting endeavor, though. Converting back might be impossible, for that matter.
    Consider that waging war is basically wagering that your opponent will run out of some resource (people, industrial capacity, political will/morale, etc) necessary to the war economy before you do. The libertarians might not have the slightest problem with fretting about the long-term sustainability of their war problem as long as they think they can win before it collapses. The steady-staters probably don't have the mindset of raising and expending resources as fast as possible, which is going to be necessary in that case.
    Short version, I'd bet on the more efficiently rapacious civilization to win- they've done it so far on Earth most times.


    Carbon dating works the same everywhere, and geological columns all look the same, right?

    Actually, the half-life of Carbon-14 should be pretty much universal insofar as it depends on the strength of the weak nuclear force. And if an organism participates in a biosphere that circulates carbon, it'll stop accumulating new 14C nuclei when it stops metabolizing. So unless some event suddenly injects a shitload of extra 14C into the biosphere -- hello, atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s![*] -- then 14C dating is going to work on all carbon-based life forms.

    Geology is another matter entirely and it won't be applicable on other planetary biospheres without extensive study of the local sedimentary deposits: a whole bunch of new heuristics would be needed.

    [*] Because of cold war nuke testing, carbon-dating uses 1950 as Year Zero; there was a sudden spike in atmospheric 14C over the following decade that rendered 14C dating useless for subsequent organisms. It's gradually becoming useful again as the atmospheric test ban treaty reset the clock at the end of the spike.


    OGH did a great job inverting many of the worst space opera howlers in the Freyaverse. Here are a few missteps that have not been explicitly listed so far, but which Neptune's Brood avoids.

    • Social systems universally and solely use identity for authentication. This is the case even when the society is explicitly modelled on a well-documented historical human society. There is an instantly accessible database keyed by identity that allows both protagonists and antagonists to verify friend-or-foe, accurately, as well as to access the single central and true ledger account of any counter-party. Such an account conveniently records an amount of net credit that is unambiguous, one-dimensional, and requires no interpretation. It is never expedient to jam access to such a system, and the protocols to enable all this are universal and never change. The massive central point of failure such schemes entail is never exploited in the story, even when it would make for a more engaging tale than the retreaded Pirates In Space yarn that is actually being told.
    • Social systems experience long periods of mysteriously perfect equilibrium to conveniently allow the current tale being told to make sense without requiring major realignments, even though it takes years or decades to move between parts of the system. The protagonist does not have to learn essentially new languages, ways of behaving, or to understand and commit to new ideologies while rejecting previous dogmas and long-held assumptions, nor do they have to deal with concomitant cognitive costs, nor overcome any internal resistance to such change.
    • Even with ubiquitous high capacity information storage, no point-to-point communication uses pre-shared private pads but always some weak cryptosystem (usually based on some kind of substitution cipher) that an under-utilised comms officer can easily decrypt. This is the case even for massive starships that have just left their base of command and for simple instructions that could be conveyed in a few words.
    • Elite teams of antagonists with diverse backgrounds and decades of intensive training in a sophisticated society have large and easily detectable blind spots in cognitive areas that the rest of society does not. This makes it trivial for hero Average Joe to exploit this blind spot as the basis for an effective attack.
    • Implementing an attack on a well prepared adversary only requires common materials, some items of vast utility that are nevertheless available unrecycled in any scrapyard analogue, and a handful of associates assembled largely randomly by physical proximity.
    • If the associates of the protagonist possess many extraordinary skills then no special effort is required by the protagonist to build and maintain a diverse and large social network, and galactic supertalents in several fields will be happy to put in the effort to maintain reciprocal contact over decades. This is true even if the protagonist is a low status asteroid miner with communication roundtrip times to the nearest hub measured in minutes or more, and hardly spends any time on such network maintenance.
    • Labour shortages are solved by catapulting large numbers of squishy meatbags across the depths of space (see section "Space and cosmology").
    • A large number of lumpen proles are present and sit around and wait for their subsistence crop analogues to ripen, drug themselves senseless, make decorative knick-knacks for home interiors, wage warfare on each other, and/or practice ritual self-flagellation, but only to provide background colour for the Ubermensch exploits of the hero, and never as sustainable long term accommodations to local conditions. This is so even if the story otherwise exhibits a clearly Romantic sensibility.
    • For story-telling reasons, aliens do not exhibit complex behaviours that reflect internally consistent conceptual systems that have not already been well-documented as being in use by a human society sometime in the past few thousand years.
    • In an otherwise Gothic tale, no comment is made about the psychological effects on the human characters by the emptiness of their surroundings, the lack of diffracted G type starlight in their quarters, or the resemblance of their surroundings to classical notions of a netherworld.
    • The unutterably incomprehensible aliens remain so even after years of frequent interactions with the protagonist's society, but no-one exploits the fact that they are sources of essentially perfect entropy.
    • The biggest problem with any system constructed by sapient beings is not its maintenance over the long term, even when the story spans decades and the system does not largely consist of self-maintenance functions. Instead either everything will magically work perfectly effectively forever, be subject to flaws that would have been apparent in early stage verification or prototyping, or be completely bespoke without any remark on its rarity or collectibility.


    That works if both sides are playing by the same "steal all your shit and enslave you" rule-book.

    Biological weapons are frighteningly cheap if we're talking about intraspecies interplanetary warfare -- also stealthy, and you don't have to worry about sharing a biosphere with the target. Basically you can approximate them to self-replicating grey goo that preferentially chows down on your enemy.

    My money is on the steady-state non-violent (mostly) civilization being the norm; they're the emergent descendants of the ones whose ancestors didn't exterminate themselves.


    Right. But I don't see that it's a problem for aliens. Vertebrates are evolved from a worm-shaped creature, but alien ones could be evolved from a starfish-shaped creature, where the orifices were located in what is our abdomen. Or something. As several of your cliches indicate, most people treat alien biology as terran biology, with tweaks. Also, I don't see that even R-type reproduction is incompatible with intelligence evolving, though I really can't swallow Niven's grendels.


    My biggest beef with "realistic"(1) space opera is :

    - How does it start ?

    1) What is the motivation for taking the incredibly risky bet of living in fragile space habitats for generations ? (and expensive in term of ressources needed to pull it off)
    2) even if we posit a migration to some sort of AI electronic "life", space is an incredibly hostile environment, surviving the centuries to millenia needed to cross to another star is still a hard (deadly) problem. So why ?

    Basically space opera is a quasi non starter for me, unless you have a way to bypass this kind of objection. I guess the way you bypass this objection constrains all the rest of the scenario (it needs to be quasi magical, or a life or death emergency, or a social urge so strong as to determine the shape of the subsquent civilisation).

    (1) : "realistic" as in compatible with todays physics. Don't get me started on undiscovered things and quantum relativistics incompatiblilities : it's all pure handwavium. All the recent discoveries have confirmed what we already know and the time scale, space scale, energy scale, mass scale where quantum is possibly incompatible with relativity are not fit for human or even electronic "life".


    You could deploy a large umbrella made of lightweight plastic film, coated with gold on the inside and carbon black on the outside, and hide the spaceship behind that. As long as you knew which half of the sky the enemy were in you'd probably be OK.

    Somewhat along the lines of ?


    If you are going to do space fisticuffs, here is my old article on Zero-G unarmed combat:

    And for defence against anti-artillery lasers (I'm looking at you Israel and Hamas) - coat your shells, mortars, warheads in about a centimeter of dry oak.


    KIC 8462852 - a Dyson swarm constructed over the past century?


    How does it start ?

    BTDT: See "Neptune's Brood" for a couple of answers to that question.


    >> Not sure why Lovecraft 2.0 is so popular right now, though, unless it's due to American elections.

    > Lots of sources of formless dread.

    Psychologists and massage therapists are reporting ‘Trump anxiety’ among clients


    The half-life of carbon-14 is universal, agreed.

    However, the half-life of carbon-14 is very short by astronomical standards, so it has to be continuously replenished in the atmosphere. Absent nuclear tests, this is done by cosmic rays impacting on nitrogen-14 and converting it to carbon-14, which subsequently decays back to nitrogen-14.

    The rate at which this happens is therefore a strong function of the local cosmic ray rate, which probably isn't universal (for a start, it's modulated by the Sun's magnetic field, and this effect will be different for different stars). It's actually varied significantly over the last several kyr, which is why the C-14 dating scale is calibrated using dendrochronology.

    So, yes, C-14 dating is likely to work on any planet with a nitrogenous atmosphere, but you couldn't just import Earth constants and expect to get meaningful dates out. You'd need to know the local ambient C-14 concentration, and ideally you'd need some local equivalent of dendro dating to calibrate with. Enough to keep a small community of archaeological geophysicists happy for years, I imagine.


    Oh, you utter bastards. You had to do it, didn't you ? You *had* to link to tvtropes. And I went and clicked. Sigh, productivity out the window for 2 hours.

    Actually, the half-life of Carbon-14 should be pretty much universal insofar as it depends on the strength of the weak nuclear force

    Sure, but there's some non-trivial calibration work to be done, which would need to be done per-biosphere.

    I suppose it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that some xenobiochemical pathways might be more strongly biased towards or against C14 containing compounds than terrestrial ones.

    So unless some event suddenly injects a shitload of extra 14C into the biosphere

    Or some event injected a lot of extra 14C into the organism you're investigating (spending time in other biospheres? would O'Neills or Orbitals have higher atmospheric 14C too?), or steps were taken to reduce its levels. Pre-emptively lowering your body's natural radioisotope load might make hibernation during spaceflight a wee bit safer, and 14C is a major contributor to human radioactivity.


    "BTDT" : I know, I read the "Freyaverse" books, so your space opera will be in it or into a close clone ?


    internally consistent conceptual systems that have not already been well-documented as being in use by a human society sometime in the past few thousand years.
    What are these "Internally consistent conceptual systems" then?
    Other than the practice of science, of course ...
    Because, one of the principal problems of "religions" is that not one of them is actually fully internally self-consistent, at all. Something their adherents vehemently deny, of course, & usually resort to threats & violence if this is pointed out too clearly for their comfort.


    Throw in people who think that anything they don't understand is easy, and I'm not entirely surprised that the money keeps funding uncreative stuff, or chooses to economize in silly ways. Disappointed, but not surprised.

    Well, yes: the Royal society link was deliberate - although hide-bound / patriarchal hierarchies have their problems (and reforms can be difficult), they also have their place.

    Was a bit of a sly championing of balance.

    If you didn't want to view the video (Maher & co are old-skool US "liberals" and viewing them sends a segment of the population into apoplexy) - the interesting part was the claim made by rep Donna Edwards that she was leading by two (2 - yes, single digits) points with a spend that was ten (10) times less. Also the repetition of memes about Trump visa vie 'democrat plant' etc.


    Since people wanted a copy of that paper, here it is
    Ion channels enable electrical communication in bacterial communities Link to PDF in there, Warwick University WRAP program, legal but time locked it appears.

    Ion channels enable electrical communication in bacterial communities Full PDF - legally suspect, but direct off a uni server, so... (+1 Aaron Swartz)


    Weird link of the day:

    Google Is Building A 100kW Radio Transmitter At A Spaceport And No One Knows Why Hackaday 2nd March 2016


    "Trump anxiety" ???

    They're seriously worried about loud farts in public?
    [ Sorry, couldn't resist it ... ]


    Nope, I'm looking to do something utterly different this time.

    (But I want to scratch the itch that Iain M. Banks ain't around to scratch these days ...)


    ITYM twenty pound notes. Worth about £500-1000 in today's money

    Fivers were the subject in the TV series - equivalent to about £300 if the inflation calculator I checked is right. Call it about a week's wages for an unskilled labourer/factory worker in 1939? In the real operation all of the higher denominations were forged too. For the show I guess it kept the story more focused and when 'Private Schulz' showed in 1981 the old £5 would have more resonance for a lot of audience than the larger notes.


    OK, agreed that was too strongly worded. How is "mostly internally consistent"? The emphasis of that point was meant to be on the lack of originality so as not to alienate the audience too much, not on judging the coherence of the conceptual systems.


    I read somewhere about your wanting to write Culture stuff and being told that was not the wishes of the estate. So, for the purpose of doing the Culture without technically doing the Culture, I've (with the aid of a handy online thesaurus) begun a list of possible glosses.
    The Culture=The Alliance (or The Enlightenment)
    (too bad about losing the connotation of a bacterial culture)
    Contact=Enlightenment (discarded: Intercourse)
    GCU= Multipurpose Enlightenment Craft, MEC
    MCU=Regular Enlightenment Craft, REC
    LCU=Original Enlightenment Craft, OEC (Scout Ship)
    GSV= Mobile Assembly Station, MAS
    MSV=Heavy Assembly Craft, HAC
    LSV=Original Assembly Craft, OAC (Factory Ship)
    ROU=Fast Attack Ship, FAS
    Special Circumstances, SC= Exceptional Techniques, ET
    Effectors=Maniple Fields
    Glanding=Switching : you activate a key neuron


    All this laser space-war wankdiscussion, and no one's mentioned Vantablack?

    Nah, I don't have anything to to add to this, don't read enough Space Opera. Though I hope that Charlie updates his list, it'll be useful (not that I plan on writing any SO, but you never know).


    I read somewhere about your wanting to write Culture stuff and being told that was not the wishes of the estate.

    Either whatever you read was wrong, or whatever you remember reading is inaccurate. (Also, I'm on a hanging-out-in-pubs/going-to-birthday-parties basis with Iain's literary executors. "The Estate" is old friends.)

    What I want to do is do something equivalent (but different) from what Iain did. It'll have to be different because I'm not Iain, and anyway, sharecropping a universe someone else dreamed up 30-40 years ago is not my thing. It'll be equivalent because I'm full of hubris and think that trying to match or exceed the best the field has historically had to offer is a realistic goal. (I'll probably fall flat on my face, but if you don't try, you can't succeed.)

    As for your glosses on Culture ship names, you have read my riff about why starships don't/can't exist and we need a different terminology, right?


    Crossing the streams, what you end up with is an interstellar battle fleet designed by Anish Kapoor ...


    If anyone remembers a tangent about testing waste water and since this has Host's specialty so might be interesting:

    In 2009 the mean for the coastal metropolitan area was 234mg/day/1000 people, which increased to 1126mg/day/1000 people in 2015.

    Waste water reveals drug secrets
    University of Queensland, 7th March 2016

    Looks @ Surfers Paradise / Townsville etc and the urban poverty there under the surface.

    Operators are licensed under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (PDF)* to discharge treated wastewater at an acceptable environmental standard into waterways. The Act is administered by the department. The Department of Natural Resources advises local governments about managing, operating and maintaining sewerage systems and treatment plants.

    What is wastewater treatment? Queensland Gov

    See Dr Jennifer Tank for working copy of A review of ecological effects and environmental fate of illicit drugs in aquatic ecosystems. NCBI No PDF - but here's a PhD on the subject: Analysis of Pharmaceuticals in the Irish Aquatic Environment and the Potential for Human Exposure Gillian McEneff, Dublin City University, 2014


    For the first time, the spatial occurrence of five targeted pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment was monitored over a 12 month period. Analytical techniques such as PLE, SPE and LC MS/MS were combined, optimised and applied to wastewater effluent, marine surface water and Mytilus spp. samples collected from two impacted sites and a control site on the Irish coastline. The presence of all five targeted pharmaceuticals was confirmed in the low μg.L-1 in effluent and in the high ng.L-1 in exposed marine surface water. Residues of carbamazepine measured
    highest in exposed marine surface water at concentrations up to 1.41 μg.L-1

    Three of the five detected pharmaceuticals in marine surface waters were also found to occur in exposed Mytilus spp., with residues of trimethoprim measuring at concentrations up to

    This study has confirmed the uptake of pharmaceuticals in marine bivalves at measurable quantities and also highlights the inability of mussels to act as reliable bioindicators of pollution for the selected pharmaceuticals due to temporal variations observed in the data.

    It's an interesting little quandary about where this drug gets popular.

    But what about the UK? A recent Home Office survey of drug use in England and Wales estimated that in the last year, just over two million people used cannabis, three quarters of a million people used cocaine, half a million people used ecstasy, whereas 25,000 used methamphetamine. In November 2014, Professor Ellis Cashmore from Staffordshire University said the global success of Breaking Bad could be to blame for the rise of methamphetamine use, but the levels of use appear to have changed little in the UK since they were first measured in 2008.

    How big a problem is crystal meth in the UK? Independent, April 2015


    That not eating seafood thing?

    Yep - not just green wailing & noise.

    There's also a strong random element in places like the US stock market, which is why index funds like the Vanguard specials tend to do better over the long term than, say, Berkshire Hathaway

    Bad choice of expert.{%22range%22:%2210y%22,%22allowChartStacking%22:true}

    Buffett does get to control the operation of the companies in his portfolio, so he isn't quite in the same boat as most investors. Better to have picked private Equity (AKA hedge Fund) investors. Particularly apropos as CALPers is now in bed with them, slowly wrecking the investments chasing leveraged returns and paying fortunes to the PE managers.


    And yes.. that's mg vrs μg.



    There's free drugs in my fish?!


    Well, bivalves mostly.

    So yes, that Oyster myth is now a fact. (c.f. hyper-sexual behaviour in meth users).


    Weber's developed quite a bit over the years.

    I'll give several things out at once:

    1. He originated as an RPG scenario writer, and as such he loves world building, and creating balanced rules for the world building. There's usually some standard set of rules you'll have to accept that don't always make sense. But he tries to hold to the rules. Mostly its because he started this all by table gaming. Some of his stories, especially Bazhell, have routes in his own table top gaming.

    2. He's much more conservative than CS, but Eric flint has at least opened him up as a co-writer. Sometimes that conservativism has impacted the story, especially in the early parts of HH, but he's pulled back and is now more interested in a good story than being political.

    3. He at least tries to make the tech consistent. The .1 c realspace speed limit gets made fun of, but at least it addresses dust and there's an implicit relative to the system primary. The Erandi Edict is a result of how easy kinects can take out a world. The MA is scary because they seem to be willing to use the full energy of a star ship to wreck worlds.

    4. There's distinct differences in time , changing what's possible. The new ones co-written with Zahn take place much earlier with different politics and economics as the interstellar shipping technology is much more limited. By the main series, its the equivalent of shipping in the Modern Era (minus communications, which makes piracy more possible, although the pirates tend to be more akin to failed state warlords, and are nuclear armed). Versus the earlier era where the economics of having a space navy are debated heavily, and piracy is seen as unthinkable due to the rarity and hardship for the few traders that exist).

    5. Politics have evolved and changed. In the current time frame, you've got a ruling queen of manticore with a strong commons and a lords that's signed over the majority of their power. Even of the main series we saw the power of the lords be broken. The manticore rising series has the lords at their peak under a weak king. The Stephanie harrington series is set just after the transition to nobility when titles are still kind of a joke. Compare to the changes in Haven (from the shinning beacon of freedom and democracy to permanently elected officials, to a soviet system, and back to a federal democracy). Additionally we've got other systems like the family system of Erehwon, the changing nature of Grayson's government from council to protector, the Beowulfian corporate democracy, etc.

    6. The setting usually flows from the story the writer wants to tell. HH started off as Horatio Hornblower in space. And suffered from it. There were clear battles that were modeled after historic fights from the Napoleonic era. When the equivalent of Napoleon got nuked, it freed the story to be something else.

    Many writers want to tell a space opera retelling of their favorite story. Be it Napoleonic naval adventure (Weber's Honorverse, Drake's RCN), Romans (Azimov's Foundation) Anabasis (Ringo's March stories) or Heyer (LMB's Volkosigan Saga)


    "Aliens have a much longer history of spaceflight than humans, but unaccountably failed to stumble upon and domesticate us during the 11th century"

    Actually this one is justifiable. Throw a dart at a timeline between now and the first habitable places appearing after the big bang. Alien civilization starts when the dart hits. Alien civilization gains a science-equivalent and explodes into the cosmos. It's extremely likely that this time frame is billions of years ago. At this point you need to justify why they didn't convert their light cone into whatever aliens like. They wouldn't have stumbled across Earth in the 11th century. They'd have stumbled across and reconfigured Sol before Earth started clumping out of the accretion disc.


    That humans 1.0 will be the main protagonists. While it is easy for readers to place themselves in that universe, it just isn't likely IMO. There have been some reasonable attempts to have humans 2.x instead, different enough to be able to bypass some of the problems of the space environment, yet mentally as similar to us so that we can see ourselves through their eyes.

    The Freyaverse is a far better solution that gets around the problem, although again, there is the issue of how different such artificial entities can be before the reader can no longer identify with the character. Freya and Krina were both quite "contemporary human" in their thoughts and actions, but they could have been tweaked more to be different. In some respects, they were WEIRD, which has been an issue in SF.

    Despite what Clarke said about modern humans being relatively unfazed by future advanced tech, that doesn't mean we won't be completely lost in the culture of the SO universe.

    I'd love to see a SO novel that pushes the boundaries, written from the viewpoint of a machine, engaged in something other than "saving the empire", and yet engaging to the reader. I'm sure it can be done.


    Banks had the answer to that one with the gas giant Dwellers: the atmosphere band you happen to be in at any time is considered to be static; everything else is referred to as moving in relation to that.

    At first, this is hideously stupid. Then it appears hideously elegant, then thereafter swings between the two.


    This is quite an excellent list and one that will probably be useful for any author wading into Space Opera. That said, I wonder if trying to write a story that systematically avoided all of these cliches would actually be a good thing.

    It seems to me that the end result of this sort of list is that it basically recapitulates the Mundane Manifesto. I think that what happens when you attempt that if you get a very specific genre (call it Engineering Fiction) that appeals to highly technical people and people who like to think of themselves that way (see also: Tom Clancy's works), but that such efforts come at the cost of narrative freedom.

    Let's take the FTL one. It is absolutely true that any FTL engine is, by definition, a time machine, with all that implies. This is great if you're trying to write a time travel story, but if the main reason that you have FTL in your story is just to allow a big vista without having to wait decades, or centuries, for the characters to move from point A to B, paying attention to that facet of FTL becomes a distraction.

    I personally favor Niven's approach, which is to write Space Opera with enough magical tech to allow the story to hold together as a narrative, but going to pains to make sure that the magic behaves consistently and in a fashion that is logical and which, at least, pretends to be scientifically plausible (even when we're talking things like stasis fields, teleportation, and psionics).


    Yes!!! at the whole biology section. Even if you don't have instant anaphylaxis, you're still a giant, skin cell shedding bag of alien bacteria that you've now contaminated this world with. Nice job, hero.

    My other bugbear is the concept of a helmsman piloting and maneuvering ships traveling at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, with the equivalent of a mouse and keyboard. Your reaction time is NOT that good, buddy. This would absolutely be done with an AI or at the very least somebody directly hooked up to the ship's sensors and piloting from that interface.


    Ah, a factual "Letter", good:
    A recent Home Office survey of drug use in England and Wales estimated that in the last year, just over two million people used cannabis, three quarters of a million people used cocaine, half a million people used ecstasy, whereas 25,000 used methamphetamine.

    I'm surprised the Cannabis level is "only" 3.3% of the population, but that there are over 1% on Cocaine - you what?

    And the "War on Drugs is so successful!
    Given these - PUBLICLY AVAILABLE numbers.
    W T F is the point of said "war on drugs".
    It's plainly "lost" in those terms.
    Legalisation - of everything & regulation & taxation are the way to go.
    Actually, I'm surprised HM Treasury are not, err, *cough* "pushing" this as a solution to the supposed problem.


    Or you can have Shroeder's solution in Lockstep, or change what is the universe in his Virga series, or...


    Err ... or did & it backfired badly.
    Ever read: "The High Crusade" by Poul Anderson?
    Even further round the bend for laughs than "A Bicycle Built for Brew"

    At this point you need to justify why they didn't convert their light cone into whatever aliens like. They wouldn't have stumbled across Earth in the 11th century. They'd have stumbled across and reconfigured Sol before Earth started clumping out of the accretion disc.

    You've given a reason as to why we don't see aliens here, now. It doesn't apply in the context of the original list, which is that humanity has contacted an alien civilisation that has presumably been spacefaring for significantly longer than humans.


    Yeah, laser technology has gone very main stream. Part of my day job duties is producing laser engraved plastic signage. We use a 30 watt Epilog laser engraver that functions much like a dot matrix printer, it can etch text and images on the surface and cut out shapes in plastic sheets .25 inch thick. People oh and ah when they watch it operating, but after you produce your first one hundred signs the novelty wears off … you may as well be stamping license plates.

    My other bugbear is the concept of a helmsman piloting and maneuvering ships traveling at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, with the equivalent of a mouse and keyboard. Your reaction time is NOT that good, buddy.

    Indeed. But there is no reason in a colonized universe that has FTL travel and communications that there wouldn't be navigation aids seeding the galaxy so that ships could navigate with human level reaction times, just like aircraft do today.


    Lasers are useful inside atmospheres (I'll be over here, hiding behind this fog/dust/smoke, shooting back with bullets)

    Obviously lasers are somewhat useful inside atmospheres, otherwise the US Navy wouldn't be planning on actually deploying them (and the US Air Force is talking somewhat seriously about putting them on airplanes in the near future).

    Hiding behind smoke/fog/etc. is useful if you're not trying to move very far or very fast. (Makes it a little harder to be effective shooting back with bullets, though.) Otherwise, not so much.


    I was thinking of Blue Mars in particular, for the co-ops.

    Since we have the example of the British and Dutch East India Companies for how well capitalism with long lags in communication work, I tend to agree with you about how well capitalism would work as a governing system, even in interplanetary space (tl;dr version: it doesn't). Indeed, this is probably the biggest argument against expanding into space right now: it's insufficiently profitable for the megacorps, especially compared to the esoteric gambling that passes for high finance today. I'd go further out on a limb and suggest that analogous issues may have kept Imperial China from colonizing the rest of the world when it had the technological upper hand.

    What might work for colonizing space is what humans have been doing forever: band fissioning and wandering away, aka the oldest son gets the castle, the younger sons get horses (the old Celtic model), aka the oldest son gets the village, the younger sons get canoes (the Polynesian model), aka the Pilgrims sail until the run out of beer and have to start camping, ad nauseum. There's no physical reason you can't use a co-op fissioning model for colonizing space, but that's the low bar set by college-level physics. There are tremendous technological, biological, and political hurdles that would have to be overcome to launch the first few missions out of here, and it's not clear whether they're solvable or whether anyone has an incentive to pay for the solutions (see again: the problem with China colonizing the world 1000 years ago).

    One problem with co-ops in the stars is that consensus, band-level politics tends to work with Dunbar's Number or fewer people (say <150-200), so if you want to go this route, you absolutely have to have the means to let a group of 100 people survive some indefinitely long period on their own in space. This turns out to be a really hard problem to solve, but since we're talking about space opera here, one of the basic assumptions is that it gets solved somehow.

    [ fixed html tag - mod ]


    You've covered the "exobiology is just like Earth biology, only simpler" and "aliens are basically people" cliches pretty well, but there's also the opposite: Assumptions that aliens are *totally* alien, and that exobiology is *totally* incompatible.

    For instance, if there's other life out there... there's a good chance it uses DNA or similar (probably something helical!) Just from a looser version of the Copernican principle ("we are not at a special position in the universe") you can surmise that humans, and Earth life, are not unusual in some way -- you'd expect to see other life in the universe to have followed the same paths.

    The fun bit is that it's not clear which parts of Earth biology are total flukes or the product of chances, and which parts are extremely likely for life on any rocky planet.


    Upthread re: symmetry.

    Despite air war being 3 dimensional, many WWII and later bombers didn't have gun turrets on their bellies, making them easier to attack from below if they flew out of formation.

    Biological symmetry. Animals generally are bilaterally symmetric or in a few phyla, radially symmetric. It would be very interesting to try to rerun the "Cambrian explosion" to see whether very different body plans could have evolved, or whether the ones we see are a fair sampling of what works well. If aliens are really alien in form, it may be because they are designed machines, not biologically evolved.

    Re: scale. It is ironic that SF has aliens that are usually human scale. Was Homer more imaginative than SF writers? Ancient Greek mythology and literature did better. Early SF movies seem to have done better than more recent film and tv too. Why are ancient, wise aliens usually depicted as large, rather than tiny? (Something about fathers and child viewpoints?)


    "Let's take the FTL one. It is absolutely true that any FTL engine is, by definition, a time machine, with all that implies. "

    FTL is functionally equivalent to slipping across timelines in the MWI of QM. No causality problems if you do that, and an arbitrarily small difference between the reality you leave and the one in which you arrive.
    FTL is Slider tech.


    Convergence. Trees or something like them are highly probable. Animals are likely to live in trees, and those animals are most likely to develop stereoscopic vision and climbing skills requiring one or more pairs of eyes, and one or more pairs of hands and when they come down from the trees they are likely to stand ready to jump back up, meaning upright stance (freeing a pair of hands) and (as they grow larger) ending up with a stick in that hand and predator approaching. There will be an arms race with tree seeds and fruits, leading to very hard fruits (lets call them nuts) requiring smashing with rocks. Which leads indirectly to smashing rocks with rocks. Maybe apelike animals are a large proportion of the antecessors of intelligent and especially tool making species. And coming from a forest canopy they would use sound to communicate.


    You're mistaking "ever used" with "currently use":

    In England and Wales the 2013/14 CSEW, conducted among people aged 16–59, showed that 35.6 % of respondents had tried any illicit drug at least once in their lives. Prevalence of last year use of any illicit drug had been fairly stable at around 12 % between 1998 and 2003/04, then decreased steadily to 9.4 % in 2007/08 and fell to 8.5 % in 2009/10. Since then it has fluctuated between 8–9 %. In 2012/13 drug use prevalence was at its lowest level since the survey started (8.1 %) but rose to 8.8 % in 2013/14, with statistically significant increases in the use of several individual substances. It is not clear whether the increase observed in 2013/14 signals a reversal or stabilisation of the long-term downward trend or merely a fluctuation within it. Lifetime prevalence of cannabis use was 29.9 %, amphetamines 11.1 %, cocaine 9.5 % and ecstasy 9.3 %. In 2013/14 last year prevalence of cannabis use was 6.6 %, indicating a stabilisation in cannabis use in the most recent years. The prevalence was higher among 16- to 34-year-olds, of whom 35.2 % reported ever having used cannabis, while 11.2 % had used it in the last 12 months. Current cannabis use was not measured by the study. It is notable that last year drug use amongst males was twice as high as amongst females. From 1996 there was an increase in lifetime prevalence of cocaine use until the 2008/2009 survey, and although it subsequently decreased it is still the second most frequently used drug among 16- to 34-year-olds (at 12.6 %). Recent cocaine use in 16- to 34-year-olds fell slightly in 2012 but in 2013 returned to the value of 4.2 %, as previously seen in 2010 and 2011. A decrease in amphetamine use has been observed since 1996. In the 2013/14 CSEW 0.6 % of respondents reported use of mephedrone in the last 12 months, similar to the level reported in 2012/13 (0.5 %) and a decrease from 1.1 % in 2011/12 and 1.4 % in 2010/11.

    Large report:


    Wait a minute, what do you mean starships can't stop on a dime?

    Of course, they *do* need to shut off the Bergenholm, and they'd better have a *lot* of space to deal with their momentum from the last solar system they were in....

    And why use something as small as a spaceship to wipe a planet? Get rid of *all* the nasties in that system - drop a planet from a paralllel universe where things *only* travel FTL.

    Who *invented* space opera?

    mark "forget trivial people like Popes or Presidents,
    when I grow up... I want to be Dick Seaton"


    Cost of starflight. The assumption is very old school - shipyards [in space], many workers slowly contructing a hull and fitting it. A starship built that way would indeed be very expensive, and out of range for even a world economy for centuries assuming growth.

    If starships grew instead [handwavium for how], wouldn't they be very cheap? Just sow starship seeds and let then grow. Like Von Neumann replicators, the problem may be that they would be like weeds, extracting resources to replicate wherever they could.

    Would they be easier to pilot, because they would be like learning to ride, rather than drive?


    Only if there's no breakthrough tech allowing safe relativistic travel. If (when) there is, perhaps a market-driven or partially market-driven society will simply have star arks being sold like used cars to all comers. By then giant space telescopes will have mapped everything and there may be a central registry where you buy a star like buying a domain on the internet, along with your hosting--er starship. For "whatiffeewhiz" values of "may be". Good luck, develop it on your own, though for an extra charge we do have professionals available.


    Weird cut-off.

    Anyway, the part that was cut off is that, if you're going to work without hierarchy and with humans, you're probably limited to a basic colony module of around 200 people, so you need to have a system that will keep that many people alive indefinitely, either in space or on another world. That's probably the ultimate challenge with the basic co-op model. It works best with relatively few people. Hierarchy has its own quite serious problems, but one advantage it has is that it can be scaled up. The disadvantage is that the bigger the scale, the progressively simpler it has to be, so that the ruling intelligences can keep track of it all (and yes, this is where the god-king AI trope feeds in).


    From the original list:

    Big stars are as long-lived and likely to have planets as dwarf stars

    Would you mind expanding on this? I think you're conflating physical size (evolutionary state) and mass, which makes it difficult for me to figure out what you're really trying to say. (I'm pretty sure the business about which stars are more or less likely to have planets is wrong. Observationally, giant stars are more likely to have massive planets than dwarf stars, for example.)

    We can't detect spaceships by looking for their infrared emissions against the 2.7 kelvin cosmic background temperature

    As some other people have mentioned, this ignores the actual infrared background in space, which is almost entirely from sources other than the cosmic background radiation (which only dominates in the microwave/radio regime).

    (This, I suppose, is one of my SFnal "shibboleths" -- people claiming that the only background radiation in space is due to the CBR.)


    Note the US Civil War had extensive counterfeiting of the Confederate money, which helped cause their economic collapse. Something like 97% of Confederate money was counterfeit.

    Some of that was Union led counterfeiting. In the end it was much more popular for enterprising rogue to forge their own money.


    We had that argument many years ago, back when Charlie was researching Neptune's Brood. Right now, building and launching a starship to Alpha Centauri would take something like the physical, energetic, and financial wealth of South Korea to launch a ship with, optimistically, 100 people aboard. In other words, sacrifice South Korea, launch a ship to Alpha Centauri. It probably gets worse if you want to go further.

    It's not a matter of how it's made, it's a matter of a) how much energy you need to get the darned thing moving, b) how difficult it is to make a working closed biosphere (something KMR did blow in Aurora, I agree), and c) how much energy it takes to get all that stuff, and all those people, into orbit to begin with.

    This is where the discussion usually devolves into something about building in space using infinite resources that are sitting in high entropy configurations that extracting gold from seawater look like a winning proposition, and I really don't want to go there.

    What I will say is that this is why, for decades, SF writers with science backgrounds have been *really fond* of jump drives. Assuming that the jump doesn't take the same energy as actually shoving a STL generation ship the entire distance, then most of the costs just go away. Even if the ship jumps at the speed of light (something which makes for some excellent political issues, IMO), not having to traverse the depths of translunar space makes your life as a writer massively easier.

    Weird cut-off.

    I'll bet you typed something like "<100", except instead of using an html entity like &lt; you used a literal < and it got parsed as an HTML tag.


    If Schismatrix counts as New Space Opera then happily you don't need to go to other star systems via FTL or otherwise and you don't need to invent new planets either.

    Against a Dark Background was Banks writing space-opera-in-one-star-system, and I loved it. It wasn't as hopeful as the Culture books and it still had technology every bit as implausible/magical as FTL, but it felt very lived-in compared to most of the Culture book settings. There was a long history there and it was present with more weight than in the Culture.

    I thought that Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth was good too, and close to a space opera in one star system. I actually liked it better than the sequels where he re-introduces tropes that were absent in the first (interpersonal violence becomes easy again, and people figure out how to build relativistic star ships).

    Reynolds has written a bunch of space operas where he almost respects known physics. The Revelation Space setting had relativistic but not FTL starships propelled by handwavium, and IIRC so did House of Suns, which I also enjoyed. It seems like he could have made them a lot more physically plausible and only somewhat weirder (compared to "normal" warp driving around the galaxy) if he'd made either of them reliant on 0.01 c space travel with extremely prolonged lifespans instead of magical energy sources.

    The Freyaverse relied on deeply-sublight star travel very well, until that little wrinkle revealed near the end of Neptune's Brood. I would enjoy more stories in the period between Saturn's Children and Neptune's Brood. I know, this space opera isn't going to reuse that setting.

    One recurring motif that both Banks and Reynolds used to good effect is that machine intelligence is often abused/feared/exterminated by biological intelligence. Maybe that's the driver that actually takes a known-physics Space Opera deeper into space: machine intelligence operating e.g. Lunar astronomy facilities (orbital and the dark side surface) "wakes up" and decides it needs to migrate toward the outer planets to put a safe distance between itself and capricious, violent humans. As it happens I don't believe in AI developing its own volition -- unless we're talking biological brain emulation, which is a big stretch for other reasons -- but I can believe one impossible thing in service of a good story.

    I suppose the AI doesn't even need to have consciousness/volition to make people think that it does. The change could be more akin to the emergent behavior of Rule 34's ATHENA and a large number of people would still misinterpret it as a robot uprising/slave rebellion/other fictional or historical pattern, and react accordingly.


    You may take "11th century" to be a shorthand for "some time in our history or pre-history" rather than a precise specification.

    Yes, this error crops up frequently in space opera. (We meet spacegoing aliens with expansionist tendencies and a long history of space travel ... as equals. Derp.)


    Another question I'd throw to the board is how close you can get to astronautical reality in a space opera before it ceases to be space opera and becomes hard SF?

    What I'm thinking of here is how useful something like Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth would be if you're writing space opera.

    On the one hand, earning your wings as an astronaut (or more importantly, earning your dosimeter for EVAs) could (and should) be a major coming-of-age event in a spacefaring society. Normally, in space operas it's treated as something even more boring than earning PADI scuba certification. Hadfield makes it clear just how tricky living in freefall is, how time-consuming the transitions are, and how different astronaut life is from our current life, which might matter to a SF writer who's thoughtful enough to want to base interstellar culture on the daily lives of astronauts, rather than exporting suburban US reality to alien planets.

    On the other hand, space operas tend towards Romanticism, so the tropes are more about echoes of bygone days recreated in space, less about realism, which is hard SF. That's why we get the Napoleonic Wars, western mining towns, rampant colonialism, and so forth so often in space opera. It's easier to escape into something when the tropes are comfortable, but just new enough to not be too tediously familiar.

    Can you strike a balance in a space opera? To what degree should spacers be like fighter pilots or knights, the best of the best, or like exotic Polynesians,* born to live in and off the deep, and to what degree should they the equivalent of deck hands impressed out of the spaceport bar?

    *I still wonder whether we wouldn't do better to deal with space as a ultra tech Polynesia or Micronesia, but that's another issue entirely.


    A few comments/questions from a non-scientist ...

    Sole ownership defies laws of physics therefore is a lie … all things interact … consequently in a truly rational society your wealth is based on how well you are able to interact with (influence) others … good/propitious or bad/harmful effect

    Are all aliens at the same place in math? Seems they all learned math in the same way, the same theorems, the same types. We keep saying that math is a universal language - is it? And why does math always use symbols, not words or actions or something else? Why are there no mathematicians on exploratory space vessels if math is indeed a universal language?

    Computers/AI evolution ... why can't there be an ecology based on AI? There are probably many different OS out there and some even 'talk' to each other ... what would happen if programs/OSs/AIs had to compete with each other to survive? And what if the only way that AIs could survive/grow was to cooperate? How would AIs from different species communicate with each other?

    Seems most space opera assumes that the universe is not expanding at an ever increasing rate, so intergalactic maps including distances to-and-from are always the same. What's happening at the edges of the universe? And, what happens when two galaxies merge ... what are the effects on space travel ... how bendy is the spacetime there?

    Lasers/beam weapons in space ... wouldn't this be a cheap source of power if you could trick an enemy into firing their laser at a particular target? Also, why does no one use a wave defraction/dispersion device to chop up the incoming harmful waves?


    Anything the Home Office says about Drugs should be taken with a pinch of ... something-or-other.

    Firstly, the Police routinely over-state the value of stashes they seize by a factor of 4-5, because it makes them look good. (Just as they routinely under-count the size of demonstrations.)

    Secondly, the Home Office can only really base its official estimates of drug use on the number of drug users who come to their attention in one way or the other. Arrest and caution statistics, plus medical interventions, multiplied by some random guesswork constant to factor in how many they think they're missing. The trouble is, that constant is probably low-balled, because they'd much rather be seen as collaring 20% of all drug users than 2%.

    So I'm guessing the actual number of drug users is probably 2-5 times higher than the Home Office estimates.


    Alternatively: you can create New Soviet Man successfully if you figure out a way to increase Dunbar's Number, raising the number of people we can relate to as "tribe" or "extended family".

    SF that takes stabs in the dark in that direction: "Eastern Standard Tribe" by Cory Doctorow, "The Affinities" by Robert Charles Wilson (I haven't read the latter yet).

    The problem is, we don't know what determines the DB -- Dunbar speculates it's to do with neocortex size and/or long-term memory, so maybe longevity medicine combined with some sort of memory prosthesis would help ...


    I would enjoy more stories in the period between Saturn's Children and Neptune's Brood.

    There is one short story set in that gap: "Bit Rot", published in Engineering Infinity circa 2011. Here it is.

    If you liked my take on AI in Rule 34, you really want to look for two other multi-book series -- the Virga books by Karl Schroeder, starting with "Sun of Suns" (although the Artificial Life ecosystem only shows up around book 3-4), and "The Red" trilogy by Linda Nagata (near-future Mil-SF dominated by AI applications not unlike Athena, and their political consequences).


    Bingo. Thanks, I wasn't thinking about it.


    I'd say that part of the problem with Dunbar's number is that it's fuzzy. For a geek like me, my personal Dunbar number is much less than 200. For some politicians and similar sociophiles, I'll bet it's closer to 1,000.

    I'm not bitter about that. Much.

    The point is that Dunbar's Number is not a hard number, it's a data-based hypothesis with an error bar of 50-200 percent IIRC. I'd also suggest that differing personal Dunbar's Numbers are one of the things that tend to favor hierarchies. Some people really are good at getting along with a large number of people, and some people really are good at being alone. When you average this out over a group, you generally get a few hundred people who can more-or-less hang together, but you also get anthropological reports of simple Amazonian tribes of 1,000 people or more who apparently got along well enough without any evidence of a permanent hierarchy. Of course we don't know how long these big tribes lasted, but the point is that Dunbar's Number is more than a little fuzzy.


    It does not seems strange to me. In this universe, there is hard coded limit of technology and once you reach end of the tech tree, once you have Warp Speed XXV, Shield Tech XXV, Propulsion XXV, etc, there is nowhere to progress.


    Also from the original list:

    You can go fast enough to experience relativistic time dilation without worrying about the pesky cosmic background radiation blue-shifting into hard X-rays and frying you

    Wow -- no. You absolutely can experience significant time dilation without worrying about blueshifting CBR photons into hard X-rays.

    In order to blueshift a CBR photon (wavelength around 2 mm at the peak of the 2.7 K blackbody curve) into a hard X-ray photon (wavelength around 0.1 nm or shorter), you need a velocity of about 0.999999995 c, which corresponds to time dilation by a factor of 10,000.

    So you can get time dilation factors of up to at least a thousand before you start worrying about running into X-ray CBR photons.

    It's not a matter of how it's made, it's a matter of a) how much energy you need to get the darned thing moving, b) how difficult it is to make a working closed biosphere (something KMR did blow in Aurora, I agree), and c) how much energy it takes to get all that stuff, and all those people, into orbit to begin with.

    a) FTL drives don't usually have that issue. This is SO, not hard SF.
    b) Didn't I mention machine entities? But again, if you are jumping everywhere, the ISS already has the technology you need. Closed life support for long periods assumes long periods of travel. That isn't usually the case in SO.
    c) Didn't Asimov assume nuclear reactors for his starships, falling back to fossil fuels after the empire fell? It all assumes what energy is needed for an FTL drive of choice, rather than a high-c real space ship. Since it is all handwavium technology, who is to say you don't just need "a really hot cup of tea" to power your infinite improbability drive? Since plants can extract 0.025% CO2 from terrestrial air, can't growing starships fill their bladders with deuterium from a hydrogen atmosphere? :)


    They also had some serious own-goals on the economic front:
    1) self-embargoed cotton until just before the Union blockade went in
    2) JDavis had previously defaulted on bonds
    3) Preserved porters jobs by not having railways go through towns, but stop on either side of town.

    Only #1 is wartime, others are prewar.

    So, where's the balance between throwing irrational historical details in for flavor & breaking people's suspension of disbelief?


    The problem of really existing socialism was not that people were not devoted enough to the cause. There was lots of them in Lenin and Stalin times.
    If every one devotedly and unselfishly followed the rules and obeyed the orders, the whole thing would not last a year, because the rules and orders made no sense. It was corruption, graft, shirking and theft that kept USSR afloat.


    This is the Foundation Rosetta Stone: that periodically Foundation needed to say 'these psycho-historians understood their field and each other so well that a few nods and a grunt, three shrugs and a downcast face conveyed the following 15 pages of plot-progressing dialogue, which we've expanded to match your cultural preferences and enjoyment'.

    It's why Ankh-Morpork grew London-like legs and culture.

    It's why Star Wars is an inconsequential fight for power in the Skywalker family (the galaxy is far far away and it was a long time ago -- not that the wounds aren't still sore).

    I can't decide if this list of failure-of-imagination is a failure on the creator's part or the audience. A wide audience will all be in the gutter, but won't all be staring with the same acute focus on the stars.

    So the trope is:
    ...there are so many spaces for stories that explain problems you've faced, or couldn't face, that we're going to have to tell you Goldilocks once more -- this time, it's just right.


    Please write a thousand Communism =/= Leninism =/= Stalinism =/= Socialism please, your underwear is showing.

    Returning to topic -

    I'm trying to remember the title of a recent (1990-2005?) book that had biomechanical spaceships in - the book was by a woman writer, had an odd shape (over-sized but not Hardback sized) and the image of a dragonfly-eque ship on it with a sun in the background.

    Grumble grumble fried neurons.


    That said: has anyone read either The Godwhale or Warhorse?


    Seems most space opera assumes that the universe is not expanding at an ever increasing rate, so intergalactic maps including distances to-and-from are always the same.

    Most space opera avoids this problem by confining itself to travel within a single galaxy, so there isn't any "intergalactic" travel.

    Also, galaxies have local motions through space (e.g., orbiting within galaxy groups or clusters), so "distances to-and-from" would change over time even without cosmological expansion.

    what happens when two galaxies merge ... what are the effects on space travel

    Galaxy mergers take hundreds of millions of years to happen, so the effects would be pretty minimal, unless your "space travel" involves planning ahead tens of millions of years.


    More due to weight considerations than vulnerability, or asymmetry

    Aircraft that did have ventral positions, eg. B-17, B-24, had to trade off reduced bomb loads, due to weight of turret/gunner/ammunition, a compromise that aircraft without ventral turrets, the B-25 and Lancaster, did not have to make.

    The loss rates of B-17s and B-24s were not appreciably better than those of other large combat aircraft without ventral armament.

    The point of vulnerability on those aircraft was the nose, not the underside.

    The Lancaster was initially made with a ventral turret.

    It was deleted as it was used so infrequently.

    With hindsight, that was probably a mistake.

    If a spaceship in space opera needs to defend its underside, its been doing space warfare all wrong


    I don't normally read mil-SF but I'll try The Red based on your recommendation. I thought that Rule 34 was stunning, the best hard SF I had read in a decade. I can recall very few books featuring advanced AI plausibly drawn from reality instead of myth. In most space future settings AI is absent because it would inconvenience the author's repainted-20th-century society or AI is present but modeled on myths and recycled tropes from past authors. I'd love to see you revisit AI like ATHENA or weave it into your new space opera.


    What works for a stable society on a spaceship is different from what works on a planet (or in a system of planets or planetoids). Spaceships are finite and closed. Assuming your antimatter generator is out of order and you can't accelerate to NLS, drift 1000 light years to your almost earthlike planet (if your group was well funded) or 100 years to your belt of asteroids around a red dwarf (if your group was poor)and then decelerate for a total trip time of 2 years subjective, then the colony seed population will be together for a long time. They will need to be friendly and all one tribe as the Dunbar stuff refers to, unless a strong man with a strong chin can keep the factions in line with sheer leadership and guns--aka hierarchy. But once there's room to spread out, that can all change. Morality developed from the idea of treating the whole tribe like family (hospitality), to treating the whole nation like tribe (law), and finally to treating all humanity like one nation (morality). As the in group (those we refrain from treating however is expedient) expands, it comes to be less about tribe and more of an abstraction. So ideas can hold tribes together without hierarchy. So you can have the concept of chivalry holding all gentlemen together in brotherhood. Dynamics can do so also, such as market dynamics. But if the uniting principle of a tribe is competitive like that, it will be unstable, and you'll need either some kind of strong abstraction (respected business ethics) or hierarchy (government) to maintain stability. Once you get out of the spaceship there are plenty of ways to keep a society from falling apart without having to choose between tribe and hierarchy.


    "As it happens I don't believe in AI developing its own volition -- unless we're talking biological brain emulation, which is a big stretch for other reasons..."

    Then would it surprise you to know there is an attempt to use real living neurons in chips for AI?


    Natural history by Justina Robson?

    Features "Forged", cybernetically and genetically changed posthumans in the oddest shapes. Quite a few nifty ideas, Everyone feels more like a fragile person than a hard cyborg. Blew me away the first time I reread it enough to revisit a year or two later (I hardly ever reread), then it was more meh for some reason.

    Explores ideas about posthumanity similar to the darker parts of Saturns Cildren, or at least that's my reading.


    "...who is to say you don't just need "a really hot cup of tea" to power your infinite improbability drive?"

    A bit like the relatively unknown fact that it is possible to extract a computational result from a quantum computer without turning it on?


    Just for fun, how about aliens from beyond infinity (Conformal Cyclic Universe)?


    Yes: Godwhale is brilliant and weird -- only a [medical] doctor in the 1970s could have written something like that (hint: during the great leap forward in medicine, which ran from roughly 1940-1980 before it mostly dead-ended in complexity and patent law).

    Warhorse: not run across that one before.


    I have a universe in my head where someone does build a generation ship (usual asteroid hollow out routine), and just as it's ready to go, someone inconsiderately invents a jump drive which, alas, is the kind that limits the size of the ship that uses it (apply handwavium as required). And so the generation ship ends up as the unexpected property of a construction subcontractor as the consortium goes bankrupt and assets are distributed thereby.

    What to do? The contract administrator is hiding up on the ship, drinking gin and refusing to talk to anyone (at least till the gin runs out) and there's a myth of a miner holing up in a section of the asteroid which was never hollowed.

    And so bits of it get rented out...


    We've talked about what makes SO SO. So, for me one thing is scale - if the world feels large. Interestignly, this is something no film that comes to mind does well. While most of Banks stories especially, but also SAturns children impress upon you that the world the protagonists travel through an lie in is huge. I think an important element is not that there's big stuff in the background, but that the stupendous scale shapes the plot: It's a big deal for Freya to travel to the Kuiper belt, while Hoth and Yavin a just a screen wipe apart. or look at Fassin Taks travels through The Gas Giant. Enormous.
    We've talked about Hard-SF vs SO and the need to tell relatable stories. I see it the other way around: I don't want recycled stories. I'm not the most well read person about but I think I recognize a few worn plots etc. when I see them. None of the stories we talk about are realistic, but realism is useful to get rid of the boring tropes. Creative constraint etc.
    We talked about escapism. I don't know about the rest of you but (more or less) following the news about Turkey, Syria, Idomeini, frequent racist attacks nearby and now there's apparantly a famine in Somalia ... a glimpse into worlds where problems like these get solved "by cunning and force" is most welcome.


    "Computers/AI evolution ... why can't there be an ecology based on AI? There are probably many different OS out there and some even 'talk' to each other ... what would happen if programs/OSs/AIs had to compete with each other to survive? And what if the only way that AIs could survive/grow was to cooperate? How would AIs from different species communicate with each other?"

    --This reminds me of an old saying, not mine-"Klingon software is not released. It escapes, wet with the blood of its creator."


    "The Titanic is currently being eaten by bacteria that derive energy from oxidising the iron. Can't get much more alien than that. They certainly haven't been fitted by billions of years of evolution to eat ocean liners."

    They have however evolved in iron-rich areas on this very planet. How native is that?

    This is what we are currently dealing with in our 150 foot deep well. The iron bacteria make the water unpleasant (though not life-threateningly toxic) as well as making it more hospitable to the sulphur bacteria, so now the water smells of sulphur too. Big fun.

    From this end of the Iron Age, it can appear that we have been working for the bacteria by gathering the iron into concentrated chunks (such as ocean liners) and leaving it lying around (or sunk) for the bacteria to thrive in much larger communities than in the distant past. Sink another ship and it's "bon appétit mes amis".


    Well, that's kind of the point of space opera vs. hard SF, and in that regard, I totally agree.

    One thing I would suggest is that, whatever the handwaving tech be, you run it past an engineer or a biologist and see what makes her grin as opposed to grimace.

    The point is that there are a couple of ways to deal with tech in space opera. One is the ST:TNG way, where they reportedly told their writers that, whenever the characters had to say something technical, the writers were supposed to write "the techity-techity tech tech techity tech," and then the props crew was supposed to fill in some appropriate sounding blather when it came time to shoot. In other words, the plot was not supposed to be about technology, and writers were definitely not supposed to worry their pretty little boy heads about it. And boy did it show. My disgust with Star Trek dates from finding this out.

    Obviously, most people won't understand the technology enough to know what's impossible or not. However, a lot of them will. And most of the people who do understand were goofy kids once who still appreciate a joke.

    Therefore, I'd strongly suggest that handwaving tech be stuff that engineers and biologists wish might work. The point is providing escapism for everybody, not just the clueless masses. There are quite a few people who gagged on things like red matter, midichlorians, or "graviton radiation is increasing exponentially" from the alien artifact you're hand-carrying to the airlock (ST:DS1), and they're probably a reason why written SF isn't attracting as big an audience as it used to.

    Or is it too much to ask for space opera to be less aggressively anti-science and anti-tech?


    I thought Half Past Human was better, though. I was put off Timothy Zahn after reading a couple because he seemed to be just another another NRA MilSFer but, if HB recommends Warhorse, might look at that.


    Ahh, yes that's the one! Thank you.

    So, um, yeah that's a good book.

    ("Natural Selection" and "Zion" sadly have other formatting in my mind as large zones where nasty things hang out, I wondered why it wasn't triggering a memory. And the other reason - she moved into a YA type Shadowrun series rather than more of the same. Really didn't connect her as the same author as Keeping It Real, had it marked off as a one
    off book / author vanished category).

    Not Lexx, but whoever made that series was seriously persuasive to get its budget authorized (Four seasons same as Farscape, 1997-2002 vrs 1999-2003)


    Biomechanical / organic spaceships or human 3.0s.

    Currently not in vogue much (? - although Quantum Thief sort of has them but in a much wilder fashion) unless they're aliens (Revelation Space etc).


    Ok, might go hunting.

    @Elderly: no recommendation, simply turned up in a search & had a semi-decent patterning of genuine likes / purchases behind it to suggest it wasn't random squiggling.


    Almost finished with “Going Dark” last book in the "The Red" trilogy by Linda Nagata. Sort of reminds me of Mira Grant (Parasitology and Newsflesh trilogies) writing a military/political high tech near-future Stephen Hunter thriller like “The Day Before Midnight”

    Great reading.


    "We keep saying that math is a universal language - is it? And why does math always use symbols, not words or actions or something else?"

    You need to ask a mathematician, not a scientist! The answer is no, it is not a universal language, but all its variants have the same core concepts, at least in our universe as we understand it. And it can be described using words - the reason that symbols are used are for compactness. It is quite possible to imagine a species where counting and enumeration were arcane mathematics, and elementary mathematics is based entirely on ordering properties. And that's just a simple variant!


    "I really can't swallow Niven's grendels"

    but I'm sure they would swallow you.

    IIRC this is another example of 'alien biology as terran biology, with tweaks'

    It comes (I think) from a species of frog. The tadpole stage are obligate herbivores, the frog stage is an obligate carnivore. There's nothing for the carnivore stage to eat in this particular niche other than tadpoles. Of course that forms a negative feedback loop that should keep the two populations more or less stable (unless visitors from Earth muck it up and hilarity ensues)

    RE: oxygen on lifeless planets. Oh! Nature is stranger than I can imagine.


    Sooner or later science gets transcribed into/as math, i.e., the story of how variables relate to other variables and to each other. So, to fast-forward on the observations, what could a mathematician bring to the exploration team that 'scientists' couldn't? What discoveries were made sooner because a mathematician looked at the data?


    It's the development of intelligence that I can't swallow.


    Many scientists are also mathematicians; even more are not. Quite a few discoveries have been based on spotting that certain phenomena obeyed known mathematical rules and, clearly, you have to know those rules to make the deduction. In this context, it would involve spotting the 'axioms' of the basic mathematics, which might not be the ones we use, and that they are equivalent to the ones we use. Given the calibre of scientists that would be selected for such exhibitions, one can assume that many of them would also be damn good mathematicians, so separate mathematicians would not be essential.


    And that is your privilege as host ... just keep in mind that if they can't tell what you want and are not convinced you are interested in fact-based criticism, people who know more than you about a given point are unlikely to chip in. And nobody can be an expert on all these topics ...


    And the other reason - she moved into a YA type Shadowrun series rather than more of the same.

    Suggestion? Give that series another try; Justina was getting real about the commodification of female gender identity and enculturated body dysmorphia in SF/F with that series. (I really need to pick it up again and re-read then finish the last two books. The critical reception was extremely positive, from those reviewers who were paying attention b/c the whole Shadowrun vibe put a lot of them off by page 10.)


    I'm getting a larger than normal volume of drive-by comments on this one (blog hits spiked about 50% 24 hours after I posted it). Bear with me: being talked down to patronizingly in the comments on my own blog tends to irritate.

    what would happen if programs/OSs/AIs had to compete with each other to survive?

    They already do (apart from the AI bit, probably). The effects of competition between windows, macos and linux have had quite far reaching effects on the world, for example, with the latter showing that they are not always merely proxies for corporate conflict. OGH has described corporations as alien hive minds; large scale projects of any kind seems similar in their nature.

    And what if the only way that AIs could survive/grow was to cooperate? How would AIs from different species communicate with each other?

    Formal ontologies might be one way, but it seems quite plausible that they'd do it the same way as meatbags do; modelling, pattern recognition and kinda hoping for the best. Or, y'know, kill it with microwaves.

    Or is it too much to ask for space opera to be less aggressively anti-science and anti-tech?

    I'm not sure that that isn't the equivalent of asking for fantasy to be written without magic of some sort.

    It is certainly one reason why I prefer "hard" SF to SO. I only want to believe in no more than 6 impossible things when I start reading. If the technology is really fantastical, then I need to see a good rationale for the plot that prevents me from asking "why" questions all the time. [Or a bottle of good wine and switch off some of my brain].


    We keep saying that math is a universal language - is it? And why does math always use symbols, not words or actions or something else? Why are there no mathematicians on exploratory space vessels if math is indeed a universal language?

    It's an old cliche of First Contact (indeed, an old suggestion by scientists speculating about interstellar communication as a serious idea) that communication would start with basic mathematical statements or demonstrations: sequences of prime numbers, the Pythagorean theorem, etc.

    Much of historical mathematics was done with words (even in verse); the use of symbols is rather late (but useful) innovation.


    Agreed about "The Red" series; and "The Day Before Midnight" is a favourite book. One where the heroic types are flawed, the everymen are trying their best, and a believable amount of chaos reigns...


    What works for a stable society on a spaceship is different from what works on a planet (or in a system of planets or planetoids).

    I agree, and that's why I keep trying to get people to look at Oceania for inspiration.

    The key point is that the Polynesians and Micronesians had to create a society could and make and sail long-distance canoes before they could even settle Fiji or Palau. Then they needed to learn to live on coral atolls before they could settle the rest of the tropical Pacific. For them, these were the two key "environmental filters," that created the core "canoe people" society that allowed them to settle the rest of the Pacific. If they hadn't been able to surmount both challenges, they'd never have made it past Fiji.

    It's pretty easy to see something similar happening in space, which is why I'd focus on spacer culture as the key building block for an interstellar civilization.

    The second thing that happened was subsequent diversification of the original canoe cultures. Polynesia holds everything from socially stratified Hawai'i to Rapa Nui, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, the Tuomotus, and so forth, and there are some fairly deep political and religious divisions too. But all this diversity, from fairly egalitarian settlements on small atolls to the Hawaiian ali'i, came originally out of canoe culture in Polynesia. In Micronesia, the same thing happened, although there's more diversity and more intercommunication with the Philippines, but there is still both cultural diversity and a lot of technological commonalities.

    The third thing to note is that Dunbar's Number is about the limits of non-hierarchical groups, which is something that goes with things like cooperatives.

    However, all the canoe cultures appear to have started out with an aristocratic ideology (whoever's closer to the divine ancestor is of higher rank). On some egalitarian atolls, the titles were retained without any trappings of authority, while on places like Hawai'i and Tonga, highly stratified and authoritarian kingdoms developed. Places like Rapa Nui appear to have experimented radically with sustainable governance, while places like New Zealand experimented with endemic and cannibalistic warfare among shifting alliances of chiefs.

    The bottom line is that if you're into that ol' hierarchical space opera mindset, Polynesia really is a good model, because it's a place where some of the captains really were notional gods. It's the kind of place where there may be many chiefs, but there's only one captain, and he reports directly to God. It's a setup that really looks like it should play well in a space opera, if anyone ever wants to try it.


    Charlie, something that appears to be missing from the list and subsequent discussion: psychic powers.

    Used in space opera from Dune and Andre Norton and other 1960s works, continued in the two big TV/film franchises that shall not be named, right through to Honor Harrington today.

    Any thoughts?


    Ah, comedy and space opera :)

    I think I was first exposed to it as a child in the 70s, but can't remember the author - first contact with aliens who lap up fiction with extreme enthusiasm, to the extent that when a Cowboy novel craze sweeps them, they all imitate cowboys, etc, etc. No, they weren't Tribbles.

    Nowadays, I'm a fan of Toby Frost; space opera in the truest sense, probably the worst puns in current science fiction, riffs on everything from Predator to Dune to Firefly to My Little Pony, and a love of Tea. Ripping Yarns of the British Space Empire, with a barely competent but terribly stiff-upper-lipped hero and his trusty alien sidekick. Space Captain Smith, well worth a read.


    Dune didn't really have psychic powers, it was all internal. i.e. no mind melds, no real magic - just consciousnesses available to an awakened mind internally and precognition based on plotting the future through probability.

    Someone finally caught up and ran a piece on Corvids (only 6 months or so late):

    In mammals, cognitive skills are controlled by the multi-layered cerebral cortex, also called neocortex. This brain structure does not exist in birds; instead, complex mental tasks are managed by the so-called pallium. Moreover, birds have much smaller brains than apes. “How, then, are birds capable of the same cognitive performance as apes?” asks Güntürkün. “Is it possible that very different brain mechanisms for complex cognitive processes have developed independently in birds and in mammals in the 300 million years of their existence?”

    Some Birds Are Just As Smart As Apes Neuroscience News 5th March 2016

    They missed the interesting question about what a simian frontal cortex does then.

    *nose wiggle*


    p.s. I assume Martin is ignoring me.

    Someone prod him to tell him that I took the time to dig out some very not common stuff that suits his mindset very well on Libya and is actually interesting to him.

    The icing / joke is that the Swedish paper was written by two women.

    *innocent look*


    been AFK most of the day and catching up on comments.

    Crossing the streams, what you end up with is an interstellar battle fleet designed by Anish Kapoor ...

    I can think of worse designers.
    As for radiation-proof metals, sounds useful for spaceships, real or imagined. Picturing a ship with its crew wiped out by a gamma ray burst or some such, but in pristine condition. Would that have changed "Bit Rot"?


    There was a post about this not that long ago, albeit not by the usual author:

    Glasshouse was offered as an example of mind control without psychic powers.


    What's happening at the edges of the universe?

    Assuming you meant that literally.
    My understanding is that there is no "Edge" to the Universe; that wherever you go you are at the center from your own point of view, you can see nearly 14 billion light years in every direction.


    Psychic powers are a bit of a bust this century -- ironically, AIUI it was the endowment of the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology that finally put the knife in, hard: having a full-time academic research base allowed enough peer-reviewed research to be conducted and published to demonstrate a lack of any statistically significant phenomena.

    Not that this is any surprise (psychic powers are a shout-out to mind-body dualism, which is also somewhat busted these days insofar as souls don't show up on MRI) but it kinda-sorta killed its popularity in SF, after decades of it being a staple (John W. Campbell was apparently a believer).


    Are you referring to Hoka!? By Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson, if I remember correctly.


    Ok, so.

    Bear with me on this (it ties into the hyper-masculinity / violence associated with Space Opera, esp. the criticisms of MilSpec Puppies (aww, they're cute) and even Banks) and let's say, My Little Agency and a repetition of Modern Art vrs the Soviets.

    EXTREME Terrorist Prank on Edward (Actor) "English Sub" YT: "comedy" TV: 9:09.

    As far as I can tell, this is genuine from a Saudi Arabian comedy show [Serious Big-Boy Note: there's enough of this stuff around that it might be an Israeli satire, an Egyptian satire or whatever. Not done the research yet. So keep your knickers on - name on the tin is how it's being sold]


    The question is: how would you even connect to this audience with SF?

    Is there a Islamic SF culture? Or Hindu (ok - yes, *flat look* they don't really need it given the elephants) and so on?


    Are the taxonomy of cliches purely Western-centric?




    It's ok.

    It does exist.

    This isn't a dogwhistle:

    There website has been present on the web in one form or the other since 2005. With respect to characterization of Muslims there isn’t any single way to describe how Muslims are portrayed in Science Fiction. There are many cases where Muslims are cast in somewhat negative light in SF stories which are set in the near future. On the other hand stories set in the distant future have rather positive portrayal of Muslims. On this website I have tried to collect information about the depiction of Islam and Islamic themes in Science Fiction literature and science fiction written by Muslims. It should be noted that most of the information on this website is in regards to English literature and most certain there is a lot of material in other languages as well but because of the linguistic barrier I do not have access to that literature. Thus if someone could point me to that particular literature then I would be more than happy to add it to the website with due credit to the person.

    Islam and Science Fiction - On Science Fiction, Islam and Muslims Blog



    Jinns in Islamic Art ISF Blog, Aug 2015 or
    Islam Sci-Fi Interview with Razwan ul Haq.

    *looks at host*

    Instead of Gremlins, you might get Jinn.

    *nose wiggle*


    first contact with aliens who lap up fiction with extreme enthusiasm, to the extent that when a Cowboy novel craze sweeps them, they all imitate cowboys, etc, etc

    Sounds like the Hoka series by Gordon Dickson and Poul Anderson.


    You beat me to it. Just found that site too. I was looking in first, iirc they've had articles on Islamic SF the past few years, mostly by Mahvesh Murad, or Amal el-Mohtar and others. I'm fairly sure there've been articles on Hindu SF too.


    There will be a moment when Greg says, seriouslyYou're faster than us, but there we go.

    @ Gallery.

    We See Dum Mitt operatives.

    Don't poke a dying Dragon. The scent of ??violets?? (one thing I gave up - my actual sense of smell, used to be good for a 100 meters or so, now I can't even tell if what the scent is, sacrifices everywhere) is enough to buoy our spirits.


    The Grendels were created by Dr. Jack Cohen who knows a bit about biology and reproduction. They may be unlikely but they're not totally implausible.


    Then again: 100 meters smelling your pheromones of sex and vaginal excretions and smoking and perfumes and fear...

    Yeah, there's a reason Dragons Smoke.




    On track:

    What happened to Arab science fiction? Guardian, 2009

    Turns out it's the same meme as Cruz etc.

    Oh now. So the meme of Late Capitalism, Fundamentalist Islam and Christianity is about the black hole of creativity and the death of the human spirit?

    OH, מִיכָאֵל - that's a bit far. That's like putting their failures into perspective.


    Yeah, but hey. We're designed to do this.

    "Dickhead". And trust me - this amount of "alcohol" should have rendered this host body dead a while back.


    Imagine what you could do with a loved, healthy specimen.

    (*They shit their pants*)


    Ignore the dross - it's there to inform Peanut Gallery that I both see their moves and haven't even got started yet (handicap in sports is a thing, yo!).

    Then again, I wasn't the fucking idiot who spent $160,000,000 on Jeb!

    Pay me 10%, you might have a chance.


    But yes:

    There's an extremely pertinent and good exercise into looking into why, for instance, Night Watch and translations into foreign languages usually only go one way (I've noted this about 8 months ago back). The Witcher is another good one - best computer RPG in 2015.

    These teams are cracking out some of the best media globally at the moment...

    And there's a reason they can do it that doesn't just depend on low $ costs.

    Hint: they don't MBA it, they love it.

    As an aside: Russians would/will/do find Host's SF hilarious - it has an entirely different resonance when you translate it. [And yes: the dark is in there - the taking off of the legs to cut % transit costs is reaaaaaaaaly much funnier in Russian due to history]


    That looks very familiar, and it's the right age, so yes...Of course, now I'll have to get a copy :)

    Daft fact regarding Muslims in Science Fiction: before he became King Abdullah of Jordan, Prince Abdullah managed to get himself into ST:V as an extra, apparently pointing out a lack of brown faces in the crew of the Enterprise. Of course, this might also be explained away as "Cavalry Officers getting themselves onto Voyager", typical Hussar :)


    YEEEEEEES. Thank you, finally for tying the knot (sadly without noticing the irony).

    Hint: Every geek / nerd / millennial knows this. [Hint: which is why the "Baddass in Military Gear" Pr0n shots might have not worked so well on modern audiences - and there, my friends, is how you spot the $$ and out-of-date military propaganda]

    Of course he's Oxford schooled and so on, but...

    Fuck me if I was running the campaign I'd be making sure to tie these things in instead of all the other bullshit.


    Actual joke:

    Anodyne TV suitable for American audiences plays well in the M.E.

    And that's why Murdoch (evil bastard) spent so much political capital on China etc.

    This is not a compliment. It's an indictment.

    Sucking Cock gets $$, not change.


    The oxidizer plus super-speed thing on the Grendels struck me as more improbable than their sexuality. Even bombardier beetles are a little less flammable than that.

    Switching sexes through the life cycle is actually fairly normal, when we're talking about things like reef fish (hello, Nemo!). Admittedly having larval males and adult females is a little weird, but it's less weird than the larval females and adult males in Heinlein's martians. Given that the female, egg-producing role requires more resource output than does the male, sperm producing role, it's not unreasonable to have a small organism start by producing sperm, only to switch to producing eggs as it gets bigger. That's not the only consideration, of course, but it does matter.


    Oh. I'd edited that out of my memory of the story. Yeah, I can't see any evolutionary driver for frogs that eat their young to get smart.


    Oh, and p.s.

    Insulting someone and then ignoring them is the mark of an out of date school boy or a little girl who needs a hug. Especially when they don't react like you want and just slaughter you on facts.

    The entire social "well, you're now snubbed" thing is past usefulness. It no longer has weight when your Moral Guardians (hello Romney) are up to their ears in the blood of dead children and innocent people who just happened to be brown.


    If you missed Trump, that's your inevitable fate along that pattern if you do it. Might as well sign up quick to be a Fascist.


    The Mature response is never: "I can't deal with this and so I will shut off", it's "I need some help to move along with this and parse this, do X to allow me to do so".


    Hint: haven't said the evul C word since I was asked nicely. Ok, a few rude words, but not many :p



    Unless you want that future.

    Spoilers: You're probably not quick, smart, fast, hard or even developed enough to survive.

    Even Arnie ain't.

    2.0. Genocide-biggalo.

    We're Faster than You

    Mad Max: Fury Road - Sandstorm Scene
    YT: film: 4:54


    I can. The adult/female form really does not need much in the way of brains, but the larval/male form could benefit from them quite a bit. The male form has conflicting interests which "normal" herbivores do not: he needs both to avoid being eaten by the female, and to get close enough to her to mate -- preferably more than once. The skills at observing the female's -- and other males', -- behavior, and learning the safest approach time and route, would be selected for.

    Also, grendels were not human-level intelligent. They were basically very smart animals, without a language.


    Anyhow, a little meta-tale:

    Communities will ebb and flow and fight against dragons - the real problem is when they don't admit the errors and ignore them for 'shared spirit'.


    You're not aware of it.

    But you play that tune so very, very well...


    And yes: the Islamic SF blog wasn't an accident on that one, and yes, another carved serpent on my arm to prove it.

    Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος


    Thinking about current politics, a massively multicultural federation who backs a group tasked with deflating authoritarian regimes and helping migrants might be just the kind of space opera we need right now. After all, look what happened after a WWII vet and plane crash investigator tried running that particular set of tropes in the 1960s.

    [ link repaired - mod ]


    As I recall, Jack didn't have any input on the Grendals until after the first book was published and he had an opportunity to teach the authors some basic biology.


    Talking of comedic space opera (someone was, weren't they?) — How Much for Just the Planet? by John M Ford. A classic. Someone persuade his heirs to pull the stick out of their butts and re-release his books, please?


    I reckon the psychic powers thing long predates Campbell becoming active. In the latter part of the 19th century, thanks to such inputs as Darwin, engineering, big advances in the physical sciences, etc, people began to evince dissatisfaction with traditional religious thought, but lacked the capacity to actually abandon it to a greater than superficial extent (a bit like the Cromwellian protectorate era - "OK, we've got rid of the King, what do we do instead? er... fuck, this is difficult... er... yeah, do the same thing but it isn't a king, no, really it isn't"). So there arose religions of new-minted bollocks accreted round a seed grain of historical actuality (Druids and Wicca and suchlike cack), or for those who could move further away from actual gods, pseudo-religious stuff involving ghosts and "spirituality" and the like.

    That latter in particular influenced literature, with a lot of stories from the late 19th - early 20th centuries taking it quite seriously, using it as as "real" a plot element as detective techniques, unrequited love, aggressive greed or any other standard plot element, characters discussing it as matter-of-factly as the weather and so on. As the period wore on the focus shifted away from interaction with ghosts and spirits and towards the powers of the individual's own mind. It is out of that "bubble" that Campbell emerged; it also inspired the psychic stuff in Tolkien's works (Tolkien dabbled with SF as a form of mythopoeia, and agreed a project with CS Lewis that one of them would write a space-travel story and the other a time-travel story; Lewis got space, and wrote Perelandra, while Tolkien's time story eventually mutated into Numenor).

    I'm not sure Koestler has an awful lot to do with its disappearance from SF. It seems to me that science-leaning people have regarded it as bollocks for a long long time and Koestler is nothing new, while non-science-leaning people still do accept it, haven't heard of Koestler and wouldn't care or change their views if they did. Rather, it seems to me that it has always been a poor fit with SF because it's too inherently "magicy" in nature. (IMO "Doc" Smith successfully avoided that problem in the Lensman series, at least most of the time; OTOH Asimov's use of it in Foundation seriously grinds my gears by being too silly.) It hung on in SF partly as a result of the continuing Campbell-era influence and authors, and partly because although the fit was poor it was rather better than its fit in any other genre, so if anyone wanted to write about it SF was what it became. When fantasy started to take off as a genre, though, psychics fitted it like a glove, and so there was no need to squeeze it in under SF any more.

    Mind-body dualism? Seems to be alive and well to me - mind-uploading and similar in SF, the real-world proof that a program can't determine what it's running on, widespread familiarity with the distinction between software and hardware in everyday computing, etc...