Charlie Stross: March 2016 Archives

It's March 31st, not April 1st, so I can see no justification for the news being this weird: Ha'arez is reporting that Otto Skorzeney worked as a hit-man for Mossad in the 1960s, Microsoft just announced full native Ubuntu Linux support on Windows 10, and SCO are appealing against the IBM verdict again ...

... Oh, wait: this is a leap year. Stand down, false alarm.

(What utterly surreal symptoms of the Crazy Years have you stubbed your toes on this week—other than Donald Trump, of course?)

A lot of people are watching the spectacle of Apple vs. the FBI and the Homeland Security Theatre and rubbing their eyes, wondering why Apple (in the person of CEO Tim Cook) is suddenly the knight in shining armour on the side of consumer privacy and civil rights. Apple, after all, is a goliath-sized corporate behemoth with the second largest market cap in US stock market history—what's in it for them?

As is always the case, to understand why Apple has become so fanatical about customer privacy over the past five years that they're taking on the US government, you need to follow the money.

It's Mancunicon 2016, the British Eastercon, this weekend from Friday through Monday, and I'm off to Manchester tomorrow (by road, to beat the bank holiday rush). Blogging will be entirely contingent on me having any spare time, and as I'm also working on a book-related project (see the past three blog entries if you want a clue) that's looking fairly unlikely.

I'm on a small number of program events—search for me by name and you'll find me. And if you can't make the kaffeeklatch I'll probably be in the bar! Because all that deep and furious thinking about space opera finally rattled something loose, and now I need to chill for a little while.

(I have a few more SF convention appearances scheduled over the next three months, and will add the details here when I have the energy: they are, Conpulsion (gaming convention, Edinburgh, April), Balticon 50 (general SF convention, Baltimore, May), and Westercon (general SF convention, Portland OR, June).

So: in the ongoing investigation of space opera, I've looked at cliches, I've tried to come up with a rough definitional rule of thumb ... but I've avoided what's possibly the largest elephant in the room, namely, plot structures.

A key aspect of space opera is that it's about epochal events and larger-than-life characters. Most genres can be written to work in a variety of modes; for example, consider the difference in the level of melodrama in spy thrillers betwee James Bond and Graham Greene's The Human Factor. Similarly, high fantasy can be quietly introspective and pastoral, or focus on the clash of kings and dark lords, and horror can run the scale/focus gamut from The Yellow Wallpaper to The Stand.

What is space opera, anyway? Going by the discussion on the preceding blog essay, lots of folks are a bit confused. And so they should be; it's not exactly a well-defined concept.

Dave Langford and Brian Stableford took a stab at describing it in the gigantic monograph on space opera in the Encyclopedia of SF, but they (wisely, in my opinion) didn't try to give it a coherent definition, because it's a diagnosis, not a prescription.

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.)


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.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in March 2016.

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