How to Write a Space Opera That's Not Quite So Messed Up
Below is a somewhat revised version of a Twitter thread I posted a couple months ago. I was on a panel the other day and was citing some of the points I made here, and realized that my old thread is pretty inaccessible at this point, because of the way Twitter works. I've added a bit more stuff and links to some recent articles on related topics.
Space opera is just over a century old — it grew out of the Western, with all of its themes of the frontier and wagon trains and Manifest Destiny. Space opera was also heavily shaped by notorious racist John W. Campbell, who infused it with his ideas of the “superior man.”
Soooo… how do you write a space opera that’s not kind of messed up? I feel like people have found different answers to this question at different times.
In the early 2000s, there was a vogue for post-scarcity AI-fueled space utopias (partly inspired by Iain M. Banks) which solved the problem of the frontier by creating a universe where nobody wants for anything and there are enlightened, if problematic, saviors in the stars.
More recently, there’s been a ton of blue-collar space operas, influenced by Alien and The Stars My Destination, including The Expanse, Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, and books by Valerie Valdes, Karen Osborne, Tim Pratt, and a bunch of others. The "blue collar" thing means that instead of an intrepid explorer or colonizer, who ventures boldly into the unknown, you have working stiffs, who are just trying to get by and get swept up in some cosmic bullshit. (I talked to Chambers and some other recent space opera authors for this 2017 Wired article.)
But when I set out to write Victories Greater Than Death and its sequels, I really wanted to pay tribute to the space operas of my youth, especially Star Trek. Which means uniforms, exploration, boldly going, etc. So I tried to find ways to gently subvert some of the assumptions of the genre.
I wrote about the challenges of updating space opera in a recent article for Esquire in which I talk to James S.A. Corey and Nicky Drayden about the assumptions buried in the genre. The good news is, lots of people are doing really interesting work right now to bring space opera into the 21st century.
So when I started to write my own take on space opera, I was heavily influenced by all of the amazing work that Tobias Buckell, John Scalzi, Karen Lord, and many others had been doing. I also was thinking about some classics like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books, which subvert Asimov’s ideas of a galactic empire and various other things in a clever fashion.
Before I explain further… when I say “subvert,” I don’t mean that I replicate bad tropes with an ironic veneer. Or that you need a PhD in space opera to understand what I’m doing. I tried to keep it pretty easy to follow and not annoying for neophytes.
The problem with aliens
And a big part of dragging space opera out of the problematic past, for me, involved the ways we invent alien species. As I wrote recently in Polygon, it's all too easy to create alien species who represent just one aspect of humanity — or worse, are stand-ins for a marginalized community on Earth. I set out to try and create alien societies that felt distinctive and complicated, and avoid the thing where every single member of an alien culture has the exact same opinions or ideas or skillset.
I was also determined to avoid using the word "race" as a synonym for "species" or "civilization" — because this implies that "race" is a scientific concept, that there are major biological differences between various "races," and that alien species can stand in for human ethnic groups.
But it's not enough just to make sure your aliens have real cultures of their own, and aren't just serving as part of an allegory or a representation of a group of people on Earth. You also have to deal with another huge trope in space opera: everyone we meet is humanoid. And indeed, I had decided early on that the crew of my alien starship, the Indomitable, would be humanoid — because it would be easier for my characters from Earth to adjust to. And I just wanted to celebrate the classic space offers that I love.
But why are there so many humanoid aliens? The usual explanation is something along the lines of Prometheus, or the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Chase”: long-ago aliens have seeded the galaxy with humanoid DNA, and that’s why everybody looks like us. Or else, people will sometimes claim that humanoid life should be common elsewhere in the galaxy because of bilateral symmetry: there is a distinct advantage to having creatures with two arms and two legs and one head, for reasons.
In Victories Greater Than Death, I decided on a different explanation: a huge and monstrous eugenics program that was carried out by mysterious ancient aliens, for their own bizarre and terrifying reasons. This isn’t really a spoiler, because we find this out pretty early in the book. This way, instead of humanoids being the bold, inquisitive explorers of a galaxy that’s not ready for our pluck and determination, it puts us in a somewhat more complicated position.
The Fast and the Complicated
Another space upper trope that I tried to mess with is faster-than-light travel. I wanted to allow it, because it’s a mainstay of most space opera, but I didn’t want it to be quite as cut-and-dried as it usually is.
So I came up with the spaceweave, which weaves two points in space together (as its name suggests.) There’s just one problem: The spaceweave only really works at top speed for smaller vessels — because the energy requirements go up exponentially for a larger starship. (Again, I promise this is not something that becomes a boring lecture in the book. It’s just touched on very briefly and obliquely.)
This size limitation on ships going top speed means the ship in the book, the Indomitable, cannot rely on the larger and more powerful ships in the fleet for rescue every time they’re in trouble. It also gives an advantage to the bad guys, whose ships are all small and nimble.
The Royal Fleet
Meanwhile, I decided to do away with traditional military ranks, other than Captain, on board my alien starship. That way, I could have a looser and more ambiguous chain of command, and thus a more collaborative and less authoritarian atmosphere. Different alien species have very divergent ideas of authority and hierarchy and leadership, so it wouldn’t work to impose top-down rule on people. In the book, there’s one civilization that believes that only pregnant people (who can be any gender) should be in charge.
In addition to the captain, there’s also the alternate captain — who can countermand any of the captain’s orders. The alternate captain can also can take over as captain at a moment’s notice, if they deem the captain is making errors. This isn’t a mutiny. Or a “you’re relieved of command” situation. The ship really does have two captains, and either one can be in charge at any given time.
I also drop plenty of hints, in the first book, that the Royal Fleet (the good guys) have a lot of problems and are somewhat morally compromised, especially after their long war against the Compassion. In the second book, we see a lot more of this. By the end of the third book, we’ll move towards something more radically inclusive and small-d democratic. This is definitely not a spoiler, bc I’m keeping it super vague.
Bottom line: I love space opera, and I love to play with tropes in general. And I think right now, there’s lots of scope to take the old-school explorers-in-uniforms space opera in some really new and interesting directions.
A six-point plan to save Democracy (Washington Post)
How Gordon Liu became a martial-arts superstar (South China Morning Post)
Music I love right now
I've been listening to the soundtrack to Netflix's Julie and the Phantoms pretty much constantly this past week, and it's been keeping me going. Almost every song on that soundtrack is a really great motivational anthem, and it doesn't hurt that they all remind me of how much I loved the first season. If I'm feeling draggy or anxious or some combination of the two — dranxious? — this soundtrack makes me feel pumped and joyful and hopeful. I only wish there was way more of it, like if Netflix would actually make a second season maybe? (Hint hint.)
I write about how stories created for kids have taken over mainstream grown-up entertainment, in the Washington Post.
On Thursday at 3 PM PT, I'm on a panel about LGBTQ+ identity in YA fiction with Darcie Little Badger and Meg Elison!
This coming weekend, I'm taking part in Torcon, an event run by Tor Books, Tor Teen, Tor.com Publishing and Tor Nightfire. I'll be in conversation with T.J. Klune and also on a panel called "Space is Gay!".
Also on Sunday June 13, I'm hosting an outdoor, in-person reading at the Inner Sunset Flea, with Annalee Newitz, Shruti Swamy, Josiah Luis Alderete, Chaney Kwak and Mike Chen. RSVP here.
And last but definitely not least, we revealed the cover and title for the sequel to Victories Greater Than Death, which comes out in April 2022. It's so freaking gorgeous I can't even handle it — I love Pre-Raphaelite art and Art Nouveau, and this hits all my fav notes You can add it on Goodreads right now! BEHOLD: