What Is Space Opera in the 2020s?
By Grant WythoffMay 28, 2022
Typically seen as (and often being) the least literary form of SF, space opera hasn’t gone out of style since Buck Rogers began battling galactic evils in the 1920s and ’30s, and the appellation entered usage in the 1940s. We’ve had a golden age and “the new space opera,” metaphysical allegories and postcolonial critiques. The subgenre has evolved and thrived for a century with its key elements mostly intact: galactic encyclopedias of knowledge, interstellar politics, heroic journeys, and extraterrestrial encounters. Space opera remains the engine of the genre, one of its most prominent forms, the thing many people think of when they hear “science fiction.” Still, there’s something surprising about the vitality of today’s space opera (of all things) among a younger generation of exciting new writers rallying around stories of interplanetary expansion.
For one thing, these new works are being published as real-world spaceflight is overtaken by private companies run by tech moguls fleeing a dying planet for colonies on the Moon and Mars. In the contemporary public imagination, space is less a place explored by governmental science agencies like NASA and the ESA and more a billionaire’s playground (a situation vividly extrapolated in Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath, released earlier this year). Many space-oriented tech moguls have been directly inspired by the older, colonialist space opera of the golden age: Elon Musk launched a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy into orbit. Jeff Bezos took a 90-year-old Captain Kirk. But the most interesting new space opera writers are fully aware of the subgenre’s legacy as a literature of colonial expansion and military conquest. They are invested in the détournement of an ethically compromised narrative apparatus at a time when its fictional tropes have been translated into real-world technologies with goals that range from asteroid mining to species survival.
In Tade Thompson’s Far from the Light of Heaven, one such tech titan faces the consequences of his own science fictional ambitions: Yan Maxwell, whose greed sets in motion the events of the novel, got his start by funding “the first successful mining of an asteroid, piggybacked on someone else’s pipedream,” as if he simply realized the ambitions of the Robert Heinlein stories he grew up reading. The richest man in the solar system whose drive toward extraction knows no bounds — “If the sun touches it, I own part of it” — eventually determines that he “needs to find new suns.” And while NASA works the solar system through permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars, private companies like Maxwell’s begin building interstellar colonies. That’s where the money really is.
Tade Thompson is a British Nigerian writer known for his gritty mash-ups of genre tropes. His novel Rosewater (2016), winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the inaugural Nommo Award for African speculative fiction, combined alien invasion, zombies, cyberpunk exploits, and Afrofuturism. It is successful because Thompson is a writer skilled enough to casually drop Hannah Arendt quotes and Yoruban expressions into breathless action sequences and make it work.
Far from the Light of Heaven has its own unique blend of elements. The novel begins with all the trappings of classic space opera: a colony ship piloted by an AI transports passengers to an extrasolar planet named Bloodroot, 10 years distant. A jaded detective reluctantly sent to solve a murder aboard the ship adds a bit of a noir feel: “I’m a repatriator, not a spaceman.” But the novel predominantly feels like a work of hard SF: we get detailed descriptions of how the ship’s fuel cells work, of the “Dyson elements” drawn from stars that form rings and bridges between solar systems, of the characteristic hum of each ship’s engines.
Just pages in, however, the novel quickly descends into horror as the scale of the murder becomes clear and the crime scene devolves into chaos. Something has gone very wrong on this ship, with laboratory experiments spilling out, broken bioreactors fermenting all kinds of bacteria, bits of flesh and severed limbs floating through the corridors. Shell, the ship’s captain, moves through humid air thick with spores, dust, blood, algae, gas, and a coating of moss growing on every surface.
The moss is everywhere, but it seems to be dying and every surface she touches puffs up dust. […] She feels a different kind of wetness on her face. She starts seeing globules in the air and stops herself by clutching a dusty grab rail. A problem with the water recycling system? Is this water from the toilet system?
Characters face threats from the ship’s AI (“artificials”), hostile robots (“mechanicals”), pathogens (“biologicals”), and other unspeakable things somewhere in between (“spiders the size of kittens, but with no eyes”).
This vibe couldn’t be further from the slow space opera of Becky Chambers, whose works detail the pleasures of hiking, drinking tea, sharing a meal, and the importance of empathy and small kindnesses. Chambers’s Hugo Award–winning Wayfarers series became a pandemic favorite for its calm exposition of friends learning about one another’s customs and building trust. The books read like an episode of comfort Trek streaming in the background as you go about your day.
Her recent novella, To Be Taught, if Fortunate, tells the story of four characters on a one-way trip to record data about new extrasolar planets. Chambers’s works often feature trans protagonists whose experiences are refreshingly commonplace in an adaptive technofuture. Alongside the many supplements, nutrients, and medications tailored to the unique needs of each astronaut, gender-affirming hormone therapy is simply a conventional feature of daily life in space:
Every body is different, and can only be measured against itself. All of our patches and nutrient drips are tailor-made for our individual needs. I, for example, was born red-green colour-blind, and had gene therapy when I was four to give me full trichromatic sight. Elena has an inherited predisposition toward breast cancer, which her patches suppress. Jack’s patches perform double-duty as well, providing him with the testosterone he’s received since his — as he calls it — second puberty.
Much like the post-scarcity social utopia of Star Trek, Chambers’s characters enjoy a self-determination and bodily autonomy that allows them the luxury of time to appreciate beauty in the universe. Chambers sees the sublime through the eyes of her characters, through descriptions of first spacewalks, of alien life, of atoms that billions of years ago just happened to assemble themselves into consciousness. In To Be Taught, characters arrive on an ice planet and spot the first signs of life there, swimming and glowing beneath their feet:
[T]he ice muted the light, blurring its edges, scattering it in hazy auras that shimmered well beyond the source. New colours joined the party — orange, pink — and new shapes as well. There were snake-like things, full-bodied things, worms and flowers and combs. Some shoaled by the dozens. Some travelled alone. Some bobbed. Some chased. The ice sheet below us became a luminescent symphony, and Elena stopped narrating for the camera. […] Imagine a summer carnival behind a wintered windowpane. Imagine the most fabulous aurora you’ve ever seen, shining below your feet. Elena and I laughed. I grabbed her hand. She pulled me in, her arm wrapped snugly around my shoulders, the top of my helmet resting against the bottom of hers.
There are no monsters here, threatening to break through the ice and swallow you whole, no drama or disaster pushing the plot forward. Instead, that distance from the struggles of history that’s unique to space opera’s far-flung futures affords the characters room to be who they are within the vast universe around them.
In an afterword to Far from the Light of Heaven, Thompson asks himself if he’s writing space opera — “a conversation my editor, my agent, my cat and I had many times” — and if so, what would the tropes of that subgenre bring to his work. As a practicing psychiatrist who somehow manages another full-time career as a novelist, Thompson has shared in interviews that he’s fascinated by “flawed people in interesting circumstances.” So, when he chooses space as the setting for this story, it seems to be a choice that grants his characters unique affects and experiences that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere: a backdrop, albeit an incredibly detailed and vivid one. But Thompson also acknowledges the problematic roots of spaceflight among Nazi scientists and military weapons programs: “We can’t erase the murderous origins just because we can see the first sunsets from Mars.” And so throughout the work, you can feel the characters engaging with the ethically compromised origins of the space sublime. Again, from the afterword: “I try to lean away from aliens being Other because that’s tied up with colonialist thinking. It’s one of the reasons I tried to avoid empires and massive space battles. I just have people who want to survive in the wider universe.”
In Far from the Light of Heaven, Yan Maxwell isn’t the only one who wants to travel to the stars. Other characters enact their own chosen science fictional tropes within the narrative as they found their own interstellar colonies. While Heinlein served as Maxwell’s inspiration,
Lagos was established by mainly Black Afrofuturists. Space is the place. With considerable effort, all their fiscal and human resources and a rich, funky cultural history mixed with African myth and mythmaking, they willed the space station into being. More than a few white supremacists liked the idea of a large proportion of Black people leaving Earth. They were disappointed when Lagos flourished.
These Nigerian settlers of other worlds turn tropes of conquest and colonization on their head, especially as the characters interact with alien species. “You do realise the irony of using ‘outsiders’ in this context, right?” says Fin. Characters constantly ask themselves throughout the novel, who are the real colonists on Bloodroot? The first wave of Afrofuturist, Nigerian settlers? The ultrawealthy who follow, after hearing of the colony’s successes? The pathogenic spores they unwittingly carry on their ships, threatening the survival of Bloodroot’s indigenous “pack canines and biting insects and dermatophytoses [and] [h]yperkinetic creeper vines”? The tentacled cytoplasms known as Lambers whose presence on Bloodroot, far from their homespace, remains a mystery?
(Lambers introduce fantastic elements like teleportation, telepathy, and immaculate conception into the novel’s already dense SF-horror-noir genre mix. Joké, the child of a Lamber and a human, is sunny and earnest while everyone else is haggard and hard-boiled. “[T]his is not going to be unicorns and rose petals, is it?” she asks, as if realizing she’s in the wrong book.)
If Thompson explores the tangled tentacles of earthbound colonialism as they might stretch into the distant future, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire stands as its own self-contained universe, a seemingly full-fledged simulation of the conditions of empire at a galactic scale. This Hugo Award–winning novel is the first in a celebrated diptych that concludes with A Desolation Called Peace: books about, as Martine puts it in the acknowledgments, “assimilation and language and the seduction and horror of empire.”
A Memory Called Empire is the story of Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from Lsel, a provincial space station on the periphery of an interstellar empire. Dzmare is called to the capital Teixcalaan, an ecumenopolis, or planetwide city. Lsel “was small, a dull metal toroid, spinning to maintain thermal control. Rough from fourteen generations of solar radiation and small-particle impact. Thirty thousand or so people dwelling in the dark. More, if you counted the imago-memories.” The presence of “imagos” drives much of the novel’s intrigue: stationers like Mahit record their memories and consciousness onto a surgically embedded imago machine. At the end of their lives, they select a recipient of the machine so that their consciousness can live on in a new host. Stationers take it as their highest duty to collect knowledge and experiences then pass them on to others: Mahit imagines “that she would come to the City, sometime in her middle age, once she was established, and collect experiences — attending whatever salons were open to noncitizens that season — gathering up information for whoever she’d share her memory with after she died.”
It’s well known that Asimov’s Foundation series was inspired by his reading of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Martine draws directly on her academic background as a Byzantine historian whose scholarship, fittingly, focuses on diplomats working at the periphery of the empire. Martine’s expertise allows her to populate this novel with exquisite detail on court politics, linguistic form, public poetry readings, and material culture inspired by the medieval period in a way that makes the world feel like a future antique.
In the 10th century, for example, Byzantine letter-writers would tie scrolls with twine threaded through lead seals bearing the insignia of the sender. (A colleague of mine is developing a geographic database of the places these seals have been found that will allow researchers to explore medieval correspondence networks.) In A Memory Called Empire, there’s a scene in the novel reminiscent of that very letter format:
She held up a scarlet lacquered infofiche stick, its two parts held closed with a round gold wax seal embossed with the stylized image of the City — the Teixcalaanli imperial symbol. “It’s definitely for you, it’s dated today.” She cracked the seal and the infofiche spilled into the air between them, a stream of holographic word-shapes in Teixcalaanli script.
While Chambers and Thompson firmly place their narratives in the future — our potential future — A Memory Called Empire stands in a more enigmatic relationship to the present. There is of course something to be said for the sheer pleasure of delving into the (literally) Byzantine detail of this narrative world. The book invites it: from the glossary of persons, places, and objects, to the IPA pronunciation guide for its invented language. Tlaxlauim (a certified accountant), huitzahuitlim (nectar-eating birds), and ezuazuacat (a member of the emperor’s advisory council). This is space opera in the epic tradition. But one wonders, how did we get there, from here?
In the world of Chambers’s To Be Taught, if Fortunate, humans ceased all spaceflight in the 2020s to focus on the climate crisis. Looking back on that decades-long interregnum before space travel was reestablished, characters ask themselves:
How can you think of the stars when the seas are spilling over? How can you spare thought for alien ecosystems when your cities are too hot to inhabit? How can you trade fuel and metal and ideas when the lines on every map are in flux? How can anyone be expected to care about the questions of worlds above when the questions of the world you’re stuck on — the most vital criteria of home and health and safety — remain unanswered?
Some of the most compelling space opera in the 2020s asks, why space opera now? Are space settlements the reward we’ll receive after managing the climate emergency? Or are they the inevitable outcome of our already-evident failure to coexist with Earth’s biosphere? Like Thompson, whose space opera “just has people that want to survive in the wider universe,” Chambers explores the conditions of self-determination that would democratize access to space, rather than claim it as the preserve of the wealthy. (In her afterword, she plugs several “real-world citizen-funded spaceflight efforts”: Copenhagen Suborbitals, Pacific Spaceflight, and the Planetary Society’s LightSail project.)
But ensuring a more equitable exodus doesn’t make leaving easy. As Chambers’s four astronauts travel farther from home, they receive news on a progressively longer delay. Awakening from stasis, in orbit around a new planet, they anxiously gather around a screen to see what they’ve missed on Earth. At this point, history is on a 28-year delay. The characters wince at the past they’ve fled, a past that reads very much like our present-day news feeds: “The perpetual ebb and flow of some countries reaching out while others walled themselves in. […] Images of ruined coastlines and broken levies. […] Hundreds of cities had been abandoned or flooded beyond repair.”
For a century, space opera has projected the conditions of life beyond Earth. In its latest iteration, it gives us characters who are processing the consequences of having left.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI) and the Westerlund 2 Science Team
Grant Wythoff is the digital humanities strategist at Princeton University.
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