Here’s the latest instalment of my regular column on writing science fiction and fantasy from Freelance, the newsletter of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild…
“Space opera” is an odd-looking term: after all, as the marketers for the movie Alien might have (but fortunately didn’t) put it, in space, no one can hear a tenor scream a high C.
Early SF fan Wilson “Bob” Tucker coined the phrase, writing in his fanzine in 1941: “In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called ‘horse operas,’ the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called ‘soap operas.’ For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer ‘space opera.’”
But the term that began as a perjorative is now applied to some of the best writing science fiction has to offer. How that happened is detailed in a fascinating essay by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer entitled “How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera.”
The negative connotation remained in place for a long time. What led to the term’s redefinition, oddly enough, was the New Wave movement: a would-be revolution instigated in the early ’60s. Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard used their prestige and powers of persuasion to proclaim space fiction dead. Henceforth, they said, the only “true” SF would involve the near future, inner space, and the human mind. They and other New Wave writers lumped all past SF adventure stories, regardless of quality, under the term “space opera,” and said it was all bad and had no place in the new-and-improved SF world.
But every literary movement spawns a counter-movement. In the mid-1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all of the early work of the highly respected author Leigh Brackett, and deliberately labeled that work “space opera”—as a form of praise.
Lester Del Rey had set as his publishing house’s goal nothing less than bringing SF back to its roots as a non-literary—or even anti-literary—form of entertainment. Notes Hartman, “Lester even went to the extreme of denying that any writer could set out to write SF as art,” in direct contravention of the New Wave writers, who thought SF could be good art and that good writers could aspire to art through SF—but only if they discarded the traditions of space opera.
Del Rey’s turnaround of the term “space opera” succeeded, thanks to the unbelievable success of Star Wars, for which Del Rey published the novelization. And when the aforementioned Leigh Brackett, a talented screenwriter, wrote the script for The Empire Strikes Back (generally considered the best of the original three movies), the Del Rey novelization had both the novelizer’s and her name on it. “Space opera” henceforth was linked in popular culture to bestselling popular SF entertainment.
Write Hartwell and Cramer, “Here’s the big irony: the Del Reys were conservative, and were shooting for a restoration of past virtues, and instead hit the future. What they did was to allow the postmodern conflation of marketing and art, the inclusion of media in the artistic project of SF, and to permit the mixing of all levels and kinds of art in individual works. They established the artistic environment for works they would never have considered publishing or supporting. They set the stage for postmodern space opera.”
As a result, they write, since the1980s space opera has meant “colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action [this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms] and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone…this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.”
Some examples from the 1980s and 1990s I can personally recommend: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and its sequels; Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye; C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Gene Wolfe’s four-volume The Book of the New Sun, and its sequel, The Urth Of The New Sun; and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigian series.
Other names to look for: Dan Simmons, John Varley, David Brin, Iain Banks, Catherine Asaro, Peter Hamilton, M John Harrison, Donald M. Kingsbury, David Weber, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds and Mike Resnick.
According to Hartwell and Cramer, “The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.”
That statement is a few years old now, but it shows no signs of being rendered inoperative. The leading contender for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel (after already winning the Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke Award) is Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, an unabashed space opera.
It’s ironic that a term intended as an insult to the worst science fiction now applies to the best. But then, science fiction is all about change—so maybe that’s absolutely fitting.
Four stars for Shadows from Pamela Robinson at Night Owl Reviews, who, interestingly, had not read Masks–though she intends to go back and do so now!
In Shadows, by E.C. Blake, I found a world filled with magic and special people. Mara Holdfast is an intriguing main character. The author weaves a journey for her that many will connect with. It was fun to go through every emotion with her along the way. The classic good versus evil takes a turn in this novel that adds the perfect twist.
I’ve been very happy with the cover art for the Shards of Excalibur books from Coteau Books, and the cover art for Book 3, The Lake in the Clouds, which I’ve just received, is no exception. Pretty, isn’t it?
Better get the book written, though. A good cover is important, but it’s also important there be something other than blank pages behind it…
I’m really looking forward to being a featured author at Word on the Street in Saskatoon on September 21. I’ll be part of a panel (along with Arthur Slade, Sean Cummings, and Jefferson Smith) called Other Worlds on the Prairies, focusing on writing science fiction and fantasy, which will be (appropriately enough) in the “Brave New World” tent at 2:30. We’ll be talking and taking questions for an hour, then we’ll be signing books.
The image is the poster WOTS is putting up in high schools. Cool, huh?
Hope to see you there!
T.E.J. Johnson gives a rousing review to Masks:
“The novel is fast paced and Mara gets herself in and out of a million-tangles as she falls from a high-born Aygriman citizen, to concentration-camp prisoner to unmasked rebel…I would thoroughly recommend this novel; it is a great page-turner and a fantastic start to an exciting new series.”
SciFi Chick, who loved Masks, also enjoyed Shadows:
“Full of suspense, mystery, magic, and a bit of romance – the intensity builds to a climactic ending. And as before, I look forward to the next in this incredible fantasy series.”
Quill & Quire, “Canada’s Magazine of Book News and Reviews,” gives Twist of the Blade a great review (Q&Q liked Song of the Sword, too, in its original version):
Regina-based author Edward Willet offers a satisfying second instalment in his Shards of Excalibur series, a modern-day fantasy based on the legend of King Arthur…
Twist of the Blade offers an enticing sense of danger and excitement as Ariane pursues her mission, but the narrative doesn’t shy away from the story’s human elements…It’s refreshing to read a story in which the heroes and villains are not cut-and-dried, and readers can look forward to three more instalments in this genuinely entertaining myth-based series.
Helen Kubiw gives Song of the Sword a great review at CanLit for Little Canadians, writing in part:
Because Edward Willett ensures that there is a lot of action in Song of the Sword as well as emotional issues of family and trust, it’s a fantasy that will grip teens of both genders…Edward Willett blends the humour with the ethereal fantasy of Song of the Sword so easily…Readers will be right in there, cheering for Ariane and Wally, worried with every obstacle that jumps into their path, hopeful that the bad guy won’t prevail.
Addicted 2 Heroines, which liked Masks, likes Shadows, too!
Reviewer Cat writes:
“…I devoured this story. I was hanging on to every word, fascinated by Mara’s predicament with the Autarch and the darkness that threatened to consume her…New alliances were formed, old alliances broken, and the love triangle that began in Masks found a resolution that the majority of readers will be pleased with…The Masks of Aygrima’s dark magic, powerful young heroine, and group of rebels plotting to overthrow a tyrannical leader make this an addictive series that I would recommend to any fantasy fan.”
Tabitha at Not Yet Read reviews Shadows, and likes what she sees, calling it “more action-packed and fast moving that the first.”
Mara has had a lot of harsh growing up to do for her young 15 years…I love how much she has grown in this book from the start to finish. She is such an excellent sympathetic character that you can’t help but root for and be curious as to what trouble she’ll get into next…The tension and stakes were definitely ratcheted up much higher this time around…I’m anticipating a big to do in the next book and I can already tell by how much I enjoy this author’s writing style that it is going to be a great book. I highly recommend this series for fantasy fans!