Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Space Opera 101, or How to Cure Your Zombie Obsession and Learn to Love Humanity

Much of the new YA science fiction out lately is dystopian, portraying futures plagued by environmental disaster, totalitarian governments and technology misused to such a degree that it threatens human freedom if not human existence. Plus, there are zombies everywhere. Why do kids like this stuff so much? If I were a cultural theorist I might propose that when you grow up with persistent unemployment and a deadlocked government in the face of environmental crisis, rampant disease and ongoing devastating wars, you can get a tad pessimistic.

Ok, you can't be blamed for your lousy outlook. Not your fault. Still, as my mother used to say, if you keep making that sour face it will get stuck that way and if you keep reading this depressing stuff you are only going to sink deeper and deeper into gloom.

There's an alternative, a cure, for your mood, if not for the world. While little of it has found its way to YA, in adult sci-fi there is a concurrent trend with a more hopeful and longer range vision for humanity. Labeled under the somewhat misleading term "space opera"--think less the of the melodrama of soap opera and more of the sweeping expanse of musical opera--these stories imagine a far future in which humanity somehow survives the next several decades and then several centuries after that. Technology progresses apace, we travel to the stars and colonize the galaxy, death becomes more or less optional. Communications options almost always include some form of technology-enabled telepathy and artificial intelligence hangs out pretty comfortably with natural intelligence.

But more than straightforward uptopian science fiction trends (e.g., Star Trek), space opera is about the extremes of technology. In Ian M. Banks Culture series, a vast intergalactic society is governed by god-like artificial Minds which operate space stations, manage planets, store back-ups of human and artificial souls and protect the Culture from external threats. Because the resources of the Culture are practically limitless, humans are granted unprecedented freedom to create, share an extreme form of democracy, to reinvent themselves and live out their lives as simply or extravagantly as they wish. Which means they often behave pretty weirdly.

Of course not everything is smiley-happy in space opera. How fun would that be? All that extreme technology inevitably leads to extreme weapons as well. Weapons that can destroy planets, or stars, or the galaxy. So just as dystopian fiction is obsessed with the end of human culture, so is space opera, but it imagines we'll avoid the end for thousands of years rather than tens. Cheery thought, no? Oh, and hardly any zombies.

So if you're ready to cheer up, how do you get started? One low-commitment option is an anthology of short stories. I'd recommend the appropriately named Space Opera edited by Rich Horton. It contains short stories from many of the major Space Opera writers, but as the intro suggests, Space Opera stories don't normally fit in containers as small as short stories. You'll get the taste, but you'll miss the essence.

The aforementioned Ian M. Banks Culture novels are another great place to start. While there are several in the series, each stands on its own so you won't need to commit to a several novel reading binge just to get to the end of the story. My favorite Banks Culture novel is Excession, but they are all excellent.

If you are ready to plunge into a full series I can recommend two trilogies: Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space and Peter F. Hamilton's Void Trilogy. You may get lost in these for quite a while, but when you come up for air, you might just be thinking there's hope for us after all.

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