Space operas boldly go to the heart of the human soul

My father still lovingly recounts the first time he saw Star Wars back in 1977 (later retroconned as Star Wars: A New Hope). When the movie opened with the star destroyer crossing the screen in pursuit of Princess Leia’s ship, a chill ran my father's spine. He later said he knew he was seeing something totally new and exciting.

And he did, along with millions of people around the world. Never mind that Star Wars wasn't close to being original and new, having been inspired by both earlier films like Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and the entire written genre of space operas. Which had itself been partly inspired by westerns.

But none of that mattered to filmgoers.

I was a young child when Star Wars debuted, so I don’t remember the film’s hype. But I do remember my father’s excitement after he saw it. He and my mother decided to see it again, and this time they took me.

And there began my love affair with science fiction, as I wandered away from my parents while they stood in line for the screening. I didn’t have a destination in mind but eventually I wandered into a dark theater and found an empty seat and sat down and watched Star Wars by myself.

Or, I watched the first half of Star Wars. Somewhere in the middle of the movie my parents and the theater staff found me. Now that I have children I understand how scared my parents were at my disappearance.

I don’t remember what happened after they found me. Perhaps I’m blocking the trauma of their screams and any punishment I received. But from then on I was a Star Wars fan. I played with every Star Wars toy I could find. Star Wars action figures filled my days with dreams of distant, star-filled galactic horizons. A diecast Millennium Falcon, which I flew by hand as a child across the fields near my house, has landed on my desk and begs to be played with as I write these words.

Only after seeing Star Wars did I begin reading literary science fiction and discover that the film not only wasn’t overly original, but that George Lucas had borrowed his themes and motifs from a number of genre sources. Among these was what is likely the first space opera as readers would recognize the genre, The Skylark of Space by E. E. "Doc" Smith, published in Amazing Stories in 1928.

There are a number of earlier stories which can lay claim to being space operas, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ highly influential Barsoom series, featuring his famous hero John Carter of Mars. But E.E. Smith introduced something different with Skylark: true interstellar travel and space ships combined with adventures on other planets. He continued this trend with his influential Lensman series of stories.

He also introduced mediocre writing and poor science, with the space engine at the center of his Skylark adventures powered by copper which is magically transformed when connected to an unknown “element X.” But if the heart of the ship’s space drive made no sense, the heart of the story resonated with readers. They ate it up.

As did other authors, who began playing in the space opera sandbox of stars, mixing romance with the clash of civilizations and interstellar drama and action. Authors such as Leigh Brackett (known as the “Queen of Space Opera”) and C. L. Moore filled the pulp magazines with these exciting stories.  As did A. E. van Vogt, who published the well-known novel The World of Null-A. Even Isaac Asimov space opera’ed away with his extremely influential Foundation series. These space operas and many more set the stage for the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

But space operas didn’t only exist as written stories. The genre has long been a multi-media spectacle, with the Flash Gordon comic strip and movie serials exposing generations of kids and adults to rocket ships and lasers. Even George Lucas was a fan. Before making Star Wars, Lucas evidently tried to adapt to the big screen the Flash Gordon comics strip and serials but couldn’t secure the rights. As recounted by Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, who went with Lucas to try purchasing the rights, Lucas was very depressed at losing out on the Flash Gordon space opera before declaring, “Well, I'll just invent my own.”

And he did.

In the 1960s and ’70s space operas fell out of fashion in the written science fiction genre, possibly as a result of the New Wave movement and other SF trends. Not that space opera vanished. Instead, the genre was merely biding its time, with novels by Poul Anderson, C. J. Cherryh, Gordon R. Dickson and others still captivating readers.

Then Star Wars showed the world how much people loved space opera, and a new group of authors like Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, and many more started creating what’s called New Space Opera. From there even newer authors have run with the genre in totally unique directions, such as Ann Leckie with her Hugo and Nebula winning Ancillary Justice series and Jack Campbell with his Lost Fleet series.

It’s fitting that at the end of her life the Queen of Space Opera Leigh Brackett wrote the early script for The Empire Strikes Back. While there’s debate about how many of Brackett’s words and creations remain in that Star Wars sequel, I like to believe her spirit — and the spirit of the worlds she created through her stories — gave the film its heart and soul.

And that heart and soul is why people respond to space operas. We know the stories are melodramatic and unrealistic. We know the special effects are there to dazzle us, be they effects on the big screen or mentally created by words on a page. But that doesn’t matter. Space opera stories are fun and exciting and resonate with the deep urge inside humanity to see what exists beyond the horizon. Or in the case of space operas, beyond the next world or galaxy.

Last year my family saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, the film is a copy of the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Yes, the story makes a pointed effort to manipulate the emotions while also dishing up big steaming helpings of nostalgia for the original film.

But I don’t care. My entire family enjoyed the movie. I’m particularly pleased that my youngest son loved it. Up to this point he'd refused to watch most of the older Star Wars films, saying the series was silly, cliched and out of date.

Yet he embraced the new film and has already seen it twice.

Each new generation finds their own space operas. That’s another thing I love about these stories.
 

Note: This essay was originally published in the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.

What happens when the science fiction worldview goes universal?

The title of American author Thomas Wolfe’s famous posthumous novel might be You Can’t Go Home Again, but most authors do go home over and over during their lifetimes. When I visit relatives in my home state of Alabama I am always asked how my writing career is going, where my upcoming stories will be published, and what new stories I’m working on.

But while my relatives are thrilled at my literary success, the funny thing is few of them actually read my stories.

One relative even told me she can’t read science fiction stories. While she reads lots of fiction and particularly enjoys the mystery genre, science fiction doesn’t make sense to her. She can’t read SF stories because she literally doesn’t understand the world creation and themes and ideas which support the genre.

When my relative first told me this, I couldn’t believe it. After all, science fiction is everywhere in today’s world, from TV to films to video games. Even technology fashions such as smartphones and tablets and wearable tech are influenced by science fiction. How could someone not understand the underlying themes and motifs of the SF genre?

But then I read an essay by genre author and critic Shaun Duke and understood why my aunt doesn’t read SF. In this essay Shaun suggested people consider science fiction as one of the “supergenres” alongside realistic fiction and anti-realistic fiction, underneath of which would then exist the traditional genres of historical novels, crime stories, romances, fantasies, mysteries, and so on.

As Shaun said, “These supergenres would not necessarily define the genres beneath them, but they would suggest a relationship between genres that moves beyond narrative practice, but never quite leaves it behind. A fantasy novel might be as much historical as it is anti-realist; the former is a narrative practice, while the latter is a conceptual ‘game.’“

Shaun makes some fascinating points in his essay. However, I wonder if Shaun didn’t take his thought experiment far enough. Perhaps instead of even speaking of science fiction as a genre or supergenre, we should instead speak of SF and other established genres as viewpoints toward seeing the world.

After all, fiction itself is a worldview, a way of saying that certain types of stories have not truly happened and likely will never happen. The “fiction” worldview allows people to approach fictional stories with a different frame of mind than the viewpoints we have when approaching historical texts, or memoirs, or poetry, or even real life. And within the viewpoint of fiction rest more individualized views of what fiction can accomplish. These individualized viewpoints—our traditional genres like fantasy, horror, romance and so on—essential set up people to understand what they’re about to experience.

Just as the human mind must learn to interpret the sensory inputs we receive from our eyes and ears—allowing us to know that this image we’re seeing is a tree and that buzzing sound a bee—so too must people learn to understand the fictional stories they experience. Hence the existence of genres, which help people understand the fictional motifs and themes and beliefs they're about to encounter.

Now before people attack this theory of mine, let me state that I also understand there’s more to genre than merely worldview—in our current 21st century world there’s also a marketing aspect to genres which publishers and authors use to sell books, along with social communities of readers connected with each genre. However, I think this worldview theory is still a useful way to understand part of why genres exist.

And if it’s true that genre should in part be understood as a literary viewpoint, this would also help explain why my relative is unable to read science fiction. Her worldview—the way she sees the universe and her place in it—does not encompass a science fiction spin on reality. To her, SF is literally outside the realm of things she’s willing to accept as being part of existence.

The good news for the science fiction worldview is that growing numbers of people are both accepting it and seeing the world through SF eyes. We live in a time of vast technological and societal change, where humanity’s old assumptions and cultural norms are being forced to adapt to new circumstances at a dizzying speed. It’s no wonder science fiction films and TV shows and video games and manga are so popular.

But this also raises the question of what happens to the SF literary genre when the science fiction worldview becomes so ubiquitous.

Most people approach SF these days through mediums other than the written word. And while science fiction may be popular in visual mediums like films, fewer people than ever are actually reading SF literature, meaning that those who still read SF are trending older and older. This is the exact opposite of other literary genres like fantasy and horror.

At a recent convention I asked a well-known author why he thought written fantasy had eclipsed the science fiction genre in recent years. This author (whom I can’t name because it was a private conversation) said that “Unlike with the fantasy genre, science fiction is still trying to discover what it wants to say.”

But what if the problem with SF isn’t that it doesn’t know what to say to 21st century audiences, although I believe that is part of the problem. What if the worldview of science fiction, centered around technological change and futurism and humanity’s place in the universe, no longer strikes many people as being unique to the genre because this worldview has become common among a sizable portion of humanity.

In short, what if SF’s worldview is now the defacto worldview of so many people that the literary genre itself seems rather tame and boring?

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I’m contemplating these days as I write my stories. But if there’s any truth in this, for science fiction literature to again become relevant then how our genre views the world—and our genre’s place in our fictional understandings of life—must change.


Note: This essay was originally published as one of my monthly columns in the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.

Authors shouldn't whine about fast rejection times

The Dark is a online magazine of horror and dark fantasy which, in the last three years, has received a number of accolades and reprints in "year's best" anthologies. Edited by Sean Wallace and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the magazine is open to more experimental stories and new authors, which results in issues of The Dark often pushing the boundaries of both the genre and literary fiction.

The Dark is also known for fast response times on most submissions, often within 24 hours. Sean and assistant editor Jack Fisher divide up the slush pile and give each story a first read.

You'd think authors would be happy with fast response times because it means they can submit their stories somewhere else. But it turns out some authors hate a quick no. They'd rather the band-aid be pulled off bit by bit over months and years instead of a quick yank.

One reason for this is authors have been conditioned to expect long response times for short fiction, partly because many literary magazines like Tin House and Granta are notorious for letting submissions hang in limbo. This not only hurts authors but shows a lack of respect toward our work. When a literary magazine takes a year to decide on your story, don't pretend your submission spent all that time being read and analyzed. It likely received the same amount of attention as a submission rejected in only a few hours.

Before anyone screams, yes, there are exceptions. If your story is under active consideration or is a finalist for a magazine, expect longer waits. If a magazine says they take up to three months to consider stories (which many print magazines still require and I'm okay with), both expect and accept it. Part of this comes down to knowing a market before you submit. This knowledge can be easily gained through places like the Submission Grinder.

All of which makes the recent responses Sean Wallace received after a couple of prompt rejections all the more jarring.

A few days ago Sean quoted one author's response on Facebook:

“Yeah, okay. Just so you understand, there is no way I believe you have read that last one I sent you in this amount of time . . . and now, I don’t believe you read the first one, either. That’s okay. It’s not like that makes you exceptional or anything. I dream of an exceptional editor. I’ll spare you further submssions, since clearly you’re not bothering to read the ones I send.”

Followed a day or so later by a response from a different author.

"Wow, that’s quick! Thanks for giving it the due consideration it so obviously required. Luckily, these things require almost no effort to write ’em, so a curt dismissal is all the remuneration any writer needs. Oh, and maybe a hearty go fuck yourself—or is that just too redundant?—author”

I get it. Rejection hurts. I've received a ton of rejections in my time and will keep receiving them until I die. But I would never respond like that to an editor.

First, you burned yourself with an editor who might buy one of your stories in the future. Second, you insulted an editor who respected your work enough to NOT sit on it for months even though the magazine won't ever be buying your story.

Third, the first person misspelled "submission" in their response. Which I'm sure really made that author look great in Sean's eyes.

It's not hard for submission editors to both read every submitted story and stay on top of their slush pile. As Sean has said, "If we get ten stories a day, and each slush editor takes five, spread out throughout the day, then the chances are fairly high that any given submission can be processed, rejected or moved into a maybe folder, within minutes. And the system is set up to do automatic rejections with a quick click of a button. As such, there is no inherent malice in a fast response these days. The issue, really, is that some magazines and markets have been traditionally so slow in the past that it established expectations and that is in of itself problematic."

Total agreement.

Note to authors: The editors of professional magazines work for their readers, not their writers. While it's nice when editors give specific feedback on a story, that rarely happens. If you want feedback on your writing enroll in a writing program or take part in a critique group. Don't expect it from editors.

In this day and age the way editors show respect to authors is by not wasting our time by holding submissions which won't work for their publications. That's what Sean Wallace and everyone at The Dark does and I praise them for it.

"Blood Grains Speak Through Memories" selected for Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2017 Edition

My novelette "Blood Grains Speak Through Memories," which appeared in the March 2016 science-fantasy double issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, has been selected for The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2017 Edition, edited by Rich Horton.

Many thanks to Rich Horton for picking the story for his anthology.

Below is the anthology's table of contents. Looks like an excellent line-up of stories and authors, one I'm proud to be a part of.

The anthology will be released in 2017.

  • “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” by Maggie Clark, Analog
  • “All that Robot Shit” by Rich Larson, Asimov’s
  • “Project Empathy” by Dominica Phetteplace, Asimov’s
  • “Lazy Dog Out” by Suzanne Palmer, Asimov’s
  • “The Visitor from Taured” by Ian R. MacLeod, Asimov’s
  • “Openness” by Alexander Weinstein, Beloit Fiction Journal
  • “In Skander, for a Boy” by Chaz Brenchley, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • “Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” by Jason Sanford, Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • “Rager in Space” by Charlie Jane Anders, Bridging Infinity
  • “Ozymandias” by Karin Lowachee, Bridging Infinity
  • “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley, Clarkesworld
  • “Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home” by Genevieve Valentine, Clarkesworld
  • “Things with Beards” by Sam J. Miller, Clarkesworld
  • “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson, Clockwork Phoenix 5
  • “Between Nine and Eleven” by Adam Roberts, Crises and Conflicts
  • “Red of Tooth and Cog” by Cat Rambo, F&SF
  • “The Vanishing Kind” by Lavie Tidhar, F&SF
  • “A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley, F&SF
  • “Empty Planets” by Rahul Kanakia, Interzone
  • “Fifty Shades of Grays” by Steven Barnes, Lightspeed
  • “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” by Helena Bell, Lightspeed
  • “RedKing” by Craig deLancey, Lightspeed
  • “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters” by A.T. Greenblatt,
  • Mothershipship Zeta
  • “Dress Rehearsal” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Now We Are Ten
  • “The Plague Givers” by Kameron Hurley, Patreon
  • “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan, Strange Horizons
  • “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez, The
  • Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria
  • “Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” by
  • Paul McAuley, Tor.com
  • “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com

Review of "The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest" by Charlie Jane Anders

Name a favorite fairy tale. Odds are you'll pick a Disneyfied tale, perhaps one of those princess stories all cleaned up and ready to lie to generations of kids. Or maybe you'll pick a tale recorded by the Grimms. Perhaps a nice helping of Hansel and Grethel with some Little Red Riding Hood on the side.

Name your favorite fairy tale and odds are you won't pick "The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage." Yet this is exactly what Charlie Jane Anders does in her fun and oh-so-relevant "The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest," one of the many new fairy tales in The Starlit Wood, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe.

Anders' story is set in a future fantasy world were instead of an internet of things humanity creates a consciousness of things, giving every object and animal in our world a sense of self along with intelligence before we vanish from existence. The result is a world where mice, birds, and yes, sausages, strive to understand their roles and purposes in life.

"The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest" is a fun, humorous read with a deadly seriousness beneath the laughs, with this fairy tale of three friends finding their way in the world interspaced with explorations of identity and self governance. I suspect even people who are not fans of fairy tales will love Anders' story.

I highly recommend "The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest" and have added it to my continually updated Nebula Award recommended reading list. I also looking forward to reading more stories in this fascinating anthology.