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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Ten ingredients I look for in space opera…

What I enjoy about space opera are the possibilities of life, of surprises – which largely comes down to a ‘sense of wonder’. Something new, not easy in a trope as popular as Scifi. But good authors do it repeatedly, some of my favourites recently being Alastair Reynolds (Revelation Space), and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which I’ve just discovered.

Good space opera gives the reader the feeling that space is impossibly vast, or as Douglas Adams put it, it’s really, really big. This is often achieved by showing how long it takes to get anywhere even if travelling faster than the speed of light, whether the author incorporates Einstein’s relativity complications (like Greg Bear, as in the Anvil of Stars which I’m reading now), or not (I side-step them).

I hope to see new alien races and species that are very different from us (e.g. David Brin’s Uplift), yet still understandable, or at the very least understandably incomprehensible (Peter F Hamilton is very good at this, e.g. Timelike Infinity). If the galaxy is mainly full of us, then the society should have advanced sufficiently for this future ‘us’ to feel a little alien, a great example being Iain Banks’ culture novels.

Love interest can of course be there, but Scifi is not known for being overly romantic, much less bodice-ripping, so these aspects tend to be underplayed, with unrequited love (Banks; Reynolds) being my preference, or sex-without-lust (Bear; McDevitt) taking a back seat (pun unintentional).

A sense of history – that is, mega-history, with ancient races, mythological, often those credited with seeding current races or civilizations. Sometimes all that is left is an artefact which humanity discovers (Greg Bear’s Eon), or Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or even a planet as in Jack McDevitt’s Deepsix. Other times the ship wandering through our system is inhabited by inscrutable aliens (Arthur C Clarke’s Rama series). All of these things give us a sense of how small, but also how young and new we are, compared with how old and advanced or defunct the rest of the galaxy’s inhabitants could be.

Tech is usually obligatory for space opera, and often focuses on mode of communication, transportation, getting high, and avoiding old age. Good Scifi doesn’t dwell on it, though, and treats it as almost mundane, making it more acceptable. After all, this is reasonable – it hasn’t taken long for humanity to take I-Phones for granted.

Big battle-scenes don’t always feature in space opera, but for me they are a helluva bonus. Invariably they link with Tech, and deep plots… Jack Campbell does these really well (e.g Dauntless).

Deep plots and strategy: a galaxy is going to be like an unbelievably complex chessboard, so strategies and plots should be suitably involved, and at the least, not stereotyped.

Fantastic ships: these can either be very large and complex, or sleek and graceful, but they should be cool. Whilst I enjoyed watching the heaps of junk in Firefly lift off, they’re not what I want to read about (Babylon 5 had the coolest ships).

A sprinkling of physics can give you the feeling the writer has some scientific knowledge, though most of us don’t want to read a thesis. What can be interesting is to read about cutting edge science, e.g. dark matter, neutronium, yottawatts, things on the frontier of science.

In my first novel, The Eden Paradox, which was a scifi thriller more than space opera, I only had a few of the above. In the sequel, Eden's Trial, I had eight. So, I’m working on putting all ten into the finale, Eden's Revenge, but please let me know if I’ve missed anything major!

The Eden Paradox, ebook & paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstones.
Eden's Trial, ebook on Amazon
Eden's Revenge - coming end 2012

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