Space opera and the latest round in the forty year genre war

It seems to be the week for science fiction discussions, because I found a few more:

Dave Trowbridge tries to explain the appeal of space opera via Albrecht Altdorfer’s 1528 painting Alexanderschlacht. Found via Sherwood Smith.

Some very interesting points there. And yes, the sheer scope of many classic space operas was a huge part of the appeal when I was younger. The epic intrigue of Dune, the century and galaxy spanning adventures of E.E. Smith’s Lensmen, the one thousand year plan to shorten the dark age and bring about a new galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the time traveling meddlers who accidentally end up destroying humankind in Asimov’s End of Eternity, the Prisoner of Zenda like body switch across space and millennia in Edmund Hamilton’s The Star Kings, the enormous ring the size of a planetary orbit in Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the spaceship pushing telekinetics of Anne McCaffrey’s Talented books, the trek across a dying planet in Leigh Brackett’s Ginger Star trilogy, the horizon curving upwards in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth Core (not a space opera, but it had the same effect) – these were the moments of mindboggling sense of wonder that made me an SF fan as a teenager. The quality of the books in question was highly variable and in fact I can’t even read many of the authors I loved back then anymore. But the galaxy spanning wonder and sheer joy of those novels is something I haven’t found in new SF for a long time now. And if I actually find a new book that seems to scratch that itch, the characterization is usually so lacking and the technobabble so bad that I often find myself giving up in frustration.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has asked several science fiction authors to name their favourite science fiction novel, though a few named their favourite author instead. The readers also have a chance to weigh in. One of the authors questioned is Margaret Atwood, so can we please lay that whole “giant squid” thing to rest now please? I mean, it’s been almost ten years now, so can we please drop it?

Talking of which, it seems as if there is yet another round in the forty year war between literary speculative fiction and pulpy plot-focused SFF going on at the moment. I’m not wading into this one, because both sides are calling each other names and even Godwin’s Law has already been breached. But if you’re interested, Paul Jessup has compiled a few links to relevant posts.

But what really annoys me about this discussion, aside from the fact that it erupts at least once a year or so, is that everything is turned into an either/or question and that adjectives such as “literary”, “experimental”, “traditional” or “pulpy” are confused with “good” or “bad”. An experimental piece is not necessarily good nor is a traditional, plot-driven story necessarily bad – or vice versa for those on the other side of the debate. It is perfectly possible for authors and readers to oscillate between both sides and find enjoyable works on each. As well as bad ones, Sturgeon’s law applies everywhere. It’s even possible to write an experimental piece one week and a traditionally narrated story the next. It’s a big genre and a big literary world with room for everyone, so why are we having this discussion again?

Oh yes, and first person narration is not experimental. It was there right at the beginning of the novel – have you never read Pamela or Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders? If anything, then the so-called third person limited POV (what I have been taught to call “personal narration”) is the recent upstart which didn’t arrive until approx. one and a half centuries after first person and omniscient POV. Oh yes, and omniscient narration is not experimental either. It’s one of the oldest forms we have. Really, widen your horizons, people.

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5 Responses to Space opera and the latest round in the forty year genre war

  1. Estara says:

    But the galaxy spanning wonder and sheer joy of those novels is something I haven’t found in new SF for a long time now. And if I actually find a new book that seems to scratch that itch, the characterization is usually so lacking and the technobabble so bad that I often find myself giving up in frustration


    Can I just recommend Julie Czerneda’s space opera here? Especially the Web Shifter series (she’s a marine biologist by training)! I’m sure you’ve already read the relevant C.J Cherryh books like the Foreigner series or the Chanur saga.

    My most recent find of fun planetary romance are the re-issued Chronicles of Nuala by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel at BVC.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the recommendations. I discovered C.J. Cherryh early on as a teenager, but Katherine Eliska Kimbriel eluded me until her books appeared at the Book View Café. Julie Czerneda I’ve heard of, but never read.

      • Estara says:

        She is really less known than she should be, very true. I think I got into her via some of the nifty covers – Luis Royo, I think – and then the characters and story just gripped me.

        If you like the Webshifters series, you’ll probably like all her earlier books – I haven’t read the current trilogy yet as it hasn’t finished.

  2. Regarding the “literary” vs. “pulpy” controversy, in his book Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, John Ralston Saul has an interesting discussion of the changing role of the novelist in society from a “faithful witness” (the title of the chapter where he talks about this) to a marginalized specialist, which is where literary fiction lives today, for the most part.

    He writes: “As writers gradually lost their influence in society, so they fell back on the idea of art as its own justification.” This is what I’d call the “literary” position. He continues “… Language was gradually being brought under control by rational civilization and so the affected indifference of a few writers was … one way of admitting defeat.”

    This is in contrast to his earlier description of the function of a novelist: “There was in fact a solid wall between society and the reasonable use of words. That wall was established authority and structures, both civil and intellectual . The novelist, like a mortar, was able to lob the forces of language over the barrier of structure to society on the other side. The novel was the perfect missile, in that no effective antimissile could exist. There was nothing anyone could do to prevent its flight, apart from seize books, which was the equivalent of collecting mortar shells after they had hit their targets. Seizure was a tribute to the book and merely increased its success.”

    Really, the whole chapter (not to mention the book) is worth reading on for illumination of this subject. I think what I want to point out is that the division between literary and pulp (or whatever you call it) serves only the powers that be, whose rule depends on vitiating the power of the written word, and is, as you say, not worth worrying about. Although the word hadn’t been applied to fiction yet, Austen Dickens, Trollope and others wrote “pulp” that sooner or later was recognized as great literature. I hope the same thing is happening today; in the meantime, I will read, and write, what I enjoy, and not worry about where my mortar shells are coming down.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the pointer to John Ralston Saul and Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. For my MA, I read a lot of theoretical texts about the literary vs. pulp divide, but this is one book I never came across at the time.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. I’m really looking forward to Exordium, which eluded me the first time around.

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