Cozy Space Opera, Cozy Mysteries and the Domestic Sphere

At Strange Horizons, Joyce Chng hosts a round-table about domestic space opera, featuring Ann Leckie, Jennifer Foehner Wells, Judith Tarr and Foz Meadows. It’s a great discussion and I urge everyone to read it.

Now domestic space opera is a subgenre in which I have a lot of interest, partly because I like to read it and partly because I also consider some of my writing domestic space opera. Though I tend to use the term cozy space opera for the In Love and War series, though it also applies to the Shattered Empire series and the Iago Prime stories.

I already explained in this post why I tend to call the In Love and War series cozy space opera. In short, I put the recipe for a dish enjoyed by the characters in the back of Freedom’s Horizon. And because recipes in the back of the book are mainly found in the cozy mystery genre, I half-jokingly said, “Well, it looks like I’m writing cozy space opera.” And then I realised that yes, that’s very much what I’m writing.

Now cozy mystery is probably the most domestic of the many subgenres of the mystery/thriller/crime/suspense mega-genre. Not that suspense and psychological thrillers can absolutely be domestic, too, and often are, from old-sytle gothic suspense like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca or Mary Stewart’s gothics (after all, Joanna Russ once said that gothics are stories about women afraid of their husbands) via the romantic suspense subgenre to modern psychological thrillers in the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train mode. And the proliferation of “girl” titles of course codes the modern psychological thriller as feminine, even if the authors are actually men writing under female pen names. What is more, long-running mystery series spend more and more time on the detective’s home life the longer they go on, see the Inspector Lynley Mysteries by Elizabeth George, the Commissario Brunetti Mysteries by Donna Leon, the Kurt Wallander Mysteries by Henning Mankell and many more in the same vein.

However, while gothics and psychological thrillers focus on the dark side of the domestic sphere and the home life of series detectives is rarely happy and features a lot of heartbreak, whether it’s Thomas Lynley’s troubled relationship and eventual marriage to Helen and her tragic death (spoiler whiteout) or Kurt Wallander struggling with his relationship to his daughter, his dementia stricken father and in the last book, his own slow slide into dementia, cozy mysteries celebrate the domestic.

The protagonist of the typical cozy mystery series is inevitably a young woman. Many series focus on traditionally female coded domestic activities such as cooking, baking, sewing, quilting, knitting, etc… and even offer recipes and patterns in the back of the books. Cozies also celebrate community. Cozy heroines are rarely loners or at least not for long. They live in small towns with closely knit communities, they have plenty of friends and family, including female friends and older women who support them. These communities are mostly supportive rather than hostile. The cozy heroine tends to fall in love over the course of the series and sometimes gets married and even has children, but the relationship is portrayed as positive and enriching, rather than limiting. There are no murderous husbands in cozies and while tragically dead spouses are not unheard of (Charlaine Harris had a series along those lines), they are rare and tend to really piss off the readership. In short, cozy mysteries are stories about communities and the domestic, which happen to contain a few murders to spice things up a little.

And like all things that are female coded and focus on domesticity, cozy mysteries are widely derided. Here is Otto Penzler, eminence gris of the mystery genre, ranting about cozies back in 2005 and again in 2006 as well as Lee Goldberg offering a rebuttal. And what is Otto Penzler’s problem with cozy mysteries? They are lightweight, they have pun-laden titles and bright, cartoony covers, they focus on trivial matters such as fashion or food, while male authors, even the humorous ones, deal with weighty matters such as the destruction of Florida’s environment. Sound familiar?

Cozy or domestic space opera faces many of the same criticisms as cozy mysteries. Take for example, this article by one Paul Cook, which was published at Amazing Stories back in 2013 (discussed in detail with rebuttals here), in which he declares that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is not science fiction, because it pays too much attention on frivolous matters such as fashion, food, balls, courtships, etc… and does not focus enough on whatever Paul Cook thinks is relevant. Thankfully, Hugo voters in 2017 disagreed and awarded the Vorkosigan series the first ever Best Series Hugo.

Or look at some of the extremely rude and dismissive comments by the 2017 Shadow Clarke jury regarding A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, which once again was dismissed as “not science fiction” (in spite of taking place in a technologically advanced multi-species intergalactic civilisation and having an advanced AI in an illegal android body and an artificially created clone as its protagonists), because it was considered too lightweight (apparently, the question of who counts as human/a citizen is not serious enough) and too much like a science fiction TV series.

Or look at how both A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers and Provenance by Ann Leckie finished fairly far down the ballot at the 2017 and 2018 Hugo Awards respectively, because they were considered lightweight books, even though both books actually have a lot to say about identity, history and who does and does not count as human. Of course, the winner in those years, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, does address those very same issues and is at its heart a story about family, a story about a mother and her daughter, and also in many ways a domestic tale, though not a space opera. But the trilogy is also a lot grimmer than either A Closed and Common Orbit or Provenance even in their darkest moments and darkess is still valued higher than light.

As for space opera, let’s not forget that the term was originally coined as a derogatory one (you can view the first usage by Wilson Tucker here), an analogue not just to horse operas a.k.a. westerns but also to soap operas, which in those days meant melodramatic radio serials sponsored by washing powder and detergent companies. So “space opera”, from its very earliest use on, refers not just to Bat Durston type westerns in space but also to domestic melodramas set in outer space. It was also very much intended to differentiate the “good stuff” (serious business hard SF) from the “bad stuff” (space opera).

And even though the vast majority of authors who committed Bat Durston style stories were probably male, space opera very quickly became coded female, when it was derided, and male, when it was not. In the Strange Horizons round-table linked above, Foz Meadows says the following:

I don’t agree that space opera has always been perceived as masculine, and especially not hyper-masculine. Quite the opposite: in my experience, space opera has traditionally been viewed as feminine, which usually sees it pitted against the more “masculine” subgenres of hard or military SF.

Foz Meadows’ remark very much echoes this 2013 comment by Ann Leckie in an interview (together with Rachel Bach) with Romantic Times:

So I was pretty surprised when I was first introduced to the idea that girls didn’t like science fiction. And more than a little confused. But I figured that must be because I mostly read space opera, and that was where the science fictional women hung out. Of course, often enough these days I hear that space opera is quintessentially manly. I don’t know, I guess I don’t read the right sort.

Also note that approximately fifteen years ago, when the New British Space Opera ruled supreme and space opera was written mainly by white British dudes, the subgenre was very well regarded. Fast forward ten to fifteen years and the very same critics who praised the umpteenth pale Iain M. Banks imitation to high heavens are falling over their own feet to complain about Ancillary Justice winning all the awards, even though it’s not really all that original, and to complain that Becky Chambers was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award two years in a row and also got a Hugo nomination and a nomination for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, even though the books are unoriginal and basically just fanfiction and probably not science fiction at all (just read the Shadow Clarke links above). And anyway, all this newfangled space opera that does not worship at the altar of Iain M. Banks (who really does not deserve the toxic fan club he ended up with) and does not care about details a certain author considers important is just doing science fiction wrong.

Let’s have another quote from the Strange Horizons round-table, also by Foz Meadows:

When I think about stories that lack domesticity, their defining characteristic isn’t a total absence of human moments, because that’s not really possible when you’re writing about people; rather, it’s the presence of an unchallenged monoculture whose specifics are, by and large, considered unimportant to the narrative: where the story is fixated on roles and hierarchies (commanders, kings, advisors, weapons specialists), and on grand ideas and intellectual conceits, but without any real discussion or investigation of how they interact with everything else in that setting. When that happens, it’s like someone has gone in and sliced away all the bits of humanity they don’t find interesting—all the art and childbirth and psychology and food and other such ‘soft science’ tchotchkes—and has attempted to define a culture, or an empire, or a spaceship, by what’s left.

This very much mirrors how I feel about the so-called New British Space Opera. The worlds and the characters inevitably felt flat and underdeveloped to me, for all the miraculous technology portrayed and for all the meticulously developed economic systems and equally meticulously plotted out orbital mechanics. Even if there was character development and conflict, e.g. two people falling in love or a father seeking out his estranged son, there was no real emotion behind it. In many ways, those books felt as if highly advanced AIs had attempted to write fiction, even though they’d never interacted with actual human beings before. Though I suspect that Murderbot or Computron from Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s story “Fandom For Robots” would do better than that.

The gulf between New British Space Opera and military science fiction, particularly the cookie cutter stuff that clogs up the Kindle store, could not be greater and yet both subgenres often share the same sense of flatness. In bad military science fiction, there is the military, which is patterned either after the US Marine Corps or British Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era, because there have been no other ways of organising military forces ever, there is maybe a vaguely described government, usually some kind of empire or maybe a confederation/republic that is the US in all but in name, and nothing else. Weapons and ships and sometimes uniforms (but not too often, because uniforms equals fashion equals girl cooties) are described in loving detail, but everything else remains vague. The books describe heroic soldiers fighting and dying to defend Earth/their homeworld/humanity from the evil invading insectoid or reptilian aliens or occasionally from evil space communists, but you have no idea what they’re even fighting for, because their world has no art, no music, no food, no sports, in fact there doesn’t even seem to be any world outside the military at all. Sometimes, there is a wife or in the really progressive stories a husband waiting at home, but we never see them and they never impact the plot. Nor do we ever see what those wifes and husbands are doing while their heroic soldier partners are away. The enemy, whether it’s evil aliens or evil space communists, equally seems to have no real reason to fight for, no motivation beyond “they’re evil because they’re evil” or “they’ve evil because they’re communists”. Not that the authors have even the slightest idea what communists are.

The crime fiction equivalent to this BTW is the flat detective. The flat detective is inevitably an older white man with zero defining characteristics , no hobbies or quirks and absolutely no life outside his job. If the flat detective has a wife, a husband, a family or even a home, we never see any of that. The flat detective only exists to solve crimes and then to shuffle off into whatever closet he is stored in during his off-times. The crimes investigated by the flat detective are curiously flat as well, undefined upper middle class people killing each other in undefined suburbs. When I was younger, I used to call these characters robo-investigators, but that’s not fair, because unlike the flat detective, R. Daneel Olivaw and Raymond Electromatic actually do have personalities.

I don’t think the flat detective was ever particularly common in literature beyond the short mysteries found in the backpages of German magazines, where every character is thinly sketched. But in the 1970s and well into the 1980s, pretty much ever German TV detective was a flat detective. Derrick, Der Alte, Der Kommissar, the various early Tatort detectives, none of them had much in the way of personality. It’s probably telling that I couldn’t even tell you the names of the lead characters in Der Alte and Der Kommissar without looking them up. Coincidentally, the proliferation of flat detectives on German TV is also why Horst Schimanski, though about as far from cozy mystery as you can get, was such as breath of fresh air, when he burst onto West German TV screens back in 1981. Because here was finally an actual character investigating crimes in realistic looking Duisburg working class neighbourhoods, not a cardboard cutout investigating crimes in paper towns. Coincidentally, we first meet Schimanski in a domestic setting, puttering about in his kitchen and mixing himself an anti-hangover drink before heading out into the mean streets of Duisburg Ruhrort to fight crime. The Schimanski Tatorte were also the first to move away from bland white middle class people committing bland crimes and took the viewer into Turkish and Polish immigrant communities and into the sort of white working class communities that were rapidly vanishing at the time those films were made. They would also have featured the first prominent gay character on German TV, if star Götz George had his way.

I don’t want to read or write about flat people living in flat worlds. When I was younger, I was willing to give a lot of older flat world science fiction a pass, because science fiction was not easy to come by, and simply did the work of fleshing out the work and the characters myself, as often becomes painfully clear, if I revisit a book I read as a teen and find that many details I so clearly remembered just aren’t there and never existed except in my own head. For example, I was absolutely convinced that Gregory Powell, one half of the troubleshooting duo Powell and Donovan from Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, was black. But when I reread “Runaround” for the 1943 Retro Hugos, I realised that Powell’s race is never mentioned. Neither is Donovan’s, for that matter (I imagined Donovan as an attractive white man, by the way, and Powell as an attractive black man). Gregory Powell was only black in my head, because I imagined him that way.

But while I may have been willing to do the work of fleshing out flat worlds and flat characters myself in my teens, I’m no longer willing to do so today. Because there are so much better books out there these days, books with fully realised worlds, worlds which have art and food and fashion and crappy soap operas and pop music and most importantly, women of all ages, people of colour, LGBT characters, children and communities.

I also strive to create fully realised worlds, at least the little slices of them that we see, in my own stories, even though I usually couldn’t tell you anything about the orbital mechanics of the worlds we visit unless it becomes important for the plot somehow. But I can tell you about all about their culture, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their entertainment preferences, the games and sports they play and the music they listen to. And so Anjali and Mikhail aren’t just soldiers, they’re people. Sure, Anjali is very much into weapons, which is rather annoying to write, because I have to come up with all sorts of details that matter to her, when all that matters to me is “Does it do what I need it to do?” I even have a cheat sheet with all the various names and model numbers of the output of the House of Marcasona, finest gunsmiths in the Empire. Mikhail is more pragmatic about weapons, using whatever is at hand, though he also remains stubbornly attached to his Special Commando Forces edition blaster, even though it’s objectively not all that good.

But Anjali also loves to cook and has very strong opinions about proper food. She loves the melodramatic vid dramas of her homeworld, much to Mikhail’s bemusement, and idolises Stella d’Anvers, the great diva of the Imperial Opera House (but then the entire galaxy adores her and even the people of the Republic eagerly follow her performances). Anjali also likes pretty clothes, though so far the plot hasn’t given her much of a chance to wear anything except utility clothes. Due to spending most of his life in one institution or another, being forced to do as he was told, Mikhail had less chance to develop personal likes and dislikes. Plus, as a spy he has been trained to fit into whatever role he’s playing at the moment (I’d initially planned for the Special Commando Forces to be more like space marines and they sometimes are that, but as the series developed it turned out that a lot of what they did were undercover missions in hostile territory). Still, there are things about Mikhail that are uniquely him, such as his insistence to wear his hair long, a small act of defiance against regulations that forced him to wear it short for much of his life. Mikhail has serious food issues due to his deprived childhood, which is why it’s perfect that I partnered him with someone who likes to cook and feed people. Mikhail also has something of a sweet tooth, another result of his deprived childhood. He clings to the culture of his lost homeworld and the language that hardly anybody speaks anymore, so he seeks out worlds that are a little bit similar (there is a reason that there are so many East European flavoured worlds in the In Love and War series) and drinks vodka, though he doesn’t even like it. Mikhail also has a thing for the long-running vid drama Starship, which is a bit as if Star Trek was a soap opera (well, more of a soap opera than it already is) and had been running continuouly for a hundred years or so.

I like stories about outsider and loners finding each other and forming communities and found families, so that’s what I write. This found family aspect is strong in both the Shattered Empire stories (and I’m gonna write more of them some day, though I can only write in one space opera universe at the time) and the In Love and War stories. One of my big themes that plays out in both space opera series is people who have lost their homes and usually families, either due to death and violence (Ethan, Mikhail, Elijah Tyrone, even Brian Mayhew, who was supposed to be a villain) or rejection (Anjali, Carlotta) or never had one in the first place (Holly and very likely Arthur Madden) and try to rebuild what they lost on their own terms. Once I figures this out, by the way, it became a lot clearer to me why my characters, even if they were supposed to be fugitives on the run like Anjali and Mikhail, quickly did start to build communities of friends around them and eventually families. Okay, so I’m not there yet, but then it’s still quite early in Mikhail and Anjali’s relationship (they celebrate their first anniversary in an upcoming story) and having children is not something they’ve even talked about at this point, beyond the fact that it would be a really bad idea given their current circumstances. Of course, the universe doesn’t really care about that.

But even though my main characters are a childless couple, there are children in the In Love and War series, from Tasha and Spencer Tyrone from Freedom’s Horizon to Anjali’s younger sisters Lalita and Sundari and the other children Mikhail meets in the camp for war orphan where he grows up in Dreaming of the Stars. And in the prequel novella Evacuation Order, which is already out, though not yet officially announced, we meet Mikhail’s older sister Katya as well as a very young Mikhail, and a whole spaceship full of refugee children, including newborn babies. We also finally get to see what really happened to Jagellowsk and just why there is such a bond between Mikhail and his former commander Brian Mayhew, no matter what Mayhew does later on.

And of course, Brian Mayhew was one of the biggest surprises to me, since he was originally simply intended to be a fairly one note villain, existing solely to hunt down Mikhail and Anjali (which he does, with greater zeal than is justified), until I wanted to have him do a villainous thing and he flat out refused and told me that this is not who he is and how could I ever think he’d do such a thing. He became a lot more interesting from there on, a man who essentially wants to do the right thing (and Brian Mayhew is very much the hero of Evacuation Order) and eventually got pulled into doing horrible things in the name of what he believes is good and right. He’ll eventually get his redemption arc, but it won’t be easy, because he really has done some awful things.

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