The Future Form of Fiction

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Recently, Brian Niemeier argued that success in indie publishing demands a prolific release schedule. This, in turn, demands short novels. I think he’s right.

The maths is simple. A 50,000 word novel can be edited, formatted and published much faster than a novel of three times the length. An author who releases four books a year enjoys four times the product, four times the chances of being discovered, four times the odds of being recommended, and four times the potential profit (or more) than a writer who publishes merely one. While there are authors who can go for years between novels and become insta-bestsellers when their latest books hit the shelves, these authors are enormously lucky outliers, and professional writers can’t count on being lucky. They have to make their own luck.

This doesn’t mean long novels are obsolete. Larry Correia’s novels are as gigantic as he is. However, he keeps his stories tight and fast-paced, and when he’s in the zone he churns out ten thousand words a day. He publishes multiple books a year, making him as prolific as other indie writers who punch out shorter novels.

Book length isn’t as important as being prolific. But not everyone can dedicate so much time and energy to writing as Larry Correia, so for most authors, writing shorter stories would be a better writing strategy.

Self-publishing has opened the floodgates. At the end of this sentence a new book has been published. To generate and retain brand awareness in such an environment, an indie author must be prolific.

What does this mean for me?

I grew up in the age of mega-novels and densely-packed texts. As a boy I tore through massive tomes without regard for length. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar and Southern Victory sagas, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Tom Clancy’s and Larry Bond’s technothrillers, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Ron L Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. In the early days of dial-up Internet, I consumed web pages filled with nothing but text and the occasional poorly-rendered image. Today, I still ignore nine in ten photographs I see in online articles.

It never occurred to me that I should be intimidated by the length of the current story I was reading, and that attitude overflowed into my writing. My first novel ran to over 300 pages, and my more recent novels start at 150,000 words. I’m predisposed towards reading and writing what would, by modern standards, be ultra-long works of fiction.

None of which matters in the current age of fiction.

In the 1990s, when I grew up, books merely had to compete with movies, television and video games. Books and library memberships were far, far cheaper than the competition, and they had the singular advantage of being seen as a prestige product. But we don’t live in the 1990s any more.

Today, books have to compete with movies, television, live streams, YouTube, Internet streaming services, mobile games, PC games, and console games. The price of traditionally-published print books haven’t changed significantly over the years, even with the advent of Print on Demand technology, but the entry price for everything else has dropped dramatically. Humble Bundle and Steam sales regularly offer steep discounts for games, streaming is cheap, and YouTube is free.

More importantly, people have changed. We live in an age of constant novelty and distraction. Social media feeds flood users with information every second of the day. Ebooks have no physical presence to remind users of their existence, but they do have page counts that suggest the reader must plow through mountains of words. When given a choice between regular, quick hits of dopamine in a fast-paced mobile game or a prolonged, subtle experience in a work of prose, your average consumer will gravitate towards the former. To even stand a chance of being read, digital articles must come with attractive graphics, attention-grabbing headlines, and be as short as the writer can get away with.

I didn’t create this world. But I have to live in it. And if I am to be successful I must flow with the times.

These industry and consumer trends point to the impending dominance of pulp-style writing. Short, punchy fiction, written quickly, released regularly and sold cheaply. Longer works like The Lord of the Rings would be released as serials or broken up into multiple shorter books. It is the same model employed by modern Japanese light novelists for decades. Its success in the Golden Age of pulp and in modern times indicates that prolific publishing of shorter works is a time-tested strategy for writing success.

There is, however, another method.

Web novels are the red headed stepchildren of the modern publishing scene. While virtually unknown in Western writing circles, they are hugely popular among fans of Japanese and Chinese fiction — especially WNs that have been translated into English.

On first glance, WNs seem to defy Niemeir’s argument: the most popular WNs run into hundreds or even thousands of chapters. But WNs create the illusion of brevity.

Each individual chapter takes no more than a few minutes to read, and is loaded on a single web page. Each chapter takes only a few minutes to read, reducing the perceived time and opportunity cost to the reader, and encouraging the reader to spend just a few minutes more on the next chapter (and the next, and the next…). With many short chapters released regularly, WNs are arguably the modern-day digital serials.

By contrast, books are experienced as a contiguous whole. Ebooks may tell you how many pages you have left to the next chapter, but print books don’t. Novels with long chapters can be a daunting experience to read versus novels with much shorter ones. By breaking up the reading experience into discrete web pages, each trickled down slowly over days and weeks and months, WNs shorten the perceived time it takes to clear each chapter and plot point. When printed, WNs tend to resemble light novels in the brevity of their chapters and story arcs, and indeed many popular LNs began as WNs: Sword Art Online, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield Hero.

Which makes WNs perfectly suited for Steemit.

I know I can write huge amounts of words quickly. But to be a pro, only published stories count. Going forward, I must adapt my writing style to suit the times. As Kai Wai Cheah I’m obliged to complete the Covenant Chronicles the way I envisioned it: a series of at least six long-form prose novels. But as Kit Sun Cheah I’ve been experimenting with short fiction on Steemit, and the results have been encouraging. I won’t speak of what I will write yet, but come 2018, a new kind of fiction is coming.

Watch this space.

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If you like pulp-style action horror, check out my short story Redemption Road: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, part 4, Part 5

For long-form prose, you can find my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons here.

Appendix N Profile: Robert E Howard

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In the 1930s, the glory days of the pulp age, Robert E Howard cast a formidable shadow. The creator of Conan and Solomon Kane, a legendarily prolific writer with hundreds of stories and dozens of poems to his name, he molded the genres of weird fiction and sword and sorcery, leaving his mark forever. In his mythical Appendix N, Gary Gygax cited Howard’s Conan series as one of his many inspirations in creating Dungeons & Dungeons. Having heard much of Howard’s prowess, yet having never read any of his stories (the closest being the Conan animated series), I grabbed tomes of his stories and devoured everything I could find.

What I found was breathtakingly magnificent.

Every story was like diving into a bottomless well and returning with armfuls of glittering gold and glimmering gems. Here were hard-hitting tales of passion and zest delivered in muscular prose. Here were restless men of action, pushing ever onwards to the next great adventure and conquest; and beautiful women who recognized and reveled in their femininity, dangerous and clever and charming and tough. Here were stories of mortal and moral peril, of blackest evil and foul monsters, of savage men who found glory and triumph in the dark corners of the world.

These were the stories I’d waited my entire life to discover.

To understand Howard’s enduring popularity, we need to understand the elements that made his stories great. I’ll begin with the characters whose stories I’ve read: Conan, Solomon Kane and Breckenridge Elkins.

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Conan is Howard’s legacy. A powerfully-built barbarian from Cimmeria, he walks the world of the Hyperborean Age in an endless quest for adventure and treasure. He is a pirate, a mercenary, a raider, a soldier, a king. Unaccustomed to the norms of civilisation, he meets his foes head-on with sword in hand. With the raw strength that comes from a hard life in the wilds, he fights like an enraged wolf, less a man and more like a force of nature. Conan is the archetype of every barbarian and fighting-man that ever graced a role playing game.

Despite his shady background, Conan is the epitome of the noble savage and a paragon of pagan virtue. He goes through women faster than he goes through weapons, but he never coerces them, instead winning their hearts through derring-do. He is never shown knowingly harming an innocent on the page, saving his wrath for evildoers. Though well-versed in the ways of corsairs and mercenaries, he does not himself prey on the weak or break an oath. A leader of men, he freely aids those who help him, and quickly rises to leadership positions. He becomes a mercenary leader, a pirate chief, a kozak hetman, and finally a king. Apparently uncivilized, he is nonetheless talented in tactics and warcraft, easily deduces schemes of more civilized characters, and has a gift for learning languages. While not overtly religious, he nevertheless slays unnameable horrors and monsters, acting as a force for good. And through it all, he embraces life to the fullest.

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Where Conan is joyful and passionate, Solomon Kane is grim and brooding. Named for a wise king and the first murderer, Kane is a late 16th century / early 17th century Puritan whose sole passion in life is destroying evil wherever he finds it. With rapier and pistols by his side, Kane hunts for monsters, human and otherwise, in the dark corners of the earth.

Where Conan is the embodiment of nature, red in tooth and claw, Kane is far colder, but no less driven or ruthless. While Conan fights like a wolf, Kane’s rapier play is described as ‘cold, calculating, scintillant’. Instead of driving into the fray like Conan does, Kane plans his moves and takes advantages of openings as they arise. While Kane wasn’t as popular as Conan, and appears in far fewer stories, he is nonetheless the archetype of a crusading demon hunter.

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Breckenridge Elkins veers away from fantasy and into Westerns. Specifically, comedic Westerns. Delivered in the first person through Breckenridge’s dialect (some daresay accent), they follow the misadventures of Breckenridge as he travels the American West and (attempts to) find a wife along the way.

Breckenridge is an idiot. He is barely lettered and completely incapable of detecting the schemes and lies unfolding all around him. He takes too many people at their word and jumps to wrong conclusions all the time. This character device sets the reader laughing at Breckenridge’s foolishness, then laughing again as he attempts to untangle himself from his latest mess (usually with fists, Bowie and gun). Even his prodigious size and strength are used for comedy: he complains about how clothes and beds for people six feet tall are too small, describes enormous meals as mere snacks, and downplays knockout blows as light taps. Despite that, Breckenridge respects the law, helps his friends and family, repays his debts, protects the innocent, never shies from hard work, and always sees his jobs through to the end. A lesser writer would merely portray him as a bumbling oath; in Howard’s hands Breckenridge is a good-hearted if uncivilized cowboy and mountain man who suffers for his ignorance of human nature, but nevertheless fights his way out of trouble and brings plenty of laughs to the reader.

The trio are virile men of action and virtue. They don’t waste time brooding on slights, concocting overly elaborate plans or manipulating innocent people; they confront their enemies directly in honourable combat, using skill and wit and brute strength to win the day. They are larger than life, standing out from friend and foe alike, leaving their mark on the readers’ soul. They uphold moral codes and enforce them with blades and bullets, helping the helpless and dispensing justice to villains and their minions.

With his mastery of the craft and language, Howard paints vivid settings for every story. With a handful of words, Howard transports the reader to wintry mountain peaks and searing deserts, sweltering jungle islands and forbidding ruins, haunted swamps and lost cities. The Breckenridge stories speak of tiny wooden towns waiting to be busted up and the untamed wilds of the West. The Kane stories ease the reader from the mundane to the terrifying, beginning in some relatively innocent setting and ending in a place home to great evils and eldritch horrors. Conan wanders across many vividly-described lands, lands where glory, treasure, powerful magic and terrible monsters await behind every corner, where nations rest upon the bones of older, forgotten civilisations, and those nations too will soon be dust by the days of Kane and Breckenridge.

Howard’s economy of words is likewise remarkable. Many of these stories are short, far shorter than contemporary counterparts. Yet every single Howard tale is packed with memorable characters, intense action, and dramatic plots. These are simple stories, well told, enabling Howard’s prodigious output. There is more life, more fire, more soul in any Howard story than contemporary novels double or triple its length.

Robert E Howard is a grandmaster of the art. His incredible output and versatility exemplify the finest traditions of the pulp era, his command of the language and the craft is superb, and there is hardly a false note in his stories. Through Conan and Sword & Sorcery, Howard’s stories will endure the test of time.

If you’d like to support my own pulp-influenced stories, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Quest for Pulp Speed

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A little over a month from now, thousands of writers will once again attempt the NaNoWriMo challenge. Once again, many will fall.

NaNoWriMo is simple: write fifty thousand words in thirty days. An admirable goal, and a challenging one. For the past ten years, the success rate hovered between a high of 19% in 2009 and 2010 to just 8% last year. To put things in perspective, NaNoWriMo has the same attrition rate as selection for the US Navy SEALs, Air Force Pararescue, and Delta Force. NaNoWriMo winners are rightly considered among the writing elite.

But if fifty thousand words in thirty days sounds too easy to you, take on the Pulp Speed challenge.

The essence of pulp is speed. Short, punchy stories flying off the typewriter in prodigious volumes. The great pulp masters were the most prolific writers of their day. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a hundred stories, H P Lovecraft had a hundred and eight. Robert E Howard wrote hundreds of poems and over three hundred stories in a fiction career that spanned just twelve years. William B Gibson wrote three hundred and twenty-five The Shadow novels alone.

To be a successful pulp writer, you had to be prolific. To be prolific, you had to write at Pulp Speed.

What is pulp speed? In the words of the inestimable Dean Wesley Smith:

PULP SPEED ONE

About 1,000,000 (1 million) original words per year. This averages to about 2,750 words a day for 365 days. (numbers rounded)

PULP SPEED TWO

1,200,000 words in a year. 100,000 words per month.

And remember, that is about 3,400 words per day. If you can write 1,000 words average an hour, that’s 3.5 hours per day.

PULP SPEED THREE

1,400,000 words in a year. To hit this, you need to be about 120,000 words per month (rounded up) or about 4,000 words per day average…

PULP SPEED FOUR

1,600,000 words per year. That’s about 135,000 words per month or about 4,500 words per day without a day off.

PULP SPEED FIVE

1,800,000 words per year. About 150,000 words per month. 5,000 words per day without missing a day.

PULP SPEED SIX

2 million words and more per year. 170,000 words or so per month. About 5,500 words per day average.

What is the Pulp Speed challenge? Write at no less than Pulp Speed One, and maintain it every day until the story is done.

This is NaNoWriMo on steroids. This is how the pulp masters won their place in literary history. This is how today’s indie writers earn success in the ever-expanding fiction marketplace. To be a pro, Pulp Speed isn’t a challenge — it’s a job requirement.

My current novel, KAGE NO OUJI, is well under way. Even with a full workload, I’m still able to meet the Pulp Speed word count day after day, week after week. If you want to write beside me, here are some pointers for the task ahead.

1. Be Prepared to Write

If you’re a pantser, this doesn’t apply to you. Just show up and do the work. But if you need to plan your works, if you need some degree of organisation to be successful, you must prepare yourself to write. You don’t want to waste precious time fumbling around, wondering what to write. When it’s time to write, write.

Before I began writing proper, I plotted out the entire story. Every chapter, every character, every key scene. For four days I did nothing but eat, breathe, drink and sleep KAGE NO OUJI. I organised them all in a reference document and keep it close to hand. Before I write, I take a few moments to mentally walk through the scenes I intend to write, consulting the plot as necessary. When it’s go time, I’m not frozen at the keyboard staring the screen. I know what to write and how to write — I just need to do it.

2. Create A Writing Regimen

If, like me, you have to juggle writing with a day job, it goes without saying that you need to make time to write. But beyond that, you need to be consistent with writing time. You need to train your brain to switch into writing mode when it’s go time. You can’t afford to be distracted by thoughts of work, lousy clients, what to have for dinner or whatever; you have to focus completely on your story. You need a regimen.

In the morning, I wake up, have breakfast, and write. Over the day, during breaks at work, I write. During lunch, I write. After work, I write. Every block of time is carefully planned and scheduled, ensuring I will be able to focus exclusively on writing. I brook no interruptions and allow no distractions. From the start of every writing session, I am writing, writing, writing. It is a career, a regimen, a way of living.

Through discipline, triumph. This is the way of the warrior, the athlete, the artist, the builder, the entrepreneur–and the writer.

3. Take Care of Yourself and Your Loved Ones

You can’t write if you’re sick or sleepy or stressed out to the breaking point. You can’t sacrifice your health on the altar of pulp. Sure, you may make greater word count in the short run, but that won’t matter if you burn out or work yourself into the ground. You can’t write to the exclusion of everything else.

Eat right. Sleep enough. Drink plenty of water. Without health you’ve got nothing. I make it a point to exercise every day when I have time: weightlifting, running, yoga, martial arts, bodyweight calisthenics. If you have family, don’t neglect them too. Be sure to spend quality time with your loved ones. You cannot neglect them for the sake of Pulp Speed.

Your life is not, and cannot, be all about writing. You need to take time off to recharge your batteries, keep your body in shape, and stay in touch with your loved ones. Writing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. You cannot let writing become a demon that drives you into isolation, sickness, and an early grave.

4. When Writing, Write

When writing at Pulp Speed, you will discover that every minute, every second is precious. Guard every moment jealously and fill them with words. If you’re watching cat videos on YouTube, sharing clickbait on Facebook, wandering down the mirrored halls of tumblr and Twitter, you are not writing. If you don’t write when you’re supposed to be writing you’re not going to make the word count. Save distractions for when you can take a break from writing.

Enforce writing discipline. Refrain from using the Internet if you can, and if you must, set yourself a very short time limit. If you need something to focus on, put on energizing music, music that won’t pull your attention from the page. Disconnect yourself from all means of social communication, or at least make it very difficult for people to casually contact you. If necessary, use apps that isolate you from all distractions, enabling you to write. No matter what happens, short of an absolute emergency, you must plant your rear end in your chair and write–and keep writing.

5. Develop Your Writing Stamina

Writing takes vast amounts of mental and creative energy. I jumped into writing at Pulp Speed right off the bat because I knew I could perform at such a level. I have regularly achieved outputs of over 3000 words a day when working on my previous stories. The challenge, for me, was to squeeze those words into a shorter time frame, and to keep writing daily. But if you’re not already used to writing torrents of words, you will burn out and fail.

If you’re not ready yet, build up your writing stamina. Get used to writing something, anything, every day. Take note of your average daily output. Then, week by week, steadily bump it higher and higher and higher. Ramp it up steadily, adding maybe a few hundred words every week, and the next thing you know, you’re writing at Pulp Speed.

With these five tips, I built myself into a writer capable of writing at Pulp Speed. Production of KAGE NO OUJI began on the 1st of September. I wrote the first proper word of the story on the 5th. Today, on the 28th of September, the novel stands at 73313 words. Daily average of 3187 words.

Pulp Speed One — without taking into account the extra words I threw into my blog.

Fifty thousand words in thirty days is no small feat. But if you think that’s too light for you, aim higher. Aim for Pulp Speed.

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If you would like to support my work, do check out my Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Can Steemit Revitalise Short Fiction?

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A century ago, pulp magazines were the popular entertainment of the working class. Cheap and ubiquitous, the pulps brought exciting tales of action and adventure to the everyman. Fiction was no longer the pursuit of the leisure class; it was now within the reach of regular people. And the secret was length.

Back, popular fiction was much shorter than it is today. The average novel didn’t far exceed 50,000 words. Short stories floated between 5,000 to 10,000 wprds. Everything in between was a short novel or novelette. Pulp magazines, jam-packed with such stories, offered multiple exciting tales for the price and length of a single novel. Being paid by the word, prolific writers with a solid work ethic could support their families solely by writing for the pulps. With proliferation came even more stories to satisfy the demands of an ever-widening audience, creating a virtuous cycle that exploded into a cultural phenomenon.

Short fiction built the pulps. But today, conventional wisdom says short fiction is no longer viable.

It’s a given that the short fiction SFF market today does not pay well. Royalties usually float between one and a half to six cents a word, depending on the magazine’s budget, or none at all. Being published is virtually impossible if you don’t write about the right topics or have the right chromosomes: as Jon Del Arroz discovered, only 2.8% of female writers who submit short stories get published, and just 0.7% of men do. And most of the short fiction markets out there do not seek stories written in the pulp tradition.

There are other magazines today that try to emulate the pulps: Cirsova, Storyhack, Astounding Frontiers. While I’ve heard nothing but good reviews about them, they don’t publish regularly enough or pay well enough for writers to earn more than walking-around money.

Lyonesse, with its subscription model, attempts to use technology to solve the problem of royalties. In effect, readers pay the equivalent price of one novel for 52 stories, plus bonuses, delivered weekly. It’s a fascinating business approach, and I wish them the best, but from a writer’s perspective until Lyonesse reaches critical mass it won’t contribute significantly to one’s income either.

Being paid is critical. The promise of financial incentives drove many of the pulp writers to hone their craft and write vast numbers of stories. High quality and high numbers of stories attracted more readers to the pulps, in turn increasing the potential earnings for writers who serve these customers.

This is where Steemit comes in.

A week ago, Rawle Nyanzi discussed whether Steemit can monetise short fiction. True to the pulp spirit, Rawle has been producing lots of flash fiction online, the kind of content that seems a good fit for Steemit. However, he believes that the US tax code is presently too complex to justify the effort it takes to hop on board Steemit.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have such problems.

Steemit lends itself well to short and serial fiction. Short fiction can be read in a single setting, and the reader can quickly decide whether to upvote it or not. Serial fiction takes full advantage of the 7-day voting window for each post: posts published in quick succession will feed into each other, allowing for a potentially higher payout.

Quite fortuitously, short and serial fiction are the same kinds of fiction that built the pulps.

For authors who can put in the work, Steemit doesn’t just offer a platform to monetise short fiction — it can revitalise the format. A quick look at the fiction tag will show you stories that have earned hundreds of dollars, and stories that have earned hundreds of dollars per chapter. There is significant financial incentive to be prolific and technically excellent, there is a critical and growing mass of customers, and Steemit is only getting started.

I think authors who write in the pulp spirit will find Steemit an excellent platform to write short fiction, get feedback, and GET PAID. It can’t take the place of pulp magazines, but there is no need to. Traditional and up-and-coming magazines can focus on developing a particular genre or aesthetic, while Steemit helps authors build their brands. Steemit makes the fiction pie bigger for everyone, creating the potential to set up the virtuous cycle that led to the pulp explosion of the early twentieth century.

As for myself, I’m putting skin in the game. You can find my story TWO LIVES on Steemit. I’m preparing another story for publication as well. Come 2018, I’ll have more stories in the wings.

I think Steemit won’t just revitalise short fiction — it’ll transform it. And I’ll be there to make it happen.

TWO LIVES can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

If you prefer longer fiction, check out my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.

Space Opera is about Opera

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Tor launched #SpaceOperaWeek to promote and discusse space opera. In 24 hours, the Pulp Revolution launched a memetic revolution and claimed the hashtag for its own. Now, practically every hashtag and Internet discussion about #SpaceOperaWeek is dominated by the PulpRev folks. This stunning success exposes a hard truth: Tor has no idea what space opera is about.

Tor says ‘Space Opera is at its best when it merges the sweeping, big stakes stories with ordinary human drama‘. That is a laughable notion.

Space opera is about Opera: enormous stakes, huge conflicts, sweeping scope, massive drama, larger-than-life characters. Readers do not want to read page after page of mind-numbing tedium; they already live that in everyday life. They read fiction, especially science fiction, to escape reality, not to delve deeper into it.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is a classic example of space opera: interstellar diplomacy and warfare, grand strategy and fleet tactics, conspiracies and drama, high technology and higher stakes. The series doesn’t have Admiral Harrington spending entire novels caught up in mindless staff meetings and tedious paperwork; that’s not the point of space opera. People don’t want to read boring stuff, and ordinary, everyday life is boring. If they want to read about ordinary human drama, that’s what literary fiction is for.

Tor’s assertion to the contrary demonstrates a lack of awareness of what readers want. But that’s what you get when you bring aboard a writer who admits she is “not really a Space Opera kind of girl“.

Space opera is about, well, fun. As John Del Arroz points out on the Castalia House blog, space opera doesn’t have to realistic; it just has to be fun.

Not that there isn’t room for realism if it doesn’t subtract from the story. It just has to be done right.

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Science fiction celebrates the vasty deep of the galaxy, marvels at the strange wonders born in the light of alien suns, and lauds the power of the imagination. Today, sci fi is split into ‘realistic’ hard science fiction and ‘unrealistic’ soft science fiction, with works assessed by how closely they hew to known science. The old pulp masters would have laughed at such a notion. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful.

Hard science fiction is the fiction of probability. It celebrates the glory of science today, showing us what we can do with what we already know. It is not about fixing your imagination into tedious todays and stagnant yesterdays, or locking your brain into the realism box. Science constantly changes; a hard sci fi story cannot possibly remain completely accurate forever, nor should it. Instead it should strive to show what humans can achieve simply with what we know today, and build a ladder for us to reach for brighter and more glorious tomorrows.

Starship Operators is perhaps the hardest science fiction anime today. There is no sound in space; the sound is explicitly described as dubbed in for viewers. Battles take hours or days, with ships jostling for position. The only artificial gravity aboard a ship comes from rotating wheels. Light-speed lag significantly affects tactics and combat.

Yet at its heart, Starship Operators is about a group of plucky space cadets waging a one-ship war against an interstellar superpower to free their country while being sponsored by a television company. It doesn’t let science get in the way of the story. Hence there are stealth ships, plasma weapons, faster-than-light travel, and a disturbing lack of thermal radiators. The science in the anime are simply the props that allow the story to be told.

For ultra-diamond-hard science fiction, bar none, look no further than Children of a Dead Earth. It’s a space warfare simulator, designed with the express purpose of exploring what warfare in space would look like. Everything in the game obeys the laws of the universe: thermal stress and radiation, orbital mechanics , the rocket equation, Young’s Modulus and more. To fully appreciate the game you need to have an in-depth understanding of lasers, nuclear reactors, thrust and a dozen other fields. No fantasy physics here – at least, until you unlock the black box design module.

Children of a Dead Earth succeeds because of these limitations. The creator produced a compelling story universe in which humanity has colonised the planets, asteroids and moons of the Solar System. It is a universe riddled with superpower conflict and interfactional rivalries, culminating in a shooting war where fleets of atomic rockets attempt to destroy each other with high-intensity lasers, hypervelocity projectiles and nuclear missiles. While this isn’t strictly space opera, a setting like this demonstrates what can be done today — so imagine what can be done tomorrow.

Soft science fiction is the fiction of possibility. It’s not completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, soft sci fi sets the stage for epic tales of tragedy and heroism and sorrow and hope. It takes the readers to journeys to far-off worlds, fires their imagination with depictions of Super Awesome Tech, and the very best stories point the reader to greater truths about the nature of humanity.

Star Wars (the original trilogy!) is an enduring classic of soft science fiction. It has Space Magic, wandering samurai with energy blades and mind powers, galaxy-spanning polities and world-killing superweapons. It’s not realistic and pretend to be. It doesn’t bother with ‘ordinary human drama’, focusing instead on the high drama of good versus evil and the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The original trilogy focuses on being fun, and that is why its legacy endures to this day.

Looking further into the past, we see the old masters of pulp writing space opera with an emphasis on opera. E. E. Smith’s seminal Lensman series exemplifies this: elder alien races manipulating younger ones to achieve their ends, superweapons and psionics aplenty, massive space battles with the casual destruction of worlds, and titanic struggles between the forces of civilization and tyranny. Compared to such luminence, mere human drama means nothing.

While it may sometimes be useful to divide science fiction between hard and soft, it is merely a paradigm, to be adopted when useful and discarded when not. Consider the case of John C. Wright’s Superluminary. It features all manner of ‘soft’ sci fi technology–casual biomodification, psionics, the titulary faster-than-light travel mechanism–but the story universe is carefully constructed, with the technology obeying the rules of the universe as faithfully as any other piece of high technology in a work of hard science fiction. With these sci fi elements, Wright tells a story of a young man who must seize the throne of Humanity and lead mankind in a desperate war against a star-spanning race of vampires who have conquered the universe and seek to consume everything. Nowhere near ‘realistic’, but it is an epic space opera told in the grand tradition of the old pulp masters – and vastly more enjoyable than stories of mere human drama.

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Science fiction is about *fiction* and space opera is about *opera*. If people want to read about science or space, there are plenty of non-fiction books, magazines and journals to choose from. If people want to delve into ordinary human drama, they just have to live ordinary lives or pick up lit fic. The science in science fiction makes the fiction *fun*, and the space in space opera is the setting for the opera.

Science fiction is not about dragging readers through muck and demanding they derive pleasure from it. Science fiction turns their eyes to the stars, and space opera takes them there. Space opera is about opera: the glory, the terror, the joy, the horror, the sorrow and the wonder that awaits the intrepid starman who dares to brave the infinite expanse.