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.

On the Radar: Children of a Dead Earth

Children of a Dead Earth is the most promising science fiction computer game I have seen since Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It tries to do for the genre what I attempt to do with my forays into science fiction: to create a compelling vision of tomorrow based on real-world science.

Storywise, the game is fairly unremarkable (at least from what the developer has released so far). In the not-too-distant future, humans have colonised the Solar System. Two or more factions come to blows. The player, representing one of these factions, commands a constellation of warships to defeat the enemy across the breadth of inhabited space. While CDE is basically a Real Time Strategy game IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE, where the game truly shines is its dedication to realism.

The developer, Q Switched Productions, boasts that Children of a Dead Earth is the most scientifically accurate computer game ever made — and lives up to the claim. Unlike other space games, the game uses an actual N-body simulator, allowing precise modelling of orbital phenomena. On the developer blog, the developer explores the science behind the game. Everything from propulsion to nuclear power to weapons to ammunition to radiators is described and discussed in painstaking detail without losing the reader in an avalanche of technical jargon. That alone is worth the time to read through the archives.

Every ship, every component and every weapon is fully customizable based on scientific principles. You can do everything from deciding the armature material for coilguns to optimizing the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor to the type of armour your ship is made of — but you must have a solid understanding of physics to do it properly. You can, for instance, design and mount a 100 MW violet laser, but you must be prepared to shed the ferocious amount of heat it would generate, figure out how to power the rest of your ship, and mount secondary weapons to complement the laser. As the developer points out, even a laser as powerful as that isn’t a doomsday weapon, merely a long-range weapon with a specific tactical niche. If you have mass or cost constraints, you have to compromise somewhere.

Delta-v and orbital mechanics play a critical role in the game. The cunning space captain will employ maneuvering burns that will place his squadron in a superior position, force the enemy to expend his delta-v reserves, and minimise his own propellant expenditure. Ploughing through swarms of drones and clouds of missiles, then charging straight into the guns of the enemy ships in a death-or-glory attack is a surefire recipe for disaster. Better to trick the enemy into wasting his long-range weapons, knock out critical components from a distance, then close in for the kill. Or, even better, force the enemy to expend all his propellant, leaving him dead in space, without even firing a shot.

This dedication to realism means that a game like this will never be published by any of the big game companies. Take a look at these gameplay videos.

 

 

The game won’t hold the player’s hand. It won’t dumb anything down. The graphics look like they came from the late 90s or early 2000s, but they are adequate for gameplay — and truthfully, there is something hypnotic about watching streams of tracers trace an arc around a planet to strike a faraway target. Instead of focusing on flashy visuals, slick presentation, shiny doodads or impossible-but-cool special effects, the developer concentrated on realism and natural outgrowth from scientific principles.

CDE does not appeal to the lowest common denominator. It demands the player to live up to it. At the same time, it can teach the player a thing or two about science — made abundantly clear in the developer blog. It’s not an AAA game, nor is it meant to be; it’s for the hardcore geeks who’ve been waiting for a realistic space war sim.

In this sense, CDE is very much like Kerbal Space Program. They aren’t the prettiest games around, but they are intellectually rigorous and grounded in physics. These games aren’t just entertainment; they will inspire the next generation of scientists and sci fi creators.

In all honesty, If I had stumbled across the developer blog before writing FLASHPOINT: TITAN, the story would have been written much differently. I can see the developer blog joining Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto as the go-to resource for hard scence fiction spaceships.

You can find the game’s Steam page here. The community has greenlit the game and it’s expected for a 2016 release. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. After all, for most people, this is entertainment — but for me, it’s for research.