Space Opera and the Soul of Science Fiction

This essay was written in response to Grauniad calumnist Damien Walter’s essay, Space Opera strikes up again for a new era, 2014-08-29 ‹›.

The first sentence of this essay, “Science fiction is not a genre,” succeeds in catching the reader’s attention by contradicting previously-held beliefs. And that’s a great way to start an essay—if you can justify the point you’re making. But the writer of this essay never does, largely because his point is in fact incorrect. Reading through the entire essay, my impression that the writer does not understand science fiction—nor, for that matter, what the word genre means—is greatly strengthened.

One matter of note is that this conversation is not a new one. Fans have been discussing the limits and definitions of the genre since they first recognized its existence. An essay that discusses these topic without mentioning earlier efforts (let alone quoting or even pointing to them) is barely worth taking seriously, except as something that can be responded to, pointed to as an example of factual errors and bad logic with a dash of the writer’s penchant for libeling and misrepresenting politically-conservative (in the American sense) writers.

Eric Raymond recently wrote Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter, an essay well worth reading by anyone who wants to discuss what genre reading and writing is.

ESR quotes Samuel Delany’s “observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too.” A genre, he points out,

can be seen as a conversation among its authors and readers (what postmodernists call “shared discourse”). As in every long running conversation, a genre tends to develop internal themes, motives, and a shared history. Works that are disconnected from the main conversation may be seen by people in that conversation as outside of the genre even if they fulfill many of its thematic and structural requirements and seem like they ought to belong “in” to outsiders.

He then uses Gregory Benford’s definition of science fiction: “that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way.”

(The fundamental definition of the genre-group to which science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, slipstream, etc. belong has probably been best stated by J. R. R. Tolkien in his On Fairy Stories: these are genres in which the writer creates a Secondary World, which world the reader ideally enters into with a Secondary Belief, a step beyond mere “suspension of disbelief”. The key word of these genres is world-building.)

Returning to Mr. Walter’s essay I note that for all his discussion of “Space Opera”, it is the one sub-genre of science fiction he mentions which he does not attempt to define. I will make the attempt: stories about heroic deeds whose import and consequences stretch across worlds. I’m sure better definitions can be devised, but this one is at least accurate enough for the discussion at hand. Ann Leckie’s multiple-award-winning Ancillary Justice, speculation on language & gender and all, is solidly placed in the Space Opera tradition.

“Hard SF”, by the way, is not a sub-genre of science fiction but a way of writing any of SF’s sub-genres. It is the heart of the genre, affirming the “rational knowability of the universe” by restriction of the technology discussed to those currently considered scientifically-plausible. This restriction, and the consequent “SF hardness” of the story, is a relative value, not an absolute; see TV Tropes’ Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness for a discussion and examples.

We return to Mr. Walter’s recurring attempt at splitting the SF/F world between Baen and everyone else. Damien’s dismissal of Baen books’ “appalling prose styles” can be set aside as a matter of taste (and the idea of Damien Walter as arbiter of taste is risible considering his own fiction). The caricature of Baen customers as “right-wing readership who can recognise the enemies of America even when they are disguised as cannibal lizard aliens” begins to show the limits of his reading comprehension, and the inability to distinguish allegory from coincidence of broad themes. (Hint: Invasion by extra-terrestrials is as good a premise today as it did in the 1890s. There’s nothing beyond “they’re an external threat” that compares hypothetical “cannibal lizard aliens” [are they scarier because they eat each other?] to the present-day “enemies of America”.)

But then Damien removes all doubt and proves that he is unable to comprehend written English past the “See Spot run” level. Toni Weisskopf’s The Problem of Engagement , originally addressed to Baen readership, can be summarized thus: “Despite the very real differences in how various groups of fans approach the genre, SF thrives on discussion; if we don’t talk to—not at—each other we will be undermining the thing we all profess to care about.” This call for inclusiveness Damien misrepresents as “a diatribe against any and all sci-fi that did not pander to this conservative agenda.”

What’s left of Mr. Walter’s essay is his recognition that the political strife with SF/F fandom “is often petty”; I will defer to him in his area of expertise.

Edited to add:

Returning to this topic after the end of Shabbat, I find that others have responded as well. “Responded also,” I should say; since “as well” can be read as if I compare my humble efforts to the impressive literary evisceration of Mr Walter’s screed at the hands of the incomparable John C. Wright: Musteline yet Lacking a Male Member. I tip my hat to you, sir.

Lady Cedar Sanderson posted her reply at The Core of Science Fiction; Brad Torgerson at When ignorant snobs attack. Both are worth reading.

Larry Correia’s initial response was short:

Larry followed that with a characteristic point-by-point rejoinder at Fisking the Guardian’s Village Idiot Again.

For completeness, I will also note the response by the Hugo-nominated SFWA expellee Vox Day; his Denying SF, dissing Baen is largely links and excerpts from the above-listed responses.

As a topper, here is the calumnist’s reaction to my response:

I did mention his inability to comprehend the written word once or twice, right? Because if he’s going to make my point for me it’s hardly sporting.