I will admit it. I’m a space opera addict. When I was five years old, we got cable television long before everybody else had. We had to. The town that I lived in was in a valley. We may have only been 35 miles from downtown Cleveland, but forget watching the Browns games on Sunday. Before we moved, you’d be lucky to get two of the three VHF channels that existed at the time. And UHF? That was a rumor. So my parents paid the ten bucks a month, a hefty sum of the time, to get cable. The cable they paid for, and the cable that I pay roughly the same price for now, were about the same. It made sure you get CBS along with ABC and NBC. Forget Fox. That was not even a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye then. (And I’m probably dating myself, aren’t I?) But it also gave us UHF, which included the public television channel and Sesame Street. Yes, community antenna television (what cable was originally called) let me grow up with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. It also gave us two independent stations, one of which was Channel 61. And Channel 61 had reruns of a show I had never seen before: Star Trek.
Channel 61 went off the air for a decade within two years. Its crosstown rival, Channel 43, already home of all things science fiction in Cleveland, didn’t miss a beat. Until I was a teenager, my Saturday evenings consisted of Star Trek followed by Hee Haw, the latter of which I consider the only form of child abuse I ever suffered. And Channel 43 had so much more. It carried Space: 1999 during its original run. That only fed my hunger.
Before I entered my teens, Hollywood started taking space opera seriously. Instead of random showings of Forbidden Planet, or filling the gaps with tired reruns of Lost in Space, they brought us this really strange new movie: Star Wars.
This was followed by a series of knockoffs, like that David Hasselhoff extravaganza Star Crash. But soon we had something else, something old made new again, set to the music of Queen. We had Flash Gordon. My brothers and I watched that one over and over again on this brand-new cable network, HBO. I love HBO. I didn’t know it at the time, but some of my best television memories would later come from HBO. Game of Thrones and The Wire and Deadwood. HBO is awesome. I often wonder if the new Battlestar Galactica would have used actual F bombs instead of the word frak if it had aired on HBO.
I guess you can see a pattern. My space opera was visual. It was television and movies. Each new iteration of Star Trek, even the lamer versions, piqued my interest. Since space-based adventure depended on showing the impossible, every leap forward allowed a new type of story telling. By the 1990s, we had Babylon 5, and while the computer imaging hasn’t aged well, it did open up whole new possibilities. Aliens could be truly alien and frequently were. Spaceships did not have to be constrained by the limitations of models, nor did the effects of weapons or strange energy or even the supernatural (if the storyline was so inclined in that direction) have to limit itself to what could be achieved with practical effects.
But I knew nothing of Niven or even Orson Scott Card. I had not yet read Asimov’s Foundation series. And until the New Millennium dawned, I had taken a less and less nostalgic attitude toward Battlestar Galactica. Too many recycled effects and storylines that reeked of 1970s network mentality. (Though the Cylons of the original remain forever cool, Ron Moore’s metal jobs worthy successors.)
Two things reawakened my interest in all things space opera. First, Ron Moore did reimagine Battlestar Galactica. At a time when people my age were growing disillusioned by the Star Wars prequels, Moore brought a sensibility reminiscent of The Wire and Deadwood (both on the air at the time) to what had been a cheesy premise. He had taken what had come before – the Galactica premise, the lived-in feel of the original Star Wars, and elements of cyberpunk and The Matrix – and crafted a story fitting for the post-9/11 world. Galactica was real and intelligent in a way even Star Trek was failing at in the early 2000s.
But the new Galactica was dark, unremittingly so. It might have been a pre-cursor to Game of Thrones, but even Game of Thrones has a Tyrion Lannister to inject at least some dry humor into the story. Galactica just reminded you that these people, even the Cylons, were frakked as frakked can be week after week after week.
John Scalzi did not. Scalzi began his space opera career with an admitted Robert Heinlein rip-off, Old Man’s War. Whereas Starship Troopers dealt with incredibly young people going to war and saving humanity, Old Man’s War had old people at the end of their lives rejuvenated into young bodies and sent out to kick ass, take names, and keep humanity humming along. (Would you like to learn more?*) Scalzi could get as dark as dark could be, but there was always a humorous moment around every corner. (I used to know Scalzi in my Jim Winter days, and yes, he really is an intellectual smartass.) He began crafting a world literally on the fly, and I discovered that, instead of playing in Gene Roddenberry’s sandbox, which I’d spent the 1990s doing, I wanted to make up my own. And I was smarter about storytelling now, having spent time in the world of crime fiction. I don’t relate to villains like Ming the Merciless or almost James Bond-like heroes. (That said, I’m on a slow Bond marathon right now and will be watching Diamonds Are Forever after I type the original draft of this.) He built a universe “three questions deep” that’s become as fully realized as the Federation, the Republic/Empire, or the fallen Twelve Colonies.
Finally, I went back to those classics. I read Asimov (Foundation rocks!) and started investigating Poul Anderson. I read Ender’s Game and found myself torn by my admiration for Card’s writing and disgust with his politics. (And that’s as political as it’ll get this week on ye olde blog.) When I still had delusions of being the next Dennis Lehane, I began making notes on what sort of universe I could write about if I ever went back to science fiction. Before, when I’d tried to write space opera, it came off as thinly disguised Star Trek. That’s fine to start with. After all, Star Wars was the result of George Lucas unable to get the rights to Flash Gordon. But you can’t have a story about Commander Kim T. Jirk on the Starship [insert famous aircraft carrier name here] of the Confederation battling alien berzerkers. So my notes over the years have included updated lists of Trek tropes to avoid, most notably the transporter, a device invented to cover NBC skimping on the plywood for Captain Pike’s shuttle back in 1966. My FTL had to have side effects. My aliens might look very human, but there had to be a reason behind it. (I suppose I should address why sooner or later, besides giving work to folks who appear on Face Off.)
But I get asked if I’m making my science fiction “hard enough.” If I slavishly followed this current trend of adhering only to science we know about, I couldn’t write. Asimov didn’t, and he was a scientist. Jules Verne didn’t, and he was a meticulous researcher. The current “hard” SF trend is all about can’t. It’s become a religion, and while I’m not an atheist, I would hardly call my beliefs religion. (If you hate that philosophy, you’re really gonna hate my politics.) If Verne and Asimov and Heinlein constrained themselves to only what we knew when they were writing, they not only would not have been able to write what they did, but many of the impossible things they envisioned might never have come to pass. That said, where the hell is my flying car? (Or as the late Tim Wilson put it, “Where the f*** is my jet pack?”)
So I’m back at it after a 15-year break. And my knowledge about the genre is more literary than in my youth. And I think I’m a better story teller than I once was.
Now if I can just convince JJ Abrams to buy the rights…
*Yes. I’ve waited about 18 years to use that joke. Blame Paul Verhoeven. Everyone does.