I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing a space opera, tentatively titled The Reorientation War. One of the things that strikes me about space operas is the epic scope; much like epic fantasies, space opera offers an immense field in which to play. For me, that means a lot of people, a lot of places, a lot of social, political, and physical conflict, and a lot of action. And with The Reorientation War, I’m hoping to sidestep the hero paradigm and opt instead for a more brutal, realistic vision of how an interstellar human empire might function.
But through the course of considering space opera as a genre, I’ve started to wonder about form. Is there such a thing as literary space opera? Or do writers of space opera adopt the adventurous landscape established by early SO writers, and, thus, take on its contemporary “popular prose” style?
The reason I ask these question is because I consider literary fiction to be more formally oriented than other genres. That is that literary fiction, for me, places an extraordinary amount of attention on the language and the interrelationship of parts, which may or may not leave room for a linear plot. Since much of space opera seems oriented towards plot-oriented conflict, it seems to me that much of the SO genre is potentially antithetical to the “literary.”
A great deal of what we associated with SO borrows liberally from the same sources as Star Wars
and Star Trek. Traditional hero models. Traditional plots. That’s not to say that these are uninteresting or uninspiring elements — heroes, to me, are valuable commodities in literature. Rather, what I’m trying to suggest is that the distinction between literary and non-literary is utterly formal, in which non-literary work tends to borrow from those mythical sources we’ve come to know and love. This is precisely because those forms — the hero and his journey — work. We love heroes. We love quests and journeys and excitement, and we equally love galactic empires and space battles and the intrigue that SO has tended to offer.
But can you still write an SO novel if you’re missing some of these elements? If you’re not telling a story about heroes, per se, but about complex human relationships in a setting of empire a la Star Wars, can the story you are writing still be considered SO, or does it become something else entirely?
Honestly, I think it remains SO, but only because I think what I am associating with SO here is inaccurate, in part because there is this thing called New Space Opera and in part because SO is a complex genre. But I still can’t think of any SOs which one might call literary. Perhaps I missed them. If so, let me know in the comments. Because now I’m throwing the question at all of you…
To clarify some of the above: I am not talking about literary as “respectable.” I think that’s a bogus and elitist definition of any genre, popular or otherwise. Non-literary fiction — that is, fiction which is more plot oriented and pays less attention to the language and interconnected structures via metaphor, etc. — is just as valuable and fascinating as literary fiction. I would not call Tobias S. Buckell or Nalo Hopkinson “literary writers,” but I would consider their works just as, if not more, valuable as/than anything written in any other genre.
(I blame Adam Callaway for all of the above.)