On Space Opera and Domesticity

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Domesticity and space opera? Do they go together? Obviously, yes. But what happens when they do?1

Earlier this year, Tor.com hosted a massive space opera extravaganza. Liz Bourke contributed a post on the politics of domesticity in space opera, with particular attention on what she somewhat half-heartedly called “domestic space opera.” One of the important points Bourke makes is that the personal and the political are not necessarily separate entities. Bourke defends this claim by looking at several examples of space operas which place heavy focus on domestic spaces and by suggesting that perhaps it is the emotional dynamics of those spaces that make up the bulk of the operatic (or melodramatic) focus present in so much of space opera. It’s an interesting post, and I suggest you read it.

I’d like to add one thing more:  the personal is fundamentally representative of the political, and the use of domestic spaces can reveal the influences of the political sphere on everyday life. How people live, what they do in their homes or among friends or family, etc. are all fed by the larger political systems in play, such that the traditional space opera tensions are echoed in the tensions within the domestic. Indeed, you might say that much of space opera — and its fans — has focused on the macro level, looking at the tensions produced by big sweeping motions of the writer’s brush; domesticity, however, focuses on the micro level, giving us a glimpse into how those much larger tensions actually impact individual relationships and behavior at home.

While a great deal of the history of space opera has ignored domestic spaces in favor of the traditional standards of the genre — adventure, space battles, etc. — it’s surprising the number of classic and contemporary works of space opera that benefit from a reading with domesticity in mind. I think back to that fantastic dinner scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which it becomes clear that the conversations of the participants (friends, family, guests, etc.) are more in-tune with what you’d expect of a meeting of the Roman senate (interpreted through a Hollywood lens). It’s an obvious example of the ways in which domestic spaces — loosely defined — can’t be separated from the political.

A contemporary example that comes to mind is Ann Leckie’s Radch trilogy (and her most recent novel, Provenance, set in the same universe). Something that has always stood out to me is the way Leckie’s novels weave domestic concerns into a narrative of galactic empires. Leckie’s world imagines the domestic sphere as one in which all of those other space opera trappings are integral influences. What happens to the people of Shis’urna in Ancillary Justice as they are assimilated into the Radch can’t simply be ignored as “just that silly domestic stuff.” Those macro level concerns about empires and their evils is integral to an understanding of the significance of the micro level tensions and debates occurring on Shis’urna. Law and order, fishing rights, education, etc. — these aren’t innocent features of worldbuilding but the product of the politics of the novel.

Tea is another obvious way in which Leckie explores this dynamic. Where tea is produced, who harvests and distributes it, etc. all influence how the characters of the Radch trilogy behave as the consume tea. Most of this information is in the background; it’s the moments of consumption that reveal the dynamics of the influence of the political on the personal. Those moments are affected by the Imperial Radch’s impact on personal etiquette and taste, on decorum and appropriate response. What happens in those scenes is as political as what happens when Mianaai shows up with the intent to kill — often by design, since the actual conversations taking place have that same veneer of innocence you find in Dune that is really a false front for more political concerns. It is significant, then, that so many of Leckie’s tea scenes are intensely political, whether in the personal sense — stakes for individual characters — or in the broader narrative sense — stakes for the world. The politics of domesticity are, after all, impossible to disentangle from the politics of elsewhere. Tea also happens to have enormous significance within the context of the British Empire. I’m not the first to recognize this, of course. It’s just worth pointing out.

You can see variations of this approach to domesticity in the work of C.J. Cherryh, Joyce Chng, Aliette de Bodard, and many others. It’s a theme we should probably lend more attention to as we think about where space opera was (Smith’s The Skylark of Space, Moore’s Judgment Night, even Star Wars and Star Trek) and where it will go (Leckie’s Provenance, Lee’s Raven Strategem, Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, Okorafor’s Binti, even Guardians of the Galaxy 2). After all, it’s not just about giant space battles, explosions, and evil empires with a love of small furry animals. It’s tea and love and dinner conversations and quasi-sentient trash compactors, too.

OK. I’ll leave you with a question:

What are some of your favorite works of space opera in which domesticity is a major component?

  1. This topic was provided by Joyce Chng on Twitter. Thanks, Joyce!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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