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Examining the space opera/star empires subgenre (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 26, 2015

The origins of the space-opera/star-empires subgenre in science fiction can probably be traced to the late Victorian combination of speculations about the possibilities of scientific achievement, and the then ever-present reality of empire. Indeed, a number of late Victorian authors wrote works based on the then novel idea of a British-descended "empire of the stars". One of the most important aspects of this subgenre is that travel between the stars must be assumed to be almost as easy as jet travel between the continents on Earth today. Without a relatively reliable form of faster-than-light travel, that can allow for very quick bridging of the interstellar distances, the concept of both the interstellar empire and the space-opera (where, e.g., the hero must reach the heroine before she withers to old age) collapses. The political, social, and cultural dynamics of hypothesized interstellar societies are much different without the possibility of faster-than-light travel.

The paradigmatic example of space-opera in film is, of course, George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy (subsequently expanded to three "prequel" movies, and now, an upcoming sequel movie). It is also sometimes called a "space fantasy". The Star Wars franchise has had an incredible attraction in popular culture. For example, tens of thousands of persons (for example, in Britain), have in recent surveys declared their religious affiliation as "Jedi Knight".

Among the better cinematic imitations of Star Wars was The Last Starfighter, although it actually began on current-day Earth. Television shows in this subgenre included Battlestar: Galactica and Galactica '80.

The sort of new-old world typically seen in space-opera could be characterized as one with "feudal values plus high-technology." The prominent, left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril complained ruefully in 1985 that virtually the whole genre of science fiction, especially in its more popular manifestations, typified by the Star Wars movies, was heavily pervaded by this kind of typology. 

The early paradigmatic example of space-opera within science fiction writing is E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series. Also very popular were the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There was a Buck Rogers TV series in the late 1970s, and a rather campy Flash Gordon movie in the early 1980s, as well as the overtly parodic Flesh Gordon.

Space-opera is a subgenre which borders on and overlaps with other sf and fantasy subgenres, notably "sword-and-planet" (e.g., Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom (Mars) series), military sf (Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers), and so forth. (Frank Herbert's Dune, a highly complex work – and the so-called "Duniverse" --  will be looked at in greater detail in a future article.)

Piers Anthony has written the Bio of a Space Tyrant series (with the garish covers). Set in a relatively near-future timespan, it chronicles the rise of Hope Rodriguez as the dictator of the moons of Jupiter. When he is young, his family is attacked. He becomes a mercenary captain, then overthrows the system, instituting personal dictatorship, and finally becomes an extravagant despot in old age. The works' interesting subtext is the mirroring of the history of modern Mexico, and partly also of the Hispanic experience in America (at least as some might see it).

F.M. Busby has written the Rissa and Tregare series, which has been characterized as "intelligent space opera". Rissa is a genetically perfect female rebel leader fighting against the U.E.T. (United Energy and Transport), an evil corporate solar empire. This is a near‑future, Solar System-centered scenario. Tregare is her lover and fellow rebel, once a U.E.T. mercenary commander.

Gordon R. Dickson is renowned for the Dorsai series -‑ the humanity of the future has compartmentalized on different planets into several "races" focussed on different functions ‑- war and politics, art and aesthetics, philosophy, business, etc. A precarious balance exists between them, but the Dorsai, as the warrior part of the race, seek to re‑unite and re‑integrate humankind.

The older author, H. Beam Piper, has written the Imperium series, with a great deal of verve. This is the basic political‑military empires with star‑drives in conflict scenario.

The Galactic Empires anthology is a particularly good example of this subgenre, which most often combines "feudal values plus high‑technology". Some might say it is really a transposed historical romance. "The Rebel of Valkyr" (Alfred Coppel) -‑ "horses in the starship hold" -- should be noted in particular. The premise is that our galactic imperial civilization attacks Andromeda. The even more-advanced Andromedan counter‑attack destroys all sophisticated technology ‑- except for star‑ships. Advanced technology is therefore considered cursed -‑ and its exploration is confined to "warlocks" and "witches", i.e., scientists working in secret. Society is thus almost entirely medieval ‑- with the exception that interstellar travel is possible on the hulk‑type starships, which are manned by a highly prestigious guild of navigators -‑ quasi‑priests. Through established rituals and memorization, they are somehow able to guide the starships to their destinations. Although the premise may seem ridiculous, the story is nevertheless a celebration of valor, heroism, loyalty, etc. -- all those traits that seem to be increasingly disappearing today.

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best-known science-fiction authors, has made the provocative statement that, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There are many interpretations one could put on this phrase, ranging from something like the fact of the putative enslavement of most human beings to technologies of which they have no ken; to something like a suggestion that humankind's powers can be almost infinitely extended through technology. Perhaps these two are not even entirely contradictory interpretations.

There may be an argument to be made that a return to older forms of human organization in the future may not be as unlikely as some might think. During the debate over the nuclear winter theory, the respected popular scientist Carl Sagan suggested that the reason that the universe is not teeming with intelligent life (as some astronomical theories had proposed to be the case) is that as every intelligent species develops technology, it is faced by a developmental crisis, which in most cases results in its extinction. Sagan had suggested that it was nuclear war that was probably the vehicle for this extinction. This is an interesting argument; however, it can also be turned in a quasi-traditionalist direction. If we do not deal with the hypertechnology overwhelming our planet in an orderly fashion, an order that only some form of neo-traditionalism and/or neo-authoritarianism can provide, our human societies are doomed to fly apart and into oblivion from the disintegrating force of too-rapid technological advancement. So "feudal values plus high-technology" may indeed be one possible future for humankind (or for other intelligent species who have to surmount a similar developmental crisis).

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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