domingo, junho 03, 2018

Space Opera Made Simple: " Embers of War" by Gareth L. Powell




I can't believe all the people who want to see the SF establishment have a hack at Iain M. Bank's Culture novels. If ever there were novels that I hope Hollywood will never be let anywhere near it's those ones. The books are usually quite long and always involve considerable subtlety. Seeing that rendered down to a brainless action movie would just be heart breaking. Worse would be the fact that no screen-writer seems capable of restraining themselves from fucking around with stories. So that something totally out of character for the Culture World would be bound to intrude. For me the Culture is alive and well in my imagination. I can visit it any time I want by picking up one of the books. Why would I want some Hollywood Muppet wreck? Ideally any space opera movies will be original stories. The best movies are always written as movies, with the media and format in mind. Novels work best as novels. Almost without exception novel adaptations are terrible. Some are so terrible as to be whispered about, on full moon nights, surrounded by pentagrams... *Dune*...

Space opera works because it's about people - like soap opera but in space. Basically us monkeys want to see other monkeys doing stuff. We want to see monkeys out of their cages, free to explore, meet alien monkey girls, and solve alien monkey puzzles and all that monkey shit. Because most of us suspect “The Matrix” is based on a true story (and it's a very old story that one).

To me a real Space Opera involves space travel to new strange worlds, radical new technologies, encounters with alien lifeforms and civilizations, interstellar wars, colonization of new worlds, radically modified human astronauts. None of the more recent SF movies really qualify as Space Opera in that sense. They tend to have really boring human-centric story lines that happen to be set in space rather than Manhattan or the Far West. They never ask searching questions. They are unimaginative in the extreme. Even the aliens suck - humans with long ears or extra fingers or blue coloured skin that speak English with an American accent and display American-style emotions.

There are writers who blur the boundaries between the SF and the so-called literary SF (no-one could reasonably claim that the works of the Beowulf-poet, the Gawain-poet, Calvino, Borges, or Wolfe are anything less than world-class literature -- "good novels", if you like -- as well as appealing to both the lit fiction and the SF fans). I'm happy to read their work – “Cloud Atlas”, for example, was superb. I'm also happy to read the work of writers who are clearly doing SF, but whose publishers' marketing departments choose to sell it as something else; marketing doesn't have to be the same as truth, after all, and is often at its most effective when quite far from truth. Writers who dismiss all of SF as "all rocket ships and ray guns" are about as appealing as writers who dismiss lit fiction as "all orphans and idylls" -- sure, if you've not read any examples of the genre for the past 100 years, that might be your impression, but it doesn't really tell us much other than that you're something of an ignoramus.

Obviously I hate artistic snobbery as much as the next man, nevertheless some SF fans really don't help themselves (or the rest of us). I was sitting in a cafe waiting for my wife to finish work when I was drawn to a very involved and intense conversation that two extremely nerdy looking blokes were having on the table next to me. It was an exceedingly pretentious but quite informed and intelligent sounding debate about acting in something or other: “Is it Shakespeare?” I thought to myself ear wigging, or “Is it possibly a cinematic classic?” No. It turned out they were talking about Star Trek Deep Space 9! As a reader I don't have much interest in characterisation or style all by itself, but rather for interesting concepts and engaging stories. I'm a rather simple and uneducated person literature-wise, who reads fairly broadly, but have always been attracted to the creatively unreal side of literature. Style is important to me, but only in that poor technique doesn't impede the story being told. Characterisation is likewise a condition of enjoyment, but as long as a failing here isn't too intrusive, i.e., I don’t let it govern my reading. In objective terms there is nothing geekier in reading a novel for insight into theoretical physics than there is for an author using stylistic techniques. They're both self-indulgent niche interests with a fair proportion of social misfits amongst their adherents.

Having said this, Powell embarked on the simplest form of Space Opera. I want more out of it. Many authors write within the commonly perceived SF form because they think it will be met with receptive publishers and a readership with fairly conventional expectations. I'm always surprised at how conservative people's tastes are for the supposed literature of the possible. Most of what is selling now are authorized spin-offs of SF movies and TV shows, or stories that are ripping them off. Westerns with laser-blasters, essentially. So if thoughtful and serious SF wants to hide in the "SF" bin, that's fine with me.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

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