The Irony of Space Opera

The Universe just got a little smaller.

The release of another Star Wars saga, centred around Ben or Obi-Wan Kenobi, is perhaps another example of the inversion effect of space opera.

With all of the universe to play in and all the fathomless depths of space, we’re continually redrawn to the same set of characters, all of whom are experiencing very human problems.

Their families are messy. There’s hate, and there’s anger. Anger leads to fear, fear to another prequel series exploring the life of Jar Jar Binks as a child.

But it’s not just Star Wars that meets this fate. Trekkers have turned their gaze from the far reaches of space to the very finite confines of Spock’s early childhood. Doctor Who is forever obsessed with changing the Doctor’s past. Foundation suddenly has protagonists that stick around to have unlikely cosmic connections.* Interstellar folds space and time to arrive at the protagonist’s daughter’s bedroom. And even Battlestar Gallactica couldn’t leave Bill Adama alone in the prequel series Caprica.

Works of fiction fare a little better. The works of E. E. ‘Doc.’ Smith in the Lensman series and Skylark are terrific examples of elemental forces in the universe clashing together and the most cardboard, least memorable set of characters known to fiction. Driven entirely by the hero motive, they all read like the same wise-cracking New Yorker of the early 20th century which could only ever appear in print. But who cares about little people when you have a universe to explore?

In fiction, it’s possibly a lot easy. You’re not constrained (normally) by such a mass following and production team who expect results. Particularly in smaller publishing houses, the ability for some small work to enlarge on universal matters is increased. Small devoted fan service can cover the expenses of the audience. And, if it’s successful, then it’s proven its point before it makes it to film. Rather like the wide-spanning mathematical puzzle The Three-Body Problem.

Others have waned large also. Cordwainer Smith did the passing of human time terrifically with the long Instrumentality of Man timeline. The original Foundation was divorced from individual motives, with the plot driven by the slow turn of the wheels of time. Stanislaw Lem posed impressive, awe-inspiring questions of cosmic consciousness in works such as Solaris. And Olaf Stapledon wrote works even bigger than the universe itself in Starmaker. Try Gateway. Try Tau Zero. Try any hundred-odd other novels and short stories that break the barrier of human time and dimension by interweaving themselves with the hugeness of space.

So why then do we need to know what Luke Skywalker’s uncle had for breakfast or who he fell out with twenty years ago?

My feeling is that, in terms of actual plot and suspense, the universe is just too damn big. As Douglas Adams said ‘we’re just peanuts to space.’ A single solar system even feels rather too vast and empty for a normal plotline.

But they needn’t go that far. Solaris takes place on a single planet but implies such a vast array of indifference and complexity in the universe that we, as humans, feel dwarfed in its presence.

Then there are works like Dune which do the inverse. The universe is so small compared to the multiple complexities of humankind and the quasi-spiritual link we hold with the universe.

Yet it’s hard to make a tear-jerker out of a solar eclipse. It’s bitterly disappointing trying to get someone to follow the plot of a supernova or laugh at the random formation of life that potentially inhabits our vast Universe.

Naturally, we’re drawn to much simpler topics. Or, perhaps they’re infinitely complex. Size isn’t everything.

We’re drawn to stories about us, about people. We like to see faces, experience emotions, and go through journeys we can understand. Hence the number of fathers, sisters, lovers, brothers, friends, enemies, frenemies and more in space opera. It’s why we go back to someone’s childhood or speed toward their death without taking anything more than a cursory glance out the window to see some stars.

It’s why Doctor Who rarely leaves Earth or even England now.

Space is just too darn big. And there are no quotable characters to fill it for many millions of miles.

So, ironically, the larger the Star Wars Universe gets, the smaller it gets, because the more we attach ourselves to the characters we saw last time. The incredible size and complexity of the universe become the mere backdrop to a story that could be stripped of its science fiction element and still work.

This is also why few stories are true science fiction stories. The science or the future has very little to do with the plot.

But that just makes them less science fiction, more familial drama. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s still entertaining(ish). For me though, it becomes a bit comical considering the multiplicity of possible outcomes in a universe so huge.

And just once I’d like to stop and look at the exploding nebula outside the window, instead of hearing more exposition about Luke’s father or Data’s creator.

There’s a universe out there, but is there anyone keen to explore it?

* This is in part due to the screen adaptation of the Seldon Plan, which goes from broad statements about societal happenings to predicting what certain individuals will have for lunch.

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J.R.McCulloch

A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.