Genre Review: the Space Opera

As humans have for centuries, I find the winter solstice to be a dark time. Days getting shorter, rain or snow darkening the sky, the chilly winds of winter and all that. So during this time I find it helpful to indulge in my favourite solution: a good, simple story. And what better tale for brightening the darkest December than a good old Space Opera?

All right, Sci-Fi fans (and others) How many of you have read this book?

It’s the story of a guy and a spaceship. Somehow a disadvantaged young man gets control of a wonderful piece of technology that will solve all his problems. He proceeds to enjoy the fruits of this windfall until he discovers that it doesn’t solve his problems. In fact it creates a large number of new problems, some potentially fatal. (This is, of course, a big metaphor for growing up, although we don’t dwell on such deep subjects  in Hard Sci-Fi.)

One conflict always involves his clash with the Galactic Empire, or whoever represents the authority that young men love to flaunt. During the course of the story there will be several space battles in the tried-and-true tradition of Horatio Hornblower, in which vessels pound at each other until all are torn to shreds, giving the author multiple opportunities to create emotional upheaval by killing off whomever he chooses.

Now, Hard Sci-Fi fans expect a certain amount of hardware in their stories. After all, that’s what the genre is all about. Unfortunately for the reader, this writer sort of gets caught up in the fun-and-games aspect of the hardware. Page after page of plasma cannons, rail guns, blasters, lasers, shields, and all the rest, lifted straight from the latest X-Box version of Alien Invaders. Incident after incident of people enjoying the nerds’ revenge: how sweet it is when you have superior technology to everyone else. And the worst part of it is that it’s all the same technology as every other writer of the genre uses. I mean, what happened to creativity, folks? Or have the Science Fiction Writers of the World decided on what the future will look like, and are doing their best to make life imitate art?

And worst of all, as the bad guys close in, the writer falls into the “Too Much Magic” trap, creating new technology to solve every problem. After a while the reader stops worrying about the outcome, because he realizes that no on is really in any danger; no matter what devilish device the enemy comes up with, the writer will insert a new piece of science fiction wonderfulness to save the hero’s undeserving butt.

And when it comes to the love story – of course there’s a love story – the hero immediately falls in soul-shaking love (at that age the border between love and lust blurs somewhat) with the only female of an appropriate age in that arm of the galaxy . Who immediately hates him. (I blame Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.)

The best of these stories can sweep you away from the drudgery of a dark December. Check out the Helmsman Saga by Bill Baldwin. The worst, clichéd and formulaic thought they may be, will at least give you a good chuckle. Check out any free SciFi book on Amazon.

I readily admit to leaning on this literary crutch in the depths of my despair, and reading three of these books in a vain attempt to avoid my Christmas responsibilities. Each one of them had its strengths and weaknesses, and each one would receive 4 out of 5 stars in a normal review. However, all three fell prey to so many of the usual stupidities that I would find it difficult to be charitable. Hence this general review, where I can trash the many offenders without naming names and hurting anyone’s feelings in this season of good cheer. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to normal come the New Year.

Chins up, folks. We’ve turned the corner. The nights are getting shorter. Now, if someone would just take a bunch of these Space Opera writers out and turn a plasma cannon on them. Or teach them how to write…

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