Science fiction as a genre is a broad category, a great tent containing a very large number of sub-genres, from cyberpunk to alternate history, alien invasion to romantic SF, and more. One of the most enduring sub-genres of science fiction is the space opera, defined by Brian Stableford in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction as "colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict" (1138). Originally, however, it was coined by the writer Wilson Tucker "as the appropriate term for the 'hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn" (9). As shown by Tucker's definition, space opera has traditionally been looked down upon: it has been viewed with suspicion and disdain by other writers in the field as a sort of bastard child that has little literary value to recommend it, has shown a deliberate disdain for scientific accuracy, and demonstrated an inability to address topical issues, or, at the very least, been incapable of taking a stand that disagrees with the traditional conservative views of society.
Space opera has existed almost since science fiction first became self-aware as a genre, and as a sub-genre it continues to attract authors and readers today. Through the decades space opera has inevitably developed, and today there are certainly samples that exhibit literary qualities that, one hopes, make readers less embarrassed to be caught reading such books. Space opera is still about confronting the "mysterious vastness" (3) that Joe Sanders refers to, although even the idea of what constitutes something vast or immense enough to astonish the star-spanning denizens of the far future has changed over the years. The idea has grown not only with humanity's ever-expanding knowledge of science, but also with the continual process of keeping up with the Joneses inherent in science fiction: if one writer successfully deploys an exciting new concept, there are many writers who will immediately take it as a challenge to do one better.
Sanders narrows the definition of space opera somewhat, allowing that it "may be defined as the subgenre [sic] of sf stories whose action is centered on characters who find a way to express their effective relationship with immensity" (3). Further on in the same page, he notes that it "often shows characters responding to some seriously threatening disturbance, usually one that emerges from immensity; however, the most frightening menace may not be so much the exterior threat as paralysis caused by a sense of human inadequacy" (3). The second part of this definition falls short of the mark, as it does not allow for the extraordinary strength that exists as a necessary part of the writing and of the central characters, be they human or otherwise. While many around them may indeed lose their heads or feel an overwhelming sense of inadequacy or even despair, there will inevitably be one or more characters with, at the least, extraordinary competence, and more likely, superhuman capability.
Where some space opera has shown the most change is in challenging the traditional conservative views which have so tightly ruled the world-view of earlier space opera texts. Space opera has long reflected the status quo of the time in which the text was written. Only recently have there been attempts to challenge it, although Sanders does note that this has often been a sign of flaws "in individual works, not necessarily in the form itself" (4). In his essay on the history of the word "popular," Raymond Williams says that "[p]opular was being seen from the point of view of the people" (231) and that
[p]opular culture was not identified by the people but by others, and it still carries two older senses: inferior kinds of work (cf. popular literature. . .); and work deliberately setting out to win favour (. . .popular entertainment); as well as the more modern sense of well-liked by many people. . . (232)
With this in mind, science fiction can be viewed as popular entertainment, while space opera, based on the original appellation given it by Wilson Tucker (quoted earlier) may be considered the "inferior kind of work" as a sub-genre within science fiction itself, at least by those who believed they were lifting science fiction to a more literary mode of writing. As with any popular literature, space opera has largely reflected what has gone on in the society surrounding it. As Williams noted in "Culture and Society 1780-1950," ". . .a culture is not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life" (228). In other words, society, and the culture that is a part of it, are the dominant features in the artefacts (in this case the literature of space opera) that this culture produces. There are thus overt and equivocal aspects of society that find their way into this literature, all the more so because it is a form of popular literature, written primarily for the enjoyment of the masses.
Probably the most famous and popular of the early writers of space opera was Edward E. Smith, PhD, also know as E.E. "Doc" Smith. Smith wrote two famous series of books that are considered to be space opera, the Skylark books and the Lensman books. As noted by Stableford, "[f]ive writers were principally involved in the development of space opera in the 1920s and 1930s" (1139), and the first writer he names is Smith. The novel Gray Lensman is, as made obvious by the title, one of Smith's Lensman series, and takes place late in the adventures of Kimball Kinnison, after he has been promoted to the eponymous position. Kinnison is the primary character of the book. Even when the focus is on other characters, those individuals almost exclusively act in a fashion that relates back to Kinnison or to his actions. Even the antagonists, the Boskonians, cannot avoid his presence. In a meeting convened to decide what to do about Kinnison's successful attacks on their drug-running enterprises, one leader of the Boskone concludes that ". . .some one Tellurian [human] Lensman is the prime mover behind what has happened. . ." (119).
The story itself is of an episodic nature, as Kinnison goes out on various sorties, missions where he strives to undermine the Boskone while at the same time attempting to discover who they really are and where they are based. Throughout these adventures, Kinnison shows that there is a reason that he is the primary focus of the novel; he is far and away the closest thing the book has to a superhuman, a man capable of anything, from disguises to logical reasoning to ruthless military might. Kinnison is "an Unattached Lensman, and as such. . . accountable to no one in the universe" (149), and is therefore viewed as something of a superhuman, whose powers are such that anyone on his side will unquestioningly follow his every move. Unsurprisingly, Kinnison is also a picture of unique physical perfection:
[His] garb of plain gray leather might have seemed incongruous indeed in that brilliantly and fastidiously dressed assemblage. But to those people, as to us of today, the drab, starkly utilitarian uniform of the Unattached Lensman transcended by far any other, however resplendent, worn by man. (30)
Shortly after this, he is described as being a part of a "strikingly handsome couple" (30).
This picture of physical perfection serves as an introduction to all of the levels of perfection, or near-perfection, that Kinnison exhibits. Everything he does turns to gold, almost literally in one case, when, while posing as a meteor miner, he stumbles across a meteor of higher value than anything he could have imagined: "It was unthinkable to take that meteor to such a fence's hideout as Miner's Rest. Men had been murdered, and would be again, for a thousandth of its value" (148). To add to the luck of such an improbable discovery, when Kinnison informs headquarters about his discovery and assumes they will want to come and collect it, since any such find belongs to the Patrol, he is reminded that he is "an Unattached Lensman, and as such [is] accountable to no one in the Universe. Even the ten-per-cent treasure-trove law couldn't touch" him (149). Kinnison is handsome, skilled, lucky, and extremely rich.
If space opera is what Tucker refers to as the "spaceship yarn," then obviously spaceships must be an integral part of the story. It is perhaps because of space opera that this has become something of a trope of science fiction in general, at least in the perception of the general reading public. There are spaceships in Gray Lensman capable of speeds so much faster than light that they beggar the imagination, to say nothing of defying the laws of physics. as when Kinnison explains that "[o]ur speed varies, of course, with the density of matter in space; but on the average -- say one atom of substance per ten cubic centimeters of space -- we tour at about sixty parsecs an hour, and full blast is about ninety" (33) and then clarifies that explanation with a comparison between travel and communications, stating that it is "just about the same ratio as that of the speed of our ships to the speed of slow automobiles -- that is, the ratio of a parsec to a mile. Roughly nineteen billion to one" (33). It is because of the near-magical power of this space travel that Gray Lensman is able to stake its initial claim to the sobriquet of space opera. The grand scale of such technology takes Kinnison on adventures throughout the galaxy and beyond, allowing for the "interstellar conflict" of Stableford's definition.
There are also elements of immensity in the story, although due to the book's episodic nature, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one Smith wishes to highlight. The Boskone are certainly Kinnison's primary focus throughout: they are a mysterious alien race that is of one mind and one goal: "to gain material power; greed, corruption and crime are [their] chosen implements" (126). But even with the power that the Boskonians employ, there are aspects of Kinnison's universe that exhibit unimaginable vastness, as when he and fellow members of the Patrol help save another race from Boskonian attacks, and said race moves its planet from the Andromeda galaxy to settle into orbit "[r]ight next door -- Alpha Centauri" (109). Such casual use of power, accepted as it is with nonchalance, shows that Kinnison and his fellows consider this immensity an ordinary and everyday part of life. Indeed, early in the book, some introspection by Kinnison reveals his attitude to be one of complete self-confidence. He asks himself "after all, wasn't man as big as space? Could he have come out here, otherwise?" He answers his own question: "He was. Yes, man was bigger even than space. Man, by his very envisionment of macrocosmic space, had already mastered it" (48). Whereas in a tragedy this might be considered hubris, in Gray Lensman it is only the proper way to think; this belief that man is bigger than space is the galactic equivalent of Manifest Destiny, a movement that involved the "systematic body of concepts and beliefs that powered American life and American culture" (Lubragge). Believers in this concept saw "Manifest Destiny as the historical inevitability of American domination of North America from sea to sea" (Lubragge). To relate this to Kimball Kinnison's worldview, since man can envision all of space, and since man can envision mastering it, man must master it.
Power is used in another fashion in the book, in the form of military might. While Kinnison expresses concern about the effect this flexing of military muscle might have on his own men, there are no qualms shown when the Boskonians or their minions are involved. In fact, Kinnison's belief that Boskone is run by evil and intransigent beings forms a sort of casus belli for him, "seemingly sufficient causes of war" according to Moerk and Pincus, that "make entrance into war more palatable and justifiable" (2). The key word in this definition is "seemingly," as the definition of an acceptable cause falls to the party that decides whether or not war will take place. The Boskonians themselves seem rather naive about the ability of the Galactic Patrol to stir up trouble however they please: during a meeting of those in charge of Boskone, one notes that "[o]ur observers report that the Patrol is loath to act illegally without evidence, and no evidence can be obtained" (221). Besides the apparently unintended irony in a statement that seems to agree that the Patrol would act illegally if they had evidence, this shows that the Boskonians are unaware of Kinnison's presence, and therefore of his status as someone who is above the law. If Kinnison can act illegally -- and we have been assured that he is indeed above the law -- then it does not matter how the evidence is found, as long as there is enough to continue prosecuting the war. Where Gray Lensman differs from real life is that any casus belli or declaration of war does not seem to be an overt announcement, one intended to sway the general citizenry to support war. On this subject Moerk and Pincus say that "casus belli and war-declaration speeches were successful in all instances, often turning staunch antiwar opponents of the president into fervent supporters of the war. Most citizens accepted the entrance into war readily and enthusiastically" (3). No such speeches are required by Kinnison or any of his comrades in Patrol: when they see the need to go to war, no declarations are made, no rationalising announcements presented to the public. The notion that Kinnison rises above any need to explain himself to anyone, including the group of people who, ostensibly, should be his bosses, is further bolstered by the appearance of a minor character named "Sir Austin Cardynge" (198). The presence of an individual with the honorific of "Sir" before his name indicates that this is an aristocracy, not a meritocracy, and therefore the people who are lucky enough to float to the top are the people entitled to make the decisions, requiring no explanations or justifications.
Structurally, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has some similarities to and some differences from Gray Lensman. Certainly the most obvious difference is in the physical movement of the character. While Kimball Kinnison goes on his various missions, always returning from whence he came, titular character Ender Wiggin moves through his own story in stages, starting at a single point and moving on to the next, and only once returns to near, but not quite exactly, the point where he started. Ender's story begins on Earth, when he is a small child in school. Like Kinnison, Ender is special, but unlike Kinnison, there is no one, aside from his sister, who is willing to step in and assist him when he faces trouble. So, when Stilson attacks Ender after class, Ender does the only thing that he thinks is sensible: he tries to "figure out a way to forestall vengeance" (7). The means he devises is beating Stilson so badly that there can be no doubt that Ender is a deadly opponent. This reaction shows that Ender and Kinnison are closer in kind than might originally be thought: both share a scorched-earth approach to dealing with opponents. Kinnison and the Patrol differ from Ender only in scale when they destroy the planetary home, and thereby exterminate the Boskonians, where "[n]ot merely mountains, but entire halves of worlds disrupted and fell, in such Gargantuan paroxysms as the eye of man had never elsewhere beheld" (298). This is certainly the logical equivalent of Ender's declaration that his enemies should "just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me" (7). In fact, as is revealed to the reader -- but not to Ender -- later in the book, Ender not only beat Stilson, he killed him. But the killing isn't the important thing here, it's the success: "'Ender Wiggin isn't a killer. He just wins -- thoroughly'" (226).
Unlike Kinnison, who we see in Gray Lensman as a fully-formed and capable entity, Ender grows throughout the book. This growth is represented in the stages we see him moving through, equating infancy with his time at home on Earth, childhood with the portion of the book that takes place at Battle School, and adulthood at Command School. The final portion of the book, after the alien buggers have been defeated and Ender and his sister have emigrated to a distant planet, could be considered something akin to old age, as Ender appears to have attained the wisdom of someone who has lived a long and active life.
This wisdom is indicated in Ender's increasing empathy for his enemies. Coincidentally, just as Kinnison has contributed to the extermination of the beings that are his enemies, Ender is primarily responsible for the extinction of the buggers, the alien race that humanity is at war with. Here, however, the difference between the two is a little more pronounced. While Kinnison has the entire resources of Galactic Patrol behind him, just as Ender is working with everything the Hegemony of Earth can give him, Kinnison's only regret is that he loses his own fighting men. He states that he is a "cold-blooded, ruthless murderer; even of [his] own men" (273), and upon the complete destruction of an enemy ship, reacts by calling it a "[m]arvelous -- wonderful" (58) occurrence. Ender's response to discovering that he is responsible for the death of all the buggers is less effusive. On discovering that he was engaged in real battle, and not a simulation, Ender says "[s]o I killed all their children, all of everything" (297). His decision to leave the solar system for a colony fifty years distant, besides being a fait accompli, is explained as a way to soothe his soul: "I'm going because I know the buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past" (314).
Ender also utilises technologies that have served as tropes of science fiction, although few are quite so extreme as those in Gray Lensman. The most notable is the ansible, a device that enables faster than light, even instantaneous, communication between parties, no matter where they might be in the galaxy. Ender's ability to command a far-flung fleet of military spaceships would quickly come undone if this one conceit did not exist: obviously interstellar communication must be comparable to radio communication on Earth, in order for the plot point to work. A more significant point of similarity to Gray Lensman is the presence of the evil Other, in this case the buggers. The Other is whatever we are not, an assignation given to whomever or whatever humanity wishes to distance itself from. In discussing Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, Ashcroft et al. talk about "the marginalization and radical suppression of others. . . [o]nce western thinking has been codified in and sanctioned. . . 'Othering' in its most radical form has been achieved" (97). While that discussion relates specifically to the Book of Genesis, it shows how the Other can be created in any circumstance. In Ender's Game the enemy takes on a less palatable form, not being human in any fashion. The Boskonians are left somewhat vague as far as physical aspects go, but their behaviour leaves no doubt that they have at least some human traits: they seek power wherever and whenever possible. The buggers, on the other hand, are essentially giant insects, a physical trait that indicates a large enough difference to cast them as enemies even if they had not attacked humanity. During World War Two there were often attempts made to dehumanise the enemy, especially the Japanese, since they already had physical characteristics that defined them as different than the conventional Caucasian American. In poster art for one short film from 1943, "Menace of the Rising Sun," as seen in the magazine Entertainment Weekly, the Japanese Emperor is portrayed with sickly yellow skin, heavily-slanted eyes, a sharp crew cut, lips drawn back, and immense white teeth. Most extreme, though, is that he is also depicted as a giant octopus, tentacles wrapped around American ships and airplanes as he writhes in the water. Above his head is the phrase "The Beast of the East!" (69). In Ender's Game there is no need to take the demonisation of the buggers to such extremes, since they are already a form of life that is emphatically not human. The depiction of the Japanese Emperor as a many-limbed creature shows the effectiveness of an approach that reminds the citizen that the enemy is not human, and therefore makes it easier for the soldier to kill his enemy, since shooting a fellow human being is ostensibly less morally cut-and-dried than the shooting of a non-human creature that is threatening your life.
Unlike the regular contact between opposing soldiers in World War Two, though, there is never any direct contact with the buggers until the very end of the novel. Even the first attack, which sets up the circumstances for Ender's training, is undertaken via spaceships, without any personal interaction. The only time humans see the buggers is when they board the enemy ships after the second war is over and witness the "uninjured buggers lying dead at their posts" (249), or the rare moment "when we caught one unarmed and alive, he died the moment it became obvious he was captured" (247-248). When Ender, thinking that he is still practicing, wipes out the rest of the bugger race, he is still removed from who and what they are. As he destroys fleets of ships, his belief that this is all just a game in preparation for the real thing serves to add another level of distance from his victims. Even if he had been aware that he was fighting and killing actual aliens at that moment, he would still be removed by a distance of many light-years and by his time's version of a video screen from the tangible results of such destruction. Whereas Kimball Kinnison is directly involved in all of the fighting, Ender is training to become, and then is, a distant command figure, as is the case with the structure of the armies of today, in which soldiers are sent to carry out the plans of removed authority.
The rationalisation of the war to the citizens of Earth is closer to current reality than anything in Gray Lensman: it is a rationalisation that extends to the people in command and the soldiers, such as Ender, whom they are training. The buggers attacked Earth because a young queen needed to take her followers to a new planet, seeking out a world that was safe to colonise; "[t]he Second Invasion was a colony. To set up a new hive, or whatever" (268). The belief that there would be an additional colony coming to again attempt to set up shop on Earth would be acting without evidence, but when humans see a potential threat, especially one significant enough to cause their own extinction, then any excuse may be used to justify the expense, in dollars and in lives, of such a war. The handy thing for human governments in Ender's Game is that the buggers are so far removed -- the ships going to attack the bugger home world "have been traveling for seventy years" (250) -- that there is no need to shift the goalposts, looking for new reasons to fight a war once the old ones begin to fray.
Demonising the enemy is a common tactic in either creating or maintaining a mood for war, and the best way is to make sure that the identity of the "true" enemy sinks into the very subconscious of the general public. Cowboys and Indians was a common game as recently as the childhood of many adults today, showing that the treatment of Native Americans in 19th century United States survived in the collective memory of a culture over a century later, largely thanks to Hollywood's interpretation of that era. Similarly, in Ender's time children play the game of "buggers and astronauts" (2), in which the astronauts, as representatives of humanity, are expected to always be the victors. But even as children, when Ender and his companions are sent to Battle School, they begin to realise how much they and their society are manipulated. Not surprisingly, Ender is informed of some of this by a non-American, Dink, who says "[p]eople will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there'll be a civil war to end all wars. That's the menace, Ender, not the buggers" (111). Even though Dink and his people are participating in the run-up to the final war with the buggers, he is aware that there are different takes in the world on what constitutes the real reason for the war. Slightly earlier, as Ender and Dink talk about the war, Dink comments on the I.F., which is mostly run by Americans, and on his thoughts on the war, which like any child's belief about such monumental events, did not arise from a vacuum:
The bugger menace. Save the world. Listen, Ender, if the buggers were coming back to invade us, they'd be here. They aren't invading again. We beat them and they're gone.
But the videos--
All from the First and Second Invasions. Your grandparents weren't born yet when Mazer Rackham wiped them out. You watch. It's all a fake. There is no war, and they're just screwing around with us.
Because as long as people are afraid of the buggers, the I.F. can stay in power, and as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony. (110)
No matter how pervasive the propaganda used to justify the war, there will always be those who are suspicious of both the process and the results. As Dink shows in his comments above, this can lead to thoughts that may sound remarkably like paranoia to some, but are reasonable fears and concerns about the government's powers getting out of hand to others. To say that the videos are "all fake" is, as the reader knows from witnessing them with Ender, not true, and savours of paranoia. But the concern about the I.F. and its desire to stay in power rings true, at least to some extent, especially knowing what we know about the buggers' last attack on humanity. One logical progression of thought would be that intelligent insects who have an entire colony wiped out would decide that that route is no longer safe, and next time choose another, more peaceful part of the galaxy. But this also is rationalised by Ender's superiors. When Ender comments that "the whole war is because we can't talk to each other" he is told that "[i]f the other fellow can't tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn't trying to kill you," and "[i]f they were going to leave us alone, they could have done it a hundred years ago," and finally "[w]hen it comes down to it, though, the real decision is inevitable: If one of us has to be destroyed, let's make damn sure we're the ones alive at the end. Our genes won't let us decide any other way. Nature can't evolve a species that hasn't a will to survive" (253). Ender's response to this is "[a]s for me. I'm in favor of surviving" (254).
In comparison to Gray Lensman and Ender's Game, Excession by Iain M. Banks is a stew of science fictional tropes and ideas, so many of them thrown into the pot and stirred around that it would be next to impossible to list them all. A few of the most prominent, though, include artificial intelligence, faster than light travel and communications, giant starships and habitats, energy weapons, and of course, a dangerous alien race. Surprisingly, the alien race, known as the Affront, are in this case not the Other that represents vastness, but rather are a martial race used to serve a plot point about war over the arrival of the Other in the book, the titular Excession, also known as an Outside Context Problem, or OCP. As explained in the book,
[a]n Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass. when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests (71-72).
The vastness of the OCP in Excession is therefore closer to the perceived problem of the buggers in Ender's Game than to the difficulties Kinnison's people have with the Boskonians in Gray Lensman; what it presents is a problem of potential extinction, the destruction of an entire culture, rather than the more prosaic issues of drugs and power Kinnison faces in the course of his adventures.
Excession also carries with it a wide array of central characters, something more familiar to readers of current space opera rather than earlier examples of the form. By working on a large canvas, the author shows that a sense of immensity relates to every aspect of the story. As opposed to the creed of humanity in Gray Lensman, which tells of mankind's dominion over space, this universe is not fully under the control of those who people it. The appearance of the OCP does lead some of the characters to speculate on gaining such dominion, and more, one stating that it might give
the opportunity to become time proof. Age proof. In theory, one might become able to step down consecutively through earlier universes. well, forever. [Y]ou could, for example, head on up through older universes and attempt to access technologies perhaps beyond even this one. Because you wouldn't be tied to one universe, one time stream, you need be involved in no heat death when the time came in your original universe. (115)
Most of the characters speculating in this manner are artificial intelligences, what the author terms Minds. Each spaceship is, in essence, the body of one of these Minds, and they have personalities every bit as real and complex, if not more so, as the human and alien characters which also populate the book. The extent of the individuality of the Minds (and an indication of just how similar they can be to humans) is shown in their disputes and differences of opinion when engaged in plotting and secrecy: something that comes as a surprise to those who might think that artificial intelligences would be above such things. In humans, we are told, this "behaviour tended to manifest itself in practical jokes, petty jealousies, silly misunderstandings and instances of tragically unrequited love" whereas in Minds it "meant they forgot to tell everybody else about finding entire stellar civilizations, or took it upon themselves to try to alter the course of a developed culture" (66). While prone to the same types of flaws, obviously the magnitude of the response to these flaws varies greatly between humans and Minds.
This tendency of Minds to behave like any other sentient being shows itself in the by-now familiar motif of casus belli. All Minds do not think alike, and their machinations and justifications, while on a larger scale than anything seen in either of the other two books, are of a similar nature. As noted by Guerrier, "[e]ven [the Minds] can't objectify their ethics. . . [which] . . . are part of sentient conception rather than the universe of action" (35); they behave just like humans do. The major difference this time is that there are other Minds working against them, showing that the Culture, the galactic society in which Excession is based, is not controlled by a monolithic governing entity: the Minds are essentially the ones who make sure that the society runs smoothly, and so are the closest thing that the Culture has to a government. In fact, if anything, the Culture is something of a controlled anarchy, in which each Mind and person is entitled to make its/his/her own decision on how and where to live life. As Guerrier says, "[w]ith the Minds handling the administration of the utopia, all the humans need do is get on with enjoying themselves. Humans need not concern themselves with the mechanisms of their society" (31). The "peoples of the Culture are a leisured middle-class" (30), and therefore concern themselves more with how they wish to lead their day-to-day lives rather than how to put food on the table, or to make decisions in running the Culture.
How the comparison to our own world is made is where the problems start, when some Minds decide that they know what is best for the Culture, whether or not other sentients would agree with them. Some decisions might be made in a public forum, but they are more often secret, and when discovered have already been implemented to an extent that can make them difficult to stop. In fact, says Palmer, the people of the Culture "have no agency. . . [they] have the option of pleasure and exertion -- self-expression, a range of activities, adventures, and excitements -- but not of political choice" (75); they are a voiceless middle-class. In our own contemporary society we do have some political choice, but our governments do not brook any sort of anarchy, controlled or otherwise, especially as a part of the decision-making process in governing society. But if the people who live in that society are more concerned about being a part of that "leisured middle-class," then they have no time to pay attention to the judgements that are made on their behalf; in fact, they have no time for anarchy, either, being concerned with exercising their right to be good consumers. In an atmosphere such as this it can be relatively easy to make secret decisions about war. In discussing the 1846 war between Mexico and the Texas territory, Henderson says that "[t]he truth has never been quite clear" and that Congressman Abe Lincoln "challenged the president to name the exact spot where the incursion happened and accused [US President] Polk of 'the sheerest deception'" (2). In a more recent example, the Gulf of Tonkin incident "gave [US] President Lyndon Johnson carte blanche to prosecute the Vietnam war" even though "significant suspicion exists that the incident never even happened" (4). Even in an era of advanced communications and a free press, justification can be found, even if it has to be created. Casus belli may be required in what is putatively a democracy, but obviously such a society can be every bit as secretive about the decisions to go to war as a society in which near-omnipotent intelligences run almost every aspect of day-to-day life. The secret reasons for going to war need not coincide with the public reasons, no matter how transparent society appears to be.
The level of secrecy can rise to extremes, deciding in advance that war is needed and then seeking out the justification, no matter how meagre. In the Mexico incident, Henderson mentions that "[i]t seems Polk and his cabinet had already decided to go to war before they learned of the border incident" (ibid). In Excession the fact that the OCP has shown up may be a surprise to all, but Minds spend much of their time planning for every possible contingency, and so its presence results in the enacting of different plans by various Minds, including one, Attitude Adjuster, which engages in an attempt to start an interstellar war between the Culture and the Affront. In a conversation between two Minds, Shoot Them Later and Serious Callers Only, the question is asked, "[w]as this the aim and is this now the result of the conspiracy? War with the Affront?" (287), and answered in the affirmative. The question shows that even the Minds, as intelligent and far-reaching as they are, are not able to plan for every potential contingency. One Mind making plans in total secrecy can upset the balance, and Attitude Adjuster has done just this; it has killed a Mind acting as guardian for sixty-four hibernating ships designed explicitly for a war fought a thousand years before, and on waking them has convinced those ships that they are to listen to the Affronters on board, telling an Affronter officer that "[t]hey will believe whatever they are told" (226). Believing whatever they are told sounds very much like the attitude governments take towards the media and the general public when releasing information about the justification for war, or about wartime activities. In talking about certain events that went on during the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky stated in an interview that "[t]he government was putting on a bold face publicly, and the press, as usual, was repeating anything the government said as Gospel truth. . . [t]he press was reacting to the public image presented by the government. They didn't know about the internal image. . ." (Schaller 327). While the awakened warships are certainly not the press, in this instance they can be viewed as a facsimile of the media or the public: they are aware only of what they are told, operate in a vacuum, and make decisions based on false or partial information. The Attitude Adjuster, even though it has gone against the other Minds, is the analogue of the government, in that the limited or controlled information it passes on to the warships is considered by them to be trustworthy.
In all three examples of space opera, the presentation of immensity, an Other, has created a military reaction. In Gray Lensman and Ender's Game the decision to fight back was made very quickly, with differing levels of justification. Kimball Kinnison has carte blanche to engage in military operations as he sees fit, and the Patrol to which he belongs seems to be the primary mode of government in his universe: not quite martial law, but a universe where the military makes its own decisions without answering to a civilian superstructure. There is a civilian government above the military in Ender's Game, but the military has solved this potential baggage in two ways: by playing up the menace of the buggers, even though it has been over seventy years since they last fought and there is no evidence that they are planning to return; and by removing from Earth the training facilities where Ender and the other children learn their trade. Excession shows a different reaction to the presence of the Other: not quite a freezing of decision-making capability, but largely a decision to stop and observe, waiting to see if the OCP makes another move. In fact, when two ships of another society, the Zetetic Elench, decide to send a probe to investigate the OCP, the Culture ship on duty to observe the object begs them to reconsider, stating that "I am of the Culture, and I hate to see such risks being taken" (356). This reticence is a definite change from the first two books, a signal that at least some members of the Culture wish to take their time rather than jumping into a situation feet first, guns blazing. However, as noted earlier, the Culture is by no means a monolithic enterprise with one single governing body, and therefore the decision to treat the OCP as an excuse for military action can be taken by any one Mind, with the same results as if that Mind was the sole representative of the Culture.
Reyna wrote that "[f]orces of domination control people because they are organized. The means of domination are people, tools, capital, and know-how that are consumed, i.e, utilized, when people are dominated" (35). This is more obvious in the first two novels than it is in the third, but even within the Culture, the organisation can be seen in two different fashions. First, various Culture Minds band together in loose-knit associations, one of which is known as the "Interesting Times Gang. . . a. . . pretty high-power Mind Incident Group" (124); second, organization towards domination can be witnessed in the power exerted by one lone Mind, such as Attitude Adjuster being able to start a war with an alien society, pretty much all on its own. By forming an armed force of retired Culture warships, Attitude Adjuster is practicing a version of "[t]he organization of domination [which] is the particular way these means are combined to generate different practices. A cavalry force is an organization of domination. Its troopers, horses, weapons, monies, and training are its means" (35). Warships in Excession, Battle School in Ender's Game, the Galactic Patrol in Gray Lensman; all three of these are the space opera equivalent of the cavalry. But Reyna reminds us again that tools of warfare are not the only method of domination: "[c]onsensual forces are organized means of cooptation" where "[c]ooptation. . . was some powerful agency 'breaking and entering' into your mind. . . [where it means] any process of entering into a mind and altering it so that certain dispostions to certain practices are more likely" (35). This does not, of course, mean the direct access of the human mind by an outside source, although certainly this is not an unlikely event in many kinds of science fiction, including space opera. Indeed, Minds in the Culture do have the ability to read the thoughts of humans and others, although almost without exception this is a skill they do not take advantage of. When they do, they end up being considered something of "[a] pariah craft" like "the one the other Minds called Meatfucker because of its revolting hobby" (71). Rather than this sort of ability to delve into human minds, what Reyna refers to, and which is practiced in all three books, is cooptation via the control of knowledge; whatever group is put in charge of the flow of information is the group that can decide why and how a war will be prosecuted, sure that the majority of the public will not question whatever information is fed to them. In writing about the Culture, though, Hardesty has pointed out that it "is inhibited, both by its core beliefs and by its public-relations need [to] not get its hands dirty" (44). In this case, Attitude Adjuster is odd, willing to directly take the necessary steps to do what it feels is right, even though it strives to do so in secret. All this, even though as Westfahl points out in regard to an earlier Banks book, that the Culture usually uses "violent means to shape an emerging society in the direction they desire" (41). An emerging society is one thing, but to do so to its own society shows that if the stakes are high enough, anyone can be a potential candidate for getting their hands dirty.
In writing about science fiction, Raymond Williams discusses how the genre can relate to our own contemporary culture. While his words are not directed towards the sub-genre of space opera, they clearly relate to it. He says "under the emblem of a story of the future, it presents not so much an observation, but a current form of feeling, related primarily to contemporary society" (358). Space opera can also present itself as this sort of observation, in the cases of the three books examined here their relation to how those in control of our society create the proper justification for either war or a war-like stance. When Smith first wrote Gray Lensman in the 1930s he was speaking to a society preparing for war. Here the enemy is distant, but its actions are immediately felt, and there is no question about its evilness. At the time Card wrote Ender's Game, the United States was still recovering from the shock of a nation divided over the Vietnam War, and the novel itself came out just at the beginning of the Reagan era. As the Chomsky interview shows, there was more awareness that perhaps society and the media were being led astray by false or controlled doses of information, but there was also a desire to return to strength and surety, looking for, as Moerk and Pincus put it, "a means to arouse the population" (2). While this would not necessarily result in a war, it did, during the Reagan years, allow more money to be spent on military matters. According to a 1998 Center for Defense Information note, "[o]ther than the Korean War, military spending in 1985 was much higher than at any time since the end of World War II, exceeding even the peak years of the Vietnam War" (Third World Traveler). When compared to the first two novels, Banks in Excession ends up looking noticeably more cynical. He presents a society that, on the surface is something of a utopia, but in reality is a reflection of today's consumer society: the average citizen does not know or care about the decisions being made in his or her name, even if those decisions lead to war. The only real concern for these citizens is their daily lives, and the difference between Banks' worlds and ours is the level of concern: there is no fear of losing access to shelter or food in the Culture, as there is plenty for everybody, and the entities controlling things behind the scenes are mostly benign.
Space opera has been dismissed in the past, almost as the embarrassing retarded half-brother of a genre that has desperately wanted to be liked. What has been missed in this disdain, though, is any awareness that space opera, like any other form of popular literature, reflects the society around it. Even the tropes of science fiction, of which space opera so freely takes advantage, can be seen as effects of what goes on around it and what has gone on before: how our society views the Other; how other works of science fiction have dealt with new or prospective technologies; how we as a society view technology and science. All these help dictate the structure of space opera stories, as do the requirements of the past, the conscious setting out to write space opera meaning that the author must adhere to at least some aspects of what defines the sub-genre, even as some writers work to smash boundaries. Without working within some of the confines of the field, the work is no longer a space opera, becoming instead a different sub-genre of science fiction or even mundane literature. Westfahl has noted, though, that "[i]n response to the accumulation of more and more critical standards, the number of texts relegated to the category of space opera has tended to increase" (184), a statement designed to show that space opera is still held in disdain, and that works previously considered to be more literary science fiction, when they no longer meet the current standards of the day, will end up being consigned to the space opera trash-heap, no matter how well-respected the writer may be in other areas. Finally, space opera cannot help but take many of its cues from whatever military matters rule the day. Whether it is the approaching threat of World War Two or a world in which war is manufactured and sold as a commodity, space opera has managed to respond to and mirror current events. In a universe where military conflict is a major part of why a book exists, mimicking aspects of current events as they relate to the military is only natural. While Westfahl believes that space opera is something "that gives writers and readers exactly the kind of occasional vacation they need from the arduous official demands of their literature" (183), in truth it is much more than that. In the end, space opera can be viewed as a fair reflection of where society has been, a snapshot of attitudes and behaviours that subtly rule many aspects of our lives.
Copyright © 2003 Derryl Murphy
Derryl Murphy's short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Northern Suns, two of the Tesseracts volumes, and Photo Life. He is currently Fiction Editor and Art Director for On Spec magazine. His next scheduled short story is "More Painful Than the Dreams of Other Boys," which will appear in the anthology Open Space at this year's WorldCon. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1996.
Barson, Michael. "Popaganda." Entertainment Weekly 4 April 2003: 67-73.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Rev.ed. New York: Tor, 1991.
Guerrier, Simon. "Culture Theory: Iain M. Banks's 'Culture' as Utopia." Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 76 (1999):28-38.
Hardesty, William H. "Mercenaries and Special Circumstances: Iain M. Banks's Counter-Narrative of Utopia, Use of Weapons." Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 76 (1999): 39-47.
Henderson, Harold. "Battle cry: how leaders use morality to justify war." U.S. Catholic May 1992: 44-47.
Lubragge, Michael T. "Manifest Destiny." From Revolution to Reconstruction. . . and what happened afterwards. 6 Mar. 2003. 15 April 2003.
Moerk, Ernst L. and Faith Pincus. "How to Make Wars Acceptable." Peace and Change 25.1 (2000): 1-21.
Palmer, Christopher. "Galactic Empires and the Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks." Science Fiction Studies 26.1 (1999): 73-90.
Reyna, S.P. "A Mode of Domination Approach to Organized Violence." Studying War: Anthropological Perspectives. Ed. S.P. Reyna and R.E. Downs. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1994. 29-65.
Sanders, Joe. "Space Opera Reconsidered." The New York Review of Science Fiction June 1995: 1+.
Schaller, Dave. Interview with Noam Chomsky. "The Intelligence Identities Protection Act." Language and Politics. Ed. C.P. Otero. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1988. 325-330.
Smith, Edward E., Ph.D. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, 1951.
Stableford, Brian. "Space Opera." The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. 2nd ed. 1 vol. London: Orbit, 1993.
"Top Seven Claims Why We Need to Increase Military Spending (And Why They are Wrong)." Third World Traveler. 19 April 2003.
Tucker, Wilson. Le Zombie Second Anniversary Issue. Jan. 1941.
Westfahl, Gary. "Beyond Logic and Literacy: The Strange Case of Space Opera." Extrapolation 35.3 (1994):176-185.
Williams, Raymond. "From Culture and Society 1780-1950." A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 224-230.
Williams, Raymond. "Popular." Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 231-232.
Williams, Raymond. "Science Fiction." Science-Fiction Studies 15.3 (1988): 356-360.
You must log in to post a comment.