Articles Editor Joyce Chng gathered a group of authors to discuss domestic space opera. Why do we still frown at domesticity in space opera? Why is domestic space opera important now (and forever)? The answers are timely and relevant.
Joyce Chng: Space opera has always been perceived as a hyper-masculine subgenre of science fiction, think Babylon 5, Star Trek, and Star Wars with enormous space battles and glorification of the hero(ine). In your opinion, what are the books (past or current) where the author centralises domesticity or domestic scenarios?
Ann Leckie: I feel like quite a few space operas have centralised domesticity or domestic scenarios, but then when I try to think of examples I'm coming up short. Certainly C. J. Cherryh does, and does it quite well, it's one of her many strengths, IMO. It's one of the biggest charms of the Foreigner books, for instance.
Jennifer Foehner Wells: The first title that comes to my mind is one of the earliest Vorkosigan Saga books by Lois McMaster Bujold, Barrayar, within which Cordelia describes her life with husband Aral Vorkosigan as they expect their first child. Bujold has a huge following and many female sci-fi fans I know cite Shards of Honor and Barrayar as their favourites in the series, perhaps because these books deviate so much from typical space opera in this way. I know that they are mine for this very reason.
I enjoy the fact that we are seeing life on a space-faring world from a female perspective where the female isn’t actually a male character in disguise. Cordelia has to deal with bearing a child outside of her body due to a devastating attack that has nearly killed her, a uniquely female experience. The books aren’t boring in any way—quite the contrary. And I must admit to being disappointed that Cordelia didn’t continue to be featured by Bujold as she continued the series. This book is quite unique because most space operas are too full of mayhem to allow a woman to experience anything like this. I cherish it for that reason.
Foz Meadows: I don’t agree that space opera has always been perceived as masculine, and especially not hyper-masculine. Quite the opposite: in my experience, space opera has traditionally been viewed as feminine, which usually sees it pitted against the more “masculine” subgenres of hard or military SF. This means that, while Star Trek and Star Wars are certainly space opera, large swathes of fandom frequently go out of their way to deny the affiliation because girl germs. Without wanting to claim Jupiter Ascending as a cinematic masterpiece, it was undeniably both feminine and space opera, which is a clear factor in why it was so furiously disparaged. That being so, the fact that it wasn’t seen as polluting space opera, but rather as being typical of its worse impulses, shows how feminine-coded the genre is. Similarly, I think it’s inaccurate to class other classic works of space opera, like Farscape or The Fifth Element, as being hyper-masculine, when so much of what defined them was subversive of traditional gender stereotypes, notably through characters like Aeryn Sun and Ruby Rhod.
That being said, I completely agree that Bujold’s work is pivotal in looking at written depictions of domesticity in space opera, and would add that, in addition to Shards of Honour and Barrayar, three later Vorkosigan novels— Komarr and A Civil Campaign, which foreground Miles’s paramour, Ekaterin, and the most recent book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which once more returns to Cordelia’s story—are also very domestic. A Civil Campaign has often been described as a comedy of manners, which makes it the obvious example, but the intimacy of Ekaterin’s point of view in Komarr, showing her as a married woman trapped in an unsatisfying, limiting marriage while struggling to protect her son, is achingly real. Likewise, Cordelia’s journey in Red Queen after the death of her husband shows her making a life beyond him, and beyond her grief for him, both romantically and in her willingness to have more children.
Added to this, I’d also mention Aliette de Bodard’s excellent novella On A Red Station Drifting, which is hugely informed by its depictions of intimate family bonds and the nuances of differing cultural expectations. I’d likewise argue that Ann’s Provenance and Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds are works of domestic space opera: though the events of both novels occur on a massive scale, the actual narratives are very much concerned with the ways in which individuals navigate the largeness of the galaxy through a personal, cultural, familial lens.
Judith Tarr: I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of Andre Norton lately, and while it’s more planetary adventure than strictly space opera, it comes back again and again to the themes of home and family—usually chosen family, because her protagonists are so often orphans and displaced people. All they really want is a place to call home, preferably in bonded pairs and with animal companions.
When we consider how much influence Norton had on subsequent writers, I wonder if this essential theme hasn’t become a fundamental of the genre.
Another and much lesser known series, Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge’s massive Exordium saga, is all about family—blood family, chosen family, adopted family. One of the major plots is the love-hate a hostage feels for the man who was both captor and adoptive father, and on the other side of the war, it’s all about siblings both by genetics and by choice. The whole thing revolves around these emotional bonds, with a solid side dish of the daily functioning of households both aristocratic and otherwise. And kids. Lots of kids.
Joyce Chng: In what spaces is domesticity tolerated (if any)? What form does it take? What forms should it take? For example, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we see domestic scenarios like Benjamin Sisko cooking, Jake Sisko spending time with his dad, Miles and Keiko negotiating about their kids as a married couple and parents. Even in Star Trek: The Next Generation, you get a school onboard a starship and the assumption that families live onboard the vessel as a given. Why is domesticity (home or family life, women's work, child-rearing etc) then so—for lack of a better word—challenging to accept or even tolerate in space opera?
Ann Leckie: I'm going to guess that space opera's descent from imperialist and colonialist adventure stories, as well as the strong thread of military fiction, is part of why it can sometimes seem challenging to focus on domesticity in that subgenre. These are, I suspect, adventures framed as going away from home—away from the “civilised” center into the dangerous and mysterious unknown, or else stories of going away to war. I suspect there's a sort of definitional opposition in both stories, of "home versus the places you have adventures," and thinking of story and adventure with that opposition as structurally essential, you can't have the adventure until you get away from home—so either you never go there (at least not till the story is actually done, maybe not even then) or you make darn sure your hero has to leave by destroying it. With that set of structural assumptions, domesticity becomes the thing that maybe brackets the story, but can't be part of the story.
It takes questioning that assumed opposition, and all the various assumptions that go with it (assumptions about gender, for instance), to begin to see that it's not an inescapable truth of story. Or so it seems to me at this particular moment.
Jennifer Foehner Wells: I agree with Ann here. You are away from home when you go off into space on an adventure. However, if we truly travel to the stars, we will be making our homes on ships perhaps for only the short term, perhaps for life. And as we travel among the stars there will be quiet moments between all of the shooting up of the bad guys or whatever challenges the protagonist in the world of the novel.
And those domestic moments are the perfect time for the characters to show us interiority (which gets ignored a lot in mil sci-fi, for example) or discussions between characters which are a good opportunity for character building. That is when I use domestic scenes in my own work—the preparation and sharing of meals, intimate moments between lovers; and so on. My readers don’t seem to mind that. In fact, I think it grounds the reader because among all the alien stuff, you are giving them something familiar that they do every day, reminding them that the characters they’re reading about are just like them. They eat, sleep, talk to coworkers, etc. In my opinion, it fosters the feeling of immersion in the world, even if what they’re eating or sleeping on is different from the average sort of Earth stuff.
Foz Meadows: I honestly think you can’t have good SF without a degree of domesticity. There’s something sterile to the environments so often preferred by hard and military SF, where everyone is in uniform without a hint of how they live outside of it, that forgets that, even in the far and dazzling future, people are still people. One of the clearest visual examples that springs to mind was the ship Serenity, in Firefly—that show had a lot of problems, but the decision to lovingly render the spaceship as a domestic environment wasn’t one of them. There were hand-painted signs on the metal that Kaylee had done, scenes of the crew cooking real food together as a novelty, or making Simon a cake out of flavoured protein for his birthday because they didn’t have anything else; the difference between Inara’s quarters, with its lush decorations, and Jayne’s wall of guns. The Radchaii love of tea in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series is another example of this.
But again, I find myself at odds with the assumption that domesticity is frowned upon in space opera, given that its presence is, to me, one of the defining qualities that separates it from traditional, “masculine” hard and military SF. Possibly this is my Australian perspective on things coming through—our SFF scenes, I’ve discovered, tend to gender the various subgenres slightly differently to their equivalents in the US and UK—but as I was taught it, space opera was distinguished as such because, among other things, it paid more attention to romance than its fellow subgenres; was either softer on the science, or more enamoured of the “soft” sciences, than was desirable elsewhere; and was, well, operatic, involving human plots rather than intellectual ones.
Consider Star Trek: Voyager, where you had arcs about what it meant for Chakotay’s nemesis to have his child without his consent and then force him to raise it; what it meant for Kes to think she was being forced into her sole reproductive cycle before she was ready, coupled with subsequent what-if plots that showed her having children; the constant tension of Janeway’s loyalty to her partner on Earth and her developing bond with Chakotay, coupled with her thoughts about motherhood; B'Elanna’s Klingon romance novels. When I first watched Voyager, my boyfriend at the time dismissively referred to it as Girl Trek, but even so, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any incarnation of Star Trek lacking in domesticity.
Judith Tarr: Seriously. Deep Space Nine is all about family life—Sisko and his son, Miles and his domestic saga, Bajoran family relationships amid the colonialism. Even the Ferengi give us insights into their private lives and the plight of their heavily oppressed females (who find ways to fight back).
Food is a big, big deal in any cultural context. Food in space can go in any number of directions, from ship’s rations to the cuisine of various alien races. Romulan ale, anyone? Tea, Earl Grey, hot?
Joyce Chng: When male authors include/feature pregnancy and child-rearing in their space opera/science fiction, they are hailed as edgy and cool, whereas female authors are often ignored or mocked. Why is this so?
Ann Leckie: Haha. Excuse my cynical laugh, I'm tempted to say, “three guesses and the first two don't count.“ But I think it's not just the whole “I made a suggestion at the meeting and no one listened but when the guy said it everyone nodded and agreed with him and complimented him on his great idea” thing. I think also there's a thing going on that's parallel to the phenomenon of editors reading, say, a story by a marginalised author that's in some way about their marginalisation and thinking it reads as flat or unrealistic, but a story by a white, straight, cis, etc. author, well, that's great literature! It's dominant voices that get heard more often, and those voices tell stories that fit the dominant narratives, so they feel "realistic" and truer. Kind of like the way that Luke Skywalker does all kinds of ridiculously heroic and super-competent things with hardly any training and that's fine, but Rey does it and “wow, that's unrealistic!” It's not any less realistic than Luke doing the same things, but the dominant narratives are about guys doing those things, not women.
So you get, like, Molly Bloom celebrated as this amazing perfect portrait of femininity, right? When, give me a break. And you get well-intentioned guys working to include pregnancy and child-bearing and childcare into their stories, but it'll be from that comfortably dominant angle.
Plus, you know, the whole thing where you put a masculine name on something and so many people just take it more seriously.
Jennifer Foehner Wells: If a woman puts anything squishy in a sci-fi book, it’s condemned as “romancy” by the cis-het-white males who dominate the readership. I’ve seen it happen so many times to myself and other female authors. Often review sites are full of negative reviews for books that dare to include a relationship. I can only guess this is because romance as a genre is looked down upon so strongly in our culture as being absurdly feminine.
However, when we look at the world of media OUTSIDE of novels, we see romantic subplots popping up in nearly every sci-fi television show and movie.
I’m not sure why this disconnect exists. Humans mate. Emotional connection with another human is something that is glorified in our culture—that’s why beauty is so important, isn’t it? To attract a mate that will make your life utterly complete (snarky comment redacted)? Indeed, science tells us that emotional connection, via friends, family, and spouse are necessary for health and longevity.
So seeking a spouse seems to be okay in tv, or movies, or if a male author orchestrates that relationship through the male gaze, but the female gaze is poopoo-ed. My own first novel features a budding relationship as a subplot and I’ve experienced this backlash. My editor, whom I adore, actually flags any language in my work that he perceives as romancy. I usually heed his warnings and rework those parts (I do not remove them) to make the language usage more acceptable for all, but without changing the scene or content. That said, the majority of my readership is male and most do not complain. So maybe things are changing?
In my lifetime I’ve seen my father’s generation steer well away from anything domestic unless it involved fixing something or cutting the lawn. Changing a diaper was anathema. That was the norm in the 1970s. However, both my former and current spouses (I’m in my mid-40s) have taken on significant roles in not only child care and rearing, but also housework. Studies have shown that balance is still not equitable—women still shoulder most of the burden of domestic work even among couples that pride themselves on being egalitarian, but the situation has clearly improved. Perhaps it is this younger generation that is more tolerant of domestic scenes in sci-fi? Based on my decidedly non-scientific observation, I believe this is true.
Foz Meadows: Following on from what Ann says above, I think it’s not just that the dominant perspective is seen as comforting; it’s that, if you’re writing from and about your own experience, it’s somehow seen as requiring less empathy, skill and creativity than if you’re borrowing someone else’s—unless, of course, you’re a straight white dude writing about a straight white dude, in which case, you have achieved Literature. It’s part of the same logic that shies away from hiring queer actors to play queer roles on the specious basis that, “well, it’s their own experience, so they’re not really acting, but a straight actor playing a queer role takes range,” as though any of those folks would ever dream of following that thought to its logical conclusion and think it uninspiring for straight actors to play straight characters.
Also, like. Can we take a moment to appreciate the utter terribleness that evidently passed for obstetric care in the Star Wars prequels? George Lucas honestly wants me to believe that Padme genuinely didn’t know she was having twins, because this universe has lightsabres but not a fucking ultrasound? Giving birth lying flat on her back with her feet on the bed—which is to say, in the least medically tenable and most physically uncomfortable posture imaginable—instead of in stirrups with her back propped up, or standing, or on a birthing stool or any other way that makes sense, with her junk trapped under a metal curtain, assisted by a monotone robot with no fine motor control, with the twins coming seemingly moments apart while she screams but doesn’t push? No wonder she up and died in childbirth—every dude involved in caring for her was a fucking incompetent.
Judith Tarr: Don’t Get Me Started on what passes for knowledge of women’s lives and experience among cis-het white men, particularly white men film auteurs. They’re the definition of human existence, right? So there’s no need for them to ask a woman anything. They know what they know and that’s all they know.
Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Look it up.
I do think that even very well-intentioned men who believe themselves to be empathetic to and understanding of women are still severely freaked out by female anatomy and biology. They bleed! From their hoo-has! And babies come out of there! Icky ick ick!
I have read and I can believe that our culture actively discourages empathy in males. Not only are they not taught to consider the emotions or experience of the not-male and the not-dominant, they don’t realise they’re missing anything. To them, experience that is not their own is invisible, and it’s very hard for them to learn to see it. Because when they do, one thing that happens is that they realise their experience is not the defining one, and they may also realise that they are not centered in that other person’s existence.
Look at all the women in fridges. All the films and television series that think they’re being feminist when the only female with a speaking role has no female friends and is completely surrounded by males. If the female is pregnant, she’s a receptacle for the man’s offspring, and she’s often killed off once that offspring is born. As happens to Padme. And as happens in Rogue One, where everyone is male except the Exceptional Female. I do think that got addressed later—there are visibly more female roles in The Last Jedi, and some of them are absolutely wonderful. Which is why it’s so loathed by the fanbois. Admiral Holdo with her lavender hair and her elegant gown hits their uncanny valley so hard it spews lava.
Joyce Chng: Is domestic space opera more important now? Is there a need to break away from science fiction tropes and conventions? Or better, subvert the known and (in)famous tropes. Like “Let's smash patriarchy and cis-heternormativity!” and question the power differentials inherent in space opera?
Ann Leckie: I'm loathe to tell other writers what they ought to be doing with their writing. That said, I think it's incredibly important to think about what assumptions the tropes and conventions of science fiction are arising from or supporting. The narratives we take in are a big part of how we interpret the world around us, how we respond to people and events. I think any writer is well-advised to be sure that the narratives they're putting out there aren't saying things they'd rather not have said.
The whole idea of what people consider “realistic” for instance—that's very much a matter of what stories you're used to. If you've seen a zillion movies about a brave lone white guy unerringly shooting bad guys in the midst of chaos, you might well assume that's a thing that can happen, or even that one could do oneself given the opportunity. But it's totally fantasy. And I love a good heroic action flick as much as the next girl, but as a writer I find myself wondering if I want to contribute to that particular, very physically, real-world dangerous set of assumptions.
If all your stories involve men doing all the doing, women as solitary exceptions or prizes for the hero, and a steadfast refusal to consider that anyone might not be a man or a woman at all, let alone the right sort of man or woman, it's going to be that much more difficult to think outside those assumptions in real life.
Anyway, I'm not sure I'd say that domestic space opera is more important now than any other time, but IMO narratives are always important.
Jennifer Foehner Wells: I believe that it’s already happening, but slowly. In my own work I decided early on that all of my heroes would be female. Write what you know, as they say. But not just that alone—they can’t be female in name only. So many female heroes might as well be called Biff for all that they resemble a real woman. I want my female characters to behave as a woman the reader will recognise. I also challenge myself to create cultures where binary gender roles are not the norm, which in turn challenges readers to consider what is normal. What I feel I’m doing is in some small way filling a void. I hope many other voices will join those of us who are actively working this way.
Foz Meadows: I think it’s less important to break away from tropes and conventions—because you really can’t have narrative without them—than to acknowledge what they are in the first place, which allows you both to celebrate them and to subvert them intelligently. What exhausts me about tropes isn’t their reiteration, or I wouldn’t spend nearly so much time looking up fake dating fics on AO3, but what happens when creators are so invested in the idea of their own immutable, neutral genius that they replicate the same stale shit over and over without noticing or caring that they’re perpetuating a pattern. Just today on Twitter, there was a conversation about Deadpool 2 - which I haven’t yet seen - where, when viewers pointed out that it was full of women in refrigerators, the writers responded by saying that they’d never heard of that trope. Which, like … ignoring the fact that the term was coined by Gail Simone, a woman who is non-trivially involved in Deadpool’s current iteration, the entire premise of those films is meant to be fourth-wall-breaking, trope-literate subversion, and women in refrigerators is basically Tropes 101. Unless, it seems, you’re a dude who’s never bothered to think about it that way, which is how that stuff gets perpetuated on careless autopilot.
Judith Tarr: As I was saying about women noncishetwhitemales being invisible. They speak, often loudly, but they’re not heard. Or seen. It’s like a mutant superpower bestowed by that second X chromosome.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the forced binary of our entire culture, and the insistence that one of those halves must be subordinate to the other. It’s so ingrained that it’s a conscious effort to examine the assumption, let alone change it. I read novels and watch films and TV shows that are completely locked into this mindset. So much so that one of my favorite thriller series, despite all its other virtues, makes me insane with its love triangle. Why doesn’t she just take them both? And why the hell are both of the males so absolutely possessive of the female? Why do they have to be like this? Why is it so hard to think outside of that box? It’s as if the author is afraid to—but doesn’t even realise they are afraid. It’s The Way The Universe Is.
Except it’s really not.
“Careless autopilot” is a good part of it, for sure. Laziness of mind and craft. Again, recognising the stereotypes as stereotypes and then making the effort to alter them is extremely hard. Especially when and if those tropes are presented as cultural absolutes. Like the Rugged Individualist (thinking in social units is Weak and Bad). The Original Creative Thinker (imitation and homage is Bad). And above all, the Mated Couple Bound By Romantic Love. Which even as we shift from heteronormativity is still an intractable Must. It’s still a pair, regardless of the makeup of that pair. (And I’ll spare you the book-length discussion of the many reasons why romantic love is not the defining characteristic of the human species.)
Joyce Chng: One of my favourite authors, C. J. Cherryh, does domestic space opera well with her brilliant and insightful observations about themes like parenting, child-rearing, and nature vs. nurture in the Chanur series. What else constitutes as domesticity? Care-giving for the elderly/the sick/looking after an elderly parent? Housework? Cleaning? Cooking? Gardening? Emotional labour?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: Any and all of those things should be included in imaginings of a future with space travel. Personally I like to read about what a normal daily life is like for someone in the future—alien or human—as they face the challenges of the novel world. The barriers do seem to be breaking down. The peer-reviewed Nebulas, for example, have been celebrating and rewarding female authors and authors of color tremendously for the past few years. With new voices come new perspectives. I believe we will be seeing more of this in the near future.
Foz Meadows: For me, domesticity in any invented setting involves both human moments and the wider settings in which contextualise their meaning—it can be intimate and personal, yes, but it’s also shown in domestic systems. Who does the cooking, for instance, and what is the food? Does it change on holidays and special occasions? Why, and in what ways? Those sorts of questions don’t need to dominate the text, but their implications still need to be present to some degree, or else what you’re writing is only a blank template of what it means to be human.
That being so, I don’t think you can functionally separate depictions of domesticity from depictions of culture, because culture is what determines how we behave in private, in public, with family, with strangers. A character from a culture that venerates elders and family is going to have a different approach to looking after an aged parent, to take a given example, than someone from a culture that places a greater value on individual health and autonomy.
When I think about stories that lack domesticity, their defining characteristic isn’t a total absence of human moments, because that’s not really possible when you’re writing about people; rather, it’s the presence of an unchallenged monoculture whose specifics are, by and large, considered unimportant to the narrative: where the story is fixated on roles and hierarchies (commanders, kings, advisors, weapons specialists), and on grand ideas and intellectual conceits, but without any real discussion or investigation of how they interact with everything else in that setting. When that happens, it’s like someone has gone in and sliced away all the bits of humanity they don’t find interesting—all the art and childbirth and psychology and food and other such ‘soft science’ tchotchkes—and has attempted to define a culture, or an empire, or a spaceship, by what’s left.
Judith Tarr: And so we’re back to the white male monoculture, which devalues the domestic and assigns it to inferior beings. Thank the deities of space and time, we’ve moved well away from that in genre. I’m loving the Own Voices movement, which not only gets away from the dominance of the white male, but actively encourages the depiction of cultures and concepts by those who grew up in those cultures.
And that changes the whole nature of the discourse. It’s no longer about rock-jawed American boys blasting alien monsters with their big blasty blasters while the busty females cower and screech—or even about Singular Strong Female Men with their blasty blasters. There’s room for domestic details, for families, for the aunties (oh, I love aunties—white people have them, too, believe it or not, back in the shadows behind the blasty-blasting boys).
And speaking of aunties, let’s hear it for protagonists who are not male jocks aged thirty-five or female ingenues aged twenty-two and under. We’re seeing more of that—Admiral Holdo, again. And our beloved General, Leia Organa, may she rest in peace.
Joyce Chng: As more own voices and marginalised authors begin to envision their space opera, what direction do you think this sub-genre will take?
Jennifer Foehner Wells: Personally I think we are in for a renaissance of epic proportions. I welcome this change. I’ve seen some really exciting work coming from people of diverse backgrounds of late. That trend means innovation. Challenge. I can’t predict where it will go, but I suspect it will rejuvenate the genre and bring in a lot of new readers who got bored with the same old "shoot ‘em up mil sci fi" stories of the past.
Foz Meadows: I agree with Jennifer—all throughout SF right now, we’re seeing amazing, new, diverse takes on traditional subgenres, and for me, that’s creating a delightful blurring of the lines between, say, military SF and space opera, both of which labels I think apply to Ann’s work; and to Yoon Ha Lee’s, for that matter. I can’t wait to see what else gets written!
Judith Tarr: Me three! We are seeing blowback and some of it is ferocious, but I think the new voices, and the older voices who are finally being heard above the roar of the white males, will prevail. There’s so much richness in the writing now, such tremendous quality, and so many different worlds and cultures and concepts—and that’s just on the human side. I’m thrilled with the directions our genre is taking, and the writers who are constantly expanding the boundaries. Long may they continue to do so.
Joyce Chng: Thank you for taking part in the roundtable!