Artifact Space by Miles Cameron (Gollancz, June 14, 2022)
Although I love to watch Sci-Fi shows & movies, I don’t tend to read a lot of Sci-fi, and never have; even though Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos remains one of my favorite set of novels in any genre, and I have an incredible soft-spot for sword & planet pulp.
OTOH, good space opera often blurs the line between fantasy and Sci-Fi, or takes themes we see in historical fiction and contemporary society and plays with them, free from the constraints of, well, history. So, when one of your favorite his-fic/fantasy writers sets out to write a space opera, you need to take the plunge.
It’s a great plunge, indeed. I keep trying to come up with an analog and failing but here is the best I can come up with:
Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Aubrey novels + Horatio Hornblower + Top Gun in Star Trek’s Federation if the Federation had been founded by the Renaissance Venetians.
Deus Ex Machina endings are so despised that people still use the Roman term from thousands of years ago, itself a translation from the older Greek, “God Out of the Machine”.
For those who’ve just tuned in to plot geekery and tropes: Imagine a Greek play, everybody in masks under a Mediterranean blue sky. The Furies are rejoicing, the hero is trapped by his enemies, the dilemmas are unsolvable and — WHOOSH! — a crane or a trapdoor-elevator — yes, a machine — literally plonks Apollo onto the stage and He — boringly — fixes everything.
These days, the Deus Ex Machin need not be a god — it can be the king, an airstrike, friendly aliens, whatever. We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending: unearned victory or salvation is boring, and dodges the questions raised by the story.
However, Deus Ex Machina is not the only cheat ending. It has mutant cousins that often get a free pass because they ramp up the drama. Even so, they suck the life from stories by making them less rich.
Let’s call the first, “Boss out of the Box” and take Wonder Woman as an example (not because it’s a bad movie, but because we’ve all watched it). Spoilers after the cut.
OK, yeah, Doctor of Archaeology but that gives me the long view. (Professor James Brandistock Ph.D. at your service, by the way, but you can call me “Jim”.)
Where was I?
Some people need killing.
It’s true! History turns out better when certain individuals are removed from it.
Case in point? His Royal Highness Prince George, galactic playboy and hereditary ruler of the Planetary Principality of Badland. Now he was a man who’d make your trigger finger tense even if you’d never fired a blaster.
I can tell you this because I was groundside during the ’34 Badland Revolution, avoiding looters and opportunists as I negotiated the streets of Fortunata — that’s the planetary capital.
The smug little f–ker popped up on every TV screen in every bar and cafe, and — I assume — every home. He called for calm, promised to see justice done and grievances met.
And he didn’t bother to keep the smirk off of his jowly face.
Prince George didn’t need to. His bullshit was just box-ticking in case the Empire was paying attention: “I reached out to them, Your Excellency, truly I did. Mass murder was a last resort. I wept when I gave the order…”
See, the real message — the reason for Prince George’s smirk — was the Devastator. They’d set up the TV camera so you had a good view of it through the Prince’s study window. The alien super weapon has its own pinnacle above the Citadel Rock — imagine a clenched fist making a thumbs up — so I guess the study was built with that view in mind. They’d also taped the speech at the right time of day so that harsh white sunlight flashed off the thing’s weird tubes and dishes as the gun crew swept it left and right, showing off its field of fire.
Look, Prince George was saying, I have a literal gun to the city’s head.
Go on a Traveller RPG forum and ask for book recommendations, and somebody will suggest Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series — a series that has just spawned a rather good sequel, Vatta’s Peace.
The Vattabooks are, of course, a really good read. They’re gritty and realistic — it helps that Moon’s ex-military. They’re also fast-paced and well-written, they have vivid characters you enjoy hanging out with, and a strong female protagonist (or two). The same can be said of her other big SF series, affectionately known among my friends as “Scary Horse Aunts In Space” (*) but it’s the Vattabooks that come up because they feel a lot like Traveller, meaning they fit my definition of Star Punk:
Set in [a] spacefaring civilization… where… technology has somehow failed to eliminate the human element, where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society. They all involve individuals or companions — adventurers, traders, investigators, contractors — pursuing goals of only local significance. (*)
Except for not being an ensemble piece, the series really could be a superior Travellercampaign! It even kicks off with Ky operating as a free trader having left Naval Academy due to a scandal — did somebody fail her survival roll during character generation? It expands to encompass family corporations, commercial espionage, romance, family drama, conspiracy, politics, atrocity, piracy and ultimately set-piece space battles.
However, it rarely loses sight of the business of space travel. Our intrepid hero must deal with crew, repairs, finance, quirky local custom, in addition to the issues around using a civilian ship in armed conflict against pirates and other enemies… this is like a story from the 1970s, but with a tighter plot, modern diversity and values, and much better writing.
The setting — the worldbuilding — is also very Traveller-like in that the technology is limited in such a manner as to create a near-future-but in spaaace feel. Moon achieves this mostly by deploying the third of the options identified in the my last article: she turns the technology against itself.
You know the genre I mean. It’s the one that takes in Firefly, Dumarest… it’s Space Opera’s Sword & Sorcery. It’s Han Solo: The Early Years or Indiana Jones does Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or Almost Any Clint Eastwood Movie Ever But In Space. It’s what Traveller RPG supports in all its incarnations.
It doesn’t have a name, so I’ve taken to calling it “Star Punk.” Here’s how I tried to define it in my guest post for uber SF meister Charles Stross:
They are all set in spacefaring civilizations where technology has somehow — with an authorial handwave — and my handwave is particularly cunning and internally consistent — failed to eliminate the human element, where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society. They all involve individuals or companions — adventurers, traders, investigators, contractors — pursuing goals of only local significance.
In other words, they could all be transcripts of particularly good Travellercampaigns.
Writing Star Punk, as I discovered when I started planning The Wreck of the Marissa, poses certain worldbuilding problems. (And, yes in this case, I really mean “universe building” but worldbuilding now has a specific technical meaning for writers and other creatives.)
The issue is this bit: where you still need a human to pull the trigger or pilot the scout ship, and where nanotechnology, 3D-printing and vertical farms have neither eliminated trade, nor ushered in a crime-free post scarcity society.
In a nutshell, any realistic starfaring future is unlikely to be like this. In fact, our technology is already breaking the Star Punk future.
Seen from one angle, the Traveller RPG has always been a Science Fiction midlife crisis simulator, “40-somethings Innnnn Spaaaacccce.”
The character generation system is a mini-game that lets you play through your character’s career all the way into middle-age, a career that most of the time ends in disaster, and always ends with you mustering out to go “travelling.”
Kurtzhau (13) and I rolled up a party and ended up with:
A scientist, feeling the bite of age, who’d made a big discovery in his youth, but had been stuck in admin ever since and now craved adventure.
A senior NCO soldier forced by job cuts to muster out and now very much adrift in search of a purpose.
A pilot who’d unwillingly ended up in the Scouts and spent most of his time as a courier and now belatedly wanted to do something less boring.
A veteran of the Merchant Marine who really wanted to be a Free Trader.
You could put them all in a shared apartment and make a quirky sitcom about them. (We put them in a ship and sent them to our Dacre Sector.)
Now space opera and western are not terribly dissimilar, but Fireflyincluded many of the trappings as well as the tropes of the western. The characters carried six-shooters and lever action rifles, they had costumes that appeared quite close of 19th century American frontier clothing, and pseudo-frontier language dotted their speech – along with Mandarin. While I often hear Firefly referred to as sci-fi with some western aspects, I think it is more fitting to call it a western in space.
That’s kind of splitting hairs.
Firefly melded two genres, but there is a wonderful French movie that mixes at least four – period drama, martial arts, horror, and romance. The Brotherhood of the Wolf is one of my favourite movies and an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It might not be the finest movie of its age, but it was my favorite movie of 2002.