Space Opera Rules

Sep 2, 05:26 by IROSF
Does the idea of a future ruling class seem ridiculous? Talk about it here.

The article can be found here.
Sep 5, 17:55 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
There does seem to be a preponderance of Monarchies in American Space Opera. You may want to seek out some non-American SO if you would like to see something different. As a resident of Canada, I have much better access to British authors than most Americans (and we get the British imprints as well, which means we get them shortly after they are published; Americans have to wait until some publishing house decides to buy rights and reprint).

Several British authors have written superb Space Opera. Of particular interest and superiority are:

Ian M. Banks: His Culture novels describe a SO future where the dominant civilization is a post-scarcity "communism". There are a plethora of alien races with varied societies and governments, as well as a very diverse human cultures as well. Banks covers the gamut in one novel or another.

Alastair Reynolds: author of the Revelation Space sequence of novels and short stories. Not to be missed if you are a Space Opera fan. Humanity has splintered into three main factions: the Ultras, spacers who pilot and crew the 'lighthugger' interstellar ships; the Demarchist, a technology mediated direct democracy (Democratic Anarchy); and the Conjoiners, a cyberized hive mind.

and my personal favorite
Ken MacLeod: MacLeod experiments with several alternate types of governments, cultures and societies in several books. His Fall Revolution has a mish mash of anarchic, socialist and libertarian societies in the wake of a Third World War and mankind's push into space. The Engines of Light trilogy has a resurgent and successful USSR colonize space (along with lots of other strange stuff). His other works deal with coporatist societies (see "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359" and the novel Learning the World) and the anarchist breakdown of western societies.

The excellent anthology The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan contains several excellent short stories of SO with nary a monarchy to be seen. [Sorry Bluejack, I keep trying to find time to write a review for you on this book, but ...]

I apologize in advance if you are already familiar with these authors, although they may be of interest to other readers.
Sep 8, 09:08 by Keyan Bowes
But why not a hereditary monarchy of some form?

It seems to me that democracy is inherently unstable from a literary viewpoint, because it requires people with wealth and power to cede some of that power to other people for no apparent benefit to themselves. Over time (100s or 1000s of years), it seems reasonable for the powerful to try to concentrate power and wealth, until the election becomes a formality rather than an actual instrument of change.

Monarchy - if applied generally to any system of hereditary succession - seems more intuitive. It's an institution in which power and wealth are closely aligned. Of course, one would expect that dynasties to last a shorter time than the institution itself.

It's also more interesting to write.
Sep 9, 19:47 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
You are right about hereditary monarchies; they are more interesting to write and they do concentrate power and wealth into an echelon of people. They tend to be fairly stable, given the absence of very large de-stabilizing factors like extended famine etc. The Monarchy of Egypt managed to be stable (more or less) over a period of a few thousand years.

The problem I see is that hereditary monarchies are hereditary. While accumulating power and wealth, hereditary monarchies also accumulate genetic deficiencies. The desire to retain power within the family leads to intermarriage. While these problems can be dispensed with by science (in a science fiction setting), there remains the process of inevitable insularization of the ruling class from the rest of the society. This can only lead to revolution, particularly in a technologically savvy and advanced society.

Monarchies were remarkably stable when communication over long distances was difficult and unreliable. A king needed to rely on the wisdom, discretion and ability of his landed gentry since they could not always rely on answers from their monarch for difficult decisions. Furthermore, the difficulty of communication was added to the monopoly on information. When books could only be written by hand, it was easy to keep secret and control the adoption of ideas. The French Revolution could not have occurred without the proliferation of movable type.

A modern (or future) society benefits from near instantaneous communication of information and messages making it difficult to retain a position of power when your inadequacies and idiocies are spread around the world at the speed of light. I suppose that you could say that technology forces democracy in a way. When every man has a printing press, it is hard to maintain centralized control over a society. For this reason, I feel that technology will allow a much more democratic society that we have ever had in the past. Reynolds' Demarchy seems the most likely outcome of a technologically sophisticated society. Barring the outright banning of technology and communication for and between the peasant class, I cannot see how a monarchy can remain stable over a long period of time. It may be intuitive, but it is not likely.

I have always felt that S/F monarchies in far future worlds to be somewhat artificial. Herbert managed it (like so many other things) in Dune by removing the technological aspect; no computers, no subspace radio, no everyman printing press. In a world like Star Trek though, monarchies would be not only difficult to maintain, even the Federation (or any centralized authority) would not remain stable for long. Such technological sophistication would, in my opinion lead to a direct democracy resembling anarchy or outright anarchy itself.

Don't get me wrong. There are ways of dealing with far future monarchies, but I think that a significant amount of time should be spent examining the consequences of technology on the political process. Unless the author is willing to do some rather serious oppression by his ruling class, or employ some device causing similar ends, there would have to be lots of hand waving and purposeful ignorance of several consequences.
Sep 10, 21:34 by Ross Hamilton
golly - i started a conversation!
Sep 16, 21:53 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Just me babbling from my soapbox. I particularly love space opera, and so I have some rather strong (and probably wrong!) opinions about it and no real (meatspace) forum to discuss it. In any case, I particularly liked your article. Space Opera has gotten a lot of attention over the last five years or so and is beginning to accrete some solid critical literature.

I, for one, welcome our New Space Opera overlords.
Sep 20, 06:27 by Ross Hamilton
thanks errant - I still keep reading it! :) In fact yesterday I purchased Kevin J Anderson's final book in his Seven Suns series. Pretty sure that it only just hit the bookshelves.
Oct 9, 16:16 by Nader Elhefnawy
Sorry I didn't get into this discussion earlier, which may mean it's over, but here I go anyway.

A very interesting piece, which raised some questions I found myself thinking about while reading the New Space Opera-which I wouldn't be reading if it wasn't stuff I love. (Incidentally, there really isn't very much in the way of such ruling classes in the anthology.)

This discussion also touches on the poli-sci stuff I have more than a casual interest in.

Here's my thought: yes, outer space monarchy and aristocracy look regressive, and simply reflect the fact that much space opera simply borrows from older-style fantasy and romance and puts the principals on spaceships.

BUT we also live in high-tech and, I think, socially retrograde times, which may not make it great, but proves it can happen. We may be actually seeing monarchy make a comeback in places like southern and eastern Europe now. The English monarchy today seems more secure, more accepted, than it was fifty years or a century ago, and Kevin Phillips, a writer worth taking seriously, has wondered openly if the U.S. isn't moving toward dynasties of its own.

To me it seems a natural consequence of a society which is more accepting of economic and social inequality and lower social mobility; more accepting of the idea that some people are "better" than others and more willing to defer to them (as with the simple-minded worship of Bill Gates one so often encounters); more favorable toward inherited wealth and neoptism; more anti-intellectual and less meritocratic, so that position has less to do with performance; more disappointed in and skeptical of democracy; more tolerant of a blurring of the line between the private and the public, and especially of extreme concentrations of power, private and public; more contemptuous of the common man and woman; obsessed with celebrity and cults of personality (the "Of course we have royalty, we don't have a Hollywood" syndrome); less inclined to think rationally, and more likely to unthinkingly embrace tradition and traditional values, religious and otherwise; more responsive to mystical notions of "leadership," to superstitions and the manipulation of symbols rather than coherent arguments; and more likely to view societies and cultures as organic wholes which must not be rationally examined.

Monarchy and aristocracy, their outward trappings, are an icing on that particular cake.

In fact, Frank Herbert himself put it as follows: feudalism is what happens when people stop thinking for themselves. And I think we're pretty far along that route.

Will it mean less change? Yes. But I think it may also be adequate to the maintenance of an inherited base of high technology, at least until things get shaken up. In some ways, high technology can actually reinforce this. The massive organizations and highly specialized technological knowledge that modern societies depend on concentrate administrative and economic power-and military power. So does the extension of surveillance capability modern technology allows. All those advances in communications and transport let the powerful control things from very far away. Put simply, societal complexity can translate into more top-down control, and commonly reflects such control.

And consider the consequences of technology we don't yet have, like the reliable, significant genetic engineering of human beings. This could certainly contribute to a bigger gap between classes, which would support developments of this kind.
Oct 10, 16:42 by Bluejack
A conversation never needs to be "over"!

I think one reason for the monarchy motif is the exoticness of it to contemporary readers. Space Democracies would be rather mundane (although, as in SciFi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, it can have its function as well).

Additionally, monarchic structures emphasize the personality of the monarch, which can make for a more human embodiment of big-picture dramas involving vast bodies politic.

However, more directly to your point Nader, it's also worth noting that advances in communications have been a directly democratizing influence in our own day. If it weren't for the Internet, the United States would be pretty close to a hegemonic oligarchy of corporate-controlled media in bed with an invasive federal government. It's no surprise that all internet traffic to China goes through government run and strictly censored routing points.
Oct 11, 16:36 by Nader Elhefnawy
You'll get no argument from me on the exotic and drama sides of the issues; or on the decentralizing effects of such technology. (I just think that we shouldn't forget that new tech can cut the other way, too, and that's the part people usually need reminding about.)

Plus, I don't think the social side of the change can be blithely ignored, as your noting the monopolization of the media makes clear.

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