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September, 2008 : Essay:

Space Opera Rules; But By Whom?

Space opera—all sorts of cool space ships buzzing around, blasters, alien creatures, weird and wonderful technology—it has it all. Sure, the more "serious" writers have been known to dismiss it as not being "literature," but as one of my first published stories was about fairy tale characters as professional wrestlers, I can hardly lay great claims to being especially "literary" myself. Still, Mark Twain and Raymond Chandler were both dismissed in their day as not being literary.

Confession time—I often find the more "literary" works to be a bit boring. Certainly I can appreciate and admire the quality of the writing while quietly cursing my own apparent lack in that regard, but I like to read for entertainment, not to sit and ponder afterwards to make sure that I actually understood it or to seek the underlying deeper meaning. I had enough of that at school, where anything other than alleged searches for beauty or truth was deemed unworthy of reading. Space opera has so many of the entertaining, escapism elements that we enjoy—literary or otherwise—just so long as it is a darn good read.

There is one thing, though, about this genre or sub-genre—whichever you wish to call it—that often gets right up my rather large, multi-colored nose.

Why is it that all too often, space opera features a back-story where humanity has returned to having an overall, ruling royalty—emperors, kings, queens, whatever? To me, the space-opera formula is about presenting a far future that could be. While I obviously cannot say that there could never be a planetary or inter-planetary ruling royalty as such, I find it rather hard to accept. The little internal critic starts jumping up and down, kicking my temporal lobes and yelling for attention. "Yeah right," he squeals. "Like that's gonna happen!" And he does have a point.

Take a step back for a moment, and consider the evolution of this whole "royalty" thing. Early tribal and family groups had leaders, usually being the strongest, fittest and best suited to both survive and to lead. We can observe that today in the animal kingdom at large. The alpha male of a kangaroo flock near where I live is a cantankerous old sod that carries plenty of scars from fending off pretenders to his "throne".

As humanity became more "civilized", hereditary kingship overtook the older concept of tribal leaders being those best suited to lead. Sure, there is nothing stopping the incumbent's genes producing a "good" ruler, but it sure as heck doesn't ensure production of the "fittest" or "best". Consider the state of the European royalty by the late nineteenth century. Most of them were related. Queen Victoria was cousin, mother, grandmother or aunt to most of the European royal pack! So the inevitable happened—by only marrying into other royalty, the available gene pool became more and more limited—effectively inbreeding. Hemophilia became known as the "royal disease" due to its greater incidence among the nobility—a direct product of this unintentional inbreeding. The bottom line is that we moved further and further away from these rulers being the best or fittest.

At the same time that royalty were doing their best to interbreed themselves out of existence, growing social awareness led to increasing upheaval against the hereditary rule concept. Consider for example the Stuarts' adamant view of their divine right to rule, which was a major contributing factor to the English Civil War that saw Charles I deposed and beheaded. The state of play today is that the concept of the all-powerful ruling royalty has all but disappeared. The few remainders, certainly in Europe, are only figureheads and supposed tourist attractions (not to mention grist for the gossip magazines).

From at least as far back as Asimov's wonderful Foundation series, space opera all too often expects the reader to believe that humanity suddenly returned to the concept of a ruling, all-powerful royalty. Walter H. Hunt's Dark Wing series, a piece of militarist space opera I otherwise quite enjoyed, had a back-story of Earth having suffered greatly during a War of Succession. I can accept the concept of wars being fought between different factions or creeds seeking to rule, but wars being fought to put an all-powerful ruling royalty back in charge? The internal critic just leapt into warp drive.

I can readily suspend disbelief about all sorts of technologies and alien life forms, but the concept of an inexplicable and sudden urge to support a royalty rerun? It does help, however, if there is something particularly interesting about the ruling party that adds to the story. For example, Simon R. Green's Empress Lionstone in his Deathstalker series was such a psychotic, homicidal and insanely nasty bitch that I just had to keep reading. Although, after the inevitable rebellion was won and the Empress deposed, I never quite understood the populace's sudden desire for a constitutional monarchy. Emperor Palatine in George Lucas's Star Wars was another that was a little different—a senator who manipulated people and events through the dark side of the Force until in a position of being able to simply declare himself Emperor. Napoleonesque?

Chris Bunch and Allen Cole with their Sten series had an Emperor voted into the role of all-powerful ruler-for-life because he controlled the energy source which made interstellar flight possible. As much as I enjoyed Sten, that concept was a bit hard for me to swallow. Of course, the interesting twist was that this Emperor had made arrangements which ensured that clones of him automatically appeared after he had died, following a suitable period of the populace experiencing life without the energy source that he alone controlled. The rule-for-life became a rule-for-many-lives-of-one-man with the populace apparently generally accepting his regular reappearance.

In fairness, probably every other reasonably expected alternative has been explored and used, but we seem to keep returning all too often to the same gambit. We are also often asked to accept that the all-powerful hereditary ruling elite are usually the product of a long-lived, unbroken hereditary line. Green's Empress was the latest in a 900-year dynasty. The wonderful Frank Herbert in Dune had Emperor Shaddam as the latest in the 10,000-year House Corrino dynasty. Asimov's ruling royalty in Foundation, prior to the collapse of the Empire, was another product of extremely long-lived dynasties.

Why such long dynasties? Are we expected to accept that humanity, a species that seems to become more skeptical of things as it ages, accepts that situation unquestioningly? Or that in the high-tech far futures of space opera, other prospective claimants to the throne or anti-royalist rebels are never successful, or at least not until our heroes of that particular story arrive on the scene?

The thing is that it doesn't have to be like that. Kevin J. Anderson in his Seven Suns saga gave us an earthly ruling royalty with a public façade of appearing to rule and make the decisions. His Majesty was, however, just a figurehead behind which a faceless bureaucracy ran things, largely through the hands of one individual. When a king had outlived his usefulness, the incumbent, in at least one instance, was given a new identity and permitted to disappear into peaceful oblivion while the public mourned his supposed death. The heir to the throne had been carefully selected and prepared beforehand. No matter if the king had failed to produce a suitable heir—the bureaucracy simply found a suitable candidate from elsewhere in the populace and then announced that this was one of the king's children. This was only successful because the royal family was largely kept quite secret so that the general population wouldn't know that it was all a crock. I found this a nice touch, which also added to the storyline conflict when the latest incumbent decided to refuse to play along entirely as expected.

Okay, okay—I know what a lot of you are saying. Who is this turkey, and exactly what has he done that lets him become a critic? I don't have the publishing credential of any of those authors I have mentioned here. I just read a lot, try to write a bit, and I know what I like. But you know what—despite my criticisms, I keep reading the work of these authors anyway. That is because, at the end of the day, a good, entertaining storyline can overcome even this royalty bugbear of mine. Note the emphasis on good and entertaining as opposed to say the last of the Matrix series of films—that became such a tiresome trope, I was waiting for Lassie to suddenly dash out and save the day or a Vivian Leigh clone to flounce in, mint julep in hand, claiming that "after all, tomorrow is another day." Even the special effects didn't quite save that one from becoming a barf fest (shades of Colleen McCullough wandering around the set of Thornbirds yelling "Vomit material!"). But that is another whinge for another time.

So space opera rules, even if I don't necessarily like whom they have doing the ruling. With so many other angles, however, do we really have to keep resorting to the worn-out royalty concept?

Copyright © 2008, Ross Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Ross Hamilton

Frustrated/emerging/developing/whatever writer; great lover of science fiction. A growing portfolio of published fiction and non-fiction. Ross is currently doing post-graduate writing studies in Canberra, Australia.


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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