Writing Excuses 8.26: Space Opera

This week’s episode covers the perjoratively-named sub-genre, space opera. These are adventure stories in which the setting is futuristic, but in which the science is secondary. The lines are blurry, as they are with any definition of genre, but we’re pretty sure that Howard writes space opera.

A possible definition? Space Opera is when the author uses science to justify the cool stuff he or she has come up with.

We talk about the decisions that go into writing a space opera, how Howard has gone about it, and what you might focus on in order to write a compelling, adventurous romp.

Pithy Howardism: “If I pee far, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”


Posit a faster-than-light drive that nobody else has thought of. Or at least that you haven’t heard of.

The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.26: Space Opera”

  1. I find myself agreeing with Brandon’s initial stance. Any form of science fiction, no matter how hard SF it is, has to eventually run into the “I don’t know” problem because if we knew *how* to do it then it wouldn’t be science fiction. If you stick to what we know then you’re no longer in the genre.

    For example even keeping space travel out of the equation we know how to communicate instantaneously. That is not science fiction. We know how to make basic automatons so they aren’t science fiction. We don’t know how to make ones with the intricacies of human behaviour or AI so they are science fiction. You could argue that perhaps we know we just need X better processing power or to improve X from its modern level to a certain future level but then you still run into the fact that we don’t know how to get X there now otherwise we’d have done it already.

    Ultimately I find Brandon’s initial warning holds true and that’s important because it builds off of Howard’s trick of explaining one thing and handwaving another as it warns listeners not to get too caught up trying to explain and style every little thing in their sci-fi as that is essentially the sci-fi version of world builders disease. Also the realization that we don’t know everything helps keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. Which is always a good thing.

  2. Of course we can know how to do it and it’s still science fiction. As Stan Schmidt, longest-running editor of Analog magazine put it, science fiction is any story where the science is essential to the story, i.e. if you take the science out the story falls apart.

    Now, that said, a lot of space opera isn’t science fiction, it just a western (“Outland”) or epic fantasy (“Star Wars”) with Arthurian magic (Clarke*, not Pendragon) and set in space. Nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s entertaining.

    (*As in, Clarke’s Third Law)

  3. I’ve actually had an FTL drive concept for a while, but I’ve never really been able to come up with a satisfying setting to use it in (I tend towards Classical-Renaissance era fantasy concepts), and as far as I know, nobody’s used anything quite like it, at least at the semi-detailed level.

    The basic concept is targeted wormholes – connect point A to point B, fly through – the 2 main problems with this are how do you fly through it (wormholes tend to be on the small side, at least without absurd amounts of energy, as I recall), and why does it go somewhere specifically:

    For going through it, my original idea was generating a black hole within the ship, with the wormhole at the center – the ship gets pulled in by enormous gravity and spat out the other side of the wormhole. There are couple of problems with this: why does the ship reassemble at the other end, do black holes close up again if they’re artificially created, etc. Perhaps taking advantage of mass-energy equivalence could be used – drop a probe that fits in the wormhole (a wormhole that fits a cubic inch of robot is, while still consuming massive amounts of energy, much more energy efficient than the one that can swallow an entire ship), then convert the entire ship to energy and data, transmit it all through, and have the probe reconstruct it on the other side. This assumes vast technological prowess, but then, FTL of any form requires that. You’d have to leave behind a disposable transmitter on the other side as you went through, which would limit the number of FTL jumps you could make even if you could refuel, at least for ships that could not harvest materials and manufacture such devices.

    As for targeting the wormhole, I propose that the beings using this technology have discovered some application of the pairing phenomenon in quantum physics that allows one particle launched at the speed of light and its partner to be stored at a space station specifically designed for the purpose, and a way to open a wormhole connecting these particles. Thus, a steady stream of said particles sent from one star system to another would, once the stream began to reach the target star, enable targeted wormholes to be opened to the other system by selecting the mate of one of the particles currently passing through that system. As the wormhole generator needs to hold the paired particle stationary, it is pretty much a one-way trip. In order to produce a trade route between the systems, one would have to send the beam to the new system, wait until it reaches the system, then send a team to construct another of the specialized space stations in order to enable transit back.

    The reason I like this concept is mainly for the implications in writing – it enables practical space travel along preconstructed routes without enabling one to escape from any situation or transport yourself around a battlefield freely. A ship could run out of transmitters far from home and thus become stranded, or a colony crew could reach a system inhabited by another, possibly hostile species, and have no way home for the many years (decades, centuries, whatever) it takes for their new transport station to link up with the network, as well as facing the decision about whether or not we should connect these hostile aliens to our transportation network or just mark the star as dangerous and expand around it.

    I have to admit, it won’t exactly please a hard-SF fanatic – all of the physics I fully understand is Newtonian, and this plays with both relativity concepts (the wormholes and mass-energy equivalence) and quantum mechanics (specifically, the entanglement phenomenon), so I’m in _way_ over my head as far as understanding the real implications of these things. But then, it’s a lot less handwavy than the Star Wars “pull the lever and I go very fast” hyperdrives.

  4. There is a great space opera and hard science fiction resource on the web. It is at
    http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/index.php. Just click on the “Show Topic List” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen. There you will find a multitude of typical space opera and science fiction subjects delved into. Subjects covered include real, plausible extensions to real and completely fantastic subjects. A lot of the articles skip over the “how do we do it” and go straight to “if it was possible how would it work” subjects. Some of the subjects covered in some detail include engines (rocket and otherwise), space stations (in pretty much any configuration someone has dreamed up so far), side arms (from mundane guns to ray guns, blasters, etc.), space war, and many more. Also included are graphs to simplify calculations (how long would it really take to get to Jupiter if I could accelerate at 5G continuously) and online calculators for various subjects where you plug in a few numbers and it figures out what the correct answer is.

    The site is chock full of fun stuff for the less technically inclined. There is lots of art work, references to classic sci-fi and other totally cool stuff. Just wander around. I promise you will be completely sucked in.

  5. I’m trying to piece together a SO right now. For FTL I cheat, but in a good way. The FTL thing works by being transported to another dimension by trans dimensional beings. These beings makes deals with intrastellar civilizations where they open dimensiuonal doors in exchange for 10% of the stars energy after they’ve fizzled out or gone nova. In my story there’s of course inner strife in the trans dimensional ranks and the interstellar capability is effected. Humans and other beings from our dimension must be locked in stasis pods while travelling in the other dimension where there are different laws of physics and you can travel several times the speed of light. The trans dimensional beings are also involved in other parts of the plot, but that’s another story (in this story).

  6. I just finished a 2-month sprint from the first episode back in season one to this one. I guess I’m actually out of excuses now.

  7. @Rashkavar, I have a similar one (although it’s not as well thought out as yours) that specifically allows for always open wormholes and for one end of the “portal” to be moved around while the other remains stationary. This would mean you can have a constant wormhole connecting the ship to a remote power and fuel source (and an ice planet for a nice heat-sink), but it has difficulties with lack of limitations and such.

    My current space opera setting that I’m sort of obsessing over involves this sort of alternate “ghost” universe that constantly stretches and flows in weird ways, you can shift into it ride the flows for a few hours and shift back millions of light-years from where you started, but you need these specialized A.I. to read the fluctuations of ghost-space and calculate all it’s uses. It’s some pretty hand-wavy stuff, but the tech is also used for these cool weapons (ghost-universe bladed portal-lasers) and propulsion systems (creating ghost anchor points that can be used in a manner not too unlike steel-pushing and iron-pulling) and stuff that make for some visually awesome space combat (think highly acrobatic, sword-fighting spaceships) and since comics are my main storytelling medium, visually awesome combat is worth a lot.

  8. …Howard… I’m not really comfortable with somebody swallowing my hyperdrive hole… I don’t want anyone even touching it…

    Dan- I heard you chuckling.

  9. I hate it break it to y’all, but scientists get to the end of their knowledge and say, “I don’t know, but I think.” I think of science fiction more along the lines of “I don’t know, so let’s extrapolate way beyond our data points and pretend X is true.” Which, I have to say, is really fun and people have correctly predicted some pretty impressive things. They’ve been wrong a lot too (Martians, underground civilizations, dinosaurs still living deep on islands, to name a few), but even the ones that get it wrong are a fantastic window into how we understood the world. As a scientist I love seeing what people speculate based on their understanding of science. Often they’ve made incorrect assumptions (sometimes spectacularly so), but even that is illustrative of how people see the world around them working.

    I find internal consistency is one of the most important parts of my enjoyment of science fiction. It’s okay to bend the physics of the world as long as it’s set up somewhere before it becomes important to the plot. Oh, and as long as the bending of physics is constant. There are a lot of bad science fiction books and movies out there. The ones I hate most are those that purport to be science fiction, start out laying down a physics of their world, and then violate those physics when it’s convenient. Or even better, pull out some random “magic science” to explain/fix a problem.

    One of my least favourite science fiction movies is Signs because the ‘signs’ before the aliens showed up were not good indicators it was a science fiction/alien movie (and yes, I live in a box so I’d heard nothing about the movie before popping the dvd into the player). I watched the first, what, 2/3 of the movie blithely assuming it was a drama about a family learning to cope with the death of the mother and that was the central conflict. Then suddenly there were aliens. The stupidity of oxygen-breathing aliens being allergic to water was just icing on that particular cake.

  10. Thanks so much for making an episode about space opera. It was entertaining and informative. Space opera is my favorite flavor of science fiction. I mostly write dark urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and it is easy to bring elements of those into a futuristic outer space setting with space opera. This episode also came at a good time as I am currently writing a space opera for a blog as a side project just to have fun with.

    Thanks again, looking forward for next weeks podcast.

  11. As for my jump drive idea, this is the one I am using in my story right now, not that original I don’t think but has fun story implications. Here is a partial glossary of terms, it’s how I keep things straight, a reference.

    Paper Representation: Though the math is only understood by a few high level mathematicians and can only be calculated by advanced computer systems, the representation of how a jump works is simple. If you draw 2 stars on paper and draw a line between them, there will be a midpoint on that line and two end points. If you fold the paper at the midpoint so that the two end points touch exactly, the two halves of the line will also touch exactly. A jump coil can do essentially that, but for a space ship. Folding space, often called an Envelope, Fold, Jump or FTL Drive. Or Paper Drive for giggles, as showing how a jump drive works is about the only use for paper in this far future….

    Jump Coil: A device for folding space, made up of gravity plates in a coil formation. Charging up the coil can take time, the longer the jump the longer the charge time.

    Matter Reactor: Power plant for most space fairing vessels. Uses pure Hydrogen of 1 atomic mass, no neutrons, any isotopes of hydrogen (dueterium, tritium) will cause neutronium build up. This build up will decrease the efficiency of of the reactor over time and need to be cleaned. Neutronium can be highly radioactive. Other types of matter can be used but this sort of ‘dirty fuel’ will increase neutron build up.

    Crash Charge: Charging the coil too quickly, can lead to malfunction as the coil is not uniformally energized. Can lead to coil breakage, a catastrophic failure that will leave a ship stranded in an unknown location.

    Jump Distance: The range a ship can jump, depends on the mass of the ship and how much energy has been applied to the coil. Bigger coils can hold more energy. 5-10 light year jumps are not uncommon.

    Jump Shock: The act of simultaneously being in two places at the same time leads to jump shock. Everyone gets it, some more than others. It can lead to psychosis in those unaccustomed to it, surprised by it, ill prepared, simply prone to it etc…even the most hardened of space veterans is disoriented upon jumping. Bent line translations are the worst.

    Bent Line Translation: Space is not a piece of paper, it is folded and twisted. Straight lines are just not straight lines at all but 3 dimenional curves and spirals. Calculating a jump must take all of this into account. The more ‘bent’ a jump line is out of the euclidian straight line ideal the worse the jump shock. People can get sick or even die from a hard jump. Complete disaster.

    Intervening Stars: If in your straight line from point A to point B there is an intervening star, or worse a black hole, the bending of the line will be so great that you cannot make accurate jumps across. You end up in a largely unpredictable location and a crew so impacted by jump shock many will die.

    Procedural Hurdles: So for an accurate jump with minimal shock you have to have an accurate map of your destination and also a nice straight line to travel with no stars bending your line. You need to know the EXACT distance and direction to get to your destination, and then the EXACT mass of the vessel you are trying to move so as to know how much energy to dump into your coil, accounting for any EM interference in the area that can muck up calculations.

    System Survey: The brave men and women of the survey teams are the first ones to enter a star system to map routes. Not much can be seen from a deep space scan so approach is generally done from the outer system, jumping into a point above the hoped rotational plane of planets and asteroids. The ship slowly traverses the system mapping all objects and their revolution paths along the way.

    Accuracy: A well mapped starting and ending location and a relatively short straight line calculation can give the computer enough information to calculate nearly pinpoint precise jumps. So a ship can easily jump from Earth orbit to the orbit of Alpha Centauri 5 as it is one of the most well mapped and direct routes in human space.

    Jump Footprint: The energy of the jump is bled out mostly at the destination point, emitting gravitons in an amount depending on the charge of the jump coil. This footprint can be seenfor several light minutes, depending on footprint size. It isn’t a dangerous amount of radiation, just easy to spot.

    Sedation: Being asleep has been tried as a solution to jump shock, but being asleep and dreaming during a translation can lead to nightmares taking weeks to fully wake up from. Cryo sleep is one option, but dreams are still occurring then. There are drugs that block dreaming but their psychological effects are often much worse than simply being awake during a jump.

  12. For my own FTL drives, I’ve always liked the idea of a starship moving in a spissitudinal (along the w-axis) direction. The speed of light would still be a bounding limit, but moving along the w-axis should open up the possibility of circumventing the circuitousness of our normal x, y, and z axes. Essentially, because the distances between point A and B should be shorter spissitudinally than longitudinally, a ship traveling spissitudinally might be able to beat light traveling longitudinally, all while not actually going faster than light itself (indeed, light traveling spissitudinally would beat it, hands down).

    I can’t imagine that this hasn’t been used in science fiction before, though: I just happen to not be very well read in the genre. But regardless, thanks for giving me an excuse to say “spissitude”!

    *Josh, it depends on what one calls science fiction. For example, let’s say that I write a near future story in which the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act gets repealed and now the main character is now oppressed because of his/her DNA. I suspect such a story could be marketed as science fiction due to the fact that it would rely so much on the technological/scientific flavor of the setting. The science is solid: it’s the social implications of that science that would be the fiction.

  13. I think that one’s rubber science regarding FTL does not need to be too sophisticated unless it’s a major part of the story.

    Simply applying a bunch of power and jumping to wherever you want is sufficient for most stories. Perhaps a limit to ‘starlanes’ or ‘nav points’ if connectivity and a ‘roadmap’ style universe is desired.

  14. Hi,

    I hope it’s ok to post my question here.
    I’ve started to listen to your podcast a while back and I’m slowly working my way through the archives, but what I wonder is: All the knowledge you share with us, is it something you have learned before actually starting to write or is it something that came to you along the way?
    I guess what i wanna say is: If I intend to write a novel/book/whatever, how much of this “professional” knowledge is necessary and how much of the things you discuss come up automatically along the way of writing?

    Best regards, Stefan from Germany (just in case my English sucks ;)

  15. (Your English is fine)

    I will dare to guess what the ‘casters would answer to this; I believe Brandon’s refrain is that you have to write a million words to get good. Presumably that number will be reduced by professionally educating oneself, but I suspect not by that much.

  16. Growing up I never really thought much about distinctions in types of sci-fi. I loved stuff like Star Trek and I wanted to write similar kinds of stories. I realise now that I could never write hard sci-fi. I’m currently working on a space opera novel. I did a little research, like what happens when you’re exposed to vacuum, and how galactic coordinates work, but you guys have convinced me that I should learn a little more.

  17. Stefan, I dare say that the “learned” verses “came to you” dichotomy is an oversimplification. I get the impression that it’s a feedback loop for a lot of writers, our beloved podcasters included. Howard is an example of this: in seasons 1&2, I recall several instances where he wasn’t sure what Brandon or Dan meant by a particular term. But, once he understood a term, it would come out that he was already using the concept, having discovered it himself, but just not knowing the formal title of it. Yet, at the end of Season 2, he then went on and said that the formalized knowledge had helped him improve his craft.

    Basically, as we learn from others, we discover new ways to improve our own techniques, which in turn allow us to better understand the stuff we learn from others, which discover new refinements, which… and so on.

  18. Wormholes run into issues–and it’s been done before. Countless times. From Einstein it’s theorized that you’d have lots of trouble traveling through one such that ages wouldn’t match by the time you returned.

    Black holes, you’d need a collapsed star. That’s a lot of energy and I’d have trouble believing a star ship could hold a sun. Period. (You could run a dimension theory through it, but really?) Plus the ethical considerations.

    I do have one that I’m pretty certain has not been done before, though the science is a bit hard to get. (I read a lot of Science Fiction so I’m fairly sure and I triple checked with physicists, etc.)

    The first principle would be there are Parallel Universes, kind of like a layer cake (or for you geek fans, like a Star Trek chess board).

    So say, your ship is on one plane, if you are able to move to the other plain and fix coordinates, thus bending space on the other plane (as in the principle a straight line is the shortest distance between two points), then you can move anywhere in space on the other plane.

    In another words, you can move the piece more easily being above or below to another spot because you’re physically outside of it.

    It’s technically not an FTL drive, then, but it still has the same effect. (Employs string theory and a bunch of other maths.)

    I’m working on editing the story again… though I don’t get into the techy stuff of how it works.

    I also threw in other types of travel as well, since it bothered me that FTL drives are said to be cheap, but what about the poor sod working a freighter route? Can they always get a drive like that? Bugged me. So I have to back that up, people who do have different grades of drives, some who don’t have drives at all and then a lot of coping drugs for the long space ride of doing nothing with no one.

    I stuck some realism into my science, hoping to make fun of the made up science that’s conventional in Science Fiction. I have other systems also… such as gravity, oxygen, etc.

  19. I’m glad I caught when this was recorded because I was going to ask, “Howard, why didn’t you mention your foray into space opera in Space Eldritch?”
    But yeah, July 2012 makes sense.

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