Earth Is Just One Planet

“…I can show you what I go to space opera for with a single image…

“That’s the Alexanderschlacht (The Battle of Alexander at Issus) by Albrecht Altdorfer, which was commissioned in 1528 by William IV, Duke of Bavaria. Altdorfer’s conception of the painting was almost certainly heavily influenced by the defeat of the Suleiman the Magnificent at the Seige of Vienna the next year, and his execution of the commission epitomizes what I look for in space opera…”

Alexanderschlacht portrays the victory of Alexander over Darius III in a battle that was the beginning of the end for the Persian Empire, which fell in 330 BCE with the death of Darius and Alexander’s assumption of his title as king, assuring the Hellenization of the Near East. The work’s composition is thought to echo the four-kingdom eschatology of the Book of Daniel—Babylon (note the distant Tower of Babylon at the left side of the painting, under the crescent moon), Persia, Greece, and Rome), with Alexander’s victory representing the triumph of Greece over Persia, and echoing the hope that the relief of Vienna represented the triumph of Christendom (i.e., Rome) over Islam.

“The description of the painting in Wikipedia starts by noting the “impossible viewpoint” of the painting, but that’s precisely what the Alexanderschlacht shares with space opera, and why it can serve as the picture-worth-a-thousand-words definition of the genre. Rather than “impossible viewpoint,” I’d call it the “archetypal perspective:” a close-up and even intimate view of heroic characters against a highly-detailed yet sweeping background meant to illustrate the fundamental struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. That’s what I go to space opera for.

“Look at how Altdorfer laid out the action: the incredibly-detailed foreground that highlights the two antagonists: Alexander sweeping in from the West (out of the Sun) at the head of his Companions, pursuing his defeated enemy Darius on his chariot fleeing to the East (towards the Moon), all surrounded by a swirl of cavalry and foot soldiers. All this is portrayed in a physically impossible perspective that rises up past the chaos of battle to portray the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus, the Nile, the Red Sea, and eventually encompasses three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and reveals the curvature of the earth at the horizon, with an apocalyptic sky dominating the whole. (And if you tilted the suspended description panel at the top of the painting back away from the viewer…Star Wars, anyone?)

“The painting is dense with symbolism and detail, ranging from unrealistic ones like ladies in court dress at the edge of the battle, to highly-archetypal ones like the Sun and crescent Moon. It’s a visual feast that invites zooming in and out, one that you can return to again and again, gaining something new each time, just like re-reading a big, chewy space opera (or epic fantasy, for that matter: check out my co-writer Sherwood Smith’s blog post on that subject). And really, one need only change a few details in the painting, add some spaceships, substitute blasters for lances, pull back a little farther so the Earth is just one planet in an even bigger panorama, and, voila: space opera…”

Text: Dave Trowbridge, Space Opera and the Siege of Vienna: the Archetypal Perspective,

Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus (Alexanderschlacht), 1529. Oil painting on panel, 158.4×120.3 cm.

Speed, immensity, dreaming

“George Lucas, according to his biographer, Dale Pollock, wanted to recapature the romance of space that had been kindled in him by early NASA missions, and “Star Wars,” too, follows the rules that Asimov helped set down. But “Star Wars” and the “Foundation” stories, despite the many things, that they share, have fundamental differences: “Star Wars” is about speed, faith, and fairy tales, and the “Foundation” is about size, science, and history. The differences are profound. I remember as a twelve-year-old already steeped in Asimov (and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, and the rest of them) being terribly disappointed by “Star Wars”; it seemed to lack any feeling for the things that made science fiction so important to me.

“I am mellower now, and can see that Asimov and Lucas were striving for different effects in different media. “Star Wars” is an essay in acceleration. Its iconic moment is the jump into hyperspace, the stars themselves accelerated to a vanishing-point blur. In all three original “Star Wars” films, it is the speed sequences that stick in the mind- the final assault on the Death Star, the ice skimmers attacking the great walking AT-AT tanks. While speed is not intrinsic to filmed science fiction (Stanley Kubrick delighted in the apparent slowness of his spacecraft in “2001”), it seems crucial to Lucas. His films before “Star Wars”–“THX 1138” and “American Graffiti”—reach a climax with cars moving at high speeds.  According to Pollock, Lucas’s key direction about almost everything was “faster and more intense.” The new “Star Wars” film, “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” has a set-piece drag race.”

“Written science fiction prefers size to speed. There is an authentic thrill in imagining big things – an odd sort of purity. The  French writer Gaston Bachelard, in “The Poetics of Space,” caught it beautifully: “Immensity is a philosophical category of day-dream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” That mark is one that written science fiction endlessy aspires to. It delights in artificial vastness; not just galactic empires but vast structures built out of the raw stuff of space and time, cities and nations uprooted and floating free, cyberspaces that offer infinitv inside a microprocessor.

“The printed word is much better at conveying this sense of immensity than film is. We have to be told, for example, that the Death Star is vast, because usually it looks no bigger than a beachball. The battle station’s interior offers – no vastness at all; its exterior is simply a backdrop against which to measure the speed of smaller spaceships. The “Foundation” series, on the other hand, clearly bears Bachelards mark of infinity. It’s  true that when Asimov tried for size that could be measured or enumerated he could let himself down. Numerically, his twenty-five-million world Empire, covers less than a tenth of a per cent of the galaxy’s hundred billion suns; Trantor, presented as a single city covering a world, is less crowded than Bangladesh. But such slips do not really matter. The sense of scale that drives the “Foundation” series resides in its ideas. The Empire is not just a set of places and planets: it is humanity’s sum total, a great entity that only history can describe and only science can contain.”

Oliver Morton, “In Pursuit of Infinity”. The New Yorker, May 17, 1999. p 87

Image: Azerbaijan Death Star Hotel

The immense void of space

“Galactic-empire fiction has always been an important branch of space opera: action-packed, adolescent, cheerfully anachronistic, deriving its world structure very loosely from information and myth about caste-ridden, sensual, and violent empires in their decadent phases. Yet it offers rich possibilities for expression of the vast, the sublime, and the exotically multicultural or multi- specific. The purpose of this essay is to examine how two expert and inventive contemporary writers of galactic-empire sf have taken up these opportunities and produced fiction that reflects, and reflects on, our contemporary situation-what is now conventionally labeled the postmodern condition…”



“To elaborate the characteristics of Iain M. Banks’s and Dan Simmons’s galactic-empire fiction […] we have inclusiveness, which launches these novels in a procedure of critique by overload rather than by irony. We have hedonism, virtually unaccompanied by the utopian impulse, riven and twisted with sado-masochism. We have complicated relations with textuality and intertextuality-a topic which may be opened in a preliminary way by positing a space in which the textualist and the cornucopian happily coexist (this is the space in which Gravity’s Rainbow and Foucault’s Pendulum-not to mention Ulysses-already confabulate, like some exotic, overcrowded intergalactic barroom). We have decentered subjects, self- unknowing, overlapping, pastiched, or simply crowded in multitudes, but, on the other hand, a violent sense of the dark reaches of the personality.

“It seems plausible that this fiction is the result of the operations of a postmodern imaginary on the materials of traditional galactic-empire sf; this imaginary operates mainly by excess, overload, and exacerbation. If the sketch offered in the rest of this essay is valid, then it is by pushing the earlier, adventurous, and exuberant fiction to the limits, piling invention on invention, juxtaposing spaces that are hard to relate, that this more recent galactic-empire fiction expresses the postmodern condition. What is the significance of the version of the post- modern that results? It can be suggested that there is an anxiety, an intense unease, in this excess, overload, and exacerbation. For all its richness, this fiction seems a long way from any sense of the postmodern as liberatory.”

Inclusiveness and the Extravagant Multiverse.

“The immense void of space is a temptation to the Western imagination: it seems to ask to be traversed, filed, settled, populated, ordered-and not only spatially but also temporally. Hence, perhaps, the popularity of sf about galactic empires, their gargantuan conflicts, heroes backlit to colossal dimensions by the stars or by starships exploding, in the casual disasters of those gargantuan conflicts, intrigues, and cruelties which are given grandeur by their scale, if nothing else. And if these empires are set in a future that is far from now, the consequence is that, being much older than us, they can be seen as archaic, based on exotic fantasies of hierarchy and power dimly related to Rome or Byzantium. In this way time as well as space is fantastically filled. Recent renditions of the galactic-empire novel have included Dan Simmons’s HYPERION novels and Iain M. Banks’s sf. These novels do exhibit the horror vacui to which I alluded above: space is full of planets, worlds, spaceships on the scale of worlds, empires. And all these are filled with societies and secret societies or sects, customs or perversions, classes or species, histories or games or histories as games, and conspiracies and apo-calypses (revelations and total disasters).

“The dynamic is proliferation and inclusion, though-as will be seen when the complications of spatiality in these novels are more closely examined-there is also an undertow of fragmentation and confusion. Previous sf is shamelessly pillaged and knowingly outdone, even if it might seem antagonistic (for instance, Simmons includes, outdoes, and affects contempt for Gibson’s cyberspace). Humanity is imagined to be able to do anything, though humans have no agency, and when individual characters are set before us, it is their lack of agency that is most poignant. Humans have the option of pleasure and exertion-self-expression, a range of activities, adventures, and excite- ments-but not of political choice. They are vessels of experience, like travelers with no home to return to. They exist to have their experiences so that we can read about them: this is the inescapable fate of characters in fiction, it might be pointed out, but this fate is given a particular edge in this context, where the characters are so often adventurous, enviably adept, and powerful in various clear-cut ways. Another way of framing this comment is to say that the characters live in the aesthetic rather than the political or the technological. They don’t choose or work; they experience, enjoy, suffer. These novels may reflect the late twentieth-century relations of politics and culture to the degree that, for instance, politics in the late twentieth century is presented as an entertainment and thereby aestheticized. Characters may lack agency, events may not be assimilable to that meaningful social movement through time that used to be called History, but both characters and events certainly have style.”

Christopher Palmer, “Galactic Empires and the Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks”,Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 73-90.

Image: Retro Spacecraft: How to use Maxon’s Cinema 4D to create a science-fiction spacecraft in the style of Chris Foss. By Adam Benton.

Keep the funk alive

“del i’m feeling like a ghost in a shell
i wrote this in jail playing host to a cell
for the pure verbal, they said my sentance was equivalent to
just another hurdle, i bounced through a portal
i knew they had the mindstate of mere mortals
my ears morphed to receptors to catch ya
every word about gravity control
and the families they hold for handsome ransoms
on the run with a handgun blast bioforms, I am more
than a planetwide manhunt with cannons
will make me abondon my foolish plan of uprising
fuck dying I hijack a mech
controlling with my magical chance so battle advance
through centuries a hip hop legacy, megaspeed
hyperwarp to automator’s crib and light the torch

they can’t fight the force,
victory is ours once we strike the source
enterprising wise men look to the horizon
thinking more capitalism is the wisdom
and imprison all citizens in power
with rythm
we keep the funk alive by talking with idioms…”

Deltron 3030, 3030.