Colorful, dramatic, and large-scale: riffing on several sf/f topics
Epics in Space!
A while ago I was chatting with an acquaintance online, who had asked me what kinds of science fiction I liked. I tried not to ramble too much, so I listed off some sub-genres along with a comment that I like a lot of different things. Though the person I was chatting with described themself as a sci fi fan, they had never heard the term “space opera” before, and asked me if it was a kind of sci fi musical. So I had to explain that the opera in space opera was related more to the type of stories that a lay person might associate with opera, and how the term was a derivative of the term “soap opera.” The stories are colorful, dramatic, often having sweeping epic feel to the plot (think pirates, or wars, or the succession of thrones), and where most of the action happens in space.
Turns out that this guy’s idea of science fiction was a bit different than most, because when I asked his favorites, he listed Game of Thrones, the Sookie Stackhouse books, and the Darkover series—which I think of as fantasy, rather than science fiction.
Clearly, as with any label, there is going to be some dispute about whether a particular work of art fits into the category, and whether the category itself makes sense. And sometimes part of the issue is like the confusion of this guy: the term “space opera” is more closely related to the old Latin meaning of “opera” as a plural of “opus” than the modern meaning of a type of musical performance. So a modern English speaker misunderstands the term. A similar kind of confusions is probably why there don’t seem to be any books being labeled “planetary romance” lately. For full explanation of this, take a look at this post by Cora Buhlert: The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance.
The term “romance” in this case refers to a literary term from the 17th century, which can be defined as: “a fictitious narrative depicting a setting and adventures remote from everyday life.” Which is why, by the way, a lot of what we would think of as science fiction of the late 19th Century and very early 20th Century was sometimes labeled “scientific romance.” It had nothing to do with two people falling in love, but rather an adventure with either circumstances, setting, or characters that no one would describe as mundane.
If you haven’t read Buhlert’s blog post (which you should do, because it’s good), let me quickly explain that a planetary romance is generally a science fiction adventure story set on a single world. And more specifically, where the culture, geography, and/or history of the world play a prominent role in the story. There is more than a bit of overlap between planetary romance and space opera, which Buhlert details better than I could.
Thinking about labels always sends me down multiple rabbit holes. I have very strong feelings about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, yet I once freaked out a friend at my strong insistence that Babylon Five was techno-fantasy, not science fiction. My argument was that just because it is using science fiction tropes, settings, and accessories, the fundamental world-building (the origins of the Vorlons and the Shadows, and more importantly the ancient races all the way back to the First Ones) were mythological, not scientific. It’s one thing if a story was written at a time when we didn’t know the age of the universe, and we were still trying to figure out evolution. It Straczynski had written Babylon Five in the 19th Century rather than the late 20th, then yes, his world building would have been right in line with current scientific thought.
Now, I made that argument at a time in my life when I was feeling a particularly pedantic and was doing a much poorer job of repressing my inner asshole. I don’t begrudge anyone calling it science fiction, and there has never been a science fiction tale written that got every last bit of science right. More than one person has proposed a definition of science fiction thusly: “in which imaginary science is posited, and the subsequent story follows the imaginary science consistently.” Which is one way to avoid the critiques about faster-than-light travel, which appears ever more unlikely as our understanding of physics improves, for instance. But once we let the label get that flexible, we have to ask ourselves: just how much differently can the science in your imaginary world be?
Is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series science fiction? In that story, the world is an enormous disc balanced on four elephants standing on the back of a turtle that is flying through interstellar space, with a tiny satellite sun orbiting the whole turtle-elephant-disc assembly (and planets such as our, orbiting much larger stars, are simply eggs that will one day hatch into baby turtles with elephants and discs upon them). Pratchett sets up rules about how magic flows from the central spire of the mountains at the center of the disc, and other things that he then tries to stay consistent as he tells his tales. So, could it be argued as an edge case science fiction tale? Well, we can certainly argue about it, but I want to go a little further out there.
Spoiler Alert: From here on, I will be talking about plot points of Good Omens. Proceed at your own risk.
I posit that the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is science fiction. It imagines that the entire universe (including the fossils that seem to be hundreds of millions of years old) was literally created a mere 6000 years ago, and that angels and demons are real, and that the creator has an ineffable plan for it all. It further imagines that at least some prophets really can see the future, and that the apocalypse described in the New Testament book of Revelations is a real thing that will happen once the anti-christ comes to power.
And everything that happens in the book tries to stay true to those assumptions. That being the case, one could argue that not only is it science fiction, but that is is a planetary romance. Why? Well:
- It is set on only one world, Earth,
- the central plot is driven by the fact that both the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale have become very fond of Earth, its the people and their cultural artifacts (food, fine wine, music),
- and the forces that oppose them are the heaven vs hell apocalyptic stuff baked into the Earth at its creation
I recently wrote a review of the Good Omens mini-series, in which I confessed that I hadn’t read the book until earlier this year (and that I liked it so much that I read it again, then downloaded the BBC radio play version and listened to that). So I watched the mini-series the weekend it debuted, and this last week-end I rewatched the whole thing. There are lots of things I noticed the second time through that I missed the first, and I think it is definitely worth watching more than once!
Now, even though Neil Gaiman (who co-wrote with the late great Terry Pratchett the original novel published in 1990) wrote the script of the new series and served as the showrunner, I knew that there would be changes from the original. Some of those changes were necessary to update the story from 1990 (minor example: the home of the demon Crowley in the book is described in great detail, but the show’s version looks very different; the book’s version of the flat sounds very much like cutting-edge interior decorating of the late 1980s, while Crowley is always embracing the latest in cool, so his home decor will look very different in 2019, so the set designer changed it), others were to fill in gaps, or to even out emotional arcs that play differently on screen than on paper—those were all to be expected. Some of the differences fall into a different category.
Some of those differences jumped out at me during the re-watch, and I was trying to figure out how to put that type of change into words, when I found this blogpost on the Wisteria Lodge tumblr: Crowley & Aziraphale: Book vs. Miniseries. Before I jump into this, I want to steal a disclaimer from the Wisteria Lodge post:
(and just to be REALLY CLEAR, I love them both. But the differences are fascinating, since it’s the same author adapting his work after almost 30 years. And how often do you get to see *that*?)
How someone perceives the personalities of the characters in the series will vary from how they appear in the book if for no other reason than to see an actor embody the character, and infuse the character with their own understanding is going to be different than what any individual reader imagined while reading it, right? But as the author of the linked blog post points out (and you should go read the whole post yourself, it is really good!), the central characters of Crowley and Aziraphale are written differently.
The author of the blog post lays out differences in the characters they saw. For me, the thing I noticed was the series!Crowley became more cynical and more angry over the centuries. Tempting Eve to take the apple was just a bit of fun, and he never expected that god would throw the humans out of the idyllic garden and into the harsh world because of it. Meanwhile, book!Crowley’s level of cynicism doesn’t ever overwhelm his baseline facade of cool detachment.
Similarly, book!Aziraphale isn’t all sweetness and light. Yes, he’s the softie who gave the flaming sword to Adam and Eve so that they could protect themself, but in the book he also has no compunction with using his powers to frighten away mobsters. And he’s also the one who suggests killing the 11-year-old anti-Christ. In the book it is Aziraphale who sincerely makes the argument that it is for the greater good. In the series, those arguments were given to the Archangel Gabriel. Series!Aziraphale has been trying to stick to the divine plan for the last 6,000 years, and remains convinced until rather late that heaven will listen to reason if only things are explained to them. While book!Aziraphale knows that that will never happen.
The novel was definitely about questioning authority and questioning the roles society assigns you and questioning the definitions of morality. There was also a lot of commentary about the nature of power structures, the nature of ignorance, and the power of denial. And all of that is still in the series, but the subtle shift, most evident in the slightly different characterizations of Aziraphale and Crowley, and how their arcs play out, shifts more of the emphasis onto not just questioning authority, but holding authority accountable. It’s not just questioning roles assigned to you, but asking why those roles never allow for vulnerability. And it doesn’t just question the definitions of morality, by the time the show is over it demonstrates that the traditional picture of the forces of heaven isn’t different in any important way from the forces of hell.
Love plays a much more overt role in the themes of the series than in the book. Adam’s love for the part of the country where he grew up, his love for his friends, his love of the idea of what his dog should be, and so forth all play a big role in averting the apocalypse. Then there is the mutual love and respect of Aziraphale and Crowley (and you can’t just call it friendship: Aziraphale threatens to never speak to him again if he doesn’t think of something, and Crowley stops time itself and then gives the 11-year-old anti-Christ the pep talk he needs to avert the apocalypse; that’s love). And of course, it’s Adam’s realization about the importance of his earthly parents loving and caring for him, and how it trumps his Satanic heritage is the heart of the resolution.
Over all, I think while I still love the book immensely, the mini-series gives a more mature and nuanced take on the serious topics which are being tackled with all this silliness and cheek.