Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

3 comments

  1. Art is often reflective of the society and times in which it is produced. Modern dystopian science fiction could very well be a reflection of the general negativity of today’s society. It does seem like we’re not advancing at the rapid pace we once were (and I say this as someone who’s been on this planet now for just over 50 years). Perhaps standards of living have improved, but in some ways, it doesn’t feel like it. I know income hasn’t kept pace with cost-of-living, which means my generation isn’t as well off as my parents’ generation, and my daughter’s generation is, in some ways, even worse off than my own. That can lead to negative attitudes and a general gloominess. Add problems like global warming and looming mass extinctions into the mix and I can see why dystopia might be popular at the moment.

    All that being said, when I read science fiction, I tend to skip modern dystopian fiction and instead read the classics. I read authors like Wells and Verne. I read novels like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and THE MASTER OF THE WORLD. That’s what appeals to me, There was a sense of wonder to those old classics, even when they were dark (THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in particular is pretty damned dark). I also read old sci-fi pulp stories from the 1930s and the like, especially ones containing monsters and weird aliens. Give me off-world sci-fi stories any day over Earthbound dystopian stories! Even so, some of those early stories could be quite political in their own way, especially when talking works like THE TIME MACHINE. Still, it seems those early writers didn’t let the message overtake the story. THE TIME MACHINE is still a great story.

    When it comes to my own writing, as you know, I might not be much of a science fiction prose writer (about the only science fiction prose pieces I’ve seen published are 100 word drabbles), but I’ve written quite a few science fiction poems. Since I’m also a dark poet, a number of my science fiction poems have been on the darker side. Even so, I’ve written plenty of lighter works, works full of wonder. In some ways, when it comes to my science fiction poetry, I prefer my lighter works. I certainly buck the trend regarding Earthbound science fiction, since so many of my science fiction poems are about journeying through the cosmos that that is a running theme through my forthcoming collection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are clearly a man after my own taste. The old classics have always been the gateway to science fiction readership for a reason, and you hit it on the head when you mention the sense of wonder. That has been sadly missing from our modern day dystopias.

      Liked by 1 person

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