Friday, December 18, 2009

An Opera in the Final Frontier

This entry has been written by Scott Rothrock for Exfanding Your Horizons. He has been many different kinds of geek throughout his life: book geek, cook geek, CCG geek, comic geek, Japan geek, computer geek, prop geek... and will doubtless explore more geekdoms in the future. Right now, he has started a writing blog called The Prism Glass, which aims to produce four stories weekly as well as blog posts on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

The Space Opera.

A ridiculous-sounding genre if there ever was one, right? Well, it's not quite what it sounds like. It certainly doesn't sound like opera, for one thing. For another, while the genre may contain its fair share of stinkers, it also contains a few gems.

The space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that seems to have more in common with traditional fantasy. Whereas "hard" science fiction focuses on technological and scientific aspects of a story and the impact that they have on people, space operas tend to focus on characters, with the technology simply being a means to an end. Many people have looked down on space operas, calling them simple fantasies with laser swords and spaceships. It focuses more on adventure, deeds of valor, and romance.

Star Wars fits the recipe perfectly.

Another hallmark of the space opera is the Implacable Foe. In Star Wars, the foe is Darth Vader. He is evil, ruthless, and not easily defeated. However, when he eventually is defeated through heroic effort, it is simply revealed that there is another, stronger foe hidden behind him! This is also an element of the space opera: a hierarchy of seemingly indefeatable enemies.

Before movies, space opera dominated science fiction in the form of serialized stories in pulp magazines. The pulp magazines spawned several science fiction legends in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but the story of the space opera takes place a bit earlier, in the so-called Silver Age.

A man named Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith essentially created thace space opera and many basic conceits of modern science fiction when he wrote a story about nigh-perfect men who formed a Galactic Patrol, fighting against the faceless Eddorian menace.

Grey LensmenTheir name? The Lensmen.

They were so named due to a Lens given to them by superior beings on the planet Arisia. So powerful was the Lens that the masters of Arisia refused to give it to any with even the slightest character flaw. The Lens was impossible to duplicate and granted the wearer a number of psychic powers. It also marked the bearer as being a member of an essentially superhuman police force.

The Lensmen were the elite forces of a Galactic Patrol, largely manned by beings who had, for some reason or another, not passed the stringent Arisian requirements despite being good people. Space as an environment is terribly hostile to living beings, but fortunately Doc Smith was up to the challenge.

He wrote about large ships housing hundreds, thousands of men in the fashion of the modern navy. These ships were protected by "force screens" and fired "Q-beams" at other ships in massed battle. Smaller ships were also employed for fighting and the transport of personnel. Whenever Smith had something for his characters to accomplish, the technology necessary was made whether or not it was actually feasible in the modern day.

Galactic PatrolWhile these technologies sound mundane to us now, Doc Smith wrote about them in the 1930s and 1940s, when science fiction was still very much in its infancy. These kinds of technologies seemed incredibly fantastic and radical in those days -- after all, readers had never been jaded by endless amounts of Star Trek or Star Wars.

Even George Lucas once cited the Lensmen as being a major inspiration for Star Wars, and it's easy to see why.

Unfortunately, Doc Smith's stories have suffered over the years. His unadorned writing style is now "boring" and "stilted", his morally-perfect characters "unimpressive" and "two-dimensional". Even sadder, perhaps, is that his stories, which could be said to have given birth to many of the classic tropes of science fiction, are now "cliched" and "predictable". They are scorned for the same qualities that should make them treasures.

Some publishers are now releasing new editions of Doc Smith's Lensman books, and I strongly encourage you to pick them up if you have any interest at all in science fiction.


GarHoch said...

Lensmen also had some influence on Green Lantern. Representatives from many races joining a galagtic peacekeeping organization. There is even a Lantern named Arissa, after the E.E. Smith race.

Scott said...

Yeah -- the Green Lantern Corps is almost a direct copy of ("homage to") the Galactic Patrol, with rings instead of lenses. Of course, it went down its own path eventually -- I don't think E. E. Smith ever imagined any of his Lensmen going bad, since they were all perfect.