“Beer-money hard-pulp cyber-opera”, or “Defining the indefinable”

Definitions, descriptions, genres and sub-genres … it looks like the sf blogosphere is unearthing more evidence to demonstrate that the harder you try to put things in a box, the more likely you are to find that the box doesn’t fit.

First of all, Andrew Wheeler decided to expand on his original ‘beer-money’ post (yeah, the one I riffed on already). This is a welcome expansion – I can see where he was going much more clearly now. It’s a good little piece, so go read it. But here’s the takeaway for me, right at the end:

“One of two things could make SF’s language more accessible to readers: either SF (or some subset of it) limits itself to very clearly understandable extrapolations (which wouldn’t necessarily mean really near-future; I suspect very unscientific Galactic Empire adventure stories would be the best bet), or the language of SF extrapolation becomes massively more widespread and central in our culture. Since I don’t see either of those things happening any time soon, I guess we’re stuck over in here in our ghetto. But we’re used to it; we’ve been here since the days of Gernsback, and, to be honest, we’ve really done wonders with the place. I doubt ol’ Hugo would even recognize it…”

From the outset, let’s face the fact the Andrew knows his sf history infinitely better than do I. That is why he has managed to condense some ideas I’ve been kicking around for ages into a neat and pithy little paragraph – spot-on diagnosis. What I would add, though, is that many genres of many artforms suffer from (or perhaps thrive on) this same ghettoisation by nomenclature. Try talking to a modern art afficionado – without a good grounding in the scene, you’ll be lost when they try to explain that Damien Hurst is a great artist exactly because his art is so terminally baffling to the unitiated. It’s a club, a treehouse gang, with one of those little codewheels from a cartoon mag, and top secret passwords for keeping kid sisters and parents in the dark. And maybe one of those tin-can-and-string telephones … I always wanted one of those. Ahem. Anyway, hold that thought.

Next up, Jonathan Strahan (in what I assume is an unconnected incident) started wondering about the definition of ‘new space opera’, and how it compared to ‘old space opera’, if indeed there is such a thing as either:

“So, what do I mean? Well, if all of that stuff is ‘space opera’ and not ‘new space opera’ or ‘old new space opera’ or ‘new old space opera’, then is there something else? Yes. Space opera has always been popular. It has always been science fiction’s dominant form, even when it wasn’t cool or whatever. And throughout space opera’s history there have been writers of ‘retro space opera’: writers who continue to create older forms of space opera for reasons of art or commerce. They effectively pastiche space opera, rather than partake of its continuing evolution. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it creates the impression that there’s space opera (that old stuff) and something new. It’s an error of perspective. There’s actually space opera and that other old stuff. I’m just saying.” [My emphasis.]

That got some fairly vociferous responses from a commenter who argues for a simpler ‘adventures in space’ definition. Then the mighty Niall Harrison weighed in with his ten pence worth at Torque Control:

“I like the definition that Jonathan quotes in the comments — ‘lovesongs to the way the future was’ — since an awful lot of modern space opera does seem to have that sense that we can’t get there from here. But he also lists ‘[Alastair] Reynolds, [Iain M.] Banks and [Stephen] Baxter’ as definite space-opera writers, and while I think the first two are probably fair associations (granting that both have also written non space-opera work), I’m not so sure about the third.

You may well be waiting for me to explain who’s right. If so, you’re going to be disappointed. Hold to the bold, and come with me on a little analogical trip into my past. [Insert wobbly-screen effect here]


Ah, 1993. I and most of my cohorts are long-haired teenaged metal-heads in our final year of A-levels. We are in a ‘study period’ – you know, those points on your daily schedule that are designed for you to do some serious revision-type action, gen up your lesson notes, catch up on homework and coursework. Naturally, we are doing none of these. Oh no. We are having a debate that might have been entitled “what makes a band (or more specifically a record) ‘metal’?”I started it, to be honest. I was a newish member of the clique, having moved from another school at the start of my A-levels and arrived on the local scene as a strange cross between a baggy indie-kid and last-gasp Nephilim-style goth. I liked a lot of metal music too, but some of my ideas on what that meant weren’t so popular. My cheery labelling of Rage Against The Machine as ‘metal’ kicked off the (largely good-natured but fiercly fought) vocal brawl mentioned earlier.


The details are unimportant; the setting, the situation is critical. To deconstruct: a bunch of people belonging to a fragmented subculture are debating the criterion of membership in that subculture. Each of them ascribes to a sub-sub-genre that may be so subtly and minutely different to the others that its distance cannot be measured in any realistic terms. And (here it comes) each of them had a definition for what made something ‘metal’ that fit remarkably closely to the contents of their own stack of copied C90s.Much has been made of the old saw ‘science fiction is what I point at when I say science fiction’*, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the greatest truism in the genre. The examples above demonstrate this brilliantly. Sf is trapped outside the mainstream by its dense self-referential history and trope-recycling. It is an error of perspective to say that there is such a thing as ‘new space opera’ as opposed to simply ‘space opera’, just as it is an error of perspective to say that the opposite is true. Niall gets the language right, whether deliberately or otherwise: he thinks, he’s not sure.

How the hell can we expect two words, ‘space opera’, to accurately encompass one entire novel, much less a nebulous yet long-running sub-subcultural movement with as many strands as it has had adherent writers and fans? Logically, we can’t. But the part of us that seeks to define ourselves by the things we love, well, that part just has to have its say. I know what space opera is. It’s what I’m reading when I find myself thinking, ‘oooh, this is a good bit of space opera’. Space opera is in the eye of the beholder, if you will.

As the metal analogy has probably indicated, this all ties in to my previous rants on the cultural similarities between various fragmented subcultures, which in that example were science fiction and rock music. What the space opera posts have been exactly equivalent to is a room full of hirsute teens arguing over whether RATM are more punk than metal, or vice versa. There is no right answer. RATM are RATM. Iain M. Banks is (thank whatever gods or logic systems you hold dear) Iain M. Banks. The labels are, as they say at Halfords, an aftermarket accessory – sometimes added by the manufacturer to cater to an established subset of buyers, but just as likely to be a third-party creation by a clique of enthusiasts.

And you know what? I think it’s bloody great that we can have these sort of arguments, facilitated by these here intarwebs (although a con bar with good beer and affordable food would do just as well). Wanna know why? Because it makes us strong. It makes us a gang, a crew, a posse, a tribe. We recognise our differences of opinion, and respect the passions of both ourselves and others when it comes to holding forth on matters of the genre, but we’ll still go to the wall for what we care about – because we know that it doesn’t really matter. The argument is part of the fun of membership, and serves to bind us together at the same time as it fragments us. Who knows, maybe someday there will be a true schizm, and two subsets of sf will go their seperate ways, never to meet again. Maybe some other subgenre will grow into us and be assimilated. Whatever happens, though, one thing is certain – we’ll each and all have a very different story of how and why it happened. And that’s just fine by me.

But if, say, a high-fantasy fan tried to tell me I was wrong about what space opera was, well, I’d go for the throat. And I’d expect you buggers to be right behind me, too! 😉


* If anyone can point me towards the origins of the ‘what I point to’ statement, I’d be extremely grateful.

2 thoughts on ““Beer-money hard-pulp cyber-opera”, or “Defining the indefinable””

  1. It was Damon Knight who coined that particular phrase and I’m afraid, like so many before and after you, you are using it wrongly: he never meant it to say that what you or I define as science fiction is science fiction, but that science fiction is defined by the science fiction community as a whole, what you and I agree together is science fiction. Though obviously that will never be an exact science.

    And RATM is sooo not metal. Though Sick of it All and Biohazard so obviously are…

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