Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wordcraft -- Carrying the torch for space opera

I confess -- I’m an opera fan. Sure, the music is to die for, but there’s all the other stuff to love -- romance and riches, a sword fight or three, murder and revenge. And wonderful as opera’s drama is on Planet Earth, it’s even better in outer space!

So on a rainy day during the ConDFW convention last weekend, I drew sustenance from the panel discussion “Soaring Ships and Swashbuckling Sentients: Trends in Space Opera.”

The questions moderator William Ledbetter posed to panelists Ethan Nahte, Mark Finn and Lee Martindale were, did space opera disappear in the last few years? And can it make a comeback? The answer to the last, it seemed, is that space opera is poised for a comeback with the release of next month’s movie about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary hero, John Carter of Mars.

But to say the swashbuckling-in-space genre has disappeared is an overstatement. “For the last fifteen or twenty years,” Finn said, “(space opera) hid in other genres. I think there’s a lot of space opera in steampunk. . .and in military science fiction.”

But exactly what is space opera, an audience member asked. Isn’t all action-oriented science fiction space opera? Does it always require swords?

According to Martindale, “if you don’t use nine hundred pages explaining it, it’s space opera. If you’re more interested in story and plot than science, it’s space opera.”

A helping of romance -- in the original sense of the term -- is also essential, Finn insisted. “There should be an emotional throughline in the story.” A throughline he hopes will hold good in the upcoming John Carter movie.

“It can’t be worse than Traci Lords’ version,” Nahte said, referring to the 2009 direct to video film featuring the former porn star as Carter’s Martian love interest.

Finn admitted bad movies have hurt the genre’s credibility. Last year’s Conan movie, for instance, “took a piece of my soul.. . .That said, I’m looking forward to the new movie. (It) had me at the thirty-five foot jump” in the trailers.

(Burroughs’ story called for Carter to retain the muscles strengthened by Earth’s higher gravitation. And no, the original book in the Carter series, A Princess of Mars, didn’t spend a single page explaining how to transport a nineteenth century Civil War hero to another planet.)

But even if the new movie doesn’t live up to his expectations, Finn raised a rallying cry for what he termed the growing power of secret (and not so secret) space opera fans.

“We don’t have to watch anything substandard and bad. It’s okay, if a bad science fiction movie comes out, to say, it’s bad and I won’t support it. . . There’s still a lot of good novels that haven’t been made into movies yet. We have to support the good stuff.”

(For more about the panelists, see, for Mark Finn;; and , for Lee Martindale. Ethan Nahte’s latest story, “Ripping Jack,” appears in Pulp! Winter/Spring 2012, available at
Mark Finn on space opera


And for more on the subject of Mars, see National Space Society of North Texas’ poetry contest about Mars, The Next Frontier: Exploration and Settlement of Space. Complete information is at Entries must be received by July 31. The society will announce winners at September’s FenCon convention in Dallas.

FenCon also sponsors its own short story contest and is accepting members for its annual writing workshop. See for details.

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