My Space Opera Disconnect
A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.
Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.
Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.
Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.
So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?
Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.
My friend, John Perich, recently drew my attention to this article by Kyle Munkittrick regarding the importance of Mass Effect and its universe on science fiction overall. As a science fiction author, someone deeply involved in the tropes and subgenres of science fiction, and as a lifelong fan of the genre, the article rubs me the wrong way. Mass Effect, while I expect it is a fine game with a well-realized world and excellent storyline (my critique is in no way directed at the game itself), the authors claims seem to indicate to me a certain ignorance of science fiction in general that bugs me.
The author’s central thesis is this:
Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.
In essence, it is his claim that the Mass Effect world has managed to effectively supplant all preceding science fiction by virtue of its scope and philosophy. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I can say this without ever having played the game, and the reason I can do this is simply because all of the things pointed out by Mr. Munkittrick as being unique and special to the game have not only been done before, but done before multiple times and done very well. Apparently, because the game does all of them at once, this makes it automatically superior to any individual exploration of various aspects of this theme, which, to my mind, is sort of like saying WalMart is automatically superior to any other store since they sell all the things the other stores do collectively. If we are approaching literature in the same way we approach the purchase of bath towels, then I suppose the argument might stand. Literature and, indeed, all art, is not to be so quantitatively assessed. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the claims of the article one-by-one.
In this portion of the article, the author puts forward the idea that Mass Effect, by virtue of being a video game, grants the work a kind of special power. This isn’t altogether untrue, of course – you, in a video game of this nature, have unparalleled control over the path of the storyline, something like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of old. This, of course, facilitates a level of engagement that is altogether different from that of a book (it also dilutes authorial control and symbolic and thematic resonance, in my experience, but I haven’t played Mass Effect, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt by saying it is an exception to this phenomenon).
More specifically, however, the author makes three claims. First is this:
The first advantage, setting, involves the portrayal of alien species and alien worlds with ease. Novels require descriptions, comics require painstaking drawings, films and television require either hours of expression deadening makeup or expensive CGI. In a video game, rendering an asari or a hanar requires the same amount of work as a human. Want a cast of thousands? No problem. Need a mob of hundreds of individuals representing fifteen different species rendered inside an colossal ancient space station? No sweat.
So, if I can paraphrase, the argument is that novels use exhausting words to convey meaning, comics have to actually draw things, and film costs lots of money to make this diversity possible. Video games, however, do so effortlessly, somehow, as though the programmers and graphic artists and game designers of these games haven’t spent years and years of work fashioning this environment with every bit as much effort and work as your average novelist, artist, or movie producer.
Furthermore, and more importantly, this is supposed to be somehow novel or unique. Nevermind that it’s been done before, and often. You would have an awfully hard time matching the diversity inherent in Banks’ Culture novels. Furthermore, if you want to talk non-humanoid, bizarre lifeforms and marginalized humanity, there are plenty of choices to pick from, not least of which are the humans of Stephen Baxter’s novels, which at various times in his 4,000,000 year chronology shows humanity being conquered by the Squeem (an aquatic, collectively intelligent species of fish) and the Qax (a species of intelligent marshland – yeah, you heard me) or being completely embarrassed and marginalized by the god-like Xeelee.
The second and third points in the Medium argument circle around the fact that you can control the main character’s choices and even form, which increases engagement in the work. This I won’t bother to contest – it’s true, no doubt. This fact, however, doesn’t make Mass Effect some great contribution to science fiction unless, for some reason, you lack the attention span or capacity to focus on challenging things like ‘books’ to bother seeing what else is out there or what other characters you can identify with. I’m not certain if this argument is the intention of the author, in that it seems to assume that our modern culture can’t or won’t support artistic mediums wherein we cannot control and shape characters ourselves. It strikes me as a cynical and depressing view of modern audiences.
In this segment of the article, Munkittrick presents the central message of Mass Effect as this:
Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.
This is fair enough – a theme often explored by science fiction, and has been hit upon by many, many authors through the years. Munkittrick, however, is primarily focused upon Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica, and a brief aside to Starship Troopers (though I’m thinking he means the movie, though, since Heinlein’s message for humanity is rather more in keeping with Mass Effect’s) and Ender’s Game.
This narrowness of scifi allusions tells me, first of all, that the author doesn’t really know enough about science fiction to appropriately assess how important a contribution Mass Effect is likely to make to the genre. Those five works are, essentially, sticking your toe in the shallow-end of what scifi can and has done. I, and I’m sure every scifi writer and fan, are pretty damned tired of having everything we read or have done being compared to Star Wars and Star Trek. Quite simply, the marginalization and racism against humans in Mass Effect for the purpose of, to borrow the author’s phrase, “destabiliz[e] the player’s sense of confidence in his or her own skin,” is an old storyline. For reference, think of The Time Machine (1895), War of the Worlds (1897), Planet of the Apes (1963), Childhood’s End (1953), Battlefield: Earth (1982), Excession (1996), and so on and so forth. Granted, not all of them do *exactly* the same thing, but I think that’s a sufficient crosssection of work to demonstrate how ‘done’ this storyline is. It’s a perfectly good storyline, mind you, but not a landmark one.
The philosophy under discussion is ‘Cosmicism’, which is basically the idea that humans are too insignificant to understand or construct true meaningful existence in the universe. It is, as the author points out, posited by HP Lovecraft. He also claims that Mass Effect is the only work since then to bother with this postmodernist take on human existence. This is, of course, false (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the most prominent work to approach the same material, as did Childhood’s End and a lot of Clarke’s other work, as does, on a thematic level, much of the cyberpunk subgenre – or the good stuff, anyway).
In any event, the author proceeds to present a wide variety of storylines that have analogs in other works and all tie this into postmodern thought. This isn’t especially novel, since the other works are also tying it into postmodern thought, because that’s where they got the idea, and HP Lovecraft and the creators of Mass Effect aren’t the only two artists to consider such things. Now, Munkittrick is clearly a big fan of Cosmicism and a devout postmodernist, so the praise he heaps upon Mass Effect I feel, to some extent, is due to his discovery of a video game that simulates his own worldview or, perhaps, allows him to entertain questions he likes entertaining. To state, as he does, that “Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity” is simply not true except, perhaps, for the word ‘blockbuster’. I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, exactly. I would think that Neuromancer does and it, indeed, has such heavy postmodernist themes that it should least qualify as intellectual precedent.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m getting down on Mass Effect – I’m not. What I’m reacting to here is the willingness of some people, who seem poorly read in science fiction, to make assessments that this science fiction property they just discovered is going to change the genre forever. It’s disingenuous to the genre and to the artists and authors who have worked so hard to advance it. I’m not going to get into how I find Cosmicsm an interesting but ultimately pointless endeavor, or point out how all the ‘aliens’ you can ever imagine are really just humans in different clothing or symbols of concepts humans deal with and that, therefore, giving a franchise crap for having ‘too many humans’ is like criticizing language for using too many words – no, that’s just me spouting my own version of the Good News just as this article is doing here. Instead, this is just me saying:
Before handing things awards, do some more research.