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‘How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera’ by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

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The introduction to The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell, opens with a brief section that serves as a defence for their previous monumental anthology, The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard Science Fiction. That volume opened with three contradictory introductions that did absolutely nothing to illuminate what the editors believed hard science fiction actually was. The nine hundred odd pages of fiction that followed were similarly confounding and left critics scratching their head. Cramer and Hartwell are sticking to their guns though. The editors may have restricted themselves to a single introduction (although the individual story introductions are much longer) but they warn us they faced “a similar set of problems” and intend to “pursue clarification by representing perhaps conflicting examples”. Eek.

The next section opens: “For the past twenty years (1982-2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera.” Since The Space Opera Renaissance was published in 2006, there is a bit of a disconnect here. This is because this part of the introduction was originally published as an essay of the same name in 2003. The editors have simply regurgitated it here with expanded examples but no real revision. I say “editors” but tellingly the essay uses “I” throughout with the clear implication that it was actually written by Hartwell (who similarly was solely responsible for much of the jointly signed material in The Ascent Of Wonder). This is here changed to “we” but I see little point in going along with this charade.

Most of the essay is given over not to defining the New Space Opera but a history of the evolution of the term space opera. Whilst this context is useful, it displays unmistakeable traces of bitterness that Hartwell has been caught on the wrong side of history. Of space opera’s pejorative origins, he says:

A lot of people don’t remember this and that distorts our understanding of both our present and our past in SF. Perfectly intelligent but ignorant people are writing revisionist history, inventing an elaborate age of space opera based on wholesale redefinitions of the term made up in the sixties and seventies to justify literary political agendas.

Let’s put that patronising and frankly embarrassing second sentence to once side; the claim that interests me is that in the first sentence. How exactly does ignorance of the past distort our understanding of the present? Perhaps Hartwell believes the New Space Opera can only be defined in opposition to the old space opera but I can identify shinola without needing to look at shit. The redefinitions he is talking about took place 25 years before the time he was writing yet he can’t let go of them. Later on he notes that: “Leigh Brackett, by the mid 1970s, was one of the respected elder writers of SF: in the middle and late 1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all her early tales, calling them space opera as a contemporary term of praise!” The pearl clutching exclamation mark is impossibly quaint; it is 2006, who could possibly be shocked by this? There is a lecturing, tediously fannish tone to the whole piece; he has the facts on his side, damn it.

Eventually we get to the point where we could have come in:

Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action (this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms) and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. What is centrally important is that this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.

This does contain the core of a definition, albeit a not useful or interesting one, but it also contains a couple of weird twists. In the brackets we are directed to “this bit”? Which bit? Plot action? None of the preceding characteristics have any relationship to literary postmoderism. Nor do any of the ones afterwards. This leaves the parenthetical remarks a Hartwell brainfart inadvisably stabbed into the text. Then there is the closing sentence: why is it centrally important that it allows a writer to be “commercially ambitious”? Hartwell doesn’t say and I cannot guess. As for the definition itself, it is more of a casual description and I would have hoped for something a bit more incisive at the start of such a large anthology on the subject.

The essay concludes: “The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.” That certainly was arguable in 2003 but my sense is that this would be a much harder case to make now. To return to Hartwell’s earlier test, no space opera novel has won the Hugo in the decade since the essay was published. In fact, by my count, only half a dozen have been shortlisted over that period. Space opera still makes up one of the two dominant forms of contemporary SF but in terms influence, the bloom is off the rose.

Written by Martin

17 April 2012 at 17:26

2 Responses

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  1. [...] I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Martin Lewis’ reviews.  I’m hoping this post where Martin explores Hartwell and Kramer’s definition of Space Opera is the start o… [...]

  2. Ah, the collection where one of the first stories led me to comment in my review “What sin have I committed to have to read this twice in one year?” This should be fun to watch; some of it is good and some of it less so.

    James Davis Nicoll

    18 April 2012 at 15:24


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