In case you’re wondering what the heck is Sword & Planet, think Conan the Barbarian in space. With giant lizards and man-eating plants. And half-naked princesses getting kidnapped by evil technomancers with giant four-armed bodyguards that wield laser-bladed swords. Basically, science fiction in the style of the classic 20s pulp adventure novels.
In other words, this:
I’ve read a lot more Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery than straight Sword & Planet, but I figure there’s a good deal of overlap. I read A Princess of Mars way back in college and really enjoyed it, and of course I’m a huge fan of Star Wars and other series that were heavily influenced by the genre. Basically, I want to try my hand at a classic science fiction adventure style, without the scientific rigor of Hard SF or the sprawling world building of Space Opera. It’s all about the adventure, with liberal helpings of awesome sprinkled with omigoshomigoshomigosh.
The tentative title for this book is The Last Warrior Princess, though it’s about a twenty-something college grad working a wilderness job in southern Utah who accidentally finds a portal to another world while wandering around Arches National Monument. The princess comes later, though not too much later. I don’t know much about her yet.
In fact, I don’t know much about the story at all. I’m discovery writing everything, and I do mean everything. This is a fly-by-your-pants ready-set-go kind of book, with no restrictions and no limits–just me and the muse, not caring what anyone else thinks. My internal editor is bound and gagged in the cellar with the spiders, and if he breaks out somehow I’ll hamstring him and toss him back down. This project might never get another mention beyond this post, but I’m okay with that because it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.
For those of you waiting for the next Star Wanderers story, don’t worry, I’m still writing those too. This is more of a side project at this point, so I won’t put up a progress bar for it until I get fairly close to the end and know it’s something I want to keep. Which might never happen.
So basically, it’s just a personal pet project for now. It’s interesting, though, because when you’ve got nothing to fall back on but your own creative impulses, the words start to flow in remarkable ways. Take this passage, for example:
I drove up just as the sun was setting. The crescent moon hung like a razor in the yellow-orange sky, with Venus a twinkling point on its edge. Blood-red Mars was not far off, while Jupiter loomed ascendant.
I have no idea where that came from, but in the white-hot creative heat of the moment, it just spewed out onto the page that way. The only word that I changed was “loomed,” which I had originally written as “hung” (maybe I should change it back? Nah, who cares). In a little over an hour, I committed about 1,500 words, all just like this.
So yeah, if nothing else, this project will help to shake up my creative process and get the juices flowing for other projects. I could really use that right now, what with a couple of recent life roles (my grandmother passed away last week, which wasn’t unexpected but it did throw a kink in my already rocky routine). And who knows? If it turns out well, you might see me put it out as a novel in a few months. Or maybe the first part of a new series … nah, better not get carried away. Better just write it first.
Besides the A to Z challenge (which I may also turn into a book at some point) and Star Wanderers: Reproach, that’s what I’ve been up to recently. I’ve got a Star Wanderers omnibus in the publishing queue, but there’s nothing firm I can say about that yet, other than it will probably be for Parts I-IV and feature a professional cover (though I plan to keep the space images for the individual installments). I could say more, but I want to go for a walk. Later.
Planets are not the only setting for science fiction stories–space stations are common as well. From the Death Star (“that’s no moon…”) to Downbelow Station, the Venus Equilateral to ISPV 7 to the Battle School in Ender’s Game, space stations are a major staple of any space-centered science fiction.
The reasons for this should be fairly obvious. Before we can go to the planets and the stars, we need to have a permanent presence outside of this massive gravity well we call Earth. The easiest and most logical place to expand first is to orbit, where supplies can be ferried up without too much difficulty and astronauts can escape in case of an emergency. Indeed, with the International Space Station, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.
In science fiction, of course, space stations go much further than they do in real life. They’re often giant orbital cities, with thousands of people living and working there permanently. Often, they feature some sort of rotating toroidal structure in order to simulate gravity. If there are settlements on the planet below, the station often serves as a major hub for commerce, serving as a waypoint for interstellar merchants and wholesalers who ferry their wares up to orbit. And if the planet is still being colonized, then the space station often serves as an important umbilical to the outside universe.
They can also have strategic value in the event of a war. Battleships need to be serviced too, after all, and a station’s position in orbit can provide an excellent platform from which to bombard or lay siege to the planet. Alternately, outposts at more distant locations like the Lagrange points can serve as a staging ground for future attacks–a sort of astronomical “high ground,” if you will. If nothing else, abandoned stations may contain supply caches that can aid a fleeing starship, or provide shelter behind enemy lines, as was the case with the first Halo game.
Stations can come in all sorts of different flavors, from the puny to the magnificent. The most eye-popping station of all is probably the Ringworld from Larry Niven’s series of the same name. As the name would imply, the station is a giant ring–so huge, its circumference is the orbit of a habitable planet, with the sun at its center! Gravity is provided by rotation, and night and day by giant orbiting panels that block out the sun at regular intervals.
My favorite stations, though, are the more realistic ones–the ones that I can imagine myself living on someday. That was one of the things I enjoyed about Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh–her depiction of human expansion into space is eminently believable, and her stations are a natural extension of that. I also really enjoyed her focus on the social dynamics of living on a giant station, and what it would be like to live in such a society.
The Battle School from Ender’s Game is another huge favorite of mine. One of the advantages of building a structure in space is that gravity becomes malleable, so that some parts of the structure can simulate Earth-surface gravity while others leave people completely weightless. The Battle School uses that to its advantage, with the main training room a zero-g laser tag battle arena, where the students have to learn how to stop thinking in terms of the planar dimensions, where “up” and “down” have any meaning. It’s really quite fascinating.
It should come as no surprise that space stations pepper my own works. They’re especially common in the Star Wanderers series, where few worlds have been terraformed and orbital platforms make up the majority of human living space (at least in the Outworlds). In Sholpan and Bringing Stella Home, James, Ben, and Stella are all from a space station–a distinction that is especially useful for Stella, since her Hameji captors despise the “planetborn.” Genesis Earth takes that a step further, as spaceborn Michael and Terra have never been to the surface of a planet before until midway through the novel. Just as going into space is paradigm shifting for us, the experience of walking on a planet proves just as transformative for them.
Just as sprawling interstellar empires are a staple of space opera, so are the plucky rebels that fight against them. From Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica, Firefly to FTL, there’s no shortage of characters in science fiction trying to stick it to the man.
I’m not sure how it is in other cultures, but in America, it seems like science fiction upholds a host of values closely related to rebel tropes, such as self-reliance, individualism, freedom and independence, frontier justice, enterprising self-made men, etc. A lot of this probably grew out of the genre’s early ties with pulp-era adventure fiction, which often featured former Confederate soldiers leaving the civilized world for the realms of adventure following the US Civil War. That’s certainly the case with John Carter in A Princess of Mars, and echoed to some extent with the Browncoats from Firefly.
It may go even further, though, to the revolutionary origins of the United States itself. The frontier has always loomed large in our culture, shaping our values in the early days of settlement and, now that the age of the frontier is largely over, standing for an idealized nostalgic past. Americans have always favored the self-made individual who stands up to injustice and corruption in high places, and we’ve always had an aversion to the centralization of power and authority.
Back in the days of the Cold War space race, when writers like Heinlein and shows like Star Trek really started to popularize the genre, there seems to have been a real push to promote American identity and values. The science fiction of that day certainly got caught up in all that, which is weird because as pro-Americanism became the establishment, a genuinely rebellious counterculture began to push back. To its credit, though, there was plenty of science fiction that embraced the counterculture, especially in the New Wave movement that followed the Golden Age.
So why are we so enamored with rebels? Probably for the same reason that we all love a good rogue. Since space is the final frontier, it’s naturally the kind of place that would attract a more rugged, individualistic type. At the same time, rogues and rebels are much more likely to have exciting adventures than the more mild-mannered folk who are apt to stay at home and conform. Let’s not forget that most people who read science fiction are adolescent boys (of all ages), hungry for adventure and often a little rebellious themselves.
Though the rebels are often the good guys, that’s not always the case. It all depends on who they’re fighting against, and how black and white the story is trying to be. If they’re fighting against the Empire, then they’re almost always courageous freedom fighters standing up for truth and justice and all that, but if they’re fighting against the Federation, things can be a lot more gray. In FTL, for example, the rebels are the outright antagonists, and you have to save the galaxy by defeating them.
The rebels don’t always win, either. In stories like Star Wars that skew towards idealism, then in the end they usually do, but in darker, grittier tales (such as most cyberpunk), they may or may not. And even in some happy-go-lucky adventure stories, the rebels are apt to be martyrs for a lost cause–again, think of the Browncoats from Firefly.
The wide variety in the role of rebels in science fiction is a good indication of a healthy, vibrant back-and-forth in the genre that’s been going on for some time. It also means that there’s plenty of room for a new writer to take these old, worn tropes and shake them up in a new and exciting way. As much as we love Luke Skywalker, we love Han Solo just as much, and if you combine him with John Carter to get Mal, then you’ve got a rebellious character that a whole new generation can come to know and love.
I love playing around with these tropes, and do so quite often in my own fiction. In Bringing Stella Home, James McCoy is very much a rebel, though it’s not the Hameji that he’s fighting against so much as everything standing between him and his brother and sister. In that sense, he’s kind of a martyr without a cause, a determinator who shakes his fist at the universe even when the more sensible thing is to learn how to cope. Similarly, Danica and her band of Tajji mercenaries all fought in a failed revolution and have been wandering the stars ever since. Their backstory features much more prominently in Stars of Blood and Glory, in which things come around full circle. And then, of course, there’s Terra from Genesis Earth, who isn’t about standing up to the man so much as giving him the finger and running off somewhere where none of that even matters–the frontier ethic taken to its furthest extreme.
So yeah, I’m a fan of this trope, and have been ever since I saw Star Wars and fell in love with the genre. You can definitely expect to find lots of rebellious characters throughout my books in the future.
One of the best things about a good science fiction story is that it can take you to another world–literally! Well, not in the sense of actually physically taking you there, but if you want to experience the thrills of an alien world from the safety of your favorite chair, the best way to do it is to immerse yourself in a good space adventure story.
Planets are to science fiction what islands and continents are to fantasy. It’s possible to tell a story where no one ever sets foot on one, but then you’ve basically got a sea story (since space is an ocean, at least in most space opera). Even then, your characters are probably going to put into port from time to time, if for nothing else than a change of scenery to make things interesting. And if there’s anything science fiction interesting, it’s the wide variety of possible planet types.
For example, what would a planet be like if it were covered completely by water? If the world-ocean was so deep that there was no visible land? Assuming that the planet orbits within its sun’s habitable zone, where the temperature ranges allow water to exist as a liquid, then you would have a pretty interesting place. What would the hurricanes be like? A lot more intense than the ones here on Earth, that’s for sure.
Then again, suppose that the planet was a bit closer to its sun, and most of that water existed in the atmosphere as a gas. You’d have some pretty intense atmospheric pressures on the surface, but the density of the atmosphere would make it much easier to keep airships and flying castles aloft. In fact, that might be the most practical way to settle that kind of a world.
In our own solar system, there is an incredible amount of variety. On Mars, for example, glaciers of dry ice cover the southern pole, while the sun sets blue in a normally dirty brown sky. The tallest mountain actually summits above the atmosphere, and every few years, dust storms cover the whole world. And believe it or not, Mars is a lot more similar to Earth than anything else in our solar system.
On Titan, rivers of liquid methane flow down mountains of water ice, while black carbon dunes drift across a desert shrouded in orange haze. While the sun rises and sets with predictable regularity, the planet Saturn is suspended at the same point on the horizon and dominates a large portion of the sky. Don’t expect to see any rings, though–Titan orbits along Saturn’s ring plane, so the rings are mostly invisible.
Europa, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, is also dominated by its host planet. Water ice covers the surface, but deep, deep below, there’s a massive liquid ocean that has never seen the light of the sun. What sort of monsters lurk in those depths–an ocean buried beneath a world?
Jupiter itself is pretty intense. A gas giant world with swirling bands of planet-sized clouds, it hosts a monstrous hurricane large enough to swallow at least two Earths. This vortex has been churning across the planet for over 150 years, and possibly as much as 350. I still remember the chills I got when I read 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the scientists’ probe dropped through the haze to a cloud deck as massive as one of our continents here on Earth.
Gas giant planets can be really interesting. They aren’t human habitable, since the gravity and pressure are so intense that anything man-made would be crushed before it could hit the surface, but those same forces can lead to some other interesting things. For example, at the lower levels, you may find storms that rain diamonds. Go further still, and you find an intense magnetic core that’s just on the verge of being able to sustain nuclear fusion. Detonate enough nuclear material down there, like they did in a short story from the Halo universe, and you can turn the planet into a star.
And that’s just our solar system. What about the hundreds of exoplanets that astronomers are now discovering? The first one to be confirmed, believe it or not, was orbiting of all things a pulsar! Imagine that–instead of the life-giving rays of a sun, the planet is bathed in highly lethal X-rays and gamma rays.
Of course, there are plenty of planets orbiting stars like our sun, but most of the ones discovered so far are hot Jupiters–gas giant worlds that orbit so close to their sun that the years are measured in hours. Some of these planets are so close that the sun is actually blasting the atmosphere away. We haven’t discovered the rocky core of a gas giant world that’s been destroyed in this manner, but theoretically it could exist.
Or what about the planets with highly elliptical orbits that traverse the habitable zone of their stars? Imagine: a world where the winters are so cold that the oceans freeze solid. After several of our Earth years, the spring brings a massive thaw. For a few short months the weather is actually quite balmy. Then, as spring turns to summer, the heat grows more and more intense, until the oceans begin to boil! When the summer reaches its zenith, the planet is nothing but a scorched desert wasteland. Soon, though, the autumn cool brings back the rains, with storms so intense that they refill the oceans in just a matter of months! Then, the deep freeze of winter begins, and the world returns to its long icy tomb.
One of my favorites, though, is the ribbon world that Asimov predicted in some of his stories. Worlds like this occur most commonly at class M red dwarf stars, which are so cool compared to our sun that planets within the habitable zone are tidally locked. This means that the sun neither rises nor sets, but remains stationary in the sky. The day side is burning hot, with either a barren desert wasteland or a giant hurricane large enough to cover most of the hemisphere. The night side, on the other hand, is so cold that all the water is completely frozen. The only habitable parts of the planet exist in a ribbon-like swath where the sun is just on the other side of the horizon, casting the land in perpetual twilight.
Believe it or not, we’ve actually discovered a planet like this in the Gliese system. Gliese 581g, or “Zarmina’s World” as the lead astronomer dubbed it, was discovered back in 2010. I was so excited by the discovery that I dedicated a blog post to it. Since then, the findings have not yet been confirmed, so it isn’t safe to call it a planet for sure, but if/when it ever is confirmed, it may be one of the first truly Earth-like planets to be discovered (at least, as Earth-like as a ribbon world can be).
In much of science fiction, there’s a tendency to make planets single biome only. Thus, you have your desert planets (Arrakis, Tatooine, Gunsmoke), your ice planets (Hoth, Gethen), your ocean planets (Calamari, Aqua), your jungle/forest planets (Dagobah, Lusitania, Kashyyyk), and even planets that are nothing but giant cities (Trantor, Coruscant). Some of the more recent series like Halo try to avert this, but even today it’s still fairly common.
If there’s anything that modern astronomy is showing us, though, it’s that the variety of planets and worlds out there is beyond anything we could possibly imagine. This is why I get a bit irked when an otherwise excellent series like Firefly makes out every planet to be like Wyoming. What about Gliese 581g? Kepler 22b? GJ 1214b? Kepler 16b?
As more exoplanets are discovered, I can’t help but believe that science fiction is going to experience a paradigm shift. What was once purely the realm of imagination is now being confirmed as reality. Alien worlds exist–alien Earths, even. And just as our conception of Mars changed from the Sword & Planet tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars to the hard sf epics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, so will our conception of other alien worlds.
I’ve got a lot of different planets in my own books, some borrowing a lot from the recent exoplanet discoveries, others leaning closer to the single biome worlds of classic space opera. In Desert Stars, Gaia Nova is kind of a cross between Arrakis and Trantor, with giant domed arcologies covering half the planet’s surface while the rest is mostly desert and wasteland. In Bringing Stella Home, Kardunash IV is (or rather, was) an Earth-like world, with forests, mountains, and oceans. In Stars of Blood and Glory, New Rigel is a straight up ocean world, while Ebitha from Star Wanderers is an ocean world tidally locked to its dwarf M class sun. I haven’t yet played with the elliptical planet, but I probably will someday.
One of the things I love most about a good science fiction story is that it takes me out of this world. With all the incredible new discoveries that astronomers are making, that aspect of the genre is only bound to get better. They’ve certainly enriched my own work, and will doubtless continue to do so in the future.
One of the key things that makes space different from Earth is that nothing is ever stationary. Anything close to our planet that isn’t moving at a good clip (measured in miles/kilometers per second) is liable to plummet like a brick. Gravity is still in effect, even though you’re in free fall and thus don’t really feel it.
The way to get around the falling problem is to orbit whatever celestial body you’re plummeting towards. When your tangential velocity gets high enough, gravity becomes your centripetal acceleration, and the system becomes rotational rather than discrete. In other words, you’re still falling, but you’re moving fast enough to cross the edge of the horizon before you hit.
Just to give you a scale of how fast you have to go to make this work, the International Space Station (ISS) is orbiting at about 230 miles (370 kilometers) above sea level, and it makes a complete rotation around the earth every 90 minutes. That means that the good folks who live and work up there see about 16 sunrises and sunsets per day.
If you’ve spent your whole life living planetside, orbital mechanics can be a bit difficult to grasp. Here are just a few of the basics:
Since orbit is basically free fall, you don’t need to fire your engines to stay aloft. In fact, once you’re parked in a stable orbit, you can stay there almost indefinitely. This is how satellites work: we use a rocket to put them in position, but once they’re there all they need is a minor adjustment from time to time. The moon is basically a giant natural satellite, and it doesn’t need any sort of thrust to stay aloft.
As objects fall closer to the body they’re orbiting, they orbit faster. Just think about how figure skaters speed up when they pull their arms in closer to their bodies. The main reason for this is that the object has a much shorter distance to travel to make a complete revolution. To understand how this works, take a CD and measure the inside edge versus the outside edge.
However, since your tangential velocity is proportional to your centripetal acceleration (ie gravity), the way to jump to a higher orbit is to speed up. Conversely, the way to fall to a lower orbit is to slow down. An object’s angular momentum (mass X tangential velocity) is proportional to the distance of the object from the rotational system’s center of mass, so changing the object’s velocity will also change its distance from the center.
So if you’re in a spaceship and you’re about to collide with an object on a parallel orbit, the way to avoid it is not to nose your ship up like an airplane. Instead, fire your engines and try to go faster (or slower, as the case may be). It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but your altitude will change accordingly. The anime/manga series Planetes really got this right.
However, even though you’re moving faster at a higher orbit, you have a lot more distance to travel, so it actually takes longer to make a complete orbit. If you go high enough, you can eventually get to the point where the orbital period equals the rotational period of the celestial body you’re orbiting. We call this a geosynchronous orbit. If you’re orbiting around the celestial body’s equator, then to a person on the surface, it appears as if you’re stationary. You’re not, of course–nothing in space really is–but both you and the person on the planet’s surface are moving in tandem, so that’s how it appears.
Ever wonder why satellite dishes all point in the same direction? This is why. The signal comes from a satellite in geostationary orbit, where it doesn’t move relative to the people on the surface. Thus, if you know where to point your dish, you will always get a signal since the satellite doesn’t appear to move.
An orbit doesn’t have to be circular, but the barycenter (ie the center of mass for the whole system, where the mass of both objects cancels each other out) has to be at one of the focal points of an ellipse. This is how comets work. An object in an elliptical orbit will speed up when it gets closer to the object it’s orbiting, and slow down when it gets further away.
It’s possible–indeed, quite common–to orbit two celestial bodies simultaneously. For example, since the Earth orbits the sun, anything orbiting the Earth must also orbit the sun at the same time. If you’re close enough to the Earth, this doesn’t really matter since the Earth exerts a much more immediate force. But when you get further away, interesting things start to happen.
A Lagrangian point is a point of gravitational balance between two orbiting celestial bodies of unequal mass. Basically, they’re points of equilibrium where objects appear to remain stationary, so long as they continue to orbit in tandem with the other two celestial bodies.
In science fiction, these are great places to put space stations and other orbital settlements, since they appear as fixed points relative to the planet or moon that they’re moving around. In real life, asteroids tend to clump around these points in a planet’s orbit, especially the L5 and L4 points. Jupiter has so many of them that we call them the Trojans and the Greeks.
Since orbital mechanics can be a bit difficult to grasp, a lot of science fiction gets it wrong, especially space opera. For a recent example, just look at the Halo series–unless those Covenant ships have some sort of magical drive, there’s no way they could hover above the surfaces of planets the way they do. Orbiting does NOT equal hovering. And in Halo: Reach, where Jorge knocks out the main ship for the Covenant advance force … yeah, if a ship that large actually fell from orbit into the surface of a planet, it would be moving fast enough to make a crater the size of a small continent, kicking up enough dust and debris to cause a mass extinction event like the one that killed the Dinosaurs.
At the same time, when a science fiction story goes the length to get the orbital mechanics right, it can add a surprising amount of realism. A good example of this is Passage at Arms by Glen Cook. I loved how he depicted the orbital siege of the main colony world, with the way the orbital space battles looked like from the planet’s surface. The human forces were able to keep a toehold on space due to a low orbiting asteroid that the aliens couldn’t get to without exposing their forces to attack, and that served as the staging ground for the main characters to fight back.
For hard sci-fi, orbital mechanics is absolutely essential–you’ll be tarred and feathered if you get any of it wrong. For soft sci-fi like space opera, it’s not essential, but it adds a lot to the story if you can get it right. In any magic system, the limitations are what make it interesting. If you’re writing science fiction, then physics is your magic system, so knowing how it works can really add a lot to your story.
For example, in the recent Schlock Mercenary storyline, the characters board a spaceship with an artificial gravity generator centered around a large cylindrical pylon that runs the length of the ship. One of the implications of having Earth-strength gravity around such a small object is that you can actually throw a baseball into orbit. And that’s just the beginning! Needless to say, I’m really interested to see where Howard Tayler takes this story in the weeks and months to come.
Even though I write more space opera / science fantasy type stuff, I do the best I can to get my orbital dynamics right. You can see this in the space battles in Stars of Blood and Glory and Bringing Stella Home, as well as the setting elements in Desert Stars. When the desert tribesmen look up at the night sky, they gaze at the stars and satellites–hundreds of satellites, many of them starships bound for distant spaceports on the more civilized side of the world. One of the reviewers said that the world felt so real it was almost like he could reach out and touch it, so I guess I did something right. I’ll definitely keep it up in the future.
If space is an ocean and interstellar colonization is happening on a grand scale, then it should come as no surprise that so many starship captains are intrepid merchants, traveling the galaxy in pursuit of a good business deal. Whether they’re doing it legally as entrepreneurs or illegally as smugglers, you can find these guys in almost any space opera, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Firefly and Foundation.
Ever since Marco Polo and Sindbad the Sailor, intrepid merchants have played a major role throughout history. The brave adventurers who travels to exotic locales to bring you all the best deals, these are often the guys at the forefront of exploration and expansion. After all, Columbus sailed the ocean blue to find a better trade route to India–discovering a new world was just a side benefit. The British Empire had its origins in mercantilism, forming the empire to protect their trade routes (and later, to secure markets and resources for their industrialized economy).
Unlike their real-world counterparts, however, space merchanters have a lot more challenges to contend with than sandstorms and bandits. Science fictional universes are teeming with all sorts of exotic dangers, from black holes and solar flares to space pirates and strange alien races. Unless FTL communication is in force, the immensity of space often makes it impossible to know exactly what to expect on your next FTL jump. And then there’s all the normal space stuff, like busted airlocks and critical failures in the oxygen recyclers.
The best stories, though, are the ones that world build their merchanters to the point where they form their own distinct society. This may overlap with the proud merchant race, though IMO it works best when it’s more than just a hat that everyone wears. The merchanters from C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe are a great example, where the entire society has restructured itself around the nomadic spacefaring lifestyle. Another is Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, where the free traders have developed a strict social hierarchy that defines everyone’s role in running the spaceships.
Since space-centered science fiction largely grew up in the Cold War era, I wonder how much of this trope stems out of the clash between communism and capitalism. The original Star Trek certainly shows a lot of Cold War influences, with the Klingons originally playing proxy for the Russians. Is the genre’s fascination with the adventurous space merchant somehow an outgrowth of that world-shaping conflict? And if so, how do the stories differ on the Soviet side? It makes me wish I could read Russian, since the Soviets certainly had their own fascination with science fiction and space opera.
In my own work, this trope plays a central role. Most of the major characters in my stories are merchants of one stripe or another. James McCoy from Bringing Stella Home is the son of a merchanter, and comes from a mining colony where interplanetary trade drives the local economy (setting up the conflict for Heart of the Nebula after the Hameji take over).
But the trope takes special prominence in my Star Wanderers novellas, which was largely a reaction to C.J. Cherryh and Heinlein. I wanted to create a spacefaring society on the starbound frontier that revolved not only around trade and colonization, but much more personal struggles like finding love and fighting loneliness. In that sense, the stories are a lot more like Merchanter’s Luck than Downbelow Station–more about the lives of individual characters than the grand sweep of galactic history.
Either way, I’m a big fan of this trope. If you’ve got any examples from your favorite books, please share! Wish-fulfillment is a huge part of any fictional genre, and science fiction is no exception. If I could leave it all behind to become a merchant to the stars, you can bet I’d do it in an instant!
As we discussed in I is for Interstellar, space colonization is a major theme of science fiction, especially space opera. Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. Space is a really, really, really big place, and sometimes, due to war or famine or simple bureaucratic mismanagement, colonies get cut off from the rest of galactic civilization. They become lost colonies.
Some of my favorite stories are about lost colonies: either how they became cut off, or how they reintegrate after so many thousands of years. In many of these stories, the technology of these colonies has regressed, sometimes to the point where the descendents may not even know that their ancestors came from the stars. When contact is finally made, the envoys from the galactic federation may seem like gods or wizards.
Because of this technological disconnect, stories about lost colonies often straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy. After all, Clarke’s third law states:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Of course, the line between science fiction and fantasy has always been a fuzzy one. Hundreds of attempts have been made to define it, but they all fall short. In the end, it often breaks down to certain recurring tropes, like dragons and wizards versus ray guns and rockets, but even that doesn’t always work.
For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern is technically about a lost colony far into the future, but it’s got dragons and castles and other tropes that belong squarely in fantasy. Then again, the dragonriders have to fight alien worms who invade every few dozen years from a planet with a highly elliptical orbit, so there’s still a strong science fiction basis undergirding the whole thing.
And that’s just Dragonriders of Pern. What about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, or C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy?Trigun is more western than fantasy, but it’s also full of sci-fi tropes like giant sand-crawling monster ships and a weird post-apocalyptic backstory. And then there’s all the Japanese RPGs that combine magic with mechas, with Xenogears as one of the best examples. For a distinct Middle Eastern flavor, look no further than Stargate.
It’s no coincidence that all of these stories feature a lost colony of one kind or another. When the characters don’t know that they’re living in a science fictional universe, it’s very easy to throw in tropes from other genres. By no means is it required–Battlestar Galactica and Dune are evidence enough of that–but they certainly present the opportunity to do so. After all, lost colony stories basically present a hiccup in humanity’s march of progress, breaking the essential science fiction narrative for all sorts of interesting side stories and tangents.
One perennial favorite of science fiction writers is to suggest that Earth itself is a lost colony from some other galactic civilization. That forms the entire premise behind Battlestar Galactica: the original twelve colonies have been destroyed in the human-cylon wars, and the last few survivors are searching for the legendary thirteenth colony of Earth, hoping to find some sort of refuge. Apparently, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle also plays with this trope, though she’s never very explicit with her world building. It can be a bit tricky to twist the lost colony trope in this manner, but if pulled off right it can really make you sit back and go “whoa.”
My personal favorite is probably Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Saga, about a colony of telepaths that breaks off from a collapsing galactic empire and actually becomes more advanced than the rest of humanity. When Jason Worthing and Justice re-establish contact, the descendents of the galactics are basically pre-industrial subsistence farmers who view them as gods–which, in a certain sense, they almost are.
It’s a great story that really entranced me, not just for the science fictional elements but also for the distinct fantasy flavor. Orson Scott Card’s handling of viewpoint in that book is truly masterful, so that I felt as if I were viewing everything through the eyes of his characters. Since the farmers don’t know anything about their spacefaring ancestors, all the parts from their point of view feel like a completely different story. It was really great.
My first novel was actually a lost colony story, combined with a first contact. I trunked it a long time ago, but many of the earliest posts on this blog are all about my experience writing it. As for my other books, Desert Stars contains elements of this, though the lost colony in question is actually a nomadic desert society that lives on the capital planet of the galactic empire, just outside of the domes where all the more civilized folk live. Heart of the Nebula is basically about a society that puts itself in exile in order to escape the privations of the Hameji. Andin… no, I’d better not spoil it.
The lost colony isn’t one of the flashier or more prominent tropes of science fiction, but it’s definitely one of my favorites. It’s a great way to add depth and intrigue, as well as bend genres. For that reason, I think this trope does a lot to keep science fiction fresh.
Ah, the proud warrior race. Where would science fiction be without it? From Klingons to Ur-Quans, Wookies to Sangheilis, Mri to Green Martians to Vor Lords, warrior races have been a staple of space opera and space-centered science fiction pretty much since the genre was invented.
The concept behind this trope is the same as the one behind blood knight: honor is more valuable than life, and the best way to win or defend honor is through combat. It’s not necessarily death that these guys live for, so much as glory and a chance to prove their prowess. Unlike the always chaotic evil races, these guys usually follow a strict code of honor, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
Fortunately, we have plenty of real-world examples for how this sort of thing works. Lots of human cultures have placed a high value on warrior qualities, including the Spartans, the Samurai, the Vikings, and the Mongols, just to name a few. Of course, relying on stereotypes may lead to some unfortunate implications, so it’s not a good idea not to have too narrow or ethnocentric a reading of history. Still, there’s a lot from history that we can glean.
In fact, you could make a valid argument that humans are the quintessential warrior race. After all, we developed the technology to annihilate our own species before we put a man in space. Even today, the amount of resources we spend on war and security far outstrips the amount of resources we dedicate to just about any other pursuit. From the earliest ages, we engage in competitive physical sporting activities that mimic warfare and video games that outright simulate actual combat. Our everyday language is full of violent terms like “on target,” “wiped out,” and “having a blast,” to the point where most of them are invisible. Indeed, if we ever make contact with an alien race, we may very well find that we are the Klingons.
In that respect, this trope is just another way that science fiction acts as a mirror through which we can better see ourselves. The proud warrior race fascinates us because we have so much in common with them. Klingons are not just faceless orcs for the good guys to slay by the dozen–in many sci-fi universes, they (or individual members) actually become good guys. Just think of Worf from Star Trek, or The Arbiter from Halo, or Aral Vorkosigan from Louis McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. While on the surface, these guys seem absolutely crazy, when you start to explore them you frequently find a lot of depth.
I am fascinated by the concept of a warrior race. I’ve played with it quite a bit in my own work, especially with the Hameji in Bringing Stella Home, Sholpan, and Stars of Blood and Glory. The Hameji are an entirely spacefaring society that lives on the outer fringes of space, beyond any terraformed planets. Because they live entirely on spaceships, they must capture and repurpose new spaceships just to have enough living space to expand their families. Since their battleships also house their families, they make no distinction between military and civilian, and live by an extremely rigid social hierarchy with the patriarchal captain at the top and everyone else under his command. Life is a privilege, not a right, and disobedience is strictly punished since it has the potential to put everyone’s life at risk.
As a result of all this, the Hameji are extremely vicious and warlike, living by a moral/ethical code that runs completely counter to our modern sensibilities but makes perfect sense to them. They think nothing of slagging entire worlds and killing billions of people because to them, a world is a giant starship, and all those billions of people are so many enemy warriors. They look down at the planetborn as weak because of their lack of discipline and obedience, and think nothing of enslaving them due to their strict social hierarchy. In fact, because resources are limited and life is a privilege granted by the ship’s captain, the Hameji prefer to space their prisoners rather than keep them alive.
Man, those books were fun to write. Brutal, but fun. Because the weird thing is, as much as you abhor a culture whose values contradict your own, when you really understand them, you can’t help but feel something of a connection. You might not love them, but you respect them, and in a strange sort of way sympathize with them. I’m not sure if that’s the experience with the Hameji that my readers have had, but that’s definitely been my experience in writing them.
So yeah, I’m definitely a big fan of the proud warrior race. Expect to see me play with it many more times in the future.