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Space Opera: A Definition

I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?”  It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature.  The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it.  Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space.  That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.

To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself.  In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941.  He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.

But what about the “opera” part of the phrase?  What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera?  My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre.  I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different.  Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera.  But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.”  I say forget opera; just look at the story.

The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story.  Operas are designed to present music.  With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles.  It’s the reason for the production’s existence.  As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories.  (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet.  But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.)  Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story.  The music is everything.  In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.”  Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera.  We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music.  Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.

So, what does music have to do with space opera?  Nothing.  Forget about it.

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TNR vs. Courier; Pica vs. Elite

Do you remember “pica” and/or “elite” type on typewriters?  Way back when we didn’t have personal computers, and everything we wrote was either by hand or on a typewriter, we had to choose between pica type, which resulted in 10 characters per inch, or elite, at 12 characters per inch.  I’ve had several typewriters in my life, especially during college.  My parents gave me a typewriter with pica type when I went away to college, but after it was stolen, I bought one of my own, but got the smaller elite type.  (I’ve always preferred the smaller type.)

Now we’ve graduated to computers with their humongous selection of typefaces.  We can have almost any typeface we want, at any size, in bold, light, italics, extended, condensed, color or the regular black, and so on and so forth.  But some ideas about writing and about manuscripts are still rooted in the old typewriter years.

I just submitted a portion of my first science fiction novel to a contest which requested the first 6500 words of each submitter’s novel.  This, they said, should result in approximately the first 27 pages.  But they also requested that the manuscript be written in Times New Roman.  (I’ll abbreviate this as “TNR.”)  Well, my manuscript was written in TNR, so that was no problem.  I always write in manuscript format: 1-inch margins, 12-point font, TNR, page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, and so forth.  But in my case, the first 6500 words came to only 22 pages.  Why the discrepancy?

This comes from the fact that the people running the contest are using the old pica relation between words and pages.  Back when manuscripts were typed using pica type, (and this is especially true of manual typewriters) the maximum number of words per page came out to only around 250.  Now, though, if you prepare a manuscript in TNR, the maximum number of words per page comes out at around 320.  At least in my experience.  In this situation, 6500 words will require 20 to 22 pages.  Exactly what I had.

The difference comes from the fact that TNR is a very condensed font.  The letters tend to be set very close together, much more so than a typewriter font.  (It is possible to change the spacing of letters in TNR and most other fonts, but I strongly recommend leaving it at minimum, just for consistency’s sake.)  TNR is also a proportional font, where each letter is given only the space needed to print it.  For example, the lower case “i” takes up much less space than “m.”  Typewriters, on the other hand, use non-proportional fonts, and all letters have the same spacing.  All of this adds up to the fact that on any given page of a manuscript, TNR will allow you to put more words on a page.

If you want to see what your TNR manuscript looks like as though it were typed, change the font to Courier, which is a non-proportional font, and it will result in a page that looks very much like the old pica type.  You will get only about 250 words per page, the old standard.

Ergo, if you are requesting manuscripts and want them in TNR, keep in mind that the resulting submissions will have about 300 to 320 words per page.  I think it’s time we switched over to the new standard of TNR at 320 words/page.

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“House Made of Dawn”: Review and Commentary

I’ve just completed reading N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn.  (It was awarded the prize in 1969.)  A beautifully written book, it is what I would call a very “image intense” book; it utilizes many descriptions of places, people, events, dreams, etc., to draw the reader in.  Descriptions of the desert southwestern United States, and of feelings of the characters, of their lives, and their interactions.  It starts with a description of the southwest, particularly New Mexico, a desert region where life is tough, and only the tough survive.  Abel is the main character, and he’s torn between the old ways, the ways of his parents and grandparents, and the new life he’s thrown into, especially when he’s in the US Army, fighting in a foreign war. (Most likely the Korean War.  The story takes place in the late 1940’s and into the ’50’s.)  He eventually kills a man, spends time in prison, and descends into poverty and alcoholism.

But what I want to comment more about in this post is not the story line, compelling as it is, but the author’s writing style.  Were this book to come before a critique group, it could be criticized on several points.  This is not to denigrate Momaday’s writing style by any means, but merely to make a point.  He uses many short, simple declarative sentences in the book; always a good idea.  But many of his sentences begin with “and.”  Many times he runs sentences together using “and” as a connective.  He uses the past tense of “to be” words a lot, “was” and “were” especially, a point that most new novelists are told scrupulously to avoid.  Momaday begins sentences with “there was” and “there were” quite a lot also, a particular aspect I try to avoid as much as I can in my writing.  He even uses semicolons.  In a novel.

So many of these grammatical constructions are frowned on by teachers of writing, especially the use of semicolons.  Current thinking bans semicolons from fiction.  Though the book was written in the late 1960’s, today we would look at writing like that as “breaking the rules,” and perhaps condemn any writing that uses these as the work of an amateur.  “You’ve got a lot to learn,” we’d tell any newbie author who attempts to break the rules like that.  “Go back and re-write.”

But there is also a rule of writing that says, “don’t break the rules unless you know exactly what you are doing.”  Clearly, Momaday broke some of the most basic rules of writing, and just as clearly he knew what he was doing.  But how do you know “what you are doing” in a sense that gives you license to break them?  How do you know when to break the rules, and when not to?  Is there a rule that you can go to that will allow you to use “was” or “were” a lot in your writing, and still make it work?  Is there a rule that allows you to use run-on sentences repeatedly, and still not incur the reviewer’s wrath?  How about starting a sentence with “and” or “but?”  I’ve wondered about those admonitions for a long time, ever since I started writing fiction many hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer, in spite of having studied the question for a long time.  The best “rule” or “maxim” I can come up with is this: you can break the rules all you want only if the final result works.  Such an admonition is piddly and perhaps just plain unrealistic, I admit, but it’s the best I can come up with.

Here are a couple more ideas to help you make it work.  Read your writings over and over.  Edit until blood runs from your . . . wherever.  Read it out loud.  Is it smooth?  Does it flow well, and does it make sense?  Do you find yourself drawn into the imagery in the writing, and not tripped up by the rule-breaking?  Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” isn’t a bad rule to break, many do it.  But run-on sentences?  Horrors.  Yet, it can be done.  Get someone else to read your work, someone who knows what good writing is.  If it works, great.  If not, re-write.

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The Hardest Part About Writing

This particular post is directed largely to my writing friends, though many of you who are not writers—that is, writers in a more or less full-time sense—might get a similar take-away message that could be applied to other professions and activities.  What I’m talking about here is the most difficult thing I have encountered since starting to (try to) become a full-time, professional writer, and bring in a limited income from writing and publishing novels and short stories.

Writing is not a slap-dash profession.  That should be obvious to almost anyone, even to non-writers.  One does not merely sit down to write a best-seller (though you may delude yourself into believing that you are), but through a series of starts, stops, tedious read-throughs and edits, one gets a story or book in reasonable form, and tries to get it published.  All of that takes time, some money, many letters of query and investigation, and more time.  Time is the big factor here.

None of this ever struck me as all that “difficult,” though, in an absolute sense.  Being retired, I have the time and I’ve learned through trial and error, through reading books and articles on writing, attending conferences, lectures, and by just plain straight talk with others, how to get it done.  (Quality is another matter which I’m not concerned with here.)  I’ve been able to do it, one way or another.  So what’s the most difficult part about writing?

For me, the most difficult part in my continuing battle with words on the page has always been the transition from one project to another.  Writing on one particular story, novel or short story, and putting that away and going to another story has always been difficult.  I can’t just drop one and go to another.  For example, at the time I’m writing this blog post, I have just sent out copies of my first science-fiction novel manuscript to two contests for unpublished novels.  That required getting the manuscript into the format the contests insist on, especially by removing all identifying labels such as my name, address, any acknowledgements, references to previous writings, etc.  And I had to read through the submissions several times to make sure they were in proper format.  God forbid I should send out a manuscript with errors.  But now, a couple of deadlines for short stories are coming up, and I’m going to have to drop the novel (which I like to work on) and take up a totally different story (or, in this case, a couple of stories).  Getting the novel out of my mind is time consuming.  I have to gear up to the short format, and immerse myself in it to an extent that I can get a good read going.  That may take several weeks.  Once I get into it, I can whip through it like the proverbial Epsom salts through a widder woman.  Getting there is the hardest part.

What’s your hardest part about writing?  Or doing anything?

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Stakes and Motivation

A couple of weeks ago I sent the first 50 pages of the manuscript of my first science-fiction novel to a professional editor for evaluation.  It had been read by a number of non-professionals, including other beginning writers, non-writer friends, and those in several critique groups, but never by a professional.  The editor was almost effusive in her praise for my ability to string words together, and made it clear that she thought the book had promise in the marketplace.  But there was also a serious drawback, or rather a pair of drawbacks.  These had to do with the stakes that the characters were working toward or against, and their motivation to keep doing so.  I was glad to have her opinion.

I have to admit that I would never have realized on my own that these vital components of the novel were lacking.  The stakes and motivation were there, but were so vague that the reader had to look hard to find them.  I had been so focused on getting the writing accomplished that such esoteric concepts as laying out the reason(s) the characters were doing what they were doing had pretty much escaped me.

Clearly, characters in any story (short, medium, long) have to have a motivation to do whatever it is they do.  Sometimes it’s obvious: a kidnapped person wants to get back home.  But sometimes it’s not so obvious: a man takes a day off from work and goes on a rampage.  That kind of story may make interesting reading and there may be tension and conflict on every page, but the reader is going to want to know why?  This is true in everyday life.  Everybody does something for a reason, though we are generally not aware of others’ reasons for acting.  Rarely does someone do something for no reason, and in a novel this would soon become so boring no one would read it.

People don’t act in a vacuum.  Thoughts and desires do matter.  An author must look beyond the mere words and phrases and sentences of his/her writing.  Something drives the character—what do they want?  What keeps them going toward that goal?  Is the goal obvious in the first place?  What takes a person out of their humdrum, tiresome existence and gives them motivation to do something they otherwise would never accomplish?  I thought I had that aspect of the life of my main character(s) covered, but it didn’t come through to an independent reader.  That’s also a good recommendation for getting your work read by others.  I guarantee you won’t be able to figure out all the little details that bring a story alive by yourself.

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The Prime Directive

If you are a fan of the television and movie Star Trek series, and dating from the earliest series of programs which are usually called “Star Trek, The Original Series,” then you are doubtlessly familiar with the concept of the “Prime Directive.”  That was an order that took the form of an unalterable and non-revocable mandate from the fictional quasi-military group that ran space exploration and defense on the show, Starfleet, that no Starfleet space ship or its crew was to ever interfere in the development of life on any other planet or moon or asteroid or whatnot out there.  It was a court-martial offense and carried a severe penalty.  (Death?)  In other words, leave things alone.  During the series, several Starfleet officers ran afoul of the Directive and had to answer for their indiscretion.

Now, I suppose the concept of such a broad, overreaching regulation must have been derived from a desire in the mind of the creators of the Star Trek universe that in the future of real spaceflight, humans should not alter or change the natural progress of life-form development anywhere in the expanding universe.  It’s a noble concept and far-reaching in its enforcement, though it was used as much as a dramatic prop to enhance tension and conflict in the show as it was to provide a broad definition and desire of things to come.

Star Trek was fiction, of course, but I find myself wondering if we need a “Prime Directive” today.  In the Star Trek universe, spaceships could travel almost anywhere, and meeting new life forms and even well-developed civilizations was an everyday occurrence.  (I noticed that if the crew of a Starfleet vessel met a highly developed civilization, the Prime Directive didn’t seem to apply in reverse.  Let Starfleet get as much information as it could from other highly-developed civilizations.)  So, I ask the question, do we on Earth in our present-day infant-like crude, rocket-powered spaceships that have gotten us only into orbit and to the moon, really need a form of the “Prime Directive,” or is it too early in our space program to even worry about that?

I say we do.  We do need some sort of general, overall “directive” in our space research.  Granted, we’re not likely to meet the Klingons or the Romulans any time soon, but we do send out non-crewed probes to regions which crewed spacecraft cannot yet penetrate.  We’ve already landed on the moon, and humans will touch down on Mars within the next few years, that is almost certain.  We’ve put non-crewed spacecraft on Venus and a couple of asteroids and a comet.  So what?  What is the danger in doing that?

The danger is that we will leave something behind that has the potential to interfere with the natural development of life on those worlds and even more.  That “thing” is nucleic acids, both DNA and RNA.  It’s too late for the moon and Mars and the others, they’re already contaminated, but it’s not too late for other heavenly bodies.  We’re looking at Callisto and Europa, moons of Jupiter, as possible incubators of life, and even thinking of sending a probe to land on them and take a sample.  But we need to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to clean something so immaculate that all DNA and RNA are removed.  I’m talking every last molecule of DNA or RNA.  Sterilization may inactivate any living organism, but there’s no guarantee that it will eliminate ALL DNA and RNA too.  I’ve worked with DNA and RNA, and they’re everywhere, in bacteria and fungi and viruses, in human secretions such as sweat and saliva.  I maintain it’s virtually impossible to assure that a spacecraft will be totally nucleic acid free when it touches down on a new planet or moon.  And that’s the only thing it could ever be if we want to land on virgin planets.  The best thing to do in this situation is to stay away.  Totally.  Permanently.  Forever.  And we need a “Prime Directive” as a part of our space program to help enforce that concept.  Even the slightest amount of DNA or RNA could alter the development of life on a virgin planet for all time to come.  Or even start life development in a strange direction on a totally sterile planet.  The creators of Star Trek had it right.  We should not live up to that as our ultimate potential.

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Challenged

A few weeks ago I was standing in line at a local restaurant, and in front of me were several women from a home for the mentally ill.  I presume they’ve been mentally ill all their life and are so impaired that they cannot live independently and need constant attention.  It appeared that a couple of workers from the home were also there, and shepherded the women around.  They kept them from wandering away, payed for their meal, prepared a plate of food for them, and so forth.  I referred to these women as mentally “retarded,” but was corrected by someone else who used the term mentally “challenged.”

Now I’m certainly glad to see the term “retarded” be discontinued.  It has become a derogatory term more than anything else nowadays, though I used it merely to indicate that I thought the brains of these women were damaged in some way, either physically or chemically, and did not intend for it to mean anything else.  Most likely these women have been brain damaged from birth, and their brain function has never reached what we would call “normal.”  (I’m not going to define that word.)

“Retarded” has been replaced by “challenged” as the politically correct term of choice.  But I’m not sure that’s the best word for this situation.  To me it doesn’t fit.

“Challenged” carries the connotation of knowledge of the trials that lies before one.  There’s an actual mental recognition of the challenge, whether one accepts it or not.  It’s a challenge to climb Mt. Everest; it’s a challenge to learn to scuba dive; it was a challenge to put a man on the moon; it was a challenge for Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic in a one-engine airplane; it’s a challenge to grow old; it’s a challenge to get up every morning and go to work.  But the women in front of me probably had no idea of the life situation they were in.  I presume their brains were damaged from birth, and to them, their life is what it is.  They may not be aware that they have a mental disability.  So I ask, is it appropriate to use the term “challenged” in such a situation?  Do they really have a challenge before them?  Are they cognizant of the “challenge” of the life ahead of them?

A challenge is a looking forward, with either anticipation or dread, but always forward to the trial to come.  A person injured in an automobile accident may be confined to a wheelchair, and might be considered “mobility challenged,” but there is a recognition of the challenge ahead.  For someone who cannot look ahead, who does not have the mental facility to understand that there is a challenge ahead of them, is it appropriate to say they are “challenged?”  I maintain that when the knowledge component is missing, the definition does not fit.  You cannot be challenged without your knowledge.

I’ve looked through dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) but haven’t come up with a better term.  Anybody have any suggestions?

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