Okay, so I’ve been saying all year that NO FOREIGN SKY is space opera and INVICTUS isn’t, that it’s something else. What criteria, you may wonder, am I thinking of when I say that? Both take place in space. The settings are spaceships in both cases. We never even see a planet. What is the difference that I think is so important that these stories wind up in different subgenres?
What defines space opera? Well, let’s try to define the subgenre by example.
- Elizabeth Moon, Trading in Danger
- LMB, The Warrior’s Apprentice
- CJC, Chanur
- Kate Elliot, Unconquerable Sun
- H Beam Piper, Space Viking
As a side note, did you know you can pick up an H Beam Piper collection of 33 novels and stories for a dollar? Nice to see someone bringing back classic SF repackaged in accessible ebook form.
What’s not up there? Military SF, which intergrades with space opera, but is something different.
- Dave Weber, Honor Harrington
- David Feintuch, Seafort Saga
- Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet series
- Joel Dane, Cry Pilot series
- Tanya Huff, the Valor series, my personal favorite by a lot.
For me, space opera means a fast-paced adventure story … set in space … with normal SF tropes, such as wormholes … where the stakes are high and keep ratcheting upward, with big consequences for winning or losing … and there are probably multiple battles against increasing odds … and the good guys win.
Military SF means that we’re following one or more military personnel … with a focus on the military organization … and there are probably battles … but not necessarily with increasing stakes … and the tone can be gritty rather than adventurous … and the good guys probably win, but not necessarily.
The focus on military personnel and the military organization is a big difference between space opera and military SF. If a book has those features, it’s military SF. If it doesn’t, it’s not. If you were drawing a venn diagram, there would be plenty of overlap, but also lots of books that belong to one subgenre or the other, not both.
What’s still not up there?
- CJC, Foreigner
- CJC, Cyteen
- KSR, the Mars trilogy
- Herbert, Dune
- Corey, The Expanse series, and I know that it lands on a lot of space opera lists, but I disagree.
I thought of grabbing stuff off “sociological SF” lists, but I don’t want to imply that everything that’s not space opera or military SF is sociological SF, because obviously it’s not. That’s why I picked The Expanse. It keeps appearing on lists of all-time-great space opera and I just don’t think it is. Maybe I should add, I just read the first book. But I don’t think it’s space opera. It’s too slow-paced. It’s too gritty. The focus isn’t right. It isn’t a romance in the technical sense — it’s not an adventure story. Adventure happens, but that’s not the same thing as being an adventure story. Ender’s Game keeps popping up on space opera lists too, and again, I don’t agree. As far as that goes, I disagree much more vehemently about later books in the series.
In my opinion, Invictus fits in this third group. It’s not an adventure story. I mean, at all. It’s got some exciting moments, but it’s definitely not swashbuckling in space. It’s not a fast-paced story with ratcheting stakes. The stakes are high throughout, but the reader can’t see clearly what those stakes actually are until halfway through. It’s got heroes yes, but not quite in the traditional mode.
Is it sociological SF? I would say, not exactly, or not quite. Of the books up there, it’s most like Cyteen, because it’s kind of a take on some of the same questions Cyteen addresses.
Side note: What is WITH publishers, anyway? Cyteen is not currently available in Kindle form. Sometimes I really cannot believe how ridiculous publishers are. If they’re reissuing Cyteen as an ebook, why first make it unavailable? If they’re just not bothering to make it available, what the hell is wrong with them?
Regardless, Cyteen is a book I love. I mean, I really love it. I’ve read Cyteen innumerable times, starting when Young Ari appears because the first bit is pretty grim and I don’t care to revisit that part. But even though I love this novel — I love Young Aris and Caitlin and Florian, and Justin and Grant — and I think this is just a fantastic novel, the society shown in Cyteen is honestly very iffy.
If you squint at it at all, you have to realize this is a society founded on large-scale slavery. The azi are slaves. Not using the word doesn’t change the basic fact that they are slaves. Creating them was not a great thing to do, founding the whole society on them, on their labor, was not a great thing to do, and yes, the azi who are important characters are amazing characters, but the whole society is founded on some pretty terrible ideas.
The Ubezhishche in Invictus were created just like the azi, or very nearly — I added one tweak which is, depending on how you look at it, actually not very far removed from how CJC did it.. But, unlike the azi, the Ubezhishche broke free of their creators, went off, and founded their own society. That’s the deep backstory here. And yes, this is very much a response to the society shown in Cyteen.
If you’ve read the Tuyo World Companion — I mean the part about inspirations — then you know that a huge source of inspiration for me goes like this:
A) I’m reading a book I really love
B) I run into something awful. Some terrible thing happens to a character I care about.
C) I think, “Oh no, aargh, how awful! That should never have happened! What should have happened is a much better thing, which is now in my head.”
And then later (often much later), this appears in one of by books as the situation leads toward a moment when a similar awful thing might happen, but instead a much better thing happens.
It doesn’t have to be quite like that. It might be a great scene, but one that didn’t fulfil the potential I think the scene had. I’ll rewrite the original scene in my head and then it’s pretty likely I’ll put something similar in a different context later. Or this can happen with characters, where I think the author misses the chance to really bring a great character front-and-center and I develop a character who is similar in some ways and put that character in the foreground, not the background. Lots of variations on this basic idea.
For Invictus, the inspiration was one hundred percent the azi in Cyteen. If you create a genetically engineered slave caste that is completely under the control of born-men supervisors, then if your slaves decide this is wrong and bring your society crashing down around your ears, you totally deserve that.
This story isn’t about that part. That’s the backstory. The Ubezhishche went in their own direction, and about the only thing they share with the azi now is that they really do not want to be born-men — in this case, Elysians. They’re just fine the way they are, thank you, and when their genomic designers tweak the designs, they have their own priorities in mind.
Despite this kind of backstory, this really isn’t sociological SF, or I don’t think it is. I honestly don’t know what subgenre it fits. As categories, I picked SF–General, SF-Adventure, and SF-Genetic Engineering. I don’t think this is actually an adventure story, but the categories are limited and I had to pick something. However, that doesn’t seem to be what Amazon is saying. Amazon shows the categories as SF-Space Fleet and SF–Space Marines. Well, the word “marines” does appear in the book, but really? I hope the wrong readers don’t pick it up on the theory it is Military SF. Or rather, if they do, I hope they love it, even though it isn’t Military SF.
Maybe in a few days, I’ll try to lay out all the recognized subgenres of SF and see if I can better identify where INVICTUS fits.