by Ross Hamilton
Space opera—all sorts of cool space ships buzzing around, blasters, alien creatures, weird and wonderful technology—it has it all. Sure, the more "serious" writers have been known to dismiss it as not being "literature," but as one of my first published stories was about fairy tale characters as professional wrestlers, I can hardly lay great claims to being especially "literary" myself. Still, Mark Twain and Raymond Chandler were both dismissed in their day as not being literary.
Confession time—I often find the more "literary" works to be a bit boring. Certainly I can appreciate and admire the quality of the writing while quietly cursing my own apparent lack in that regard, but I like to read for entertainment, not to sit and ponder afterwards to make sure that I actually understood it or to seek the underlying deeper meaning. I had enough of that at school, where anything other than alleged searches for beauty or truth was deemed unworthy of reading. Space opera has so many of the entertaining, escapism elements that we enjoy—literary or otherwise—just so long as it is a darn good read.
There is one thing, though, about this genre or sub-genre—whichever you wish to call it—that often gets right up my rather large, multi-colored nose.
Why is it that all too often, space opera features a back-story where humanity has returned to having an overall, ruling royalty—emperors, kings, queens, whatever? To me, the space-opera formula is about presenting a far future that could be. While I obviously cannot say that there could never be a planetary or inter-planetary ruling royalty as such, I find it rather hard to accept. The little internal critic starts jumping up and down, kicking my temporal lobes and yelling for attention. "Yeah right," he squeals. "Like that's gonna happen!" And he does have a point.
Take a step back for a moment, and consider the evolution of this whole "royalty" thing. Early tribal and family groups had leaders, usually being the strongest, fittest and best suited to both survive and to lead. We can observe that today in the animal kingdom at large. The alpha male of a kangaroo flock near where I live is a cantankerous old sod that carries plenty of scars from fending off pretenders to his "throne".
As humanity became more "civilized", hereditary kingship overtook the older concept of tribal leaders being those best suited to lead. Sure, there is nothing stopping the incumbent's genes producing a "good" ruler, but it sure as heck doesn't ensure production of the "fittest" or "best". Consider the state of the European royalty by the late nineteenth century. Most of them were related. Queen Victoria was cousin, mother, grandmother or aunt to most of the European royal pack! So the inevitable happened—by only marrying into other royalty, the available gene pool became more and more limited—effectively inbreeding. Hemophilia became known as the "royal disease" due to its greater incidence among the nobility—a direct product of this unintentional inbreeding. The bottom line is that we moved further and further away from these rulers being the best or fittest.
At the same time that royalty were doing their best to interbreed themselves out of existence, growing social awareness led to increasing upheaval against the hereditary rule concept. Consider for example the Stuarts' adamant view of their divine right to rule, which was a major contributing factor to the English Civil War that saw Charles I deposed and beheaded. The state of play today is that the concept of the all-powerful ruling royalty has all but disappeared. The few remainders, certainly in Europe, are only figureheads and supposed tourist attractions (not to mention grist for the gossip magazines).
From at least as far back as Asimov's wonderful Foundation series, space opera all too often expects the reader to believe that humanity suddenly returned to the concept of a ruling, all-powerful royalty. Walter H. Hunt's Dark Wing series, a piece of militarist space opera I otherwise quite enjoyed, had a back-story of Earth having suffered greatly during a War of Succession. I can accept the concept of wars being fought between different factions or creeds seeking to rule, but wars being fought to put an all-powerful ruling royalty back in charge? The internal critic just leapt into warp drive.
I can readily suspend disbelief about all sorts of technologies and alien life forms, but the concept of an inexplicable and sudden urge to support a royalty rerun? It does help, however, if there is something particularly interesting about the ruling party that adds to the story. For example, Simon R. Green's Empress Lionstone in his Deathstalker series was such a psychotic, homicidal and insanely nasty bitch that I just had to keep reading. Although, after the inevitable rebellion was won and the Empress deposed, I never quite understood the populace's sudden desire for a constitutional monarchy. Emperor Palatine in George Lucas's Star Wars was another that was a little different—a senator who manipulated people and events through the dark side of the Force until in a position of being able to simply declare himself Emperor. Napoleonesque?
Chris Bunch and Allen Cole with their Sten series had an Emperor voted into the role of all-powerful ruler-for-life because he controlled the energy source which made interstellar flight possible. As much as I enjoyed Sten, that concept was a bit hard for me to swallow. Of course, the interesting twist was that this Emperor had made arrangements which ensured that clones of him automatically appeared after he had died, following a suitable period of the populace experiencing life without the energy source that he alone controlled. The rule-for-life became a rule-for-many-lives-of-one-man with the populace apparently generally accepting his regular reappearance.
In fairness, probably every other reasonably expected alternative has been explored and used, but we seem to keep returning all too often to the same gambit. We are also often asked to accept that the all-powerful hereditary ruling elite are usually the product of a long-lived, unbroken hereditary line. Green's Empress was the latest in a 900-year dynasty. The wonderful Frank Herbert in Dune had Emperor Shaddam as the latest in the 10,000-year House Corrino dynasty. Asimov's ruling royalty in Foundation, prior to the collapse of the Empire, was another product of extremely long-lived dynasties.
Why such long dynasties? Are we expected to accept that humanity, a species that seems to become more skeptical of things as it ages, accepts that situation unquestioningly? Or that in the high-tech far futures of space opera, other prospective claimants to the throne or anti-royalist rebels are never successful, or at least not until our heroes of that particular story arrive on the scene?
The thing is that it doesn't have to be like that. Kevin J. Anderson in his Seven Suns saga gave us an earthly ruling royalty with a public façade of appearing to rule and make the decisions. His Majesty was, however, just a figurehead behind which a faceless bureaucracy ran things, largely through the hands of one individual. When a king had outlived his usefulness, the incumbent, in at least one instance, was given a new identity and permitted to disappear into peaceful oblivion while the public mourned his supposed death. The heir to the throne had been carefully selected and prepared beforehand. No matter if the king had failed to produce a suitable heir—the bureaucracy simply found a suitable candidate from elsewhere in the populace and then announced that this was one of the king's children. This was only successful because the royal family was largely kept quite secret so that the general population wouldn't know that it was all a crock. I found this a nice touch, which also added to the storyline conflict when the latest incumbent decided to refuse to play along entirely as expected.
Okay, okay—I know what a lot of you are saying. Who is this turkey, and exactly what has he done that lets him become a critic? I don't have the publishing credential of any of those authors I have mentioned here. I just read a lot, try to write a bit, and I know what I like. But you know what—despite my criticisms, I keep reading the work of these authors anyway. That is because, at the end of the day, a good, entertaining storyline can overcome even this royalty bugbear of mine. Note the emphasis on good and entertaining as opposed to say the last of the Matrix series of films—that became such a tiresome trope, I was waiting for Lassie to suddenly dash out and save the day or a Vivian Leigh clone to flounce in, mint julep in hand, claiming that "after all, tomorrow is another day." Even the special effects didn't quite save that one from becoming a barf fest (shades of Colleen McCullough wandering around the set of Thornbirds yelling "Vomit material!"). But that is another whinge for another time.
So space opera rules, even if I don't necessarily like whom they have doing the ruling. With so many other angles, however, do we really have to keep resorting to the worn-out royalty concept?
Ross Hamilton is an author of mainly sci fi and fantasy from Canberra, Australia. He is also a staff writer and book reviewer for www.awritergoesonajourney.com. The idea for the article came from some late-night musing when unable to sleep and nothing but 'infomercials' to watch on the television. www.rosshamilton.net