Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Planetary Romances

The phrase space opera has undergone considerable change the past 60 years. It was invented by Bob Tucker as a derogatory term for the lowest form of hack science fiction which was no better than hack westerns transported into space. By the 1970s it was being used to describe any science fiction adventures set between worlds in spaceships. But with the advent of new space opera, the term seems to have been broadened as well. Look to Windward, one of the seminal works of the “new” space opera by Iain M. Banks, is almost entirely a planetary romance, as was the first story I read in the new collection edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, The New Space Opera, “Saving Tiamaat”, by Gwenyth Jones.

Not that I am complaining, since I actually prefer planetary romances to other forms of space opera. But there are considerable differences between the two forms both in theory and in execution. Jonathan Strahan, one of the editors of The New Space Opera mused over those theoretical differences on his blog Notes from Coode Street ( as follows:

“On space opera: space opera happens in space. If it’s not in space, it’s not space opera. Also, no, planetary romances are not space opera. They come out of a different tradition–as Charles [M. Brown, editor of Locus] completely correctly pointed out to me today. A planetary romance comes from the lost civilisation tradition, while space opera grows out of both the western and the naval action adventure. The new space opera–a group to which [Scott] Westerfeld’s novel clearly belongs–is “new” because it’s darker, it doesn’t necessarily involve the triumph of man or humanity, it has nifty new technology, and it has actual characterisation.”

In execution, planetary romances tend to involved anthropology and society, the exploration of alien races and societies. C.J. Cherryh is probably the master of such stories (her recent 9-volume Foreigner series being a prime example), while space opera tends to be more concerned with politics and warfare (such as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation series). While I prefer the former to the latter, if including planetary romances under the space opera umbrella causes more of it to be published, I’m all for it, even if they are basically different types of animals.