The Irony of Charles Stross’ Hatred of Space Opera

A few months ago I had a chat with Charles Stross at a small convention in Copenhagen. He did express his dislike of space opera at that time, though I had no idea he would later write such a scathing attack on this subgenre, beginning with his viewing of the Star Trek: Next Generation pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint”.

Here is what he considers the most important part :

“The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating “tech” to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don’t find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar and, to me, boring interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were cliches in the 1950s.” (emphasis added).

Part 1 : He has recently written “Saturn’s Children : A Space Opera”. I did read this novel as part of my preparation for voting, since it was nominated for the Hugo Award, and I found it a good, solid story, though not my favourite of the four I got to read.

If you have not read Saturn’s Children, and plan to do it here follows a [SPOILER ALERT] brief description of the story :

The robots are travelling the Solar System. They were created by humans because humans are very fragilec reatures, not very suited for space travel. Of course, robots are the servants of humans, to such a degree that humans forgot to live their life, and are extinct at the time the story begins.

The main character is an obsolete sex robot (humanity extinct, remember), trying to find a “life” of her own, being whirled into a dangerous adventure.

I do like the twist at the end, but will not spoil it here.


Come to think of it, this story actually has some interesting parallels, in particular with the new “Battlestar Galactica” (BSG). some inetesting differences as well. In both stories humanity has created sentient robots to serve their purpose. In Saturn’s Children the robots were extensively programmed with Asimov’s rules for robots, yet indirectly caused the extinction of humanity – apparently that was not the case in BSG, since the Cylons rebelled, almost bringing on the extinction of humanity.

Part 2 of the irony : (remember : “the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances”).

If we take Stross’ complaint seriously (and literally), Stross himself should have this complaint about his own story, because (a) the main character is a robot and (b) humanity is extinct

On top of that, BSG does exactly what he requires of a good SF story, dealing with the human condition under conceivable (but not existing) circumstances.

Interesting, indeed.