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.

Charles Stross hates Star Trek and Babylon 5 etc.

Here is a comment I made to Charles Stross’ blog post about scifi genre TV.

I find his views rather extreme, though he has, in part retracted his “hate” of B5, and some of the comments he makes are actually a bit on the comical side. Read his post and judge for yourself. I think he makes some sweeping generalisations that do not hold water.

I will add more comments later (yes I have some comments on the irony of what he has posted)

Comment :
As someone possibly more dated as you, Charlie, allow me a few comments on your post.

Apologies for the lengthy comment. If you feel the need, please feel free to edit for length. I will be posting on the subject in more detail on my own blog as well.

I met you and had a bit of a chat at the small con in Copenhagen a few months ago, so I was aware of your dislike of space opera. I am, however, a bit surprised at the strength of that dislike.

I, for one actually like space opera. That you do not is not a problem, we just have to agree to disagree on that.

Since you base the main part of your reasoning about the ST:TNG pilot and the of the Trek derivates, I will start there. You saw some of it and hated it. Then you continue :

– “Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn’t even bother turning on the TV. I HATE THEM ALL.” (my emphasis)

I see your main complaints as the following (here limited to ST, BSG abd B5, since you imply that they all have exactly the same flaws) :

– “Technobabble”. Agreed, my least favourite aspect of Star Trek. ([tech] the [tech], how awful). I think we can agree that it is most often used as Deus ex Machina in Star Trek.

– “…hit the reset switch at the end of every episode”

– “Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc but it’s frequently pathetic”

All too true for the majority of Star Trek episodes, even though there are some gems where the technobabble is hardly present and not a part of “the resolution”. Example : “The Inner light” where we get the story of how humans dealt with the situation of a dying ecosphere of their planet (even if they did not survive, they were at least able to tell the story).

I find that none of the above points are true for B5 or BSG, though BSG’s arc seems to have been on hold for a season or two.

Babylon 5 has a planned 5 year overarcing story (with a number of sub-arcs), with excursions into the distant past and distant future, this can hardly be seen as “a token gesture”, even if the last two years had to be compressed into one season, making it truly a 4 year arc due to studio decisions. Not ideal, but the arc was, in general, completed. What came after, when the studio revised its decision is a bit of an afterthought, and filling in some blanks in the original story. Actually, B5 has the structure of a novel, it has just been presented in the audiovisual format.

The BSG ending twist is certainly not very original, it literally has the taste of Deus ex Machina.

– “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.”

How can you make such a sweeping generalisation if you have not seen them ? In conjunction with the above statement of “hate them all” I fell that it would be akin to saying “20 years ago I met this [insert *ethnic identity* of choice]. He pissed me off to no end, so now I hate all [*ethnic identity*], – after all they are all the same”. I think we all know what this sounds like, and I doubt that was your intention.

Finally, here comes the biggest surprise for me :
– “….modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!”
WHAT !? You can not be serious ! … If this is not a massively sweeping generalisation, I do not know what is. I am glad not every TV viewer in the world sees that statement. Are you psychic (and did not tell us), since you seem to know what all of the TV audience wants ? 😉

I should, however thank you, Charlie, since your post here has given me some input to an article comparing B5 and ST, you know, what it has in common and what not.

I have a few more things to say, but it is already a long comment, so that will have to wait.