I was on a panel about epic fantasy at Illogicon last weekend that left me thinking a bit about parallels the genres of space opera and epic fantasy. If you're unfamiliar with the terms, space opera is the genre that probably springs to mind in most movie goers when they hear the term "science fiction." Star Trek and Star Wars would fit in this mold, big adventure stories with space ships zooming around the galaxy, but where the science part of the science fiction equation isn't terribly faithful to reality. Lots of things exist not because they make technological sense, but because the creators want every day items to be "futuristic." So, instead of characters fighting with a sword, they fight with a light saber. Instead of travelling city streets in a car, you ride on hover bikes. Space ships don't worry about g-forces and orbits, you just press a few buttons and zoom to wherever you need to be.
Epic fantasy is the genre most of my novels have been published in. In general, epic fantasy is set in a pseudo-medieval setting with traditions drawn from European history. Magic plays a role, and usually fantastical creatures like dragons and ogres are present.
The parallel that struck me last weekend is that both genres seemed to be built around a disappointment with reality. Actual space travel is slow and difficult and unlikely to take us anywhere we'll find exotic alien kingdoms where humans can display their innate superiority. Space opera is the romance of the future stripped clean of facts. One of the founding works of science fiction spelled out in rather gruesome detail why we'll never have Trek-like adventures on other worlds. In War of the Worlds, HG Wells realized that, if aliens ever came here, they'd have no built in resistance to our microbes, and would pretty quickly find themselves digested and putrefied by bacteria. But the flip side of this is also true: If we ever went to a biologically active alien world, we'd have to be completely encased in suits that protected us from the environment. It's not just that we couldn't have Kirkian trysts with buxom alien ladies because we'd risk space cooties. We couldn't breathe the air or drink the water of any world with a biosphere. The thing that would make it interesting to visit would also guarantee it would be fatal to visit. (With a few caveats; it's possible we'd find a world where the biology isn't built around water and carbon, and microbes that went after silicon and ammonia beings might be uninterested in us. But such landscapes would almost certainly be fatal to us in other ways.)
Space opera is a genre that yearns for a future that can never be.
But, epic fantasy is a genre that seems to yearn for a past that never was. Our own history is full of dramatic tales of intrigue between kings and priests and explorers. But, all the magical creatures of our fairy tales just turned out to be, well, fairy tales. There were no dragons to slay, no witches turning princes into toads, no wizards building golems to defend their cities. Since our own history has failed us, we now construct these fantasy histories. We know they aren't our real past, but writers earn bonus points from making their worlds "realistic," and integrating as much historical detail as the story will bear.
None of this is a slam against space opera or epic fantasy. Escapism is a perfectly legitimate use of art. I, for one, have been quite content writing about dragon-centric ecosystems, and hope that readers have found these excursions enjoyable. Still, it will be interesting to see if I can make use of these insights in designing future novels.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!