I’m writing this column before seeing Rogue One, though I hope that by the time you read it, I’ll have rectified that state of affairs.* Anticipating Rogue One, though, has been making think about space opera and how little of it I (a) read and (b) thoroughly enjoyed in 2016. I think Leckie’s Ancillary books spoiled me, in recent years. It’s so very seldom that I find something that so perfectly works for me while doing interesting space opera things.
2016 gave us Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and K.B. Wagers’ Behind the Throne and After the Crown. These are very different books: Ninefox Gambit is out to shatter your sense of wonder and put it back together in a thousand glittering brutal shards, with political intrigue, brutal totalitarianism, personal betrayal, and a bodycount in the millions. Behind the Throne and After the Crown are space opera in a classic style reminiscent of (you guessed it) Star Wars, with smugglers and gunrunners turned princesses turned empresses turned revolutionary military leaders. And explosions and banter.
They’re great books! But I strongly feel there should be more excellent space opera.
There are great ideas just lying around that I haven’t seen in spaaaaaaaaaaaace yet. Here are some I present to you out of the goodness of my heart:
Catilinarian conspiracy in spaaaaaaaace. (For extra fun, switch up the genders.)
The confident lawyer, philosopher, and self-described statesperson Cicero wins election to the consulship, defeating a distinguished and brave military officer, the scandal-dogged (and scandalous) Lucia Sergia Catilina—who loses the election after running on a platform of support for plebeian economic interests and the universal cancellation of debts. Soon, Catilina is brought to trial for her part in social upheaval twenty years in the past. Accused of profiting from doing murder during the Sullan proscriptions, she’s acquitted, but not without accusations of improper influence on the tribunal. Her political star is waning. Now her only chance to win the consulship—and see her policies enacted—is to overthrow the Space Roman Republic by main force. Cue SPACESHIPS AND EXPLOSIONS AND DECLAMATORY SPEECHES.
The Ajuran-Portuguese war. In spaaaaaaaaace.
Historically, the Ajuran sultanate was a wealthy trading state on the horn of Africa, closely allied with the Ottoman empire. In the early 1500s, a Portuguese adventurer (admiral and explorer Tristão da Cunha) attacked its territories, sacking several cities, before being driven off by very strong resistance. I’m not entirely sure how this would translate to spaaaaaaaaace, to be honest, but the potential in cocky adventurer from imperialist power meeting merchant nation of trading civilisation and getting kicked until he has to go crawling home seems like it could translate very well to something that involves whole planets and giant explosions. And maybe clever banter. (I am in favour of clever banter.)
The rule of Catherine the Great. In spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.
Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg doesn’t like her imperial spouse. When said spouse discovers the plot to overthrow him—the plot she’s masterminding—she has to move fast. With military assistance and the connivance of the clergy, she deposes her imperial spouse and accedes the throne as ruling empress. Surrounded by threats to her own rule, she quashes them all and pursues an aggressive foreign policy, expanding the borders of her empire and becoming an even more significant player among the powers of her time.
Caribbean pirates. In spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.
This one was suggested by a friend. And seriously, what else do you need to say? Pirates! In space! It may have already been done several times… but LET’S DO IT AGAIN.
Despite the blood and gunpowder and murder, historical pirates were actually really interesting in the social-movement sense: pirate crews tended to hold a democratic communitarian ethos that, while at times chaotic, was remarkably effective—and it horrified the authorities and mercantile ship-owners nearly as much as the actual piracy.
So there you go. Four historical interludes that I think could be—should be!—translated into space.
I want to see some opera here.
*I saw that marvellous Hollywood Reporter review and immediately said to myself, “Self, do we interpret this reviewer as utterly baffled by a film in which the female lead is no man’s love interest, not even if you squint? I think we do, self. I think we are going to have a wee chuckle at the reviewer’s poor taste, and finally let ourselves be hopeful about this film.”
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.