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A Space Opera

September 26, 2011 by Kiersi

Battlestar Galactica

I’ve added a post tag for “Setting the Scene,” because today I decided to write about settings, environments, backgrounds and scenery in creative fiction.

So much of a creative work’s power originates in the setting, it’s really impossible to ignore its importance in crafting an exciting story. I touched on this before when discussing the allure and power of the academic setting, such as in Harry Potter or The Name of the Wind.

Before I spend too much time blowing hot air out through my nose, I want to put some titles in front of you:

Star Trek
Battlestar Galactica
Star Wars
Babylon 5

This is just to get you thinking about what precedes you when you consider setting your story in the vastness of space.

Space is awesome. I mean, let’s be frank here: As a civilization, we humans know very little about space, considering how much of it there is out there. What we do know is a combination of conjecture, physics, and (let’s face it) some wistful fantasy. In space, anything can happen. Using interstellar travel as the background of your opera lends many plot elements and artistic license not available anywhere else.

Here are just a few fun facets of space that astrophysicists are theorizing about:

Wormholes: Space is not really “space” in the sense of your living room. If you throw a ball, it flies through the air on a trajectory and lands somewhere on the other end of the room. Space as in “the universe outside our planet” is shaped more like a donut, or some think of it as a net. Instead of taking the long way around, a wormhole cuts through the middle of the donut.

Light-speed travel: We know that travel at the speed of light isn’t possible (or maybe it is, but only for neutrinos), and yet it always plays a part in space operas. Why? Because we all wish we could travel that fast. Only with light speed would exploring and settling the universe really become possible. Otherwise we’d have to cryogenically freeze our crews for decades at a time to reach another solar system, and honestly, do you think our government has the cajones for that kind of long-term investment?

Black holes: We’re pretty sure they exist, and we’ve seen them with the Hubble space telescope, but we’ve never gotten close enough to try them out. We’re also pretty sure they would have a killer gravitational pull, and once you did see one you’d probably not be able to escape it anyway. Once the black hole has you, physicists believe it would crush you and your big hunk of metal starship like a bug.

Are we alone in the universe?: Opinion is divided on this point. Most mathematicians agree there is a distinct possibility that out there, somewhere, other sentient life forms exist. What we do know is we aren’t going to come across them anytime soon, if ever, due to the impossibility of light-speed travel.

Now that we have the reality of the situation out of the way, let’s look at the extra-reality possibilities, and how you can best utilize the setting of space in your creative pursuits.

Wormholes: Use these sparingly–unless you’re Stargate and your plot is based around the use of wormholes.

Black holes: Scary! Good plot device.

Light-speed travel: A great way to get your characters out of sticky situations–but be careful. Never create something with your artistic license that could bite you in the rear later on. For example: If your character can escape using light-speed travel, can’t the enemy catch up the same way? What happens when you run out of fuel? Make sure to bring back reality and assure your reader that the story you’re telling is plausible and believable (though we all know it’s not).

Are we alone in the universe?: Like hell! What space opera would be fun without aliens (besides Battlestar Galactica, obviously)? If you’re anything like me, creating strange creatures, cultures, and languages is 90% of the fun.

As you create your science fiction universe, my best advice is to acknowledge where reality and fantasy collide. The more realism you can bring to your fantastical setting, the more hooked your reader will become, envisioning that the world you describe could become real. Here are some ways I’ve seen this done, and some ways I’ve used myself:

– Aliens can have their own corrupt systems of government. We’re not the only species in the universe with faults.

– Space does things to you. Just like humans weren’t meant to live in submarines, humans weren’t meant to live in space. Some go mad; some lose hope; some simply forget what life before space was like.

– Is your space opera the future of humanity, or an alternate universe altogether? When creating a completely new paradigm, remember your competition is Star Wars.

Han and Leia: Sparks Fly

To end today’s post, here is a blurb from Kor:

There are a lot of problems with traveling at light speed.

First problem: It hurts. It hurts all over, like thousands of tiny knives cutting away at your skin, at your organs, your eyes, your brain—everything.

Second problem: Everything changes when you move that fast. Time, space, here, there, when, how, why—it’s all disassembled and reassembled again when you come out. Sometimes pilots who don’t know what they’re doing never come back because they forget why they were traveling at light speed in the first place. They die because their ship falls apart, or because they end up somewhere out in the Void.

Third problem: You have to know your math or you are totally screwed.


  1. Hannah Wagar says:

    I’m not a writer, but I am a nerd. 🙂 I found this both interesting and thought-provoking! Thanks for writing it!

    (PS, btw my mom is your mom’s college friend, Kris)

  2. Arthur says:

    This book, Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel, is a nonfiction account of space travel that’s useful for creating fictional settings in space for modern readers. The authors also note how science fiction influenced the quest for the stars and detail its cultural history.

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