Mundane Space Opera

My first specific memory of reading science fiction is from one Christmas in Seattle, when we traveled there for the big family gathering that used to happen at my dad’s parents’ (Nanny and Pop) home in rural Oregon. I think this must have been after Pop died. We stayed with Dad’s sister (the aunt who later turned me on to the book Sugar Blues, by William Dufty), whose several children had moved out and started families of their own. I can’t quite remember how old I was, probably between ten and twelve. Evidently at least one of Aunt Mickey’s children, I’d guess Uncle Mike or Uncle Robin (we called them uncles although they were technically cousins; my brother and I were the late offspring of the youngest of three siblings; our cousins on that side were by then grownups with children only slightly younger than we were), had read some science fiction in their youth and left some of their collection behind when leaving home. Somewhere around the house I found a copy of Rocket Jockey by Lester del Ray and loved it. I recall having the feeling that, bored by all the adult stuff and not very gregarious even around children my own age, I had been specifically hunting for the kinds of books that I knew I liked, so I must have already been exposed to the genre. However, I don’t recall specific prior instances. Possibly Narnia or something in a collection of stories for children.

Once we got back home I began frequenting the local bookstore, and started spending some of my allowance and eventually paper route money on the used (and sometimes new) science fiction I found there. In seventh grade a friend turned me on to the Heinlein juveniles, and I discovered Tolkien. I knew already I wanted to be a scientist or technical person, having discovered in fourth or fifth grade a series of books in the library entitled “So you want to be a …”, filling in “Chemist”, “Astronomer”, “Doctor”, etc. I even had a chemistry set (the kind you can’t get any more, supplemented by garage sale purchases of additional components made available when older kids in my town lost interest or moved on to college; thank goodness our parents had no idea!). I can’t decide whether science fiction led me to science, or science led me to science fiction, or I approached both simultaneously. A few years later Uncle Mike gave me a copy of Dune at another Seattle Christmas. It took me a couple of tries to get into it, but when I finally did my mind was blown (I had the same experience many years later with the – non-science fiction – Sometimes A Great Notion).

In high school a new friend hooked me on Dungeons and Dragons (possibly the very first day of my freshman year, in Theatre Arts class); we were joined by many of the other nerds during those four years. My recreational reading then was a tissue of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Lin Carter, “Doc” Smith, Andre Norton, and many others. I would get home from school and read in “my” easy chair in the front room until called for dinner, at which point I would reluctantly teleport from vivid, rich worlds of heroes, allotropic iron and soul-sucking swords to the dusty, dreary world of chores, succotash and hamburger casserole. On some occasions the transition was palpable and depressing. I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind in those years.

In my youth I didn’t find fantasies of magic and faster-than-light travel totally unrealistic, but with maturity, my credulity began to wane. Nowadays, although I can still appreciate fantasy – I mean, check out the work of of China Miéville, Philip Pullman, or Lev Grossman – I prefer it to be overt. Science fiction with conceits of time travel or psionics or other magic has to carefully justify its transgressions, and I now prefer my extrapolations to be highly constrained. The term of art for my favored genre is “mundane space opera”, “mundane” not meaning “boring”, but that any fantasy conceits be convincingly justified. The TV series “The Expanse”, Charlie Stross’s Freyaverse novels, and Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars stories and Aurora are some recent examples of the kind of science fiction I am most fond of these days.

3 thoughts on “Mundane Space Opera”

  1. must say, i hated robinson’s mars; the first book felt like a poorly-written slog… granted, that was a Long Time Ago in a Land Far Away… perhaps i should give it another go…

    fwiw, i have never been disappointed by stross books, or those of forward… hard science has almost always been phun, as well as a teaching tool… loved andy weir’s “the martian” (and, so far, “the expanse”) for that reason…

  2. (Note that I thought I had configured to blog so that comments after the first one from a given person don’t need moderation. Will look into that sometime this week I hope)

    Heh. I loved Red Mars, but liked Green and Blue progressively less, but I wanted to see “what happened” to the characters so slogged through. “The Martian” – I started it, but got bored by “what, yet another success-crisis-resolution” ? Then I was watching the movie trailer, which was similarly boring, so I was then switched to a Work Item, with the video still running in the background, and the word “mutiny” came up. *That* got my interest! I then re-watched the trailer, and then noticed I bailed on the book *just before* the mutiny talk came up. Then finished it, pretty much liking it.

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