Composing Space Opera with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth L Powell

With eighty authors to be accommodated at Cymera, Scotland’s festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror writing, it was inevitable that in order to facilitate the programming of the weekend that some panels would feature the literary equivalent of a superhero team up, as it was on Saturday 7th June as three writers joined forces to discuss their most recently published works.

Comprising Dissidence, Insurgence and Emergence, Ken MacLeod was celebrating the recent reissue of his Corporation Wars trilogy as a single volume, while Adrian Tchaikovsky was flying high with Children of Ruin, sequel to his Arthur C Clarke award winning novel Children of Time, while Gareth L Powell was fanning the flames with Fleet of Knives, the sequel to Embers of War.

Asked by host Joe Gordon to define space opera, MacLeod went first with what he termed the “useful” definitions of the genre as “hard science fiction is anything you can sell with a spaceship on the cover while space opera is anything you can sell with at least one exploding spaceship on the cover.”

Tchaikovsky modestly saying he didn’t feel Children of Time was particularly within the subgenre, though it does cover epic themes across generations, Powell felt it had “always existed as a genre, the background radiation bubbling and hissing away,” a fan since he had first seen Star Wars when he was seven years old.

“I like widescreen stories. I don’t want stories of fifty scientists on spaceships smoking pipes studying Planet X.” Going on to cite some favourites such as Samuel R Delany’s Nova, M John Harrison’s Centauri Device and Alastair ReynoldsRevelation Space, he also expressed concern about how the air conditioning aboard ship would cope with the copious tobacco smoke.

MacLeod admitting he was a little too old to be swayed by the charms of E E “Doc” Smith, he said he found more in Larry Niven’s Ringworld and agreed with Powell about The Centauri Device, saying it had “blown my mind at the delicate age of twenty-two,” not realising Harrison had intended it as a deconstruction of the genre, one of his goals “to wring the neck of space opera and throw it on the rubbish heap.”

MacLeod’s own first novels set in the near future, it was the work of Lois McMaster Bujold and his friend Iain M Banks who inspired him to leap further when he wrote Engines of Light.

Powell also acknowledging the hugely popular and influential works of Banks, he commented “I like to set up a universe like the Culture to tell lots of stories and then I tend to blow them up.” Referencing his novel The Recollection and the absence of a hoped-for sequel, he admitted “I build these things then I test them to destruction.”

Avoiding such problems, Tchaikovsky took a different approach: “I always make the universe as big as possible so what you see in the book is just the artist’s frame. I’ve always got doors open, places I can go.” Admitting Children of Time was conceived as a stand-alone, he said “I’ve never written anything that can’t be continued, and the last chapter is quite an obvious hook.”

That sequel was not without problems, however: “I nearly broke my head doing some of the non-human point of view for Ruin because I had to push the boat out further than I had for Time.” Unfortunately, while Children of Time had been optioned for a television series, Tchaikovsky told the audience “It’s not progressing. There were many reasons for that. But the option money was nice.”

Taking up that thought, Powell stated categorically that the most fun he had with Embers of War was “writing the point of view of the sentient spaceship… she describes herself as a fourteen-year-old girl with the social grace of a missile, and having a fourteen-year-old daughter I found that easy to tap into.”

Asked if he considers space opera as escapism, perhaps less worthy than fiction which addresses more immediate issues, Powell believed it has a valid place. “You could argue that anything set more than ten years in the future is ridiculously optimistic. I could be writing about climate change or politics but you need to have something optimistic, something to look forward to.”

The Cymera Festival will return in 2020



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