Spencer Ellsworth built his own space opera universe in his debut trilogy, the Starfire trilogy. Today, he joins us to consider the pros and cons of actually living in a handful of our favorite science-fictional universes.
We all like thrilling to galaxies far or near, but at some point, the human race might actually make it to space, living among stars and on planets that aren’t our poor abused Earth. If (when) we do so, which of our major views of intergalactic life might be the best to emulate? What form of government should we choose? How should we resolve disputes? Most importantly, will we still be able to get a decent cup of coffee?
Here’s four of our favorite space operas, considered in terms of what they might actually be like to live in.
Let’s get the big one out of the way. It would be pretty great to zoom away from space slugs in an asteroid belt, and who wouldn’t like to bullseye a womp rat or two? Oh, and blue milk. Um…
Okay, I’m actually having trouble thinking of good things about life in the famed far, far away. For starters, unless you’re a Jedi or one of the galactic elite, you live in a galaxy that has more than its share of gangsters, smugglers, violence, and corruption. Considering that the Republic went a good 10 to 20 years without figuring out their leading senator, then chancellor, was a member of a chaotic death cult, we can assume it’s none too hard to game this system.
Moisture farming sounds even tougher than normal farming, and people seem just as prone to put their faith in fascism.
SCORE: 1 blue-milked latte out of 10. Good place for a movie. Not to live.
Here’s the other big one. Like, most people, I love Wars, but I would live in Trek. Who could argue with replicators and holodecks? With a post-scarcity society where Jake Sisko can just write and not have to fuss about the money involved? With the comfortably paradisiacal finally-got-socialism-right Federation?
Okay, the Klingons, Ferengi, Romulans, Cardassians, Dominion, and other hostile species would be trouble, but the audience for this blog is (presumably) human, so I’ll assume we picture ourselves living in Federation space.
Except… there is clear Federation bias in our heroes. Starfleet officers are the cream of the crop, so we’re seeing things only through the eyes of well-educated, quick-on-the-draw explorers. Not only do they benefit (bar early DS9) from state-of-the-art starships, they can count on a presumably massive
military exploration budget that is (again, bar early DS9) keeping them in the best replicators and holodecks money can buy.
And on DS9, when we see the Federation from the Bajoran point of view, the skepticism seems well-placed: a happy, post-scarcity society with a massive fleet of starships. Replicators and holodecks that don’t belong to a shady cabal of manufacturers?
(What is with that, anyway? Are holodecks open-source? Are the updates open-source? IT on the Enterprise must be a nightmare.)
The Maquis showed us the Federation has the same discontents of empire we’ve always seen. I’d still take Trek, but I can’t help wondering what the world looks like when you’re the sort of citizen who never steps onto the bridge.
SCORE: 9 raktajinos out of 10. Perfect, but perhaps too perfect.
A much more realistic look at the 23rd century, Leviathan Wakes (and its sequels and TV series) posit a world in which the discontents of colonialism, and then globalism, have become the discontents of interplantary…ism. Earth supports a massive population of 30 billion on universal basic income, while Mars is home to a much smaller population focused on terraforming; both rely on the ore, water, and other resources mined in the asteroid belt by the Belters. And the Belters, who grow up in low gravity, have become a society of their own, rarely able relocate to Earth and Mars’s heavy gravity, and justly resentful of the “inners.”
Naturally, as in our world today, an overworked underclass serves a comfortable blasé middle-class. When I put it that way, I have to add “but the books are great! Not as depressing as they sound!”
Despite crowded Earth, insular Mars and the rough Belt, you can live in the Expanse. One of the nice things about the series is how it shows that people will live, work, love and grow old in space, same as we do here. It’s not as comfortable, but preachers, scientists, cops, and long-haulers make a living out in the Belt and beyond, at least as well as they do under a blue sky.
Best to bring some brass knuckles, though.
SCORE: 5 decent-enough-for-Jim-Holden coffees out of 10. Pretty much life as usual.
Ann Leckie’s Radch trilogy (and subsequent standalone novel Provenance) show us a far-future galactic civilization with tens of thousands of years of history behind it.
The Radch is a galaxy-spanning interstellar empire that, among other unsavory habits, takes the bodies of their slain enemies and slaves them up to the artificial intelligence brains of their warships. Their overreliance on AI backfires, though, when Breq, a “leftover” from a destroyed ship discovers a controversy that goes all the way to the top.
Slaved up mind-controlled bodies…. ew. But Leckie’s galaxy is a big place, and like Trek, where you live depends greatly on how good you live. If you live in the sights of the Radch, or worse, the enigmatic and dangerous Presger aliens, best get off-planet, while you still have a planet.
However, on Hwae, the civilization of Provenance, life is relatively comfortable, save for the political scheming among the major families. The Geck are a much nicer, less enigmatic and dangerous species, if they’re a bit weird. In Provenance, Leckie shows a society that has incorporates non-gendered people without the prejudices of our modern world, though in the Radch, on the other side of the coin, there is but one imperial assignation of gender.
Really, Leckie’s future is the place to go if you are a fan of protocol, between the Radch fondness for tea and the Hwaeans’ subtle and not-so-subtle fighting over “vestiges”—relics of their past. If you can slay with a raised eyebrow, and discuss the fate of a thousand worlds over tea, you’ll rise high in the Radch. The rest of us would do better to keep our heads down.
SCORE: 4 carefully cultivated cups of tea out of 10. Served properly, exquisitely, with a plea to Anaander Mianaai (and the Presger, not that they’re listening) not to kill us.
And the rest…
There are thousands more interesting space operas to explore—Iain Banks’ Culture novels would be hard to resist; John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War-verse promises us a second chance at being young; Marina J Lodstetter’s Noumenon shows us the broad sweep of galactic exploration; Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit makes us sit up and pay attention in math class; Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion makes us glad we don’t live in Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.
Oh, and I wrote some too. Is there a better ‘verse to live in? Leave a comment to let us know.
The second novel in the Starfire trilogy, Shadow Sun Seven, is out November 28t.