Imagine The Lord of the Rings in which the geography of Middle Earth didn’t influence the story. Frodo and friends leave the Shire and bang! They’re at Rivendell. The Fellowship leaves Rivendell and bang! They’re at Moria, then bang! They’re at Rohan and bang! They’re at Minas Tirith. Instead of the long marches through Middle Earth, across the mountains and plains and through the forests and the mines, there would just be a series of events at separate locations.
It doesn’t sound nearly as good, does it?
Yet, that is how most “space” opera handles space. Trips between stars and planets usually take only a short time, sometimes just the blink of eye. Even when long trips are involved, they are shown as a series of destinations. When starships decide to fight, even though they are capable of covering light years of distance in a short time, those starships battle by zipping up to each other in a few moments, then slugging away toe-to-toe like boxers in a ring.
A lot of stories don’t want to deal with space. It’s too big and too empty, unimaginably huge, limitless in all directions, no up or down, and practically nothing in the way of obstacles or barriers compared to the surface of a planet. How huge? It’s about twenty five trillion miles to the nearest star (that’s about forty two trillion kilometers). How do humans get their heads around such a number? Even within a single solar system, the distances are enormous. From Earth to Mars is anywhere from thirty six million miles to two hundred fifty million miles. Why do the numbers vary so much? Because both Earth and Mars orbit the sun. Everything in space is moving, nothing just sits still, so travel is a matter of intercepting a moving target, not going to a fixed location. And if you move fast enough, stuff gets weird thanks to Relativity. Your view of the universe gets distorted. Space is not only big, it’s complicated.
As a result, it’s common to adopt shortcuts that allow a story to ignore space. Means to zip almost instantly across those distances, means to see instantly and communicate instantly across space.
I think that’s a mistake, because all of that empty space matters as much as the mountains and rivers of Middle Earth. Just as the ocean matters on Earth. Space and the sea are different characters, of course. The sea is an active character, aiding you or trying to kill you. Ask any sailor. But space is passive. It sits and waits for a mistake, an accident, an equipment failure, and then it is there, cold and unforgiving. To someone voyaging in space, all of that Nothing is Something. Watch the brilliant movie Apollo 13 and you’ll see what I mean. Space is there, the monster lurking just outside the capsule.
But, if putting space into space opera is a good idea, how can we do it?
As it turns out, the universe has given us a tool to show its huge distances in ways humans can understand. Light. One billion kilometers means…what in terms of distance? It’s considerably easier to grasp the idea that light itself takes one hour to travel that distance. One light hour. Describe the distances as light seconds, light minutes, and light hours, and suddenly we have a meaningful means of measurement. Light itself takes that long to get from here to there? That’s big. Dealing with three light hours is a lot easier to handle than describing the distance as three billion kilometers. Using light as the means of description both simplifies showing how big space is, and makes it clear just how big space is.
It also shows the real obstacles in space. Where hobbits might have to ford rivers and climb over mountains, people in space have to deal with the fact that it will take hours for a message sent from their ship to reach another ship. And though they can see that ship, see it crystal clear across those billions of kilometers, they are seeing where it was and what it was doing hours ago. That distance matters. They need to cross it.
Yes, adding space into a space opera complicates it, just as putting the landscape of Middle Earth into that story complicates travel and plans and action there. But I discovered while writing the Lost Fleet series that those complications add a lot to the story. They make the characters confront more problems, more difficulties, more challenges. They make the setting come alive and feel real. They force me, the writer, to figure out how things would actually work in such a place rather than skipping over it. If I can’t take shortcuts, neither can my characters. I have to write better.
Because space is just waiting for you to make a mistake.
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Jack Campbell (retired US Navy officer John G. Hemry) writes modern space opera, science fiction, military science fiction and fantasy.
His Lost Fleet series follows “Black Jack” Geary, a reluctant hero who fought a desperate last stand against overwhelming odds. In The Lost Stars series, former leaders of the Syndicate Worlds defeated by Black Jack try to rebuild something better from the ruins of that interstellar empire.
In the Stark’s War series, micro-management and politics have grown to rule the US military with disastrous results during a war on the Moon, while in the Sinclair/ JAG in Space series, a young Naval space warfare officer has to learn leadership as he confronts attacks, terrorist acts, spies and other threats that lead to court-martials in the best tradition of legal thrillers.
Jack has also written numerous short stories about time travel, alternate universes, space and the future.
For more information, check out his website.