Fandom of the Opera

Remembering the birthday of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (2 May 1890 – 31 August 1965)
and commemorating Star Wars Day (May the 4th).

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

I miss space opera.

I recall my younger days, travelling into town and visiting Space Age Books. As I stepped through those bookshop doors, the everyday sounds of traffic and mundane life were left outside and I was free to explore other worlds and other times. I felt as if I had traversed a cosmic portal and left behind my mundane existence as a schoolboy to become, for all too brief a period, an adventurer and researcher at Hogwarts or in a modern-day Library of Alexandria.

I miss the days of looking upward, of being inspired by Moonwalkers who held much of the planet breathless in shared excitement. I miss Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who encouraged us to consider the stellar void as testimony to both our cosmic beginnings and our future as a species. I recall my imaginary explorations as a crewmember aboard the Skylark, the Spacemaster, or the USS Enterprise; or as a citizen of Trantor or Arrakis. I admire the modern equivalents of these vistas, but somehow (to me at least) these newcomers lack the grandeur of the old masters – or maybe that is simply my nostalgia instinct kicking in and giving special deference to my halcyon days as an avid and excitable teenage SF reader.

It has been reported that 60% of post-war baby-boomer children in the UK were avid readers of Dan Dare comics during the 1950s (Holland, 2008, 6). They later matured by watching Thunderbirds and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armstrong’s one small step on the Moon. It may have been inevitable for me to join this same cohort, as I was born between the launch of Ham the Chimp and Yuri Gagarin.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As someone who was first exposed to SF via television programs such as Space Patrol, Lost in Space and Space: 1999, and the pulp SF novels of Captain WE Johns, I recognise that the science in these stories was often embarrassingly inadequate, but they nevertheless portrayed something marvellous – the grandeur of the universe and the sense of wonder which can be inculcated by our viewing of cosmic vistas.

Nowadays, the demands and realities of mundane existence have largely replaced my youthful dreams and visions – I have not gafiated so much as fafiated. And yet, when I pause and look up into the night-time sky, there is a primal call which echoes in my soul. Despite my attempts to ignore this compulsion, I still miss space opera, that traditionally maligned sub-genre of science fiction which encompasses both the grandeur of Apollo and the ordinariness of pulp culture.

Defining the Undefinable

NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In its purest form, SF holds the potential to not only anticipate a variety of possible futures, but to actually contribute to such outcomes (Bonfiglioli, 2010, 40; Kreuiter, 2009, 26-28). This holds true both sociologically and technologically, as demonstrated by the public silence that largely greeted NASA’s 1996 announcement of possible Martian microbial fossils inside Meteorite ALH84001. No politician mocked the concept of little green men; no religious leader proclaimed the divinely-ordained anthropocentric nature of creation. Life on Earth continued as before – evidence that SF had prepared our species to accept news of possible ET life.

I observe a similar lack of controversy in the discovery of thousands of extrasolar worlds circling nearby stars. Once again, our cultures and cosmological understandings have been prepared in advance for exciting discoveries. This shows that SF has an incredible, literally world-changing power, in no small part due to its implicit optimism. SF has even helped students to understand and learn scientific concepts (Laprise and Windrich, 2010) and has inspired many people to enter scientific careers or to create technological inventions (Jones, 2005; Easton & Dial, 2010).

‘Flight 16’ – Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Science fiction inculcates an open mindset in which its practitioners might explore all sorts of possibilities: diversity and learning to appreciate the metaphoric alien in our midst, wondrous scientific discoveries, future utopias and dystopias available to humans, new human identities and futuristic societies, vast cosmic vistas that transcend space and time and humanity. I have previously noted how Carl Sagan has invoked the sense of wonder that can be found in the cosmic vistas of science. Science fiction pioneer and monster afficionado Forrest Ackerman was one person who embraced and popularised many science fantasy elements, but he personally disavowed any belief in religion or the supernatural, and embraced hard science. As an atheist and secular humanist, he looked ahead with hope to the future awaiting possible construction by humankind:

“My hope for humanity – and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in this direction – is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence… I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an accepted citizen of Utopia.” – Forrest J. Ackerman

Bridging the Gap

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

CP Snow suggested that we need to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’, ie. the chasm that exists between science and arts (Snow, 1959). I would suggest that science fiction may be one way to popularise science and critical thinking in ways that are artistic, creative and innovative. This may help to steer our culture away from fake news, Trumpism and Brexit, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience.

Science fiction has a potential to transcend its own limitations and expand further into the paeans of literature. It can do this by borrowing extensively from other literature for its theme, character and setting (Casimir, 2002) or by utilising mythical archetypes that allow Luke Skywalker to be Odysseus. SF can give expression to feminist and other progressive ideas. Among its many fans, science fiction attracts those who are marginalised by mundane society and we should listen to such voices:

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
Octavia Butler.

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Dr Bronwyn Lovell.

We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.
Shayla Lawz.

Science fiction can therefore be an antidote to bigotry and intolerance, and an educational tool for promoting diversity and difference. How can someone hate their fellow humans after they learn to appreciate the ‘alien’ within SF literature?

The Fandom Menace:

In SF, we meet people who are forever changed by the advances in science which have affected both their world and their very humanity. It is when we stretch these boundaries, not only of science, but of our concepts of what it means to be human, that we achieve the level of classical literature.

August 1930 Amazing Stories. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It is thus we see a connection between Jules Verne’s The First Men in the Moon and Plato’s stories of Atlantis; we understand that Star Trek is a modern-day reworking of Jason and the Argonauts or Gulliver’s Travels; we can view Asimov’s Robot stories as 20th century modellings of medieval morality plays. We understand that tales of astronauts exploring strange new worlds are re-visitations of Robinson Crusoe or The Odyssey. We appreciate the Superman stories as secular retellings of Biblical folklore; and that Sarah Connor’s space opera adventures reboot female archetypes Athena or Minerva.

All such mythologies examine the timeless themes of what it means to be human in a wider, breathtaking cosmos.

Perhaps most of all, science fiction gives us a mirror within which we can glimpse who we are, and who we might become. In creating the possible worlds of science fiction, we are also creating ourselves:

“The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water …” ― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles


Catriona Bonfiglioli, 2010. ‘Science ↔ Society’, in Chemistry in Australia, RACI, Volume 77 Number 9, October.

John Casimir, 2002. ‘Clone Wars’, in The Age, 16 May, B3.

Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial (eds), 2010. Visions of Tomorrow: Science Fiction Predictions That Came True, Skyhorse Publishing Inc, Canada.

Steve Holland, 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Steve Holland (ed.), Rick Random: Space Detective, London: Prion/IPC Publishing Group.

Julian Jones (writer and director), 2005. How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions Inc.

Allan Kreuiter, 2009. ‘The Science of Science Fiction’, in Australasian Science, Volume 30, Issue 10, Nov/Dec.

Shari Laprise & Chuck Winrich, 2010. ‘The Impact of Science Fiction Films on Student Interest in Science’, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 45 – 49.

C.P. Snow, 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

One thought on “Fandom of the Opera”

  1. Project Gutenberg has a lot of E E “Doc” Smith’s books as free downloads:

    My favorite format is epub. There are a lot of free ebook readers that can display epub books. (My favorite is fbreader.) Reading books on an electronic device (smartphone, tablet computer, notebook computer, laptop, desktop computer) may at first seem uncomfortable, but you will be surprised how quickly you become used to it. I’ve come to prefer it to the point that I now genuinely dislike reading paper books — they feel positively clumsy, and they take up so much room. Electronic devices let me carry thousands of ebooks in my pocket.

    Also LibriVox has a lot of E E “Doc” Smith’s stories as (free) audiobooks:

    I prefer mp3 format files and load them into a portable mp3 player, or a smartphone, or some other computer to play them. Audiobooks are great for when you’re walking, driving, travelling on public transport, doing housework, gardening, and so on.

    Both Project Gutenberg and LibriVox have enormous libraries, and many works of science fiction. And it is all free.

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