Friday, April 5, 2013

Space Opera Fridays: Judith Tarr on From Fantasy to Forgotten Suns

Forgotten Suns is a “heart book”—an Attack Novel that grabbed me by the throat and refused to let me go until it was more than halfway done. Now it has me again, as I’ve set aside other projects to oversee the Kickstarter that has already reached its funding goal and is now advancing toward (I hope) wonderful professional cover art and a print as well as a digital edition.

I didn’t know it was a space opera at first. I just knew that there was a planet out there, which used to be inhabited but for the most part no longer was. I didn’t know why it was empty, or where the people had gone. I started writing the novel to find the answers. Then as those answers took shape (or as I took dictation—because Attack Novels are like that), I realized that there were starships. And space pirates. And devices that could shatter worlds.

Why all these things? Why science fiction? I’m known as a fantasy writer, after all. Fans beg me for more rooted-in-real-facts historical fantasy. One of the projects that’s in the to-be-written pile now is alternate history with a fantasy component. Another is the kind of historical fantasy I’m known for. I’m excited about both, and looking forward to both.

But here we are, rampaging down the spaceways with a group of renegades and runaways, and as I write this, we’re about to meet the sentient starship. My brain, which has a weird slant, is showing me ways to put the “opera” in space opera.

That’s not a brain that fits itself into tidy marketing categories. The first rejection I ever received for a novel, from the legendary Lester Del Rey, was extremely kind and complimentary, and very detailed—he went on for pages. His main point was that my submission, while well written and engaging to read, wouldn’t fit the market because it didn’t fit into any one genre. “Fantasy readers seem to be fairly tolerant of science fiction in their fantasy,” he said, “but science-fiction readers have no tolerance for fantasy in their science fiction.”

The agent who took me on after that agreed, and steered me gently but firmly toward the historical fantasy I was playing with at the time. She didn’t need to know that I had worldbuilt it as science fiction in a medieval stetting, or that the real inspiration was not Tolkien but The Uncanny X-Men.

Because, actually, fantasy readers don’t much like science fiction in their fantasy, either.

Meanwhile, I still had my crazy, endless science-fantasy epic, not yet space opera, because nobody had gone into space in it. Yet. And I discovered that if I wrote the distant, dawn-time, Bronze-Age prequel to that, lo and behold, I had epic fantasy. And it sold as such, and was marketed as such, and it wasn’t a huge success, not like the historical fantasy, but it did well enough to last for six volumes and even to get far enough along that we found ourselves in space. With aliens. Which sank without a trace, but I loved writing that book.

Time went on. Publishing changed. I found myself being pushed farther and farther into tighter and tighter corners of genre, till I couldn’t move or breathe at all. Finally I reached the point that it felt as if there was nothing left. No story I could sell, that I wanted to tell. I didn’t even want to write any more—and writing, for me, is up there with breathing when it comes to things that keep me alive.

Two things saved my life, literally and metaphorically. One was Book View Café, with its cooperative structure and its scope for resurrecting backlist and making it at least minimally profitable in the new digital age. The other was a friend who made it possible for me to keep the bills paid while I wrote something new. Anything. Whatever I wanted. It didn’t matter what. They didn’t care if it was marketable. I could put it up on BVC if no one else would take it.

It was as if I’d been let out of prison. I could write anything. No more restrictions. No more “you have to write what will sell, and only what will sell.” The thought made me dizzy, and I flailed from project to project.

Then I knew what I had to write. It started like this:

“Aisha had blown the top off the cliff.

“It was an accident.”

And it went from there. Headlong and full-tilt. Growing itself as it went—and I’m an outliner, not a pantser. This I flew by the seat of my well-worn riding breeches.

It did stop eventually, for various reasons, but it was always there in the back of everything else, waiting to be picked up again. At one point I ran it by my agent, who said with real regret, “Twenty years ago this would have been an instant sale. Now, nobody will look at it.” And he added, “Unless you were a twentysomething guy.”

Which is another ranty bit, but I’ve done that one before. The main issue, that “science fiction doesn’t sell,” didn’t surprise me at all, because I’d heard it so often. Still, I knew a not insignificant number of readers, fans, and fellow writers who loved science fiction, and especially space opera. I thought they might like to see a new one—and they, being wonderful and eclectic and flexible of mind, wouldn’t insist that I stick to “my” familiar genre. All I had to do was do it right, or try, and make it fun to read (because oh my is it fun to write).

And of course, me being me, a good part of the fun is playing with Clarke’s Law—and its converse. Mixing up genres again. But in space opera, one can do that.  The Force, laran, the Weirding Way—it’s all part of the tradition. Along with the starships and the space pirates and the ancient mysteries and the forgotten worlds. All the great good things that make the genre what it is.


  1. or that the real inspiration was not Tolkien but The Uncanny X-Men.

    I love you forever, Judy. :)