Friday, April 19, 2013

Space Opera Fridays Revisits: Is Darkover Space Opera?

This post from a couple of years ago still gets viewers, so in case you missed it, I'm giving it another day of blog-glory. With the recent publication of The Children of Kings, which takes place entirely on Darkover, but does involve things going 'splody in space, it seems appropriate.

My husband, sf writer Dave Trowbridge, and I were discussing the appeal of space opera at breakfast, what it is and why it appeals. Basically, space opera is a type of science fiction set on a large scale, highly dramatic and sometimes melodramatic. It tends to have military elements -- huge battles upon which hinge the fate of galactic empires, that sort of thing. Although wikipedia says it has nothing to do with the musical form, I think that reflects their own ignorance. What space opera and musical opera have in common is being larger than life, or rather brighter and more intense than life. Opera was, after all, the epitome high-tech special-effects knock-your-socks-off entertainment for centuries. Music, lyrics, sets, and costumes, not to mention trap doors and wire harnesses, exotic animals and fireworks, all enhanced one another. But that's another topic.

We agreed that we love the grand scope of such tales, but that it needs to be balanced by emotionally intimate moments. The same is true, for me at least, in epic fantasy. Monstrous dark forces are threatening the entire world, volcanoes exploding by the thousands, rivers of fire and poison...and then a detail in the characters that's so human, it touches my heart, not just my things-go-boom adrenalin endorphins.

Which brings me to Darkover.
Technically, the series is science fiction, and if you read the very early books, this is more clear. As Marion developed the world and explored its history, fewer of the stories actually involved events in space and the clash of cultures, and more were focused on conflict within the Seven Domains. For me, that iconic first experience remains, "Character comes to Darkover and discovers...adventure, danger... himself and his past," and I discover these things along with him.

Somewhere along the line, the romantic sensibilities of the early Darkover novels took on the feeling of fantasy. After all, people were riding horses and thwacking each other with swords. Laran took on the aspect of semi-magic, even the terminology ("spells"). But there is something grand and opera-like about many of the stories. Think of Stormqueen! or The Heritage of Hastur, landscapes rent with supernaturally-charged storms, space ships bursting into flame, mental powers concentrated in crystals and then bursting out, wild and uncontrolled...characters faced with terrible choices and even more painful sacrifices. One of the joys of working with Marion on the "Clingfire" trilogy was creating a big, overarching story that spanned generations and came to a resounding climax with the adoption of the Compact. Verdi would have adored it. Not to mention Mozart! (I can't help wondering what the man who composed The Magic Flute would have done with Darkover.)

Marion was a life-long opera enthusiast.As a young woman, she'd wanted to be an opera singer, and she never lost her love of it. One of my favorite memories of her was going together to hear Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the San Francisco Opera. I wonder how much of that love of opera -- music, words, color and movement coming together to make a whole greater than the parts -- helped shape the world of the Bloody Sun.

Darkover may be only one planet, and hence the term "space" may be subject to question, but is it space opera? What do you think?


  1. I'm surprised no one has commented on your post so far.

    I have read most of the Darkover series, although most of that reading was some time ago (most of my books are in storage while I've lived overseas these past ten years). Darkover has never struck me as space opera, even though there are a few scenes that involve rockets and some space travel. For me, space opera is better represented by the works of, say, C.J. Cherryh in her various Chanur and Merchanter/Union/Alliance novels. I think I would define space opera by saying that a significant portion of the story is devoted to space travel, normally between solar systems although occasionally within a single solar system. Darkover, on the other hand, strikes me as "planetary SF," where the story is primarily devoted to one location, a planet or moon that isn't Earth. In this regard I would compare Darkover to novels/series like Pern, Dune, LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, K.S. Robinson's Mars Trilogy, and so on. All worthy company to each other, but none I would classify as space opera.

  2. @JDsg -- I have no explanation for why more people have not left irate messages, but I'm glad you did. I'm intrigued by how many different understandings of "space opera" there are. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer defined modern space opera as “colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action … and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone.” That certainly describes Darkover!

  3. Deborah:

    I think I read that definition about two hours after I had left my original comment. ;) I agree that Darkover fits Hartwell & Cramer's definition, but their definition also strikes me as being overly broad. It seems to me that half of all SF works could fit that definition. Personally, I would prefer a tighter definition. But, YMMV. :)

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  6. I really think it is space opera, though some may disagree. I like Wikipedia's definition of space opera: melodramatic adventures that take place in outer space. ;) In my mind, Darkover was always about the schism between high technology (Terrans) and the almost-mystical quality of Laran and the technology related to it. And since it takes place on a planet, had some aliens (which laran came from anyway), and have cool space-travelling earthlings, it is space opera in my book.

  7. Hi Elizabeth - Yes, I think that's exactly right. Marion was interested in the clash of cultures, but from the experiences of individual characters working their way through learning, conflict, understanding, romance. She also loved opera, which uses music, words, costumes, etc., to create an experience that's greater and more rich and resonant than any one element.

    The Darkover novel I turned in last year, THE CHILDREN OF KINGS, brings Terranan technology - in the form of Compact-forbidden weapons - back to Darkover. Although all the action takes place "on the ground," there is a pervasive sense of Darkover being one of many planets/societies, that there is a larger and very dangerous battlefield out there.

    Yet Marion felt, and I have followed this, that just because a world is "low-tech" does not mean it is without resources. She made that point emphatically in THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR with the disaster at Caer Donn.

  8. Generally speaking, the scope of space opera tends to involve hundreds, if not thousands or more, solar systems.

    The models are Doc Smith, Jack Williamson's LEGION OF TIME, John W. Campbell's Arcot, Wade, and Morey. Engineering whole solar systems, throwing planets around, crashing galaxies together, that sort of thing.

    Stuff within a single solar system: not so much.

    But everyone can use these terms as they wish.