Out of This World
An interplanetary opera with a nod to the past.
May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It was science fiction--science and fiction, at the same time! Bad science and bad fiction, as it happens, when the whole thing was starting out. But there was a moment around, say, 1935 when the sheer idea of putting a little futuristic technobabble in a story was exciting enough that the story didn't really matter.
"Space Opera," it came to be called, and it appeared in pulp magazines with titles like Galaxy and Amazing Adventures from the 1930s through the 1950s, the now-faded newsprint covers once bright with girls in glass-bubble helmets, shrieking as the space monster's green tentacles stretched toward their shapely forms. Who will save them? Who could save them?
Why, the Skylark Three, of course, or Doc Smith's Lensmen, or the Legion of Space. Does anyone still read this yellowed old stuff? "Big Little Books" like Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, Captain Future, Space Hawk, Outside the Universe, or Buck Rogers and the Planetoid Plot?
No, probably not. "Space Opera" isn't really the right term for the genre. With a few exceptions, it was simply old-fashioned melodrama--and low-rent melodrama at that: The Perils of Pauline, set sloppily in outer space. Yes, it was one of the grandfathers of the better science fiction that came along in the 1950s and '60s. We don't get Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein or even Kurt Vonnegut without those melodramatic pulps. But it was, in truth, the idiot grandfather, the one who spends Thanksgiving dinner telling impossible stories while the grandchildren roll their eyes. Unless you're old enough to have read it at the time--just at the moment that it was new and you were a reader at exactly the right impressionable age--there's no reason to remember the glory days of the genre.
Happily--or, perhaps, sadly--a pair of boy readers from Earlville, Illinois, remember all too well the day they discovered space opera. They outgrew it, of course. Gary K. Wolf went on to be a writer, most famous for creating Roger Rabbit, the basis for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). His friend, John J. Myers, took a different path, most famous now for being the Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark. Indeed, Myers was the youngest bishop in the United States when he was ordained in 1987 at age 46, which you'd think would give him enough to remember. But neither he nor Wolf ever quite forgot the pulps that led them to science fiction, and over the last few years, they've worked whenever they could on an attempt to recreate the genre.
The result is Space Vulture--half-homage and half-parody, a tale of good and evil, square-chinned heroes and superhuman villains, running loose between the stars.
As the book opens, a thief named Gil Terry has just reprogrammed the harvest robots to steal a mushroom crop from a remote planet called Verlinap. Unfortunately for Gil, Captain Victor Corsaire is hot on his trail. Victor Corsaire! Captain Corsaire! The most famous galactic marshal in the universe, and he swings down in his spaceship just in time to capture Gil and turn him over to Cali Russell, the planet's chief administrator. Cali Russell! The beautiful Cali! Talented, too, and with her two genius children, Eliot and Regin, she prepares to welcome Captain Corsaire and his dismal captive Gil.
End of story, you'd think--but melodrama never really ends, for unbeknownst to them all, Space Vulture is swooping down on the planet. Space Vulture! The "scourge of outer space," the "curse of the universe"! A diabolical villain with a "ruthless army of injustice" who promptly captures the entire population of Verlinap! The ordinary citizens he plans to sell for slaves. The beautiful Cali he intends to claim as his mistress. And the broad-chested Corsaire he fiendishly decides to offer for torture to the galaxy's worst criminals.
And all that's just Act One, the first installment of the space opera. As the curtain rises on Act Two, we discover that the thief Gil and Cali's family have somehow avoided capture. Can the boys Eliot and Regin find a way to convince the ignoble Gil to act nobly and help rescue their mother? Can Captain Corsaire escape his chains? Can Cali avoid the vile embrace of that intergalactic monster, Space Vulture?
Of course they can; of course they will. Justice and truth must triumph, else what's a melodrama for?
There's something a little off about the parodic elements of Space Vulture. It's not really fair to do parody of a genre that nobody does seriously anymore. Oh, there are plenty of modern science-fiction stories that owe a debt to the old Buck Rogers space opera: Larry Niven's Ringworld, for instance, and Lois McMaster Bujold's endless Miles Vorkosigan saga. But they aren't exactly like their predecessors, for readers these days demand a little better science, a little better writing, and a melodrama that's a little better hidden.
In fact, pure space opera exists today only as parody, from Harry Harrison's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (The best may be Jack Vance's 1965 Space Opera, which even involves actual opera as an eccentric heiress hires an opera company and sets out to bring culture to the deprived citizens of the galaxy's distant planets.) In the case of Space Vulture the mild parody weakens the book's homage to space opera, and the homage gets in the way of the parody.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that Space Vulture is a fun, quick read. The dust jacket carries praise from both Guy Consolmagno, the chief astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, and the Catholic novelist Gene Wolfe, probably the most respected science-fiction writer alive. Of course, that may owe something to John Myers's day job; science fiction-writing archbishops don't grow on trees.
But some of the praise is due. From that moment of discovery way back when in Earlville all the way down to the present, Gary Wolf and Archbishop Myers have kept alive the memory of Space Hawk and Captain Future and Flash Gordon. And why not? It was science fiction--science and fiction at the same time!
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.