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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A View from the Geek: Why Do People Like Space Opera and Urban Fantasy? • By Eric Dontigney

I’ve been reading a lot of space opera and urban fantasy lately. This, in turn, has made me think a lot about why so many people like space opera and urban fantasy. Let’s be honest, these aren’t subgenres that are reputed to specialize in deep thinking. Sure, you can work in some reflections on society, maybe have a bit of introspection, but that’s not why people show up and read them. It’s certainly not why people show up and read 3 or 5 or 14 books in a series. At least, that seems to be the assumption from the outside looking in.  

It would be exceedingly easy to chalk up people’s interest in these subgenres as lazy thinking. They just show up for popcorn entertainment and that’s it. It’d be really easy to chalk the subgenres themselves up as the Marvel films of speculative literature. For some people, that might even be true. For specific examples of the subgenres, that might even be true. But it doesn’t hold water as a blanket explanation. 

Let’s take the Honor Harrington series as an example of space opera. At a surface reading, it’s just Horatio Hornblower in space…with an empathic cat. And, let’s be honest, that’s actually a really good pitch. You get exciting space battles. Naval shenanigans. A central character who is, all too often, more honorable than almost everyone around her. Hell, Harrington even fights a duel in one of the books. It certainly seems to tick all the boxes of popcorn fiction space opera.

Except, it’s not. David Weber isn’t shy about working some dense politics into the books. He’s also not shy about knocking political positions he doesn’t appreciate in the books (a hallmark of Baen books). He doesn’t shy away from complexity in his plots. The first book in the series depends on a conspiracy that takes most of the book to become obvious. He’s put a ridiculous amount of thought into the science of those space battles. Now, granted, the Honor Harrington series is widely acclaimed space opera. So, let’s look a little closer to home at something that’s received a little less critical examination.

Rampant Loon’s very own Henry Vogel is a space opera writing machine. So, let’s take a look at one of his recent books, The Lost Planet. What do we get there? Big space battles. Honorable heroes. Galactic politics. Interplanetary mystery. Hmmmm…this also ticks the right boxes, except it doesn’t really fit the bill of science fiction lite, either. In fact, it’s fairly complex in terms of plotting and character development for a standalone space adventure tale. All of which brings me around to my point.

I don’t think people respond to space opera or urban fantasy because they’re simplistic or easy. I think people show up and read them for a very different reason. Most space opera and urban fantasy novels take a hard pass on delving into the “big issues.” Sure, environmental concerns might show up in a space opera, but only as a means of forwarding the plot, not as a central conceit. Poverty might show up in an urban fantasy, but it’s never the major thrust of the novel. While these issues are crucially important for societies in big picture terms, it’s very easy for people to get burned out on them.

I think of it as issue fatigue. It’s the point where you know, intellectually, that you should care about something, but you don’t have enough bandwidth to engage with the topic. The non-stop news cycle hasn’t made this any better. We’re constantly bombarded by images and stories that try to scare us, tug on our heartstrings, or some demonic combination of the two. What’s worse is that we know we should be having some kind of visceral reaction to these things, except, after a while, we don’t.

When you’re exposed to things that trigger strong emotions, it’s not just mental. It’s physical as well. Your body goes through something called the stress cycle. You see the emotional trigger, which trips responses in your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and hypes your autonomic nervous system. That, in turn, triggers your sympathetic nervous system and sets off a hormone cascade that releases adrenaline into your system. Then, when your body decides there is no actual threat or no immediate reason for emotional arousal, it turns off the process by releasing more hormones.

When this happens a few times a month, it’s no big deal. In fact, that’s what your body is supposed to do. Your body isn’t wired to endure that process multiple times a day, every day. One of the theories is that you experience adrenal fatigue. Basically, your adrenal glands can’t keep up production of stress hormones. So, despite knowing you should be reacting to things you hear or see, you don’t get the visceral response you expect. That creates a disconnect between your physical experience and your emotional experience or expected emotional experience. It can quite literally feel like you don’t care that much.  

Assuming the adrenal fatigue theory holds up, you need time away from things that trigger that response. My theory is that people in that state (which probably makes up a lot of the saner adult population these days) don’t want to engage with the “big issues” that don’t have clear solutions in their recreational reading. It’s not that they fear complexity or want something simple. It’s that want things that are direct. They want problems where there are clear sides. They want a story where you’ve got a protagonist you more or less accept as the good guy, who tackles people who are the bad guys.

That hero can operate in the gray, as long as the people on the other side are demonstrably worse. That way, we can root for the protagonist and feel a kind of vicarious victory. We can take sides and know we’re in the right. In some way, it serves a basic need in our psychology for fairness or justice to win out in the end. That describes the reading experience of space opera and urban fantasy pretty well. It’s not universally the case, but it’s a fair expectation about 90% of the time.

I think, if there is such a thing as a simple explanation for why people read the things they do, these are the reasons why people respond to space opera and urban fantasy. It’s a way to escape the apparent expectation that we’ll engage, all the damn time, with the “big issues.” An escape that gives our poor fatigued adrenal glands a break. It’s an opportunity for us to deal vicariously with a direct problem that has clear sides. It’s a rare opportunity that lets us find basic fairness in a world that so rarely provides it.

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