Space Opera Needs To Be Big
This is a basic truism. (And one that Star Wars really started to fail at with the prequels.) You have an entire galaxy to play in. There is no reason to keep things small. George Lucas started going off the rails when his vast, sweeping space opera became about one small family and the same handful of planets.
The problem is more widespread than just Star Wars. It’s enough of a problem in science fiction that there’s an entire TV Tropes page about it. (Warning: time sink) Some of the more recent space opera franchise films have been really, really bad about it.
The Possibilities Are Functionally Endless
A galaxy is a big place. Even a tiny corner of one arm of the galaxy is a mind-bogglingly big place. In fact, it’s so mind-bogglingly big that it’s impossible for the human mind to really wrap itself around the possibilities available just within a bubble of a few parsecs (a parsec is about 3.26 lightyears).
Now, it’s possible to get so wrapped around it that you get paralyzed. Pure “hard SF” would make it impossible to tell a coherent story in that big a setting. Occasionally, it can happen; Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy manages to pull it off with no Faster Than Light travel. But even then, Reynolds’ series is somewhat constrained. It can only happen within a bubble of a few light years, because even with the life-extending tech he posits, the lighthuggers can only go so far in a “reasonable” amount of time.
For a Star Wars/Lensman-style story, where FTL is a thing? You’ve got to think BIG.
What Do I Mean By Big?
A galactic war can’t just hinge on the same few planets. John Ringo laid some of it out in the intro to Live Free or Die:
“Back in the day in SF, people were willing to think grand. Since we’ve had problems with getting off this mud ball, writers seem to think that we have to think small. Howard (and I) disagree. Space is mind-bogglingly huge and vast and neat and scary and neat and huge. The main character in this book is a person who, possibly because of his stature, thinks ‘Cheops was insufficiently ambitious.’ This is a book about grand vision. The hell with microsats. Give me vast fleets of roaring space-ships! Give me the vision to terraform worlds! Give me battles that make a human feel their tiny little cosmic insignificance and characters that shrug it off and go ‘Yeah, but we created these engines of war so who is really larger?'”
E.E. “Doc” Smith had wars with factions throwing entire planets at each other at lightspeed. Farscape saw dozens of different worlds over four seasons, and wormholes used as weapons. Again, if you’ve got an entire galaxy as your playground, why focus on one or two worlds?
Scale Applies On Several Levels
One of the things you won’t see in The Unity Wars is the kind of mono-environment planets that have become a cliche. While there are entirely desert or snowball worlds in our solar system, unlike Tatooine or Hoth, Mars and Europa are uninhabitable by humans out of suits. So, if there’s a breathable atmosphere, there has to be an ecosystem to support it, and there have to be variations in climate, because that’s the way planets with livable atmospheres should work (admittedly, this is going by a sample size of one: Earth). There won’t be an “swamp planets” or “forest moons.”
What Does This Mean For Storytelling?
It means that there are going to be different threads across vastly different stretches of the galaxy. There will be different aliens, intermixed alongside the humans–in fact, just like there will be humans everywhere, there will be starfaring alien races everywhere. This is set thousands of years in the future, so everyone’s spread out all over the place. And even so, the galaxy is so big that no one can know everything that’s around the corner, or even a few lightyears away.
There’s always something new to be found in good space opera. And there will be in The Unity Wars.
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