The Ultimate Embodiment of Wow

When I was younger – probably about half way through secondary school, perhaps even younger – I realised that I was very interested in science. This came about in part due to my fascination with the rock band Queen: one a physicist, one an electrical engineer, one a trainee dentist, one the one and only Freddie Mercury. I was a little bit obsessed with Queen, particularly Brian May, the physicist.

I drew a mural of them on my bedroom wall, based on their characters on the cover of the “A Kind of Magic” album. It was quite obsessive, really. I naturally decided that anything good enough for Brian was good enough for me. I wasn’t about to pick up a guitar, so I picked up a physics textbook.

Through a lot of reading, a lot of TV and a lot of support from teachers at school I really did develop a thirst for Physics, and applied to study it at university. It so happened that, on the way to getting the hang of Physics you also have to get the hang of a lot of complicated Mathematics. I ended up preferring the Maths, and so qualified in that instead. Much of that really is another story entirely.

Regardless, along the way I felt that a love of science fact should carry a love of Science Fiction. I did.

At university I had a housemate who was in love with Doctor Who. I had missed Doctor Who when it was on. I was scared by it when I was a child. I remember “Remembrance of the Daleks” and literally hiding behind the sofa. It played no more part in my life until it returned in 2005. I rued the scorn I had poured on it in my twenties, and devoured old DVDs hungrily between the new series.

My time travelling fixes were supplied instead by Quantum Leap and Sliders. They both offered up alternatives to the world: while in Quantum Leap this was the idea of taking over someone’s life in this universe, in Sliders this was stepping in to parallel worlds. Both were wedded to the notion of finding one’s way home, of being lost in a slightly familiar universe. Perfect for any adolescent.

Up in space I watched Blake’s 7 and Star Trek. These were my kind of Sci-Fi: yes, they both had peril coming out of every pore, but they also played nicely, like good boys and girls. They were flights of fancy with big philosophical ideas, and a wide range of huge characters upon which I could project my growing ego. One dystopian, British; one offering post-scarcity, American; both huge influences.

But what of celluloid? I have always been drawn to Science Fiction at the cinema too, but the films I have been offered have not always been up to the standards I would hope for. Perhaps it is because the stakes are so much higher, but Science Fiction films always feel a little lost to me: it is rare to find a true, addictive gem. The closest I found was Back to the Future II. Time travel again. Again.

Many of the great Science Fiction films of recent times have involved a splice with another genre: Action, horror, comic book. It allows the waters of the fictionally scientific to get muddied, as if Sci-Fi is the language for reality-based adventure films, much as Mathematics is for the physical sciences. I like my intrinsic languages laid bare, ready for all to see. That makes for less easy viewing, however.

It seems that for every Inception and Blade Runner we need a Guardians of the Galaxy and a Hot Tub Time Machine. While I will never begrudge seeing more cinematic SF, I would love, just once, to see something truly original again. I want to see galaxies smash together, and stars burn down planets. I want to see things I could have never imagined; Stars War and Trek don’t always manage to do that.

On the other hand, when I want to see something truly original, like a species of being modelled on a full-sized Wagon Wheel biscuit taking a Brownian descent in to the metallic Hydrogen core of a gas giant, the last place I turn is the screen. My mind’s warped eye is the only place I will ever see such spectacle, and that means picking up a book. Space Opera is the ultimate embodiment of wow.

Originally coined as a pejorative, “Space Opera” was used to describe hackneyed, creaking, yarns set in space, and utilising plots taken directly from westerns. The term was retooled in time by authors and publishers to mean a strand of large-scale fiction set in and around distant worlds. Scale is what I go looking for in Space Operas: space is huge; the stories taking place in it are allowed to be too.

Iain M Banks, in his Culture mythos, created a sequence of such scale that my jaw drops when I think of it. In this post scarcity universe, humanity has spread itself across the stars and beyond. They do not live on planets: they live on continent-sized ships, perpetually travelling the universe, as often as they live on Orbitals, rings of rock, spinning gently in space: so massive as to create their own gravity; so advanced as to engineer entire continents on its colossal plates. Now that is what I call scale.

There is a branch of Science Fiction that few people seem to talk about, in my experience: I know it as far-fetched fiction, FFF. Pioneered by lunatic visionaries like Robert Rankin, Sir Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, FFF is humorous science fiction with as much to say as it has little to say. It lulls the reader in to a false sense of security with knob gags and running jokes. Then it hits you in the face with a wet kipper, and introduces points of satire so jaw-dropping you almost lose the book from your grip. Or it takes you to the sixties with Elvis and a time travelling sprout in his head. Either way.

Not all Science Fiction needs to be so recognisable. Over the years I have nurtured an affinity for less positive stories: dystopia. From 1984 and A Brave New World to Children of Men and Planet of the Apes, I have been gripped by tales of dark worlds, turned from the light by the happenstance of biology or the despotic whim of man. I revel in tales of struggle against the forces of repression and the tyranny of authority. This form of story finds representation in all media, especially the news.