Bryan Thomas Schmidt is on a blog tour for his newest novel, The Returning, a sequel to his debut novel The Worker Prince. On the blog tour for his first novel, Bryan stopped by to discuss how golden age science fiction influenced him. Since then, Bryan has not only written another novel, but he also edited the Space Battles anthology. This time around, Bryan and I discuss space battles in golden age science fiction, as well as action scenes in general through all of science fiction. It was a fun discussion and I was delighted that Bryan had the chance to stop by. You can read our discussion below.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Jamie, good to talk pulps again. I always enjoy our conversations. You mentioned, after seeing Space Battles, the anthology I edited, that you had wondered about my take on space battles in the history of science fiction. And I must admit, as a kid who fell in love with sci-fi because of Star Wars and Star Trek (both original series, ahem) that space battles and science fiction have always been almost hand-in-hand in my mind. I love action. Even now, action movies are always my favorites. I like drama, I like comedy, and a good mix of those is great as long as there’s good action. So that’s what I try and write with the Davi Rhii books and the feel I most wanted to capture was that Golden Age feel as we’ve discussed in the past. So getting started, what’s your sense of the place space battles have science fiction for you? You’ve read a lot more pulp than I have, at least recently. What draws you to science fiction stories? Does action play a part?
Jamie Todd Rubin: Well, I can appreciate the fondness for movies like Star Wars, and shows (and movies) like Star Trek, but I must admit that I’m one of those rare breed of science fiction writers who is generally uninterested in media-SF. I like written stuff, and that is where most of my influence comes from. Star Wars probably took space battles to a level never achieved before 1977. But space battles have been a part of the literature from almost the beginning and in those early days of the Golden Age and just before, they were portrayed about as realistically as what we see inStar Wars. While lasers in space makes for an exciting story, it doesn’t seem to be an optimal weapon. Willy Ley pointed this out in a rather remarkable article in the August 1939 issue of Astounding called “Space War.” In that article, he made a very closely reasoned case for why bullets would still be superior weapons to lasers in a real space battle. Someone took this to heart, because I recall seeing just such a weapon used in the second-coming of Battlestar Galactica.
I tend to be more connected to space battle stories when it is the battle that is secondary to the story itself. There is a rather remarkable space battle in the fourth Foundation story, “The Big and the Little.” Foundation stories are often criticized for being mostly dialog and that is true, but people seem to forget the battle that takes place at the end, and the clever tactics used to surprise the enemy fleet. I tend to be turned off by the galaxy-wide, planet hurling battles you get from someone like E. E. “Doc” Smith in his Lensman stories. I prefer the smaller, somewhat more realistic battles you get from someone like Malcolm Jameson in his “Bullard” stories of the 1940s; or the kind you find in Joe Haldeman’s stories of the 1970s.
But you edited an entire anthology of space battles, Bryan. What worked for you? What is it about a space battle story that makes it a good story?
BTS: Well, the Foundation stories were very much more intellectual action than physical action. The ideas explored and examined are amazing and it’s done with great depth, but yes, they are not “action” stories in the typical sense, and that’s okay. John C. Wright’s “Count To A Trillion” last year was very much like that and, to some degree, so are Michael Flynn’s TOR series Spiral Arm. So I don’t think action is the sole element of space opera. Certainly political and personal scheming and lots of twists and turns in plotting are common elements as well as larger-than-life characters and a sense of good v. evil and epic scope. But in many ways, it’s the action pace that makes the stories so popular because it’s really good escapism. We all have an inner hero who dreams of saving the day, I think. And we can live vicariously through those stories and have those laser battles and starship dogfights in our mind that won’t likely happen in our real lives and that, in many ways, are more exciting and interesting than our everyday lives. I think that’s a big part of the appeal. So if you have a fast pace, fun gadgets and ships, an interesting, imaginative setting that evokes the creativity of readers, and add interesting characters, especially with fun banter, fans tend to enjoy that. All elements which Star Trek, Star Wars, BSG etc. had and which many of the Space Battles stories employed. I also used it in my Davi Rhii books.
And I think the realistic nature in regards to space battles is one area where readers and even writers tend to fudge and it’s acceptable to do so. Mess up things like gravity, planetary set up, solar systems, geology, etc., and you’re much more likely to get criticized but everyone enjoys blasters and starfighter duels. It’s the same way that FTL, although scientifically impossible as far as we can see, is still used as a trope widely.