My own approach to Space Opera is that it’s a genre that is really mostly fantasy set in space and rarely has anything more to do with science except using real physics terms that the writers don’t seem to actually understand. Scientific realism is just not something that is ever a concern in Space Opera. Though that being said, I fancy myself as understanding quite a bit about physics and astronomy, as well as having a basic grasp of demographics and economy. And while I generally try to not be bothered by it, I do regularly notice when writers have characters say things that clearly make no sense. And it always hurts a bit.
Even when we consider Space Opera to be just fantasy, and that in fantasy you can just make up whatever rules of nature and the supernatural that you want, I still have the expectation that those altered rules are being followed through. There is nothing wrong with making up any new rules for a world you can imagine, but all the things that you did not explicity alter should still continue as they do in reality. It’s a fantasy not adhering to its own rules that bothers me in poorly written space adventures, not that the rules are breaking real physics.
The Three Fantasies
When I notice things in Space Operas that break the established rules of the setting, I often get thinking about how these things could be fixed without having to significantly alter what happens in the story or completely throw out the conventions of the genre. And I’ve come to regard some of these fixes as being actually really interesting things to explore and having great potential to give a new setting a unique style and personality. A short list of items that I had noted down over several years is what ultimately made me decide to start creating Iridium Moons. But even with all these elements that could still be fun if they followed the actual rules of reality, there were still three things left where I feel made up fantasy rules are necessary to evoke the overall style of Space Opera that deeply speaks to me.
- Hyperspace: Objects and signals traveling through space faster than light is simply not possible. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with light specifically but is the speed of causality. It’s not even that we have not found anything faster than light, but when you look into the physics of it, the very concept of anything faster makes no sense. The limit also plays all kinds of crucial funademental roles in the way sub-atomic particles interact with each other. If you mess with the speed of light, you annihilate all of physics. Hyperspace is the quick and dirty solution to this problem. Assume ships can travel through another dimension where the laws of physics are different (in a way never explained) and all of physics as we know it remains untouched.
- Artificial Gravity: Unlike faster than light travel, this one isn’t even necessary. When you film actors on a spaceship, having things fall to the ground and stay there is just very convenient and cost saving, but any other medium has no such constraints. And there’s actually physically very simple ways to simulate gravity through constant thrust or rotation. But this has significant consequences for ship design, and my overall stylistic vision for Iridium Moon just really meshes well with early 20th century cruisers in space. Artificial gravity is not neccessary to make the setting work, but I feel not having it would be too much of an aesthetic departure from the works whose style I am trying to evoke. How does it work? I have no idea. There’s no explanation for it. It just does.
- Human-like Species: I recently noticed that I’m not actually very interested in magic in fantasy, and similarly I don’t particularly care about the alieness of alien species. While there are strong evolutionary reasons why things like bones, teeth, and eyes would probably be very common and similar among complex animal-like organisms evolved on any planet, such people being bipedal, upright walking, similar in size to humans, and with vertebrate-like faces would be extremely unlikely. And that’s not even talking about the kinds of buildings and tools they would produce. While speculation in this field can be hugely fascinating and really fun, it’s not something I am interested in getting into for Iridium Moons. And as I said in regards to artificial gravity, I feel aliens that are really just a different skin over a human skeleton are part of the oldschool Spacd Opera aesthetic.
The Great Filter
One of the big questions that lots of space nerds and sci-fi fans often get really deeply into is that with billions of stars and perhaps trillions of planets in just our galaxies that formed from the same materials and through the same processes as the Sun and the Earth, why aren’t there hundreds of alien species that have already developed the technology to talk to or visit us? It seems the universe is capable of producing countless highly intelligent and technologically capable species, and we humans made so many advances in just 10,000 years. Then how come our galaxy isn’t swarming with alien civilizations that are millions of years ahead of us?
There must be something that greatly inhibits either the evolution of highly intelligent species, or the development of interstellar travel. This idea is the Great Filter.
I personally think the Great Filter is something really mundane with nothing mysterious about it. It’s simply that faster than light travel or communication is actually impossible, and that species that have the technology to send out thousands of robots on journeys that will take many centuries to explore planets around other stars consider this a waste of time and resources. And then there’s also to consider that they would have to arrive at Earth at a moment where we had been capable to notice a small metal object in space, which in the lifetime of this planet happened just an instant ago. While I believe that the size of the galaxy makes it innevitable that there are perhaps dozens of other species similar to us, the same size is also why I believe it’s extremely unlikely that any two will ever meet.
But Iridium Moons is Space Opera, and so this doesn’t really have to concern us. However, like most Space Operas, the species of this galaxy all have pretty similar technologies, which in most cases isn’t even meaningfully more advanced than the things we already have today. If these species all evolved independently from each other over hundreds of millions of years, how come none of them is millions of years ahead technologically from the others? How have they not already explored the entire galaxy and still only have knowledge of the few hundred systems that make up known space? If this setting wants to make sense under its own rules, there must be something that has kept this from happening. Another Great Filter.
To make a group of scoundrels with their own small ship that can travel between star systems plausible, hyperspacd drive technology can’t be overly complicated and has to be reasonably affordable. Which means that it’s something that technologocally advanced societies should be able to figure out by themselves. So this doesn’t work as the bottleneck. But I created a system for making hyperspace jumps inspired by Stars Without Number, which requires ships to make relatively short jumps from star to star instead of being able to make longer journeys on a single leg. But instead of using limited fuel tanks (which other Space Opera RPGs don’t have), I came up with a limit on navigation. Traveling through hyperspace is fairly simple technologically, but coming out in a spot from which you can reach a planet with sublight engines within a lifetime is extremely difficult. It requires extremely precise knowledge of the starting location and position of the destination star, and the gravitional effects of any massive objects in proximity to the path. Which requires huge amounts of work with extremely expensive equipment. (And is why players can always only fly to the small number of stars that are marked on the map they are given.)
This is what I picked as the great filter for Iridium Moons. This technology to create hyperspace charts is a gigantic achievement that has been accomplished within known space only once. And also only a thousand years ago. Once one species had the technology to actually make use of hyperspace to reach other stars, they made contact with other species and shared the secret behind it with them. Regardless of how old their civilizations were and what technological level they had reached, they only could start exploring outside their star systems and have contact with other species once they were visited by people who already had the technology.
That technology as a whole is still pretty 21st century, even though some planets would probably already in the year 100,000 of their worlds, is still not being explained by this. But I feel like having all the species of known space having gained access to interatellar travel within only the last couple of centuries makes everything a lot more plausible than trying to imagine a glactic civilization that is many thousands of years old.