Space Opera and Playable Novels


Steinbeck famously described Of Mice and Men as “a kind of playable novel, written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” His words popped into my head when I recently read Shards of Honor, the first full novel in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga; this is not to say that Shards of Honor is as stage-ready as Of Mice and Men – it manifestly isn’t – but I can still imagine it being adapted for the theatre far more easily than might be expected from a space opera.

The novel opens on an alien planet where a research expedition has been attacked by a military patrol. The expedition’s leader, Commander Cordelia Naismith, is taken captive by Captain Aral Vorkosigan. But while Vorkosigan is a representative of the military force responsible for the atrocity, it turns out that he was not personally involved with the attack, and he agrees to help obtain medical aid for Cordelia’s injured ensign Dubrau.

Intelligent life has yet to be discovered, but plenty of alien fauna can be found, and the main plot of the second chapter is the characters trying to survive the planet’s dangerous wildlife. Weapons technology is also present in the early stretches of the novel, but never becomes the main point; it instead serves to shuffle the storytelling pieces into the right places – paralysing a character so that he can be moved into the background without killing him outright, for example – and it manages to do so in a naturalistic manner, never seeming forced. The focus is always on the characters, and there is little here that an inventive theatre couldn’t handle.

As the story develops, we see more of the wider state of interplanetary affairs. A good case study is chapter seven, which opens with Cordelia on board her ship (the previous chapter having ended, memorably, as Cordelia “wept silently for her enemies”). The basic scenario here is little different from countless other space battles stretching back to the pulp years, but Bujold emphasises the human element of the conflict. The battle itself is framed in terms that – again – are so character-focused that it is no great leap to imagine the scene adapted for the stage:

“Ha. I bet you wouldn’t kill your own dinner, either,” she replied, trying to lighten the mood. They had served their ship together for barely five hours, but it still hurt. “Are we out of range, Parnell?”
“Yes, Captain.”
“Gentlemen,” she said, and paused, gathering them in by eye, “I thank you all. Look away from the left port, please.”
She pulled the lever on the box. There was a soundless flash of brilliant blue light, and a general rush for the tiny port immediately after to see the last red glow as the ship folded into itself, carrying its military secrets to a wandering grave.
They shook hands solemnly all around…

Cordelia is later taken captive aboard an enemy vessel, and the conflict segues into a one-on-one confrontation between her and Vice Admiral Vorrutyer. As Cordelia tries to match wits with his interrogation and work out his weaknesses, there’s plenty here for a scriptwriter and actors to get their teeth into.

The final chapter to Shards of Honor had previously been published as a self-contained short story, “Aftermaths”, making it the first publication in the Vorkosigan series. Following two characters on board a spacecraft as they recover corpses, the story is another piece of Bujold’s writing that would pose few hurdles for a stage dramatisation. Even the overtly visual scene-setting is established with an internal monologue that could readily be turned into dialogue:

The shattered ship hung in space, a black bulk in the darkness. It still turned, imperceptibly slowly; one edge eclipsed and swallowed the bright point of a star. The lights of the salvage crew arced over the skeleton. Ants, ripping up a dead moth, Ferrell thought. Scavengers

The central image of spaceborne corpses is likewise conveyed primarily via the characters. We are given not merely third-person narrative descriptions of the cadavers being found, but also the reactions of the two leads:

His attention was pulled from the thing on the screen, and he stared at her. “They’re dead, lady!”
She smiled slowly as the corpse, bloated from decompression, limbs twisted as though frozen in a strobe-flash of convulsion, was drawn gently words the cargo bay. “Well, that’s not their fault, is it?–one of our fellows, I see by the uniform.”
“Bleh!” he repeated himself, then gave vent to an embarrassed laugh. “You act like you enjoy it.”

These two stories by Bujold stand in contrast to another work of space opera: Horizon Storms, the third volume in Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of Seven Suns. I’ve written before about how this series shows the influence of television, but turning it into a stage play would be a trickier prospect. A live performance would be better off as a combination of light show and conjuring.


Fireworks run through Anderson’s novels. The first book in the Saga of Seven Suns series, Hidden Empire, kicked off with a device called the Klikiss Torch being used to ignite a gas giant, inadvertently starting a war with an alien race – the Hydrogues – that unbeknownst to humanity had been living inside the planet. Early on in the third novel comes the announcement that the torch will be used again, this time as a weapon of war against the Hydrogues. Much spectacle ensues:

The deep-core aliens, flowing masses of quicksilver, shimmered as they moved through the chaotic sculptures that made up their metropolis. The geometric buildings shifted and changed like jewelled three-dimensional mosaics locking into place in preparation for a large-scale evacuation. Colours flared brighter.

A side effect of all these literary-CGI pyrotechnics is that Horizon Storms risks losing sight of its human (or sapient, put it that way) cast. This issue becomes clear when the novel, in an effort to bring emotional weight to the Klikiss Torch’s destruction of worlds, resorts to a real-world analogy: “There’s a historical precedent”, says the scheming Chairman Wenceslas. “It’s the way President Truman used atomic weapons in World War II to deal with the Japanese.”

It would be unfair to say that Anderson completely ignores the ground-level impact of the conflict. One plot thread focuses on a girl losing her family in the war, for example. But it has to be said that this aspect of the story is more muted in Horizon Storms than in the first two novels of the series: even Anderson’s old trick of moving the plot along by having his characters stumble across shocking, long-buried secrets is deployed with less frequency here. The single most distressing aspect of the series so far – a subplot dealing with a rape farm designed to breed hybrid lifeforms as soldiers – is thoroughly abstracted, reduced to flat, matter-of-fact descriptions:

As Daro’h and Udru’h watched, doctors culled out four naked human women and directed them to enter the long breeding barracks. There, they would be assigned to mate with males from specific Ildiran kiths that were carefully chosen for each step of the breeding programme. Sperm was harvested from human males whenever it was needed, but Ildiran females did not conceive as easily. ‘Human women are more fecund than Ildirans. They reproduce like rodents — which is to our advantage.’

Any scriptwriter would have their work cut out for them in adapting this into a human drama that could viably be performed by actors (it would be quite possible to do so; just nowhere near as smoothly as with Bujold’s novel). But Anderson is not really acting as a dramatist here. He is more of a juggler, daring himself to keep as many balls in the air at the same time as he can, the audience looking on wondering how much longer he will have the energy to keep up the act (he is, after all, working with plotlines that had been stretched over nearly 1300 pages even before book three). And if ever tires of his juggling, then he still has the occasional magician’s trick to show us, as when the final cliffhanger reveals that a thought-dead character has been resurrected as a tree-like creature – sawing ladies in half is passe, after all. Going on in the background of all this, meanwhile, is a colossal Klikiss Torch light show.

It is surely only a matter of time before both the Vorkosigan Saga and Saga of the Seven Suns are adapted for the screen. If they are adapted faithfully, then Bujold’s stories will be a treat for the writers, while Anderson’s series will be more the domain of directors – specifically, directors with effects budgets big enough for all those CGi fireworks.

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