A close-knit crew of wildly different people ride around on a spaceship having adventures. If you’re a sci-fi fan, there are very good odds that this synopsis describes one of your hooks into the genre. That crew might be a dysfunctional band of space criminals and revolutionaries, or a clean cut team of scientists, diplomats and soldiers serving a galactic Space UN, but there is a core appeal to this set up across the genre.
“Ensemble crews are one of the quickest and most powerful ways to forge a found family. A foundational example for me was Blake’s 7,” says Paul Cornell, who has written stories for the Star Trek: Year Five comic series among his many speculative fiction credits. “They haven’t been recruited, they have relative degrees of distance from the cause, they’ve been flung together. The most important thing is that they’re all very different people.”
These Are the Voyages…
It’s a formula that has been repeated over and over for about as long as there has been science fiction on television—starting with the likes of Star Trek and Blake’s 7, through the boom in “planet of the week” style TV in the 90s and 00s with Farscape and Firefly, to more recent stories like Dark Matter, The Expanse, Killjoys, and the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Most recently Sky’s Intergalactic, and the Korean movie Space Sweepers have been carrying the standard, while last month saw people diving back into the world of Mass Effect with Mass Effect Legendary Edition. While Commander Sheppard is ostensibly the protagonist of the video game trilogy, few would argue that it’s anything other than the ensemble of the Normandy crew that keeps people coming back.
As science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders points out, it’s not hard to see the appeal of a family of likeable characters, kept in close quarters by the confines of their ship, and sent into stories of adventure.
“I love how fun this particular strand of space opera is, and how much warmth and humour the characters tend to have,” Anders says. “These stories have in common a kind of swashbuckling adventure spirit and a love of problem-solving and resourcefulness. And I think the ‘found family’ element is a big part of it, since these characters are always cooped up on a tiny ship together and having to rely on each other.”
Over the years the Star Wars franchise has delivered a number of mismatched spaceship crews, from various ensembles to have crewed the Millennium Falcon, to the band of rebels in Rogue One, to the crew of the Ghost in Star Wars: Rebels.
That energy was one of the inspirations for Laura Lam and Elizabeth May, the writers behind Seven Devils and its upcoming sequel, Seven Mercies. In Seven Devils, a team of very different women come together aboard a starship stolen from an oppressive, galaxy-spanning empire, clashing with each other as much as the regime they are fighting.
“So many of these stories are what we grew up with, and they were definitely influences. The scrappy people trying to make a living or rebel against a higher power, or the slick luxury communism of Star Trek,” says Lam. “What’s great and terrible about space is how you are often stuck on a ship with people, for better or worse. That isolation can breed really interesting character conflict and deep bonds. You have to have your crew’s back, otherwise space or alien plants are too large or dangerous [to survive].”
While the “Seven” duology is very much inspired by this genre of space adventure, it also brings these stories’ underlying political themes to the surface.
“What I enjoy most about space operas is taking contemporary socio-cultural and political issues and exploring them through a different lens,” says May. “I love to think of them in terms of exploration, analogous to ships navigating the vastness of a sea. And on journeys that long, with only the ocean and saltwater (space) around you, things become fraught. Yes, these are tales of survival, but they’re also tales of what it means to question the world around you. Aside from the cultural questions that [premise] raises, it opens possibilities for conflict, character bonding, and worldbuilding.”
In Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s novel, The Salvage Crew, his ensemble don’t spend long on their ship. In the opening scene, they are plummeting through the atmosphere of an alien planet in a drop-pod piloted by an AI who is also the book’s narrator. But the book shares that sense of characters who need to stick close together in the face of a large and dangerous universe.
“What did I like about [space team stories]? Well, always the sense of wonder that the scale brought me: the feeling that Earth, and all our bickering, was just a tiny speck of dust – what Sagan called ‘the pale blue dot’ – and out there was an entire universe waiting to be explored,” Wijeratne says. “I treasured the darkness, as well: the darkness of the void, the tragedy of people in confined spaces, and a terror of the deep that only the deep sea brings me. It wasn’t the family attitude: it was more the constraints and the clever plays within terrifyingly close constraints. There’s a kind of grim, lunatic nihilism you need for those situations, and I loved seeing that.”
When asked for their favourite examples of the genre, one name kept coming up. Wijeratne, Anders, Lam, and May all recommended the Wayfarers books by Becky Chambers. The first in the series, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, concerns the crew not of an elite space naval vessel, or a renegade crew of space criminals, but of a ship that lays hyperspace tunnels for other, more glamorous ships to travel through. This job of space road-laying is one that I can only recall seeing once before, much more catastrophically, in the Vogon Constructor Fleet of Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a very different tale, however.
May tells us, “It’s a quieter space tale, a novel that feels very much like a warm hug. I love it with all my heart.”
Chambers doesn’t hold back when describing the impact this genre had on her growing up.
“I can’t remember life without these stories,” she says. “TNG first aired when I was three years old, and I watched Trek every week with my family until Voyager wrapped when I was sixteen. I can recite most of the original Star Wars trilogy word for word while I’m watching the movies, and I binged Farscape like my life depended on it when I was in college. This storytelling tradition is so much a part of my fabric that I have a hard time articulating what it is I like about it so much. It’s just a part of me, at this point. These stories are fun, full stop. They’re exciting. They can break your heart and crack you up in equal measure. They’re about small little clusters of people doing extraordinary things within an impossibly vast and beautiful universe. Everything about my work is rooted here. I can’t imagine who I’d be without these stories.”
The Unchosen Ones
Perhaps a big part of the appeal of these stories is that they are about an ensemble of people, each with their own stories and goals and perspectives. It can be refreshing where science fiction and fantasy frequently centre stories of “the Chosen One”, be it a slayer, boy wizard, or Jedi who is the person the narrative happens to. While Chosen One stories will frequently have a wide supporting cast, the emphasis for those other characters is frequently on the “supporting”.
“I very intentionally wanted to do something other than a ‘chosen one’ story with Wayfarers. I’m not sure I can speak to any broader trend in this regard, but with my own work, I really wanted to make it clear that the universe belongs to everybody in equal measure,” Chambers says. “Space opera is so often the realm of heroes and royalty, and I love those stories, but there’s a parallel there to how we think about space in the real world. Astronauts are and have always been an exceptional few. I wanted to shift the narrative and make it clear that we all have a place out there, and that even the most everyday people have stories worth telling.”
It’s an increasingly popular perspective. Perhaps it’s telling that one of the most recent Star Trek spin-offs, Lower Decks, focuses not on the super-heroic bridge crew, but the underlings and red shirts that do their dirty work, and that in turn echoes the ultra-meta John Scalzi novel, Redshirts.
Charlie Jane Anders’ recently released young adult novel, Victories Greater Than Death is a story that starts off with an almost archetypical “Chosen One” premise. The story’s protagonist, Tina, is an ordinary teenage girl, but is also the hidden clone of the hero of a terrible alien war. But as the story progresses, it evolves into something much more like an ensemble space adventure.
“I was definitely thinking about that a lot in this book in particular,” Anders says. “Tina keeps thinking of the other earth kids as a distraction from her heroic destiny or as people she needs to protect. Her friend Rachael is the one who keeps pushing for them to become a family and finally gets through to Tina.”
Seven Devils (and its upcoming sequel, Seven Mercies) is also a story that tries to focus on the exact people who would never be considered “chosen” or who have wilfully turned away from their destiny.
“I do like that most of them [the characters] are those the Tholosians wrote off as unimportant–people to be used for their bodies, and not encouraged to use their minds,” Lam says. “And Eris’s journey turning away from the life chosen for her and choosing her own, but having to wrangle with what she still did for the Empire before she did, makes her a very interesting character to write. In many ways, she was complicit, and she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to atone.”
Wijeratne also argues that an ensemble story is in many ways more true to life.
“Rarely in life do you find this Randian John Galt type, this solo hero that changes the world by themselves; more often you find a group of people with similar interests, covering for each other, propping each other up,” he says. “It’s how we humans, as a species, have evolved. Our strength is not in our individual prowess, but in the fact that three people working together can take down a mammoth, and a thousand people working together can raise a monument to eternity.”
While there are certainly themes and kinds of story that are more suited to ensemble storytelling, May points out that there is plenty of room for both kinds of story.
“Having written books that explore both, I find that Chosen One narratives are often stories of duty, obligation, and self-discovery,” she says. “Ensemble narratives often involve themes of acceptance and friendship bonds. To me, these serve different narrative functions and ask separate questions.”
A Space of Their Own
The spaceship-crews-on-adventures subgenre is one of the major pillars of science fiction as a whole, with the trope codifier, Star Trek, being likely one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of the genre. This means that the writers working within the subgenre are not only heavily influenced by what came before, they are also in conversation, and sometimes argument with it.
Paul Cornell is a huge Star Trek fan, and has written for the characters before. His upcoming novella, Rosebud, features the quite Star Trek-ish scenario of a crew of AIs, some formerly humans, some not, investigating an anomaly. It’s a story that very much intersects with the ideals of Star Trek.
“Rosebud is about a crew who are meant to believe in something, but no longer really do,” Cornell says. “They’re a bunch of digital beings with varying origins, some of whom were once human, some of whom weren’t. There’s a conflict under the surface that nobody’s talking about, and when they encounter, in a very Trek way, an anomalous object, it’s actually a catalyst for their lives changing enormously. I’m a huge fan of the Trek ethos. I like good law, good civilisation, civil structures that do actually allow everyone to live their best lives, and Rosebud is about how far we’ve got from that, and a passion for getting back to that path.”
Other stories more explicitly react against the more dated or normative conventions in the genre. Seven Devils, for instance, both calls out and subverts the very male demographics of a lot of these stories.
“For a lot of ensemble casts, you get the token woman (Guardians of the Galaxy, for example) and until recently, things were fairly heteronormative,” Lam says. “So we basically wanted to turn things around and have a gang of mostly queer women being the ones to save the universe. We also went hard on critiquing imperialism and monarchies with too much power.”
Indeed, the “space exploration” that is the cornerstone of much of the genre, is an idea deeply rooted in a colonialist, and often racist tradition.
I’ve written my own space ensemble story, an ongoing series of four “planet of the week” style novellas, Fermi’s Progress. One of my concerns with the genre is how often the hero spaceship will turn up at a “primitive” planet, then overthrow a dictator, or teach the women about this human concept called “love”, or otherwise solve the local’s century’s old, deeply rooted societal problems in half-an-hour and change in a way that felt extremely “white colonialists going out and fixing the universe”.
My solution was simple. In Fermi’s Progress, the crew’s prototype spaceship has an experimental FTL drive that unfortunately vaporises every planet they visit as they fly away. It’s a device that riffs off the “overturn a planet’s government then never mention them again” trope of planet-of-the-week stories, keeps the ship and crew moving, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to whether or not these “explorers” are beneficial to the places they visit.
Of course, not every effort to engage with these issues needs to be so dramatic.
“Since I tend to view space operas in terms of uncharted exploration, it’s crucial that the text addresses or confronts power issues in its various forms: who has it, who suffers from it, how is it wielded?” May says. “And sometimes those questions have extraordinarily messy and complicated answers in ways that do not fit neatly with ‘good team overthrows evil empire.’ One of the things I wanted to address was this idea of ‘rebels are the good guys.’ Who gets to be a good person? Who else pays the price for morality? In Seven Devils, the character of Eris ends up doing the dirty, violent work of the rebellion so the others can sleep at night–so that they can feel they’ve made moral and ethical choices. And for that same work, she’s also judged more harshly by those in the rebellion who get to have clear consciences because of her actions.”
“I had particular beef with the homogeneity,” says Wijeratne. “An entire planet where x race was of an identical sentiment? Pfft. At the same time, this naive optimism, that people can work together on a planetary scale to set up institutions and megastructures without enormous amounts of politics and clashes. I was most frustrated with this in Clarke’s work. [Rendezvous with] Rama in particular: it just didn’t compute with what I knew of people.”
As a consequence of the genre’s colonialist roots—not to mention the nature of most real spaceflight programmes—space in these stories can feel like an extremely militarised space. Even a gang of misfits, fugitives and renegades like the Farscape cast features at least a couple of trained soldiers at any one time.
“I didn’t want my characters to be just redshirts or ensigns, who get ordered around and seldom get to take much initiative,” Anders points out. “And I was interested in exploring the notion that a space force organized by non-humans might have very different ideas about hierarchy and might not have concepts like ‘chain of command’. I tried not to fall unthinkingly into the military tropes that Trek, in particular, is prone to.”
Chambers was also driven by a desire to show people who were working in space without wearing a uniform.
“I wanted to tell space stories that weren’t about war or military politics,” she explains. “These things exist in the Wayfarers universe, and I personally love watching a space battle as much as anybody, but I think it’s sad if the only stories we tell about the future are those that focus on new and inventive ways of killing each other. Human experience is so much broader than that, and we are allowed to imagine more.”
Getting the Band Together
Writing a story built around an ensemble, rather than a single main character, brings its own challenges with it. In many ways, creating a central protagonist is easy. The story has to happen to somebody. Creating an ensemble can be tricker. Each character needs to feel like they’re the protagonist of their own story, but also the cast is in many ways a tool box for the writer to bring different perspectives and methods to bear on the issue at the centre of their story. Different writers take very different approaches to how they put that toolbox together.
“I had some types I wanted to play with, and I was consciously allowing myself to go a little wild, so they get to push against the walls of my own comfort zone,” Cornell says of the AI crew in Rosebud. “I created a group of very different people, tried them against each other, and edited them toward the most interesting conflicts that suited my theme.”
Anders also went through various iterations in assembling her cast of characters for Victories Greater Than Death.
“I went through a huge process of trial and error, figuring out exactly how many Earth characters I wanted in the book and how to introduce them,” she says. “I wanted characters who had their own reason for being there and who would either challenge Tina or represent a different viewpoint somehow. I think that’s usually how you get an interesting ensemble, by trying to have different viewpoints in the mix.”
In writing Fermi’s Progress, I very much tried to cut the crew from whole cloth, thinking of them primarily as a flying argument. Thinking about the original Star Trek crew, most of the stories are driven by the ongoing debate between Spock’s pragmatism, McCoy’s emotions, and Kirk’s sense of duty, and so the Fermi’s crew was written to have a number of perspectives that would be able to argue interestingly about the different things they would encounter.
Others, however, focus strongly on the individual characters before looking at how they fit together.
“I gravitate much more toward writing multiple POVs than sticking with just one. Character dynamics are catnip to me, and I love to play with them from all angles. But building each character is a very individual sort of process,” Chambers says. “I want each of them to feel like a whole person, and I’m struggling to think of any I’ve created to complete another. I just spend some time with a character all on their own, then start making them talk to each other — first in pairs, then in larger groups. I shuffle those combinations around until everybody comes alive.”
In writing Seven Devils, May and Lam began with a core pair of characters, then built outwards.
“El [Lam] and I each started with a single character we wanted to explore,” May recalls. “For me, it was Eris, who also had the benefit of being an exploration of thorny issues of morality. Eris’ natural foil was Clo–conceived of by El–who believes in the goodness of the rebellion. From there, our cast expanded as different aspects of imperial oppression that we wanted to address: colonial expansion via the military, brainwashing, the use of artificial intelligence. Each character provides a unique perspective of how the Empire in Seven Devils functions and how it crushes autonomy and self-determination.”
“We started with Eris and Clo,” Lam agrees. “Eris is sort of like Princess Leia if she and Luke had been raised by Darth Vader but she realised the Empire was evil and faked her own death to join the rebellion. Clo has elements of Luke in that she grew up on a backwater planet where things go wrong, but it was overpopulated versus wide open desert with a few moons. She also just has a lot more fury and rage that doesn’t always go in the right direction. Then we created the other three women they meet later in the narrative, and did a combination of using archetypes as jumping off points (courtesan, mercenary, genius hacker) but taking great care crafting their backstories and motivations and how they all related to each other.”
Ensuring that every character has their own story to be the protagonist of is something you can trace right back through the genre- particularly with series like Farscape, Firefly, and the more recent Intergalactic, where the crews often feels thrown together by circumstance and the characters are very much pursuing their own goals.
Balancing all of these different perspectives and voices is the real trick, especially if you want to avoid slipping back into the set-up of a star protagonist and their backing singers.
“This was a bit of a struggle, especially in a book with a single pov,” Anders says. “In the end all I could do was give each character their own goals and ideals that aren’t just an extension of Tina’s. It really helps if people have agendas that aren’t just related to the main plot.”
“We have five point of view characters and seven in the sequel, and it was definitely a challenge,” Lam admits. “For the first book, we started with just Eris and Clo until the reader was situated, and then added in the other three. We gave each character their own arc and problem to solve, and essentially asked ourselves ‘if [X] was the protagonist, what would they journey be?’ Which is useful to ask of any character, especially the villains!”
Chambers has a surprisingly practical solution to the problem: colour-coded post-it notes.
“Some characters will naturally have more weight in the story than others, but I do try to balance it out,” Chambers says. “One of the practical tricks I find helpful is colour-coding post-it notes by POV character, then mapping out all the chapters in the book on the wall. That makes it very easy to see who the dominant voices are, and I can adjust from there as needed.”
A Ship with Character
One cast member these stories all have in common is the ship they travel in. Sometimes the ship is a literal character in itself, such as the organic ship Moya in Farscape, but even when not actually sentient, the ship will help set the tone for the entire story, whether it’s the sweeping lines and luxurious interiors of the Enterprise D, or the cosy, hand-painted communal kitchen of Serenity. When describing the Fermi in my own story, I made it a mix of real and hypothetical space technology, and pure nonsense, in a way that felt like the story’s mission statement.
Seven Devils’ stolen imperial ship, “Zelus”, likewise reflected the themes of the book.
“Our ship is called Zelus, and it begins as a symbol of Empire but gradually becomes a home,” Lam says. “They took it back for themselves, which I think mirrors a lot of what the characters are trying to do.”
The same was true of the “Indomitable”, the ship Tina would inherit in Victories Greater Than Death.
“The main thing I needed from the Indomitable was to be a slightly run down ship on its own, far from any backup,” Anders says. “I did have a lot of fun coming up with all the ways the ship’s systems work. In the second book I introduce a starship that is a little more idiosyncratic, let’s say.”
For Cornell, the spaceship at the heart of Rosebud was an extension of the characters themselves, almost literally.
“It’s a kind of magical space, in that the interior is largely digital, and reflects the personalities of the crew,” he says. “There’s an interesting gap between the ship’s interior and the real world, and to go explore the artefact, our crew have to pick physical bodies to do it in. Their choices of physical body again tell us something about who they are.”
“My background is in theater, so I am always thinking about what kind of ‘set’ I’m working with,” Chambers tells us. “Colour, lighting, props, and stage layout are very important to me. I want these to feel like real, lived-in environments, but they also communicate a lot to the reader about who the people within these spaces are. Kizzy’s workspace tells a completely different story than, say, Roveg’s shuttle, or Pepper’s house. I spend a lot of time mulling over what sorts of comforts each character likes to keep around them, what food they like to have on hand, and so on. These kinds of details are crucial for painting a full picture.”
When he was writing the cast of The Salvage Crew, Wijeratne fleshed out his characters by focusing on how they relate to one another.
“My cast tends to be more of ‘what’s the most interesting mix I can bring to this situation, where’s the tragedy, and where’s the comedy?’ I go through a bit of an iterative process – I come up with one stand-out attribute for the character that makes sense given the world I’m about to throw them into,” he says. “Then the question is: what’s a secondary quirk, or part of their nature, that makes them work well with the others, or is somehow critical? What’s a tertiary facet to them that really rubs the others the wrong way?
“Then I take those quirks and go back to the other characters, and ask why do they respond to these things? What about their backstory makes them sympathize with one thing and want to pummel the other into dust? By the time this back-and-forth is complete, I’ve got enough that the characters feel like they really do have shit to get done in this world, and really do have some beef with each other. They have backstory and things they react to really badly and situations they’re going to thrive in.”
In The Salvage Crew, this included Simon a geologist who crew up plugged into a PVP MMORPG and who hasn’t really adjusted to the real world, Anna, a wartime medic who has PTSD around blood, and Milo, who is a decent all-arounder, but has problems with authority, particular women in authority.
In the best-loved stories of this sub-genre, it’s not just the strong characters, but the relationships between those characters that people love. Spock and McCoy, Geordi and Data, Jayne and Book working out together in Firefly. Even in the protagonist-heavy Mass Effect, some of the best character moments don’t involve Shepard, but are the character interactions you eavesdrop or walk in on while wandering around the Normandy.
“I think we’ve all experienced being flung together with a group of workmates, and nobody asking us if we like everyone there,” Cornell says. “And how the smallest quirks of personality can come to mean everything over several centuries.”
Getting those relationships to feel organic and natural is the real trick, and it can take endless writing and rewriting to get there.
“For me, it’s usually a lot of gold-farming,” Anders says. “I will write a dozen scenes of characters hanging out or dealing with stuff, and then pick two or three of them to include in the book. I can’t write relationships unless I’ve spent a lot of time with them.”
Often it’s a question of balancing conflict and camaraderie among the group.
“It’s easy to want to go straight to banter between characters, which is a massive benefit of ensemble casts. But I also think it’s essential that they have moments of conflict,” says May. “Not just drama for drama’s sake, but in any friendship group, boundaries often have to be established and re-established. Sometimes those boundaries come from past traumas, and taking moments to explore those not only adds dimensionality, but shows how the character unit itself functions.”
For May and Lam it helped that their ensemble cast was being written by an ensemble itself.
“Having both of us work on them really helped them come to life,” Lam says. “Their voices were easier to differentiate because we’d often take the lead on a certain character. So if I wrote a Clo chapter, I didn’t always know how exactly Eris might react in her next chapter, or Elizabeth might change Eris’s dialogue in that initial Clo scene to better fit what was coming up. As co-writers, we were in conversation with each other as much as the characters, and that’s quite fun. We tend to work at different times of the day, so I’d load up the manuscript in the morning and wonder what’s happened next to our crew during the night and read to find out. We also did a lot of work on everyone’s past, so we knew what they wanted, what they feared, what lies about themselves they believed, how they might change and grow through the story as a result of meeting each other, and therefore the characters tended to develop more organically on the page.”
For Wijeratne, the thing that really brings the characters’ relationships into focus is a crisis, and it’s true. Across these stories, more often than not you want your space team to be working together against a common challenge, not obsessed with in-fighting among themselves.
“The skeleton of what you saw was the output of an algorithm. A series of Markov chains generating events, playing on the fact that humans are extraordinarily good at seeing patterns in random noise,” Wijeratne says. “But the skeleton needs skin and muscle, and that’s more or less drawn from the kind of high-stress situations that I’ve been a part of: flood relief efforts, factchecking and investigating in the face of terrorism and bombings, even minor stuff like being in Interact projects with people I really didn’t want to be working with. I find that there are make-or-break moments in how people respond to adversity: either they draw together, and realize they can get over their minor differences, or they cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war.”
Whether we’re talking about Starfleet officers, browncoats, rebel scum or galaxy guardians, these crews are rarely just colleagues or even teammates. They are family.
“I think it goes back to many space operas ultimately being survival tales: whether that’s surviving in the vastness of space or against an imperial oppressor,” May says. “These stories bring unrelated characters closer together in a way that goes beyond the bonds of blood. ‘Found family’ is a powerful bond predicated on acceptance and respect rather than duty.”
It’s a topic at the heart of Seven Devils, set in a galaxy where the regime in power has done all it can to eliminate the concept of “Family”, but Lam also believes the found family is something extremely important to marginalised groups.
“In ours, the Tholosians have done their best to erase the concept of family entirely–most people are grown in vats and assigned their jobs from birth. You might feel some sort of sibling bond with your soldier cohort, perhaps, but most people don’t have parents,” Lam says. “Rebellion is incredibly difficult, as your very mind has been coded to be obedient and obey. So those who have managed to overcome that did so with incredible difficulty, and found each other and bonded among what they had in common. You see it in our world as well of course–the marginalised tend to be drawn to each other for support they might not find elsewhere, and the bonds are just as deep or deeper than family you’re related to by blood (just look at drag families, where you have a drag mother or daughter, for example).”
“Found family is definitely a strong narrative thread,” Wijeratne agrees. “I think it stems from an incredibly persistent process in our lives – in human lives: we grow up, we outgrow the people we are born among, and we go out into the world to find our tribe, so to speak. And this is a critical part of maturity, of striking out on out own, of becoming comfortable with who we are and realizing who we’ll be happy to battle alongside and who we’d rather kick in the meat and potatoes.
“Space, of course, is such a perfect physical representation of this process. What greater ‘going out’ is there than in leaving aside the stale-but-certain comfort of the space station or planet and striking out for the depths? What better idea of finding a family than settling in with a crew? And what better embodiment of freedom than a void where only light can touch you, but even then after years?”
Of course, the “Found Family” isn’t exclusive to spaceship crews. It’s a theme that we see everywhere from superhero movies to sitcoms, reflecting some of the bigger social shifts happening in the real world. As Cornell points out, one of the very first spaceship ensembles shows, Lost in Space, was based around a far more traditional family.
“I think one of the big, central parameters of change in the modern world is the move from biological family being the most important thing to found family being the most important, the result of a series of generation gaps caused by technological, ecological and societal change happening so fast that generations now get left behind,” Cornell says. “So all our stories now have found family in them, and we can’t imagine taking old family into space. The new Lost in Space, for example, had to consciously wrestle with that. And even in the original, there’s a reason the found family of Billy and Dr. Smith is the most interesting relationship. It’s the only one where we don’t immediately know what the rules are meant to be.”
To make a huge generalisation, that sense of “not immediately knowing what the rules are meant to be” might be the key to the genre’s appeal. After all, if your space exploration is closer to the ideals of the Star Trek model than they are to Eddie Izzard’s “Flag” sketch, then it’s about entering an alien environment where you don’t know the rules. If there are aliens, your space heroes will be trying to reach out and understand them. But for the writer, whether those aliens are humanoids with funny foreheads or jellyfish that only talk in the third person, the aliens will still be, behind however many layers of disguise, human. We really struggle to imagine what it’s like to be anything else. Perhaps our spaceship crew’s efforts in communicating with and understanding those aliens is reflected in their efforts to understand each other.
Seven Devils, by Elizabeth May and Laura Lam, is out now, as is The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders, and A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Rosebud, by Paul Cornell, will be out in April 2022.