The best place to have your ass kicked is space - Helyna L. Clove

3 Jun 2023

“I believe in a universe that doesn’t care and people who do.”
Night in the Woods

Like many millennial space nerds I grew up watching (then re-watching and re-watching again) the original Star Wars trilogy, probably the most known epitome of space opera there is in pop culture. I never immersed myself much deeper into that universe than consuming feature-length films but the wonder, wackiness, and emotional fulfillment of those stories seeped into my core and later informed a lot of my choices, conscious and unconscious, while writing my first drabbles and book-saplings. That galaxy far, far away was so familiar, so human, and yet, so packed with weirdness and wild possibilities that it captured my imagination and never let it go. I watched many sci-fi movies and read many novels since; it has always been my go-to genre, even if more recently fantasy features on my TBR-list in greater numbers. In the meantime, I also ended up becoming an astrophysicist, a much less glamorous but nevertheless intriguing way of experiencing and investigating Stuff Out There. In my storytelling, though, I was always more interested in what a vast, scary, but immensely exciting universe can do for my characters (and vice versa) than scientific accuracy. The fairytale grandeur and candid “yes, of course, this alien looks like a beetle in a hoodie and speaks in ultrasound song, why?” style of space opera feels like nothing else to me. Like home, strangely.

I didn’t deliberately choose it as the genre for my first novel, Skylark in the Fog, but in retrospect, it seems inevitable. I only wanted to tell the tale of these people in my head, their dreams and nightmares of home, love, and family, their journeys from darkness to light, and their struggles to find themselves and meaning in their lives—ideally, while they fly rickety spaceships, encounter shady robots, shoot plasma guns, visit bonkers planets, and wrestle with universe-threatening technology that no one understands. Plus get their asses kicked, because, listen, all of them need that for sure. And it would be so cool, right? Very cool, you cannot tell me it’s not all very cool! And so it was obvious that I needed a setting where most everything is possible, a place that’s dangerous and wonderful in a familiar way but that reaches deeply into the fundamental human terror-chasm of “what’s out there” and “oh, gods, why are we even here”. For me, that’s the endlessness of space. The source of horrifying existential questions that will always remain unanswered, but at the same time, an effective vehicle of the brightest ray of hope, too. Because yes, it’s all frightful and strange, but we are here, against it all, small and fragile and alive, doing our thing, and even though the universe doesn’t care, we do.

In science fiction, I can take the poor avatars of my own flaws and fears and have them face insurmountable obstacles and impossible odds, such threats to their entire universe that none of us normal, non-fictional people will ever encounter. I can have them find dangerous natural phenomena and sentience-made weapons none of them know how to fight and that makes them question everything they thought they knew about the world. I can play out decades-long, solar system-spanning wars to highlight the nasty depths of all that we are willing to do to each other; I can show strange aliens to contrast humanity with their own preferences and cultures to point out our strengths and weaknesses both. And do this while have it feel at least a little bit possible—who’s to say there isn’t a race of scientists somewhere out there, trying to unravel the universe’s secrets from the inside out while wrestling with their own blood-soaked history? The possible impossibilities of space opera are the perfect framework to induce dramatic, emotional changes in relatable, diverse characters with the goal of potentially revealing something about all of us (the reader, yes; me as the author, always) and emphasising it above our usual, mundane experiences. Epic fantasy does this too, and many SFF subgenres, of course. For me, however, space sci-fi has that added, let’s say, void-horror, while space opera sprinkles the Drama on top. That unknown, that timeless, forever-stretching thing is right there, in our own lives. It’s real. It’s wonderful and bonkers, infinite and undiscovered, and it’s out there! Many of us already have regular existential crises over those big questions I mentioned. What would we even do if we actually had to go and deal with it all?

At the same time, there’s the other side of the coin, too. The search. The urge. The hope. The light. Skylark in the Fog is, at its core, about connection. About reaching for that extended, friendly hand. About facing the dangers of the uncaring universe together. About being terrified but still brave. And while none of us are perfect and the ways we mean to survive may clash in spectacular and hurtful ways, we all keep trying. Because what else is there? The coldness of vacuum, countless planets and moons and asteroids treading their lifeless orbits around each other for millenia, the rigid beauty of cosmic gas and dust, and the breathtakingly sharp pinprick light of unreachable stars and galaxies. Always getting farther away, the distance growing, the unbearable loneliness creeping in. What is more heroic and warm and kind than to exist among all this inhumane wonder and to care? To try and make sense of it all, to preserve the wonder, to not give up on ourselves even if it’s all in vain, because it is, and because it is not.

Space opera is fundamentally hopeful and optimistic in tone. Good always wins, I suppose, and perhaps that’s what always attracted me to it. I like my grimdark, sure, but my own writing will always go towards the light. And while real life isn’t like that at all, I don’t feel like I’m deluding myself. I’m reasonably nihilistic but at the same time, as positive as I can be (or at least, striving for it). I’m almost always scared, though, so my characters are as well, often. What I really want is to show the unbelievable scope of that fear and say: it’s fine. We’re all in this big empty thing together. Let’s do this.

That’s why Skylark’s spaceship captain main character whose thing is to run away from people, relationships, and commitment (and the most running away you can do in this galaxy is to literally lose yourself in said galaxy) must decide to stand up to something huge and incomprehensible—let’s say, some alien tech or the monolithic space empire craving it—threatening the friends she pushes away and the places she denies to call her home, and have it define what kind of person she really is. It’s all so much larger than her, but hey, it’s space opera, so she might actually win! I can send her on a reluctant journey all over her galaxy to acquire the tricks and gadgets and, maybe most importantly, mental strength that she needs to (begrudgingly) accomplish the task. I often say Skylark is a space therapy book and I think it’s absolutely true. Captain Jeane Blake goes to have therapy amongst the stars and all the wormholes, and I go with her. And it’s not that everything gets fixed by the end, but she (and I) will, perhaps, learn to cope with her own brokenness in ways she hadn’t considered before because by facing the uncaring universe, you really only face yourself, don’t you? I can at least try to give her and myself that hope. And maybe others too.

I can also have the grieving queen of a futuristic technocrat planet literally fight part of her own mind, a twisted and poisonous reflection of everything she’s afraid of, in order to save her people. Impossibly huge responsibility, and, ah-ha! It’s space opera, so it doesn’t even have to be metaphorical! (ssh, spoilers) And obviously, it can also be hella melodramatic, because…you guessed it, space opera. The catharsis will be marvelous, I promise. And if we’re already talking about facing ourselves and defining what in hells we’re doing in this world, how about having another main character battle his brainwashing performed by the faceless rulers of the galaxy while trying to find who he really is? It’s as “from darkness to light” as you can get. We can also have relentless resistances fighting for freedom, barely morally-grey space pirates suddenly becoming the good guys, looming AIs desperately trying to be human…we can have anything! It’s the most immense playground, sci-fi. Put all that into a galaxy-scale setting slashed apart by yawning, murderous wormholes, and, well. It’s personal and intimate while being science-y and tech-y and larger than life and a spectacle—and that contrast, that’s space opera, for me.

And being beaten down, despondent and at the end of your rope, completely alone in space (the final frontier) and then rising up with whatever last sparks of motivation and hope gives you strength and showing the entire galaxy that you’re alive, that you want, you wish, you love, that you’re human—or optionally, any other alien race because the point is not having two arms, two legs, oxygen-breathing lungs, or squishy eyeballs, but to have a heart—is like, one of the coolest things ever. That’s the feeling I would like to do justice in my sci-fi. And that getting your ass kicked in space is in fact, good for you. And I sure hope my book will be too.

About the author


 Helyna L. Clove (she/her) is a science-fiction/fantasy novelist, and a lover of all types of storytelling, hot comfort drinks, and a universe full of stars.

She was born in Hungary and raised in a small village a few miles off the shores of Lake Balaton. She was often described by her teachers as someone always having “her head in the clouds”, and she spent the first fifteen years of her life mostly consuming books from her parents’ home library, watching some great 90’s sci-fi shows, and working on her eclectic music taste. After several arduous years of obtaining her astrophysics degree, she currently lives in Wales with her small family of a wonderful boyfriend and Puddle, the tortoiseshell cat.

When not writing her stories, she can be found commandeering radio telescopes, reading, cooking, playing video games, or trying her hand at different art forms.