That is the central question in scifi and the cause of all the trouble too. Trouble means tension and conflict. In fiction, trouble is good.
One of the things I really wanted to get away from was the Star Trek “alien.” The Star Trek alien is just like a human except for one, or a few, altered physical features (purple eyes, wrinkled nose, differently shaped ears) and one exaggerated behavior or attribute—greed for the Ferengi, logic for the Vulcans, aggression for the Klingons. Until recently all Vulcans even shared one hairstyle.
Practically you can see why this would happen. It makes it easy on the makeup department and allows the casting department to cast, well, humans. Duh. Budget constraints are a factor of course, even with the prevalence of CGI. We finally are a point where we have actors walking around on stilts to create the illusion of hooves like a horse, etc.
Low-budget old-school Dr. Who was braver and gave us aliens/monsters made up of baling wire and spit. Ironically, also due to budget constraints. There’s a lesson there.
That’s all fine and good and eventually Star Trek writers even came up with an explanation for why there are so many bipedal humanoid species—some race went around seeding planets and reused the same framework. Okay. That kinda, sorta explains things, but what about behavior? That’s actually more writing-related too, having to do with the readers.
The readers (or viewers) must be able to relate to the alien. Hence we do not have the Broccoli people of Brassica IV except maybe for the short term as a curiosity or if the budget allows it, or just to be able to say, “Hey we don’t just have bipedal humanoid aliens with front-facing eyes.”
Let’s face it, consumers may get a chuckle out of the Brassicans’ obsessions with butter-baths, but could we really relate to it if it didn’t touch the funny (or irony) bone?
Now, if you think about it, an intelligent creature that looked like a stalk of broccoli because it had sensors on the stalks or operated each branch like an octopus does with multiple brains would be quite unique and might even make sense for a certain kind of environment, but how relatable would it be?
And then we have the Furry-aliens, i.e. people in suits made up to look like a shark’s head was grafted atop a human torso, because, well, it was. I really wanted to get away from that, and the truth is, once I made that decision, I was limited to creating a sub-species of human, which I was actually fine with given what I wanted to do.
In addition to it working with the story I was inspired to write, I think that going with a sub-species is more honest than pretending that you could have a shark-headed humanoid. Ironically, it’s actually done better in fantasy (via orcs, ogres, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures which are more rigorous, i.e. it makes more sense, than the shark-furry). This is also why I’m fine with calling the RoH series a “space fantasy” or a “space opera” rather than hard-SF, despite the crunchiness of the science or the rigor of internal consistency.
Remember, I’m here to entertain. As I’ve been saying, I’m filing for copyrights, not patents.
Once I made the decision to go with the more rigorous notion of a sub-species, I delved into what I loosely call genetic engineering (mostly the old-fashioned kind that is actually in-vivo breeding for traits and/or hybridization rather than the in-vitro variety, although I use both in Ravages of Honor series (affiliate link)).
Enter the mules. Wait, did she say mules? As in the four-legged things like horses.
Yes, she did! Cause she’s like that.
Because a mule has only 63 chromosomes (a horse has 64 and a donkey has 62), mules are infertile. Usually. I know! I was shocked to learn this too. I thought for sure that mules could not have babies.
And that’s when the trouble started.
What if? What if the super-soldiers (my genetically engineered donai) were like mules? This would be a desirable trait since their creators wouldn’t want them breeding anyway. So I went down this rabbit hole and discovered that there are rare cases where the offspring of a fertile female mule ( a “mare”) can have fertile offspring that then go on to exhibit (atavistic expression I believe; remember, I’m not a geneticist or even a biologist) the traits/characteristics of horses despite their heritage including donkeys. That is, it’s possible to breed fertility back into the genome and to have those offspring express only the “desirable” traits of one species (or race).
Talk about things that make this writer’s day! This is my playground. This is where my buttons are pushed (and like a 747 I have a lot of them; go figure).
In the RoH universe this manifested as the genetically engineered donai having been created in such a way that they were infertile, but “nature finds a way” and produced errors—sometimes in the genome a la chromosomes, sometimes in the symbiotic nanites via coding errors. Sometimes those “errors” were helped along by the most successful venereal disease on record—life. Yes, life is a venereal disease, even when it occurs in-vitro (in a test tube). Pass it on!
Scientists can play with test-tubes all they like, even en masse, but there’s nothing like the introduction of chaos (the scientific variety) that’s unleashed when the product, in this case, the donai, are released into the wild and have the opportunity to—ahem—interact with a far more prolific species, i.e. humans.
And this is where another “What if?” came in and then all the trouble called a story, called conflict, called complex characters, called intense relationships, called massive worldbuilding “happened.”
If a story can’t be told without the extrapolation of science, it’s science fiction.
If a story has a premise based in that extrapolation of science (mine has three), then it’s science fiction.
If a story has a solution rooted in the same extrapolation, then it’s science fiction.
Which still leaves open the question of sub-genre.
RoH meets all those criteria (requisite girl cooties notwithstanding). So what is it then? Hard science fiction, science fantasy, or space opera. I guess it all depends on your perspective, i.e. how much do you really care about the science being right, the science being rigorous, internally consistent, etc.
From my perspective it’s got enough handwavium and other elements (i.e. it’s not just about the technology but about people and their adventures) to be space opera. It’s also space opera because the donai are more like the creatures of fantasy despite their non-supernatural basis. In many ways they are more human than human, but the story solution resting in the “rigor” of the story’s in-vivo genetic engineering makes it sci-fi (maybe even hard sci-fi).
Unlike a lot of space opera (I’m looking at you Star Trek) RoH is actual military-sf rather than militaristic-sf. But I don’t have a lot (I have a few) of space battles because I find them boring to read and even more boring to write. Nevertheless, I also don’t appropriate military culture (uniforms, ranks) and then disrespect them (bedding subordinates and making them into a “peacekeeping armada”—what an absurd term! Think about it!) because I know better. My militaries kill people and break things, just like (checks notes) in the real world. Huh. More rigor.
This is why I call myself genre-fluid. I don’t set out to mix genres, but I do mix them, depending on what the in-world dynamics call for. I think this enriches the world and provides depth to characters. It’s what makes an enjoyable story to me and I hope, to you, my readers.
Please don’t put any spoilers in any comments. I will delete anything I consider spoilerish.
[Crossposted to Substack]