Figuring Out an Epic

I was plan­ning to write this post for some time. But then life hap­pened, and I have a new PC, so it took me a while to stop play­ing with my new toy and get back to work. 😉 I’m now enjoy­ing a Dell machine (after being a devot­ed HP user) with Win­dows 10 on it. So far I love it. I haven’t tried any numer­i­cal mod­el­ing soft yet, but I’m think­ing it will run just fine. I’m look­ing at that MIT­gcm again (vir­tu­al machine for Lin­ux, though). It cer­tain­ly can work out now. *Hap­py Dance*

Now, onto the top­ic of this post, where I’ll be attempt­ing to exam­ine a genre of Epic. In my case that would be epic sci­ence fic­tion and how it dif­fers from space opera.

I nev­er clas­si­fied Falaha’s Jour­ney as an epic. Because when I wrote it, epic was not on my mind at all. In my head I refer to this sto­ry just a sto­ry. Not sci­ence fic­tion, or any­thing else. Though it is a hard sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry among oth­er things.

Now, while work­ing on Rjg (I made it halfway through chap­ter six and then returned to chap­ter one to rewrite it), I real­ized that I don’t have a fixed genre for this sto­ry as well. It is sci­ence fic­tion, but it is not quite the stan­dard can­dle. It fits the epic slot quite well.

Epic. I had a few peo­ple call Fala­ha that and after some analy­sis of the sub­ject I have to agree on the des­ig­na­tion. It is an epic and a just lit­tle bit of a space opera.

I’m some­what famil­iar with epic lit­er­a­ture. I’ve read Homer and Vir­gil, and some of Plato’s poems. And, of course, the Epic of Gil­gamesh among oth­ers.

So I dug around to learn the details of what an epic actu­al­ly is. What are the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an epic?

My gen­er­al knowl­edge was that it has a hero, and the said hero does some impor­tant deeds on the scale of a nation or civ­i­liza­tion. Turns out, to some extent, I wasn’t far from truth in my sub­tle hunch.

Read­ing Epic: An Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Nar­ra­tives gives quite a detailed insight into the genre and its roots. In short, 

For Greece and Rome this is the sim­plest expla­na­tion: it is a long nar­ra­tive writ­ten in hexa­m­e­ters (or a com­pa­ra­ble ver­nac­u­lar mea­sure) which con­cen­trates either on the for­tunes of a great hero or per­haps a great civ­i­liza­tion and the inter­ac­tions of this hero and his civ­i­liza­tion with the gods (Mer­chant 1971: vii).

Of course, this is not a descrip­tion of a full range of ancient epic lit­er­a­ture. It’s quite a com­plex genre to grasp. But in terms of themes, first of all

hero­ism and the hero are at the very heart of mytho­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal epic. Praise of the glo­ry of heroes (klea andron) is per­haps the basis of the con­cept of hero­ism.

In many instances the hero is also the face of his civ­i­liza­tion.

Then, the epic con­tin­u­ous­ly stress­es the rela­tion­ship of said heroes with their par­ents — par­tic­u­lar­ly fathers, since the epic is a patri­ar­chal world.

Third, reli­gion is impor­tant in epic.

And last­ly, nos­tal­gia and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of bygone eras accounts for the appeal of the epic nar­ra­tive.

If we take a descrip­tion of epics in mod­ern cin­e­ma, that would be 

Epic film is a genre that takes his­tor­i­cal events and peo­ple and inter­prets them in a larg­er scale. His­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy is not the main focus in Epics, but rather the telling of a grandiose sto­ry.

Epic film sub­gen­res are biopics (dra­ma­tize the life of a sig­nif­i­cant per­son in his­to­ry), his­tor­i­cal (about a par­tic­u­lar time in his­to­ry), war (these look at the real­i­ty of war on a grand scale), and reli­gious (focus on impor­tant reli­gious lead­ers as well as sto­ries of reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance). I’m sure the same things are present in lit­er­a­ture.

Cer­tain­ly, epics share some sim­i­lar­i­ty with space opera.

Hartwell and Cramer (Hartwell and Cramer 2008, Intro­duc­tion, pp. 10–18.) define space opera as 

col­or­ful, dra­mat­ic, large-scale sci­ence fic­tion adven­ture, com­pe­tent­ly and some­times beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, usu­al­ly focused on a sym­pa­thet­ic, hero­ic cen­tral char­ac­ter and plot action, and usu­al­ly set in the rel­a­tive­ly dis­tant future, and in space or on oth­er worlds, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly opti­mistic in tone. It often deals with war, pira­cy, mil­i­tary virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.

Sci­ence fic­tion is the genre that prob­a­bly has as many def­i­n­i­tions as there are authors. Some of them share much in com­mon, some have dif­fer­ent approach­es to the genre, which shifts as cul­ture and tech­nol­ogy shifts. I’m not going to touch the top­ic of sub­gen­res here, they bring in addi­tional defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics (as the space opera above).

The for­mal def­i­n­i­tions of SF fair­ly close­ly resem­ble the sets of pro­to­cols for writ­ing genre SF, yet no ful­ly sat­is­fac­tory def­i­n­i­tion of SF exists. Some more def­i­n­i­tions can be found here.

Since I write what is called hard sci­ence fic­tion, my own def­i­n­i­tion of sci­ence fic­tion would be a genre in which the sto­ry set­ting — the world — is ground­ed in the tenets of sci­en­tific think­ing. In the worlds cre­ated for this genre it is accept­ed that there is noth­ing besides a phys­i­cal real­ity and that every­thing is, in prin­ci­ple if not in prac­tice, explain­able and gov­erned by phys­i­cal laws. Even if a sto­ry in this genre employs FTL, or time trav­el, it is assumed that this is some­how (and yet bet­ter — explained) a phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity and that it is not done by super­nat­ural means. Thus, if tech­no­log­i­cal and/or sci­en­tific basis is tak­en away from such a sto­ry, it col­lapses. Civ­i­liza­tions and cul­tures also fol­low the laws, e.g. those of biol­ogy, accord­ing to which they evolve and work. There are real­is­tic under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples that allow — or don’t allow — things to hap­pen.

So, if I put it all togeth­er, an epic sci­ence fic­tion tale would be a dra­mat­ic, uni­verse-span­ning sci­ence-fic­tion adven­ture (or at least a plan­et-scale one, depend­ing on the time-peri­od — space set­ting is not a neces­si­ty) of epic pro­por­tions (and shar­ing epic themes — e.g. glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the future time peri­od and/or set­ting), espous­ing, at its core, ele­ments or sce­nar­ios that focus on the more pos­i­tive, more opti­mistic, larg­er-than-life, hero­ic vein, which runs counter to the real world’s cold­er, dark­er, most­ly neg­a­tive ver­sion of real­i­ty.

What do you think? How would you define epic sci­ence fic­tion?

Jeno Marz
JENO MARZ is a science fiction writer from Latvia, Northern Europe, with background in electronics engineering and computer science. She is the author of two serial novels, Falaha’s Journey: A Spacegirl’s Account in Three Movements and Falaha’s Journey into Pleasure. Marz is current at work on a new SF trilogy. All her fiction is aimed at an adult audience.


  1. I think your def­i­n­i­tion is great for an epic SF, and brings up an inter­est­ing ele­ment of roman­ti­ciz­ing the glo­ry of the future that hasn’t yet hap­pened, but is dis­cussed in the same way the nos­tal­gic past is. I won­der why the mind can so eas­i­ly accept that same sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty for things that are future-lean­ing… maybe because tra­di­tion­al epics don’t con­cern them­selves with that his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy bit… it’s about the grand adven­ture.

    Con­grats on your new com­put­er! 😀
    My recent blog post: Dear Opl: A Review

    1. There’s one more thing about that glo­ri­fi­ca­tion part. I thought about it more and it comes down to this: it’s not only the future that is bask­ing in such atten­tion; since it’s also about the scale, grandiose things need grandiose tech­nol­o­gy. And that one, in turn, needs grandiose minds and resources. The future is bright because some­one took us there. For us read­ers it hadn’t hap­pened yet , but we yearn for that BIG thing. It’s not about the accu­ra­cy, it’s about a dream. Those bygone eras in epics were gold­en time. 😉 Some­thing along those lines. And then there are also alien worlds sans humans that can be very inspir­ing due that same rea­son.

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