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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