Simplistic Conflict

The simplest form of conflict is the most obvious: action-packed fighting between two characters. This is the heart of the stereotypical western story—the good guy in the white hat shoots it out with the bad guy in the black hat. Or they fight it out with fists in the town saloon. This is called "horse opera," a justifiably derisive term when such physical action is the only kind of conflict in the story.

Science fiction stories have been written along the same lines, and such stories are called "space operas." They tend to be more grandiose and larger in scale than horse operas, because the science fiction writer has the whole universe of interstellar space to work with, instead of one dusty Western town. But the pattern is the same; physical action is the mainstay of the story. Instead of cattle rustlers in black hats we have an invasion of earth by horrid alien creatures. Instead of a battle with the Indians on the prairie we have an interstellar war. But the conflict is all physical, all good guys vs. bad guys.

Although space operas had virtually disappeared from science fiction writing by the l960s, they are still a mainstay of Hollywood's sci-fi flicks, which usually draw their inspiration more from comic strips than from real science fiction published in books or magazines. In fact, sci-fi movies are about as closely related to science fiction as Popeye cartoons are to naval history.

The details of each space opera are somewhat different, of course, but the general pattern is almost invariably the same. There is a group of Good Guys. Usually they include at least one brilliant but eccentric scientist or other type of father figure, a beautiful young woman (often the scientist's beautiful daughter or some other relation) and one two-fisted hero. Then there are the Bad Guys. Sometimes they are invaders from outer space, but they can also be space pirates, interplanetary criminals, or a dictator and his henchmen. They usually have an evil scientist in their gang or, at the very least, the benefits of futuristic science, such as superweapons, hypnotic rays, invisible spaceships or whatnot.

The Good Guys fight the Bad Guys and win. Usually they have to come up with some dazzling new invention to win, and the hero often has to beat the chief villain in hand-to-hand combat. Whether it's Star Wars or Alien or Outland, every space opera offers little more in the way of conflict than physical shoot-'em-up.

The audience knows from the outset what the outcome will be. The thrill is in the chase and in the special effects.

There is no character development at all in most space operas, whether they are pulp-magazine tales of fifty years ago or this season's $50 million Hollywood extravaganzas. The hero, the villain, the other characters are completely unchanged by the action — except for a few bruises on the jut-jawed hero and the inevitable death of the slimy villain. There is no internal conflict in any of the characters. There is no real conflict between any of the characters, either, outside of the axiomatic Good Guy vs. Bad Guy fight. The entire cast of characters could go through exactly the same kind of story again in next month's issue of the pulp magazine or in the sequel to the movie.

Such stories seem ludicrously crude today, yet they still show up week after week in slushpiles all across the publishing industry. So let's get one thing straight right now: Slam-bang action is not conflict.

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