The Colour out of Space Opera: Index

An index to my series of posts on colour, symbolism, style and space opera, featuring Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Star Wars (with guest appearances from all over).
Part One: What is a Space Opera?

Part Two: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

Part Three: Red And Blue

Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Part Eleven: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Bonus: The Mandalorian

Conclusion

The Colour Out of Space Opera: Concluding Thoughts

So, by way of ending The Colour Out Of Space Opera, I’d like to offer a few general thoughts and takeaways from this, and a few directions you can pursue yourself if you’re interested in learning, or researching, more on this subject.

  1. Everything uses symbolism to make its point, and, because we’re in Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 [Review] – Otaku USA ...“Western” society (in this case, blatant ethnocentric shorthand for the UK and USA), we tend to get a lot of symbols in our popular culture that fit our own particular set of nature/culture oppositions. There’s a reason why I’ve steered clear of talking about Japanese space opera; it might be an interesting thing for someone with more knowledge of their particular culture to explore colour symbolism in that context.
  2. The way space opera uses symbols, particularly colour symbols, is linked to the job space opera has to do: to introduce casual viewers quickly to casts and scenarios in a way that doesn’t alienate regulars, to provide new and interesting alien planets on a weekly basis in a way that keeps costs down but doesn’t get the viewer saying “Vasquez Rocks again?” (by the way, shout out to Star Trek: Picard for using the actual Vasquez Rocks as a location).
  3. What Made Lexx Such a Great Cult Sci-Fi Series? | Den of GeekNature/culture: is a big trope that designers and directors exploit big-time, for its emotional significance in “Western” (op cit) culture, but it changes over time. In the sixty years that we’ve been covering here, we’ve gone from culture-good, to nature-good, and now we seem to be going back into culture-good (albeit with some interesting fusion symbolism in The Mandalorian, but it seems to be the only one so far). Arguably in 1990s space operas like Farscape and LEXX you had a period of we-can’t-tell-what’s-nature-and-what’s-culture, which is probably not too surprising, given that it was a decade when people were having to rethink a lot of pre-existing social categories (and, come to think of it, that might make a good bonus episode/coda to this series; comment if you’d like me to write one).
  4. Finally, historical-futurism goes back longer than most people realise, and the reason it works is for the same reason that the colour symbolism works: because we have sets of associations piled up in our cultural knowledge that mean we go to certain places when we see certain things. But they work best when you’re evoking a time period sideways, as it were: making us think of Westerns not through Western-style visuals, but through other symbols that evoke the same sort of ideas.

So, I’m going to leave you here with those four takeaways. Obviously one could go on much further, and I might do more pieces later on exploring in depth what particular series do with particular sets of symbols. I should also probably mention here that I have a book coming out in Obverse Book’s Black Archive series of Doctor Who monographs: it’s #43: The Robots of Death, and the reason I mention it here is because there’s a whole chapter on Expressionist design, historical-futurism, and how Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe made use of it throughout his tenure on the show. So if you like what you read, there’s more!

In the meantime: go out on your own, play with these tools, look at what the designers of your own favourite space operas are doing with colour and visual trope, and have fun with it.

The Colour Out Of Space Opera: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Last instalment, I talked about how to evoke the past well, and not so well, with a quick detour round Metropolis. This instalment, I’m back with our usual case studies, and looking at how each of them has used the Wild West as a reference point: successfully, and not so successfully.

We’ll start with the unsuccessful. Here, once again, is an image from the classic Battlestar Galactica “The Lost Warrior.” Now, this one really ought to work. The Wild West is an appropriate referent for the story, which riffs heavily on Shane and other Westerns of the “stranger rides into town, fixes things, rides off again to the great disappointment of the comely local widow” variety. To be fair, there are some creative design elements in the serial– making the buildings look like repurposed spacecraft, for a start– but the Western aspects include a lot of, well, silver cowboy hats and vests. And, while, as I noted last time we talked about this episode, it does bring home one of the symbolic associations of white clothing for a villain (plantation bosses), it also makes it really sort of too obvious:

Meanwhile, Star Wars is arguably the textbook example of Doing Wild West Space Opera Right. The Tatooine sequences especially are a coming-of-age Western at heart: young boy, dreaming of leaving the ranch and fighting in a civil war, teams up with a grizzled old gunslinger after his family are brutally murdered, and they go to a saloon in a disreputable little desert town in order to recruit a maverick mercenary pursued by all the local bounty hunters, and his brown partner who doesn’t speak English.

This is the sort of thing that generally goes unnoticed by the audience, however, and for fairly good reason. In order to make sure it doesn’t wind up being as on-the-nose as “The Lost Warrior,” the design team have drawn their past-times elements from the Middle East:

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Japan:

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And 20th century abstract sculpture:

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The most obvious nod to the Western genre is Han Solo’s costume. Even there, you’ve got an interesting mix of black and white, pointing to the idea that Solo’s morals and allegiances are a little variable (we don’t see the colour of his hat, after all):

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So people don’t tend to notice that the whole thing is a coming-of-age Western. They also don’t usually notice, by the way, that our protagonist’s  family have a plantation and own slaves, and he wants to fight for the “rebels”, which does add an element of ambiguity to the literally black-and-white distinction between the heroes and the villains.

But, and here’s the point where structuralism comes in: the symbolic connotations of all of these places overlap with the Wild West. The Middle East, in the 1970s, was seen as a lawless gold-rush area, province of hyper-masculine gangsters; Kurosawa, one of Lucas’ key influences, is best known for Samurai warrior movies which have later been remade as Westerns; abstract sculpture developed under the same chaotic global conditions that spawned the Wild West (war and extreme financial instability). So, unlike Padme Amidala’s forays into Japanese and Weimar imagery in the prequels, it doesn’t just Look Neat, it Tells Us Something.

And finally, you have Blake’s 7. On the one hand the Western is sort of baked into the programme’s DNA, since one of the reasons for the title was series creator Terry Nation pitching it initially as “The Magnificent Seven in space”.  Somewhat wisely, though, the team largely steer clear of using Western costumes and sets, presumably for reasons of not wanting to make that connection too obvious (also, presumably, because it’s hard to do well on the cheap– that’s a compliment, by the way, Blake’s 7 is a good example of how one can do even space opera well with no budget, provided you have a strong writing team and a creative production team).

The one episode where they do go a little further than usual is “Gambit”, where the Seven and the Federation have both tracked fugitives Travis and Docholli to a bar in a lawless frontier town. The name Docholli is also an explicit reference to Doc Holliday, meaning that it’s hard to ignore the connection. Consequently, both Docholli (right) and Travis (left) rock delightful big hats (Travis’ is, naturally, black):

However, Blake’s 7 does a Star Wars, and takes the curse off it, by heavily referencing the Weimar Republic in other aspects of the story’s costuming and design (for instance the Croupier, emceeing the Big Wheel casino with an aesthetic that’s half Joel Gray and half Marlene Dietrich):

This also, by the way, includes the brief use of South Bank as a futuristic location– famously a product of Bauhaus-influenced modern architecture (there’s not a single good shot of South Bank from the production, you’ll just have to take my word for it). In any case, this even makes the delightful big hats less obviously cowboy-related. Since Weimar fashion could also include big-brimmed hats (many lovely examples here, but take particular note of the gent on the far right):

Brothers Don't Shoot!' Placard During The German Revolution Berlin circa 1918-circa 1919 : News Photo

And Travis, in his hat and cape, looks like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera, subject of a not-unfamous film of the 1920s:

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So, again, one takes the curse off the Wild West aesthetic, by linking its imagery with the imagery of another period of lawless gangsterism, reckless gambling, hedonism, violent sexuality, interwar social trauma and extreme financial instability.

And then there’s The Mandalorian. Which I was going to talk about briefly here, but then realised I had enough to say about it to warrant another blog post, so that’ll be next time.

 

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! As promised last time (catch-up links: one two three four five six seven), this episode will take a quick look at the problem of planets.

As we’ve seen extensively, one of the crucial issues in space opera is how to differentiate characters, and ideally give the audience some understanding of who they are and what their role is, in a quick and easy way that can help casual viewers tuning in to the series, while not alienating or boring regulars.

However, another crucial issue is that space operas require characters to visit different planets on a near-weekly basis. Which presents a twofold problem: first, how to make a landscape look convincingly alien on a budget– and, second, how to disguise the fact that the same location usually has to stand in for several planets?

(as an aside, I’d like to stamp very thoroughly on the idea that this is the result of space operas being done on the cheap. This is a problem that affects all space operas, from the genuinely low-budget Blake’s 7 through to original series Battlestar Galactica, at the time the single most expensive TV programme ever made. Because it doesn’t matter if you have the resources of a small multinational corporation, that budget still has limits– and, even if your budget was completley unlimited, physical and logistical considerations also mean your choice of locations is not infinite).

One easy, cheap and effective way of doing this is through lens filters. A simple filming or post-production effect can make a normal Earth landscape look alien, as in Battlestar Galactica‘s War of the Gods:

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This particular effect clearly led to problems, as in the same story vis-FX shots including laser beams and the revelation of Count Iblis’ demonic forms were incompatible with it and had to be shot in conventional colours. Nonetheless, for the audience, the planet has been established as alien.

Blake’s 7, on more of a budget, used a red lens filter instead in Time Squad to make the planet look more alien and less Southeast England, without the troublesome vis-FX problem (sometimes simpler is best):

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Which is rendered even more effective by the social and emotional connotations of the colour red, giving the adventure a sense of urgency and danger. Similarly, in Cygnus Alpha, the titular planet’s superstitious theocracy is highlighted early on by having the exteriors set in darkness:

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Colour and filtering can also be used to drive the audiences’ emotions regarding the setting more subtly. For instance in the New Caprica story arc of reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the lighting and post-production teams indicate the sense of frustration, monotony and despair associated with the colony and its later occupation by giving it a grey, rainy tone throughout:

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But, in the episode Unfinished Business, as characters remember happier days on New Caprica, the planet is seen in unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, reflecting how it can look with the rose-tinted glasses on:

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Finally, the Eye of Jupiter story arc shows us how lens filters and visual effects can be used to achieve multiple ends at once. The use of lens filters, first, disguises the fact that the team are filming in Kamloops (handy for Vancouver and nicely rugged) yet again, and sets up a harsh, bleak, washed-out emotional tone reflecting the characters’ increasingly frayed relationships as well as their feelings about the planet:

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And, when the revelation in the temple is about to unfold, visual effects can change the sky and the landscape to something more suitably terrifying and apocalyptic:

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Next time: A shift back to costuming, and how to get historical referencing right… and hilariously wrong.

 

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Welcome back to The Colour Out Of Space Opera, a blog post series on the uses of colour and style in many familiar space opera series! Here are the catch-up links if you need them: one two three four five six

The last two installments focused on the use of colour in Blake’s 7, to colour-code the heroes for quick characterisation, and also to show characterisation arcs. This time, let’s turn back to Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7‘s near-contemporary.

One particular use of colour in 1970s Battlestar Galactica is the use of white as a shorthand for villainy. This appears to start as a sly political dig. The series itself generally followed a strongly neoconservative line, to the effect that politicians are untrustworthy, pacifists are naive, and governance is best done by reluctant leaders who swoop in, solve your problems, and go away quickly. In the pilot episode, the Council of Twelve (or Quorum) ruling the Colonies appear dressed in Roman-style white senatorial robes. Naturally, one of the Quorum is a traitor to his species, and the rest are naive idiots who basically let him get away with it:

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However, there’s another referent. The 1970s saw a renewed dialogue over the history of slavery and its fallout in the USA, so what’s a better shorthand for villainy in a multiethnic neoconservative series than a costume recalling, white-clad, plantation owners:

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The re-use of this trope also gives us white-clad corrupt politicians (again) in The Gun on Ice Planet Zero, white-helmeted prison guards in The Long Patrol… and this guy.

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In one of the more interesting, and subtle, uses of this trope, Count Iblis in War of the Gods first appears to the Fleet as a man wearing a uniform not unlike Adama’s, but white. This appears like a way of inspiring trust while also subtly hinting at Iblis’ supernatural, “angelic” nature… but, if you’ve been following the series, also a hint that he’s the anti-Adama, who will potentially lead the Fleet to destruction. And then, in the same story, we meet the Lightship People:

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Angelic creatures, also dressed in white. Seemingly benign figures who can even restore the dead– but who are also plainly working to their own agenda and not necessarily the good of the Fleet.

This is echoed later in their implied messenger, “John,” an ambivalent figure who Starbuck and Apollo find less than trustworthy:

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And, while the re-use of the white uniforms in the godawful Galactica 1980 was, on one level, simply a way of saving money, it could also be taken as a sign that something in the series has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

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What about the new series? The colour-coding comes in first of all as a way of differentiating individual Cylons, perhaps most obviously in the case of burgundy-Doral and teal-Doral, identified by jacket colour:

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Given that the series sets up a nature/protagonist, culture/antagonist differentiation early on, though, we can also see styles, rather than colour per se, used to set up the opposing characters of Sweet Eight (nature) and Hard Eight (culture) in The Face of the Enemy.

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As with Blake’s 7, though, reimagined Battlestar Galactica also uses changes in colour and style to show the journeys of various characters. Leoben, for instance, starts out as a fanatic, obsessed with Starbuck and what he believes to be her spiritual destiny:

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As this obsession leads him into darker, sadder areas, he abandons the rough bright colours and wears black. Significantly this is also true of the Head-Leoben who appears to Starbuck in her visions, symbolising his role in allowing her to come to terms with her destructive nature and her own death:
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One of the more interesting examples comes with another of the Head People, in this case Head Six who appears to Baltar throughout the story. When she first appears, it’s in a red dress, symbolising her connection to the Cylons but also seduction, destruction and conflict…

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(…as a side point, note that a red dress is also, so to speak, a red flag about the true nature of Ellen Tigh…)47

During the Pegasus story arc, though, Head Six dresses in darker colours, as Baltar has to confront and navigate the abuses perpetuated by humans on Cylons (and on each other):

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Later, as Baltar becomes a spiritual leader to the Fleet and begins encoding the monotheistic religion that Head Six has been encouraging him towards, she varies her colour scheme somewhat:

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Significantly, when she is most encouraging Baltar towards his spiritual role (at the end of the first season, and later on after Baltar’s cult forms), she dresses in white:

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Which, of course, has connotations of spirituality and angelic nature, and weddings, and other positive associations that one might expect.

But let’s not forget: right from the start, a white costume in Battlestar Galactica marks you out as, at least to some degree, a villain.

Next time: a step away from costume and a look at how to differentiate your planets.

The Colour out of Space Opera Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! It’s been a while since the last instalment in the series (sorry, it’s been a very busy summer for writing things, as you may have noticed), so if you need to get up to speed again, here are links to part one, two, and three.

This episode, I’m going to follow on from the discussion of Star Wars, and explore how nature/culture imagery is used in the costuming and styling of Battlestar Galactica and its spinoff Caprica.

Before I do, though: reader Taz, from AO3, messaged me with a very good question based on last instalment, namely, why is Palpatine’s dominant colour  purple?
My reply:

“Characters mixing red and blue are usually in an ambivalent relationship between rationality and emotion. Palpatine is himself rational, but he incites others to destructive rage— Anakin first, and later Luke.”

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More on this later in the series…

Anyway. Battlestar Galactica, like Star Wars and Firefly, references nature and culture in the way it styles its heroes and villains. This is not unexpected (while it’s not fair to call original BSG a ripoff of Star Wars, as some of its contemporary detractors did, it was certainly made with one eye on the popularity of a certain space-opera movie). What’s different, though, is that BSG does this less through colour than through styling. Our Colonial heroes’ closeness to nature is represented through clothing that evokes nature: warm earth-tones for flight uniforms and medical staff, silver and gold-trimmed dark blue velvet (evoking the night sky) for bridge personnel:

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Meanwhile, the Cylon bad guys are all culture, being mostly chrome and lights:

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And our ambivalent characters? Baltar, the human traitor, dons a Cylon-like helmet in “The Living Legend”,

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echoed in the uniforms of the humanoid Cylons in the Galactica 1980 story “The Night the Cylons Landed”:

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While cute cyborg-dog Muffit is a mix of natural fur and cultural metal, hinting that the humans and Cylons may not have as many differences as they think:

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The reimagined series picks up on this, giving us Colonials in green uniforms with lizard-like elements (which picks up on the idea that the Cylons, in the original series, were once a reptile race), and warm orange tones for the technical crew:

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While the interior of the Cylon basestars is again all minimalist decor and blinking lights:

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And yes, these elements do blend repeatedly. For instance the Battlestar itself has a retro-technological look, while the Cylons’ attack ships are literally natural, being intelligent animals armoured and sent out into space. Some of the Cylons (e.g. Leoben) wear natural fabrics and colours, while some of the humans’ palettes skew the other way (e.g. Gaeta). However, since the point of the series is to get the viewer questioning where the boundaries between human and Cylon are, if indeed there are any meaningful boundaries at all, this is to good effect.

Which brings us to the prequel series Caprica. In this series, nature and culture imagery, and indeed colours, are used throughout. The most obvious way is by differentiating the cool, technological world of the Graystone family:

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from the organic, emotional and violent life of the Adama family:

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However, it also does something more subtle. Watch how colour is used in the title sequence (go on, it’s only 45 seconds, I’ll wait):

Note that, in the title sequence, blue-grey, cultural, colours are used for both families. The point at which the reds and greens start to come in is when the viewer enters the online world. This sets up the subtext of Caprica itself as a repressed, restrained society, which, like Morbius in Forbidden Planet, is possessed of a dangerous, roiling id under the surface.

Finally, on that score, note the advert for Caprica Season two:

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The Temptation of Eve imagery is fairly obvious. Perhaps slightly less obvious is that Zoe, as Eve, is a cyborg woman represented in technological colours– biting into a very natural, and very red, apple. The threat to order in Caprica isn’t the Cylons: it’s their own repressed id.

Next episode: a different take on nature, culture and colour, with reference to classic British space opera Blake’s 7.

The Colour Out of Space Opera: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.

51uTBkmKh2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).

Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).

The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.

Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.

One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.

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An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.

What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….