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What is the Cosmic Weird?

"So, what is Cosmic Weird?" said Lance Newblood of the Rocket Legionnaires, twisting the control yoke of his YD-3000 combat vehicle to the left. "Is it something new or simply nostalgia?"

Twin neon spirals of anti-ship rockets blazed past, close enough he could have spit on them. If he dared, that is, open his cockpit to the cold embrace of vacuum.

"Cosmic Weird is science fiction, a sub-genre within Space Opera," replied Commander Athena Madison over the staticy commline. Encased in her famous crimson survival mesh, she weaved without effort between the combat droids of the Tethyan Hierarchy, the control fields of her suit interacting with separate Eisentein frames to propell her forward, backward, and sideways with shocking ease. Very little of this suit made sense to Lance or any other reputable scientist, but it worked. In a universe filled with implacable and deadly foes like the Hierarchy, the government could be forgiven for overlooking a few arcane Newtonian violations in the service of victories. "I think what makes it distinct from science fiction is less the motifs, ideas, or typical plots of the stories and more the source of its inspriations."

"What do you mean?" Lance asked.

"I'd point to two anthologies released within months of each other which neatly summarize the movement. Joseph Adams of Lightspeed magazine published 'Cosmic Powers (Cosmic Powers: A Saga Anthology of Far Away Galaxies)' with works by Caroline M. Yoachim, Charlie Jane Anders, and Joseph Allen Hill. In his introduction he name-checked Jack Kirby and Silver Surfer and the mode of comic books that provokes a sense of wonder. Almost without exception, every story in the collection offers high science fantasy, immense space ships, ray guns, and super powered space wanderers. Some of the stories hew a bit closer to traditional science fiction but others are sheer pulp."

"Okay, what's the other one?"

"'Ride the Star Wind, (Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera and the Cosmic Weird)' a collection of eldritch space opera by Broken Eye Books with parallel themes to 'Space Powers.' I'm thinking particularly of stories by Remy Nakamura, Brian Evenson, and Premee Mohamed."

Another shoal of combat drones arrayed themselves ahead in excruciatingly exact lines. No matter which way he jerked the yoke back and forth the drones maintained their rigid skirmish line. The Tethyans were clearly intent on throwing up a wall between them and their target.

"Okay, so what's so cosmically weird about them?"

"Even before I was aware of the Cosmic Powers anthology, I had stumbled onto Joseph Allen Hill's excellent 'Infinity Love Engine' in the April 2017 issue of Lightspeed. That's about as perfect an example of the genre as I can think of. You have a disaffected, uber-cool narrator surfing across the galaxy on improbable technologies and sheer attitude. Her foe is some cosmically powerful transhuman blob. The whole piece feels like a tragically cut scene from Thor: Ragnarok."

"I get that reference," said Lance.

"Simply put, Cosmic Weird, although a literary movement, should be understood on the basis of its connection to certain science fiction movies. The two mediums are inseparable."

"They each influence the other."

"Exactly," Commander Madison said. "Take a look at 'Temporary Embarassment in Spacetime,' Charlie Jane Ander's contribution to "Cosmic Powers." Basically it functions as a caper story albeit one with truly outlandish characters, epic Jack Kirby settings and an implacable hive-mind villain."

An interceptor unwisely began to tail Commander Athena, perhaps picking up on her distraction. It was a simple matter for Lance to slide behind the drone, fire off a volley of plasma and then return to his lane. Commander Athena didn't miss a beat.

"Cosmic weird is the result of intense cross-pollination. When this literature began to appear - in the wake of such hugely successful FILM franchises as Avatar, Fifth Element, and, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy, the ability of movie special effects teams to do truly awesome things with SFX, digital editing, and processing allowed spectacles never before seen before on the screen. It's only natural that written space opera would begin to take on some of the inspiration of those properties."

"That seems awfully reductive," Lance said. "Are these works just fan fiction for movies?"

The first wave of the combat drones opened fire and green and red plasma bolts sizzled past, one or two bolts striking Lance's vehicle. For the moment the defense screens held but for how long? Ahead, past the interceptors, lay the immense hulk of the Tethyan dreadnaught. Although the dreadnaught could render the surface of a planet fiery slag, its ability to target individual fighters was much less potent. No matter how many movies warned of this particular design flaw, large galactic powers persisted in relying on interceptors for cover from fast-moving raiders.

"I mean no such slight," Commander Madison said. "Far from it. Both collections contain works I found entertaining and meaningful. They simply do different things. Movies and television series can't take the risks that short stories can. No matter how well funded, the biggest MCU movie can never equal the budget of a reader's imagination. I'd bring up 'Cosmic Powers' "Unfamiliar Gods," by Adam-Troy Castro with Jane Castro as one great example. The way Castro summons up an entire bizarre universe where space travel is only possible through the intercession of Lovecraftian gods is on a whole different level from an MCU movie. I'd also recommend Premee Mohamed's "Fortunato" in the "Ride the Star Wind" for similar reasons. Both works show what the written version of Cosmic Weird does well."


"Concern itself with the topic of science fiction itself, rather than quasi-philosophical thought experiments dramatized through speculative fiction."

"So this is escapist literature," Lance said, trying to keep the scorn out of his voice.

Commander Madison shot ahead of Lance and focused disruptive energies on the skirmish line of interceptors. The lines of blue force swelled, drawing into focus as the Commander thrust her arms forward . The gesture was meaningless as far as the force generators of her suit were concerned. She could have easily summoned such weapons through an eye blink or shouted command. But this had the obvious advantage of looking completely awesome.

The line of interceptors sparked in actinic blooms of disintegration, a row of Christmas lights shorting out in a neat and glorious line.

"Why do you think escapism is a bad thing!"

"Well, there's a lot going on in the universe right now," Lance said, his tone wounded. "We have this Tethyan invasion to worry about for one thing and it's increasingly clear that that President of the Galactic Council is a senile, incompetent…"


"So my point is, shouldn't literature be about something? Shouldn't there be an attempt through fiction to explore deeper truths of humanity and existence?"

"Cosmic Weird IS about something," she said. "Three things primarily: the mainstreaming of space opera, the power of interdependent culture, and a reclamation of nostalgia for future forward concerns."

"I have no idea of what you're talking about."

"Space Opera has been around for a very long time. Even in 2017 there was more than a century of planetary romances to draw upon. However, 1977 and the release of Star Wars created a mass market for what had previously been a very sub-cultural fandom."

"But wasn't that also a period of decline for space industries and exploration?"

"Yes, but that's not what Space Opera is about. Space Opera is an allegory for the increasing complexity and anxieties of the post-modern state. Space Opera is set in space because the people of that time period felt a increasing bewilderment over the scale and scope of the politics of that age. To them it was like they were enmeshed in the machinations of aliens and galactic governments very distant to their day-to-day concerns. Space Opera is a way of simplifying the world, freezing it into distinct sculptures of the mind, which people could study and appreciate at their leisure."

"Space Opera also tends to focus on an empowered individual who can bring the force into balance or overthrow the evil empire. That kind of thing."

"Exactly," Commander Madison said. "The central point of such literature is to reassure and provide a vehicle for understanding disruption."

"Your description of Cosmic Weird, though, makes it seem as though the characters are much more powerful than the typical protagonist of a space opera."

"Compare Paul Atredides with Luke Skywalker and then Starlord. As the scale of complexity and threat increases, so too does the imagined power of the protagonist in these stories. From a person with a few talents at upper level of human possibility, to a force wizard able to move objects with his mind, to someone who can fly around and kill gods with his space magic. These are heroes against the distablizing forces of impersonalization. As those dark powers grow more and more powerful, our avatar of rescue must also become correspondingly more powerful. That's pretty much the entire point of blending Lovecraftian Mythos with space opera in "Ride the Star Wind." Consider a work like 'Lord of the Vats,' by Brian Evenson, which was one of the stories in that collection most successful in fusing classic space opera with mythos. The main characters desperate attempt to understand a mysterious disaster aboard their ship ties into vast impersonal forces at work in the cosmos. When you go big, ancient Elder Gods are pretty much the upper end of the scale."

"Okay, I think understand what you mean, but what about interdependent cultures? What are they and why do you think Cosmic Weird reflects their power?"

"Think of Star Wars. The characters of this movie were by then so well-known they serve as archetypes for later works. The reason Star Lord goes in search of his father is partly motivated by his character and partly in reference to the Star Wars trilogy."

"Bold statement."

Commander Madison jerked to the side as a suicidal interceptor charges from an unseen quarter. With a practiced flick of her wrist it burst into a spray of debris.

"These myths intertwine and feed off each other. By joining this universe of references and allusions, Cosmic Weird taps into a spreading fan base. The ships and heroes of these stories make sense not within the constraints of physics or even the work of Silver Age SF writers but the very specific cinematic presentations of these movies. They are reactions to or against those works. By engaging with them, they are speaking the language of space opera."

"So we're back to nostalgia. Cosmic Weird is a backwards facing genre."

"Partly, although I do think there's some complexity there. When an writer like Premee Mohamed takes up the narrative of doomed colonies and their twisted inhabitants, I'd hazard to say it's not with an eye towards celebrating some musty imperialist narrative. It works largely as a reexamination of these same tropes which have skated through the years largely unexamined. If space opera is an attempt to crop away the Age of Exploration baggage of "voyage of discoveries," Cosmic Weird often makes that job more difficult. It asks us to align ourselves with criminals, outlaws and rebels. The order of the galaxy is corrupt in these stories. Either in specific or in general. Cosmic Weird suggests that with all of the vast and dozing evils out there in the universe, a hero would be wise to tread lightly."

"Sort of like how these Tethyans invaded us after we began strip-mining their holy geode worlds in the Posited Expanse."

The two warriors were now within striking distance of the flagship. The flak spun up by the anti-craft guns made further approach ill-advised, but neither Madison nor Youngblood were much dismayed. For in piercing the Tethyan interceptor swarms, they had thrown up a wake of displaced robots, drones tasked with following and eliminating their targets. Both Madison and Youngblood plunged into the incoming blaster fire, their defensive screens abrading away to only a few ionized virtual particles before they at last turned into graceful hyperbolic arcs, their flight control surfaces lathing apart the fabric of space-time as efficiently as wings once cleaved through the atmosphere of their home planet.

Their pursuers had no such flexibility and struck the flagship in one great wave dead center. There was a tremendous flash as the god-engine at the heart of the dreadnaught split open and the cacophony of noise their sensoriums provided for proper feedback.

"I think we can let the fleet deal with the rest of this mess," Commander Madison said. "I think it's time to have a chat with the president, don't you?"

"Long past time."

Post Script: This is what resulted from my attempt to review two very excellent and highly worth-while anthologies, the aforementioned "Cosmic Powers," and "Ride the Star Wind." Both contain excellent stories meriting your time and money. I hope the authors involved don't mind my name-checking of their work in the service of this essay. Seriously check these anthologies out - they're great!


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