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The Phantom of the Space Opera (1995)

     by Don D'Ammassa

          from The Ultimate Alien, 1995


This is a science fiction story, coming from a genre that doesn't overlap with the Phantom story very often. It’s a delightful, adorable little romp that entertains the reader without needing to move past its light parody level.

This isn’t just science fiction; it is, of course, part of the space opera subgenre, an inevitable pun someone was going to eventually make and which we’ll see in a few other future sci-fi offerings. Naturally, the story is set in space, on a spaceship, with Important Space Happenings going on mostly in the background.

My heart was instantly captured when it was revealed that the spaceship is named the Gaston Leroux (all aboard the good ship Leroux!). The Leroux is a performing ship, which travels from system to system much like a touring show, putting on live performances with holographic enhancements, including a replica of Carnegie Hall as the backdrop (as the ship's crew muse, holographs are great but people still love live performance). This was written back in the mid-1990s, well before projected backdrops and scenery became common in theater performances and particularly infamous in Love Never Dies, but it’s doing that nicely prescient thing that science fiction often does where it can predict the future fairly well by looking at current trends. And D’Ammassa is right; people do still love live performance, regardless of technologies available for other kinds of presentations.

The former captain of the ship was named Philippe, and the current captain is Jack Debienne, skeptic extraordinaire, giving us the obvious clues that this story is mostly based on Leroux’s novel. One wonders why Philippe has been demoted from nobility to serviceman, and why Debienne is the new captain rather than the departing one, but the space-faring performances (including Faust!) are too delightful for that to be more than a distraction.

There are problems with the performances, as there always are in these stories; lately, for example, random pieces of other holographs keep showing up in the midst of the show, leading to Lady Godiva or a troupe of dancing mice crashing the proceedings where they aren't wanted. No one is sure how this keeps happening, so they've brought on board the computer expert Rollo Shagny, name changed to protect the non-French-speaking science fiction audience. I was curious to see whether the Phantom would be entirely computer-based, perhaps a rogue AI or mutated program, but this did not turn out to be the case.

"On the one hand, the Leroux was a proud ship with three centuries of history; on the other, it was old, its equipment obsolete and untrustworthy..."

This is especially funny because, for all his justly deserved classic writing status, Leroux has some ridiculous stuff in his work and the original novel includes dropped characters, weird red herrings, and occasional space-filling.

The superstition of the crew is very well played-up, making the transition from performing artists to space-faring sailors easily; both groups are notorious for their susceptibility to tall tales. The eternal question of whether the Phantom is a concrete being or a supernatural creature is revisited here, and while it would normally seem obvious that D’Ammassa has chosen a supernatural Phantom based on the things happening without any mortal agency nearby and the crew's insistence that the "ghost" has been here for 300 years, this is a space opera and so we have the neat compromising solution: it's probably either a computer or an alien. Either option combines elements of both realism and the supernatural nicely, coming up with something that can be rationally and scientifically explained but which is still mysterious and other than human.

Box 5 is also updated for the space age, being replaced by a dedicated computer monitor left on and unattended at all times so that the ghost can access the main computer mainframe. This is considerably more important for a spacefaring ship than the ticket prices of a box were in Leroux's story, so we can have a decent amount of sympathy for Debienne's violent reaction to the idea that literally anybody could be wandering up and tinkering with the systems operations. There must always be a Poligny when there is a Debienne, and so there is, a young major who argues for the Phantom's rights and, in another nice update, is a woman.

Things sail on merrily in a whimsical but not overly campy fashion. Nearby planets in the system include Chaney and New Paris, while Rollo is a shy computer nerd, a modern update of his shy aristocrat role from the original novel, and the ghost spends his time tormenting Debienne by turning all his uniforms fluorescent orange. Kristin Dai eventually makes her appearance, an ambitious young singer with an only so-so voice who currently plays second-fiddle to the resplendent Scarlotta, a pushy diva with an amazing voice. Scarlotta’s characterization is reminiscent of the 1943 film and its descendants; in keeping with the futuristic setting, she's had her vocal cords surgically altered to be as perfect as they can possibly be, an interesting way of pointing out her technique over heart approach, while the Phantom in turn dispenses entirely with ventriloquism and simply turns her into a massive frog via manipulation of the holograph computer, another space-age upgrade. Poor Rollo is barely on Kristin's radar, despite his infatuation with her; the choice of computer nerd as a modern version of the character is an interesting one, since it doesn't necessarily include the idea of status but does provide a conduit for shyness or even innocence.

Eventually, Rollo trips over an alien that introduces itself as the the Persean (its name is unpronounceable by humans, you see, so it's just "the Persean"). The Persean is a non-humanoid creature that is basically made of rope (another obvious nod toward the original story’s lassos and stage ropes) and is an investor who backed the building of the Leroux by a mysterious alien named, of course, Erak. Since the Persean admits that it's over three centuries old, those of us in the know already know what's up with the Phantom by now, but I imagine that the average science fiction reader might not, and it's not obvious enough to give it away at this point if the reader doesn't already know.

The Persean obviously has a lot of cute little in-jokes about the original story that make it a fun character… but we’re also looking at the only major character of color in the original story being turned into a literal alien. The French people get to stay human; the Persian guy gets to be a comedic pile of rope. This is not a good choice, even when it’s probably unintentional. It really underscores the fact that despite the daroga being one of the major characters of the original novel, being heroic and representing justice, and being the main reason everyone survives and the actual narrator of half the book, the thing that a bunch of white readers came away with was “you know, the mysterious foreigner”. Leroux’s Orientalist tendencies certainly didn’t help there, but this is a problem of modern racism in works based on his novel just as much, and the reason why so many adaptations either erase the daroga entirely, replace him with a white French woman, or on the brief occasions he does get to make an appearance, show him as dangerous and stereotyped.

This is not something I expect this short parody story to tackle, but it’s still sad to see it fall right in line with all of that. Once again, the daroga gets short shrift.

Kristin, who has been slowly improving with the aid of a mysterious computer program she's found called The Muse (guess who!), vanishes while the ship is en route to the planet Eurydice, a very appropriate destination given that the Phantom story heavily parallels the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with its descent into hell in order to rescue the fair maiden.

It has come time to find out what the deal is with Erak, which leads us to the question of physical appearance. As we now know, Erak is an alien, which means that it’s not likely that human ideals of beauty really apply to him. So what does that mean? Is Erak hideous for his own species, and thus hiding out from them among humans? Or is he perfectly run-of-the-mill and it’s just humans who freak out about seeing him? In a more serious (and probably novel-length) science fiction version of this story, this would be a place to explore the issues of projecting beauty ideals onto other cultures and the moral implications involved. We’re not going to see that here, since this is a parody short, but it’s worth thinking about for future science-fiction attempts.

Erak, it turns out, looks like nothing so much as a massive pile of... well... he's sort of Erik the Hutt, but without the large, recognizable face. Hilariously, instead of wearing a mask, he wears a litter of theatre masks glued all over his body since all of him is ugly. Yes, the Phantom is a giant pile of mask-covered poo. It's not difficult to see why Kristin faints when he suggests that they become lovers.

The Persean, true to form, fills us in on Erak's history while he and Rollo are running around the ductwork looking for Kristin; it turns out that Erak is extremely physically hideous even for his own species (quite the double-whammy when combined with how repulsive humans find him), and was abandoned as an infant to be raised in a zoo, an obvious borrowing from Leroux's carnival backstory. Once he managed to convince the zookeepers he was a sentient being (after about a century) and was emancipated from the place, he got the Persean's backing to build the Leroux in order to hide in it and indulge in his love of musical performance. The fact that he is considered deformed by his species (alas, no, we’ll never find out what he’s supposed to look like in their opinion) gives him the spur for ostracization, while the fact that he's grown up surrounded by humans neatly explains why he has absorbed human standards of beauty, not to mention why he feels the need to hide his hideous self. Even better than all this well-thought-out explanation is the fact that it isn't dumped in giant chunks of exposition or intrusive into the narrative; it's woven into the dialogue impressively well.

Erak's conversation with Kristin down in his lair is hysterical. He's pretty good on the virtual organ, you see, if she'd like some music. But even funnier is her concerted attempt to get him to reveal himself so she can reassure him that he isn't that ugly (even though she privately thinks he is, she's a compassionate girl like her predecessor), and his continual refusal. It's a bit like the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, but with more arguing about who is exaggerating about what. Even funnier is the unmasking scene - he's kind of slow so he isn't very difficult to unmask - wherein Kristin removes several of the masks, gamely tries to swallow her bile and tell him he doesn't look that bad, and is then informed that she's looking at his elbow. She finally gives up after she finds some genitalia her human brain can’t really handle and needs to go sit in the corner for a bit.

In lieu of the torture chamber, Rollo and the Persean end up in a closed off room that Erak can inundate at will with the backwash from the engines, a much more direct and speedy frying than the slow psychological one in Leroux's mirror-room. Things happen in much the same manner as in Leroux's novel, though in slightly altered order; Kristin promises to come back to hang out with Erak if he doesn't crisp the two would-be rescuers, and she seems genuinely motivated by pity and a desire to give him a friend in the world (though internally she still finds the idea of romance with him unfathomable). Since she has no pre-existing relationship with Rollo, she's not overly invested in him aside from not wanting innocent people killed because of her, but she does reflect that his heroics are sweet and that she'd be interested in him if she didn't now feel "morally obligated" to Erak.

I'm not sure how I was expecting D'Ammassa to end this, but it certainly wasn't the way he did. Rollo, being an enterprising young fellow with smarts to spare, does some research and heads Kristin's attempt to return to Erak off at the pass by revealing that the alien is, in fact... female.

Erak joins the serried ranks of... uh, well, just Ransom's 1989 female Phantom, who was definitively human, but it's an interesting angle that isn't explored that much, isn't it? I'm curious as to why more versions of the story don't try to switch those roles (the closest we've really come are the Chinese versions, which come up with a male Christine but still keep the Phantom male as well). Is it because of cultural expectations that powerful and threatening characters must also be masculine?, or maybe because we don't find the story of a man being chased about by two women nearly as desperate and imminently dangerous as the reverse due to the usual power imbalances that make it less likely? It's an interesting question to ponder.

I’ve got a lot of questions about why this really impacts the story, though, to be honest. Erak isn’t human; we don’t know what sex and gender are like on her home planet or whether her being female means even remotely the same thing to her that it does to the human beings she’s talking to. How are these ideas translated across cultures, using what words and concepts? The story leans heavily on a cisnormative assumption that all aliens have the same ideas of gender, sex, reproduction, and recreation that human beings do, and furthermore takes it as granted that they also stick strictly to a heterosexual binary and therefore the fact that Erak is female means that she won’t be interested in Kristin. Which she isn’t, as soon as someone explains to her that Kristin is female, too. This is always a disappointing assumption to see in fiction, but it’s especially sad in science fiction, where it point-blank says that human understanding of gender and sexuality, not to mention their ability to interact with alien cultures, has failed to progress even slightly in centuries.

Anyway, Erak retreats to consider this new information and Kristin is freed, since apparently the alien identifies as the human concept of heterosexual and therefore can't keep her around as a potential lover anymore. It's worth noting that Erak is obviously seeking companionship and acceptance before sexual love, very similar to the original character, but also that sexual love is obviously still a part of the equation, as evidenced by Kristin's complete emancipation from all expectations; apparently Erak’s species doesn’t have any concept of love that doesn’t include boinking, either, because why not really run the gamut of hidebound straight cultural norms?

The story appears to be over, but on the very last page Erak pops back up just before Kristin and Rollo are about to head off the ship, now happily engaged in their own relationship, and re-enacts a kidnapping.

Except she kidnaps Rollo. "You're quite handsome, you know." The story cuts off before anyone deals with this, so while there is a whiff of unfortunate implication of that old trope of it being funny when a woman sexually harasses a man instead of something to be viewed with horror, we can also be left to ponder whether Kristin now gets to saddle up and go rescue Rollo, whether this indicates that Rollo is about to get tutored into becoming a performing star, and whether or not the entire rescue is just going to keep getting played out over and over again until Erak learns to chill.

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