Space Opera

Diva Plavalaguna

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. The term has no relation to music and it is analogous to ‘soap opera.’ Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale.

Sometimes the term is used pejoratively to denote bad quality science fiction, but its meaning can differ, often describing a particular science fiction genre without any value judgement. The genre’s varying definitions were affected by literary politics, ‘what used to be science fantasy is now space opera, and what used to be space opera is entirely forgotten.’

The phrase was coined in 1941 by fanwriter (and later author) Wilson Tucker, in a fanzine article, as a pejorative term. At the time, serial radio dramas in the US had become popularly known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Tucker defined space opera as the science fiction equivalent: a ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.’ Even earlier, the term ‘horse opera’ had come into use as a term for western films. In fact, some fans and critics have noted that the plots of space operas have sometimes been taken from horse operas and simply translated into an outer space environment. This usage of ‘space opera’ as a term for poor science fiction, remained in force until about the 1970s. In other words, many works that are today classified as ‘space operas’ would not have been called by that name originally.

Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss’ definition in ‘Space Opera’ (1974) as ‘the good old stuff.’ Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey. In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera. By the early 1980s, space operas—adventure stories set in space—were again redefined, and the label was attached to major popular culture works such as ‘Star Wars.’ It was only in the early 1990s that the term space opera began to be recognized as a legitimate genre of science fiction. Science fiction critics David G Hartwell and his wife Kathryn Cramer 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.’

Early works related to but preceding the genre contained many elements of what would become space opera. They are today referred to as proto-space opera. The earliest was written by a few little-known mid-nineteenth century French authors, for example ‘Star ou Psi de Cassiopée’ (1854) by C. I. Defontenay and ‘Lumen’ (1872) by Camille Flammarion. Not widely popular, proto-space operas were nevertheless occasionally written during the late Victorian and Edwardian science fiction era. Examples may be found in the works of Percy Greg and Garrett P. Serviss. One critic cites Robert William Cole’s ‘The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236’ as the first space opera. The novel does depict an interstellar conflict between solar men of Earth and a fierce humanoid race headquartered on Sirius. However, the idea for the novel arises out of a nationalistic genre of fiction popular from 1880–1914, called ‘future war fiction,’ and many would therefore dispute its claim to be called the first space opera.

Despite this seemingly early beginning, it was not until the late 1920s that the space opera proper began to appear regularly in pulp magazines such as ‘Amazing Stories.’ In film, the genre probably began with the 1918 Danish film, ‘Himmelskibet.’ Unlike earlier stories of space adventure, which either related the invasion of Earth by extraterrestrials, or concentrated on the invention of a space vehicle by a genius inventor, pure space opera simply took space travel for granted (usually by setting the story in the far future), skipped the preliminaries, and launched straight into tales of derring-do among the stars. Some early stories of this type include J. Schlossel’s ‘Invaders from Outside’ (1925) and Ray Cummings’ ‘Tarrano the Conqueror’ (1925). Similar stories by other writers followed through 1929 and 1930. By 1931, the space opera was well established as a major sub-genre of science fiction.

The author cited most often as the true father of the genre, however, is E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. His first published work, ‘The Skylark of Space’ (1928) is often called the first great space opera. It merges the traditional tale of a scientist inventing a space-drive with science fantasy or planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Smith’s later ‘Lensman’ series and the works of Edmond Hamilton and John W. Campbell in the 1930s and 1940s were popular with readers and much imitated by other writers. By the early 1940s, the repetitiousness and extravagance of some of these stories led to objections from some fans and the coining of the term in its original, pejorative sense.

Eventually, though, a fondness for the best examples of the genre led to a reevaluation of the term and a resurrection of some of the subgenre’s traditions. Writers such as Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson had kept the large-scale space adventure form alive through the 1950s, followed by writers like M. John Harrison and C. J. Cherryh in the 1970s. By this time, ‘space opera’ was for many readers no longer a term of insult but a simple description of a particular kind of science fiction adventure story.

A number of mostly British writers began to reinvent space opera in the 1970s. Significant events in this process include the publication of M. John Harrison’s ‘The Centauri Device’ in 1975 and a ‘call to arms’ editorial by David Pringle and Colin Greenland in the Summer 1984 issue of ‘Interzone’; and the financial success of ‘Star Wars,’ which closely follows many traditional space opera conventions. This ‘new space opera,’ which evolved around the same time cyberpunk emerged and was influenced by it, is darker, moves away from the ‘riumph of mankind’ template of space opera, involves newer technologies, and has stronger characterization than the space opera of old. While it does retain the interstellar scale and scope of traditional space opera, it can also be scientifically rigorous.

The new space opera was a reaction against the old. New space opera proponents claim that the genre centers on character development, fine writing, high literary standards, verisimilitude, and a moral exploration of contemporary social issues. Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, and M. John Harrison are the most notable practitioners of the new space opera.

Some critics distinguish between space opera and planetary romance. Where space opera grows out of both the Western and sea adventure traditions, the planetary romance grows out of the lost world or lost civilization tradition. Both feature adventures in exotic settings, but space opera emphasizes space travel, while planetary romances focus on alien worlds. In this view, the Martian, Venereal, and lunar-setting stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be planetary romances (and among the earliest).

Space opera can also be contrasted with ‘hard science fiction,’ in which the emphasis is on the effects of technological progress and inventions, and where the settings are carefully worked out to obey the laws of physics, cosmology, mathematics, and biology. There is, however (according to some), no sharp division between hard science fiction and true space opera.

One subset of space opera overlaps with military science fiction, concentrating on large-scale space battles with futuristic weapons. In such stories, the military tone and weapon system technology may be taken very seriously. At one extreme, the genre is used to speculate about future wars involving space travel, or the effects of such a war on humans; at the other it consists of the use of military fiction plots with some superficial science fiction trappings. The term ‘military space opera’ is occasionally used to denote this subgenera, as used for example by critic Sylvia Kelso when describing Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan Saga.’


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