Space opera

Space opera

[op-er-uh, op-ruh]

Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction or science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing powerful (and sometimes quite fanciful) technologies and abilities. Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale.

History of space opera

In 1941, science fiction fan Bob Tucker (who would later become writer Wilson Tucker) coined the term "space opera" (by analogy to "horse opera" and "soap opera") to describe what he characterized as "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving [story] for that matter. "Space opera" is sometimes used in this negative sense, but it can also be used to describe a particular science fiction genre, without any value judgment.

Space opera in its most familiar form was a product of 1930s-40s pulp magazines. Like early science fiction in general, space opera borrowed extensively from established adventure, crime, and thriller genres. Notable influences included stories that described adventures on exotic or uncivilized frontiers, e.g. the American West, Africa, or the Orient. The imagined future of space opera included immense space liners, intrepid explorers of unknown worlds, pirates of the spaceways, and tough but incorruptible space police.

Elements of space opera can be found in late Victorian and Edwardian science fiction, for example, in the works of Percy Greg, Garrett P. Serviss, George Griffith, and especially in Robert W. Cole's The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236. Also in France there were authors who wrote stories related to the genre, such as Star ou Psi de Cassiopée: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace (1854) by C. I. Defontenay and Lumen (1872) by Camille Flammarion. But it was not until the 1920s that the space opera proper appeared in the pulp magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. 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.

The first stories of this type were J. Schlossel's The Second Swarm (Spring 1928) in Amazing Stories Quarterly and Edmond Hamilton's Crashing Suns (August-September 1928) and The Star Stealers (February 1929) in Weird Tales. Similar stories by other writers followed through 1929 and 1930; by 1931 the space opera was well-established as a dominant sub-genre of science fiction.

The transition from the older space-voyage story to the space opera can be seen in the works of E. E. Smith. His first published work, The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928, Amazing Stories), merges the traditional tale of a scientist inventing a space-drive with planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs; but by the time of the sequel, Skylark Three (August-October 1930, Amazing Stories) which introduces the spacefaring race of the Fenachrone, Smith had moved closer to a space opera mode.

E. E. Smith's later Lensman series and the works of Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell, and Jack Williamson 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 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 (to name only a few examples) 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.

According to author Paul J. McAuley, 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; a "call to arms" editorial by David Pringle and Colin Greenland in 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 "triumph 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. McCauley and Michael Levy identify Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, himself, Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton, and Justina Robson as the most notable practitioners of the new space opera.

A more recent movement of American space opera writers, many writing for the Baen books imprint, developed during the 1990s and 2000s. This branch of space opera follows more military themes than the British branch and usually features tales of war on an interstellar scale. It is a matter of some controversy whether to classify this movement as space opera, a still pejorative term in many circles, or to classify it under another subgenre name, military science fiction. This new wave of authors includes David Drake, Lois McMaster Bujold, Eric Flint, Elizabeth Moon, S.M. Stirling, John Ringo and David Weber. Other older, more established writers such as James H. Schmitz, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, among others, produced space opera (or military science fiction) some years ago and were often reprinted by Baen during this same period as part of an effort by the publisher to reestablish the market for this more military-themed space opera.{{Fact|date=July 2008} Random House's Del Rey division, which had never totally gone out of the space opera business, also increased their output of space opera books during the 1990s and 2000s, including their own versions of military space opera. Stories such as David Sherman and Dan Cragg's StarFist series became increasingly common.

Definitions by contrast

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-, Venusian-, and lunar-setting stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be planetary romances (and among the earliest), as would be Leigh Brackett's Burroughs-influenced Eric John Stark stories. Other writers who have produced planetary romances include Jack Vance (including the Tschai tetralogy and Durdane trilogy).

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 (example: Honor Harrington series by David Weber). 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.


Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe has as its protagonist a sober-headed science fiction magazine editor who suddenly finds himself transported to an alternate history timeline where all the Space opera clichés (a larger-than-life space hero fighting evil aliens who are totally bent on humanity's destruction, etc.) are concrete, daily life realities.

Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy parody the conventions of classic space opera. The 1987 film Spaceballs, directed and co-written by Mel Brooks, is a Star Wars parody with many space opera characteristics. The American animated television series Futurama, created by Matt Groening, plays with the space opera genre from time to time, for example in the over-the-top military officer Zapp Brannigan. Stephen Colbert, in his character as host of the Colbert Report, is the author of a so-called "un-published and shopping it around to publishers" epic novel called Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure. He occasionally reads excerpts from the novel, and later aired several animated shorts based on them, and it then was spun off to a comic book series by Oni Press.



Novels & Series

Anthologies & Collections

Short Fiction

Film and television


  • Space Opera (Opera)
  • Opera Galactica (Opera)

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