What is Space Opera? Guest blog by Jason LaPier
Back in the day, I was big into hard rock and metal – well, admittedly, I still am – but in my twenties, I played guitar in a couple of metal bands. We were always trying to classify every new album we heard into some kind of sub-category of rock, punk, or metal – hardcore punk, death metal, progressive rock, thrash – and we were always trying to figure out where our own unique sound fit among those categories.
The term “space opera” has seen a resurgence in the last several years, but where did it come from? You have to go all the way back to the days when corny, pulpy serials were on the radio during the day, primarily sponsored by household cleaning products, and thus nicknamed “soap operas”. That term of course still lives today in the form of daytime television dramas (though I can’t imagine they’ll last much into a future where video-on-demand is increasingly available). Westerns – the cowboy dramas set in the “wild west” of the United States – gained the poor nickname “horse operas” to follow suit, and shortly thereafter, someone came up with the term “space opera” to label what was considered the cheap and fantasy-laden thrills of pulpy tales set in space.
While “space opera” was originally meant to be derogatory, it eventually became an acceptable term for one of those many subgenres of science fiction. Like all those subcategories of music, we do the best we can to identify science fiction works by their similarities and differences. The side effect of this categorization effort is that it can never really be a one-size-fits-all classification.
So what is Space Opera by today’s standards? At its core, we’re talking about adventures that take place in space. On the spectrum of hard to soft sci-fi – that is to say, how much does physical science realism play a role versus political, social, psychological sciences – Space Opera runs the gamut. It can be plot-driven or character-driven, and often is a healthy mix of both. It can involve war, politics, and most of the time a great deal of adventure.
This means some mix of spaceships, space and exoplanetary exploration, interstellar travel, colonies, terraforming, pirates, smugglers, empires, rebellions, shootouts, zero-G hand-to-hand combat, alien life forms, artificial intelligences, mutations, psychic abilities, time dilation, and so on and so forth.
Sci-fi imaginations are unlimited. They expand out of our heads, our cities, our countries, and off of our planet. They stretch throughout the solar system and into other solar systems. They expand across the galaxy, maybe even the universe. They travel freely back and forth across time and sometimes even dimensions.
The classical hero’s journey is no stranger to Space Opera stories; just look to Luke Skywalker for the prime example: a call to action, an elderly mentor to train him, many trials, and so on. However, even more likely are variations to this journey, and as such Space Opera tales often feature characters flitting among the blurred lines of morality and antiheroes.
Charles Stross, author of (among other things) space opera’s such as Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood, put together a massive taxonomy of space opera clichés (link: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2016/03/towards-a-taxonomy-of-cliches-.html) a few months back. Stross is working on a new space opera series, for which he’s starting fresh with a new story universe, and he’s taking steps to remind himself what to avoid. As readers, our tolerance for some of the lazier tropes of sci-fi has waned over the years, and Stross is just the kind of author to take the genre to another level.
Aside: the author of this post is guilty of including unexplained faster-than-light travel in his space opera trilogy. Sometimes you drop certain details to make room for what’s really important to the plot and the characters.
Much like the musical genres that can’t resist a good blending of influences, Space Opera is ripe for mixing. Mystery, thriller, romance, and fantasy are great for mashing up, as well as more targeted interests such as military, political, alternative history, time travel, and even comedy. All this mixing and mashing makes the genre even harder to nail down to specifics. There are no rules when it comes to Space Opera – except for space.
So instead, I’ll give some examples! Most recognizable are the Space Opera television and film franchises. For my generation, the properties that defined Space Opera are Star Trek and Star Wars – and thanks to reboots and sequels, these classics transcend all generations. Other contributions include Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and more recently, The Expanse, to name a few.
For a healthy introduction to Space Opera novels, here’s a quick list – each of these books kicks off a series (a common characteristic of Space Opera books):
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Dune by Frank Herbert
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Of course, these days Space Opera is not limited to the screen and the novel – you’ll find it all over your local comic book shop (don’t miss Saga, one of the best additions to the genre) and in video games (such as the widely popular Mass Effect series).
It’s not easy to answer the question, “What is Space Opera?”, partly because of the term’s origins; no one who was writing this kind of sci-fi wanted to be called Space Opera when the term was coined. But it’s here today, and it’s not only accepted, it’s embraced. If you have to define it, then I think you can’t go wrong with the simple requirement that a Space Opera is a story where the conflict or adventure takes place in outer space. There are tropes a-plenty, but those don’t have to define the genre. One thing is for sure: the imaginations of creators and lovers of Space Operas are ever expanding.