I write science fiction. I’m pretty sure my sub-genre is (so far) space opera. I’m happy with that definition.
I grew up reading my dad’s Lensman books and the distinctive Gollancz yellow jacketed SF which (sadly) I only have a hazy memory of, probably because I was far too young to be galloping through that kind of stuff. I wasn’t aware, then, of any distinction between science fiction and space opera, and I’m still not so sure, now, so I thought I’d look it up. This is what I found.
Apparently the term, Space Opera, was coined back in 1941 as a pejorative in a fanzine article by Wilson Tucker. He defined it as ‘a hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’. The term was a play on ‘soap opera’ and ‘horse opera’. Indeed some critics likened space opera to cowboy stories set in space – a concept that began with EE Doc Smith’s Skylark books, which were first published in the 1930s. The cowboy in space came full circle in 2002 with Joss Whedon’s much-missed TV series, Firefly.
By the 1960s the term was regarded as less pejorative, and in 1975 the anthology ‘Space Opera’ edited by Brian Aldiss redefined it. Space opera became accepted as ‘the good old stuff.’ The Del-Reys challenged the term yet again, completely rejuvenating it when Del Rey books reissued titles as unashamed space opera.
Following on from Star Trek came the huge popularity of Star Wars and the transformation was complete. Space opera was no longer outmoded and hackish, but was (and still is) riding the crest of a wave in popular culture. By the early 1980s not only the cognoscenti, but the wider public understood the term, and by 1990 it became a legitimate subgenre of science fiction, no longer scorned. Amazon lists over 10,000 books in the Space Opera category featuring authors such as John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert A Heinlein, David Brin, EE Doc Smith, James A Corey, Frank Herbert, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Arthur C Clarke. There are still huge gaps in my reading. I read Heinlein and EE Doc Smith such a long time ago. I’ve read everything I can find by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I’ve recently been enjoying John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War sequence and his Interdependency books. I loved the Expanse on TV and I’ve made a start on the books, thoroughly enjoying Leviathan Wakes and looking forward to reading the rest of the series..
So what defines space opera? The accepted definition is an adventure story set (mostly) in outer space, but with the added expectation that it will be large in scope, plot and action, colourful and dramatic. Characters will be heroic and sympathetic and romance might be involved. It isn’t always hard science fiction in that it doesn’t always acknowledge the laws of physics and the nature of space as we understand it (though it can do). The galaxy – or even the universe – is no longer constrained by physics. Faster than light travel and wormholes abound, and space battles are often in evidence, so much so that military SF has become a popular sub-genre of space opera in itself.
I’m still finding my way around this fascinating genre. I think my Psi-Tech trilogy falls broadly into the space opera category, though your take may differ. What makes it space opera? Sympathetic characters, space ships, galaxy-spanning, gates through the void (not quite wormholes), space stations, space battles, peril, adventures and a touch of romance. Sounds like space opera to me.
What’s your take on Space Opera?