Subgenre of the Week: Space Opera

20 Jul

Sub-genre of the Week: Space Opera

Last time, I discussed Urban Fantasy. Space Opera is one of my favorite genres of speculative fiction.  It’s got a long history, and a diversity of definitions.  It’s been evolving over time, and has always been popular, but some of my favorite space opera has come out only in the last decade or so, and I think its the best version of space opera yet.  So what version is it?


Space Opera is a sub-genre of speculative fiction and science fiction whose major defining characteristic is probably scale and which incorporates a vast majority of the tropes that preclude the label of “hard science fiction”.


The term “space opera” was coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker to described as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn”.  Basically, soap operas or Westerns in space.  It stayed this way until the 70s, at which point several authors began to reclaim the term to describe a sub-genre of science fiction involving the above definition.  Nowadays, it’s not longer a pejorative term for bad SF.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Space opera as it exists now has several common tropes and conventions that can be used to identify it.  First, it commonly involves FTL travel, a la Star Trek’s warp drive, hyper space, jump drives, wormholes, etc.  Also common are universal translators.  For example Hitchhiker’s BabelFish.  There is also the scope, as mentioned above.  Space Opera is kind of like the Epic Fantasy of the SF world, so much so that it’s often claimed to be a fantasy sub-genre due to lack of scientific rigor and focus on galaxy-wide politics and quest story-lines.

Genre Crossover

Space opera often overlaps with military SF, planetary romance, and science fantasy.  For example, Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe features the “Silfen”, an obvious elf analogue and an argument in favor of the science fantasy/epic fantasy overlap.  Space opera alos often includes large space battle scenes as in military SF such as the Honor Harrington novels, and although military personnel are often frequent characters, the scope of Space Opera is much wider than one ship or fleet, or the concerns of one military character.  There are occsionally digression in Space Opera where a character will go slumming in a low-tech environment, given the appearance of a planetary romance, but these scenes are limited and in contrast to the rest of the story.


Space opera is common in television, the movies, anime, and manga.  It lends itself well to visual adaptions and the screen.  Star Wars, one the most iconic space opera stories was of course originally a movie.  Battlestar Galactica, a prime example of the New Guard of space opera is a television show–one who’s original iteration was much more in line with the old definition of space opera.  The television show, Flash Gordon, is considered one of the most iconic space opera’s of all time.  As was Buck Rogers.  Anime and Manga such as Tytania and Bodacious Space Pirates are space opera as well, often harkening back o older tropes.  And Heroic Age might be one of the most Space Opera anime of all time, featuring interplanetary war, faster-than-light alternate universes, and a division of races based on mythology.

And of course there are many books of space opera, including Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth series, Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels, and several novels by Charles Stross, for the new guard, and Lensman, Cherryh’s Alliance-Union noves, and the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Future Forecast

Space Opera has been doing well as a genre for a long time, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to do so.  If you look at the recommendations below, you’ll find several popular/best-selling series written of released in the past five or ten years.  Further, in my personal anecdotal experience, many, many writers and aspiring writers are working on space opera novels or series.


1.  The Culture series by Iain M. Banks

2. Zones of Thought series by Vernor Vinge

3. The Commonwealth Saga by Peter F. Hamilton

4. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

5. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

6. The Eschaton series by Charlie Stross

7. The Uplift series by David Brin

8. TV: Battlestar Galactica reboot

9. Anime: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

10. Anime: Heroic Age

Goodreads list of Space Opera

Check in next time for a discussion of New Weird.


Posted by on July 20, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week


Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 responses to “Subgenre of the Week: Space Opera

  1. Sarah Weaver

    December 10, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    As strange as it sounds, I always thought space opera could be plausible, just because it seems at some point a spaceship will crash on a mideival planet. I’m leery about it.:/

    I don’t dislike space opera. I love Star Ocean. I’ve jusr sort of lost my taste, because Star Trek seems a bit … happy? Maybe part of it was from a run in with a real life cult inspired by Star Trek, if the leader were Fred Phelps.

    All that to say, I want Star Ocean trending.:p

    • Sarah Weaver

      December 10, 2013 at 7:53 AM

      That came off differently than how I meant. I just mean there is good space opera.


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