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.
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.
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.
8. TV: Battlestar Galactica reboot
9. Anime: Legend of the Galactic Heroes
10. Anime: Heroic Age
Check in next time for a discussion of New Weird.