Better Know a Sub-Genre – Space Opera

In my introductory post, I wrote a lot about not only what genres of music and literature I like, but about what sub-genres I like within those genres. As the total wealth of human knowledge becomes immeasurably vast, we as humans have felt the need to sub-compartmentalize genres of fiction and music into smaller and smaller categories, until each one is so specific that it excludes 99.9% of the other stuff that’s out there.

I assume we do this to try and make ourselves feel cool and unique. Instead of being one of millions of people who read sci-fi, you become one of a few hundred people who are really into dying earth/planetary romances mixed with space westerns (I just made that amalgamation up by the way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had written something along those lines). Suddenly, your passion is a niche that you can lord over your friends, making you seem infinitely cooler than them.

Of course, the problem is that there are so many sub-genres out there now that you might easily be confused by all the nomenclature. What in the world is Bangsian fantasy? Or sword and planet fiction? You need an expert to figure it all out for you.

Well, I’m your expert. Sort of, anyway. At the very least, I know how to use a search engine well enough to fake it.

First up: Space Opera!

Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction that emphasizes BIG conflicts and BIG adventures set in outer space, often in the far future, and usually between opponents that possess advanced technologies and powers. In addition, space operas often contain:

–       A focus on a singular, sympathetic main character

–       Elements of romance

–       Elements of mysticism and mythology (as opposed to hard technology)

–       Elements of heroism

–       An emphasis on drama (or even melodrama)

–       Plot elements of war and battle

–       An optimistic outlook and/or happy ending

The term ‘space opera’ was first coined in the 1940’s by a fanwriter by the name of Wilson Tucker as an insult towards stories that he described as “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The stories that he referred to first started showing up in the 20’s and 30’s following Hubble’s discoveries that hinted at the immeasurable vastness of our universe, which spurred fiction writers to start thinking beyond the confines of our own solar system. In fact, the first great space opera is sometimes accredited to E. E. “Doc” Smith, whose The Skylark of Space first appeared in the August 1928 edition of the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories.

Amazing Stories Aug1928By the early 40’s, the stories had become so repetitious and hackneyed that fans, such as Tucker, lumped them into a ‘space opera’ category to be summarily ignored. Of course, the type of story did not die, as writers like Poul Anderson and C. J. Cherryh continued to write them throughout the late 70’s. By this point, the term ‘space opera’ had grown beyond being a mere slushy insult and blossomed into its own genre.

Then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, space opera underwent a mini resurgence, not in literature, but in film, thanks to the release of Star Wars, which would go on to become one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.

Star Wars closely follows John Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, which is something that I’ll go into at a later date. For now though, consider some of Star Wars’ thematic elements:

–       A focus on a sympathetic main character (Luke). ✓

–       Elements of romance (the Luke/Leia/Han Solo love triangle). ✓

–       Elements of mysticism (the Force). ✓

–       Elements of heroism (throughout). ✓

–       An emphasis on drama/melodrama (Luke. I am your father. … NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!). ✓

–       Plot elements of war and battle (the entire struggle between the Rebels and the Empire). ✓

–       A happy ending (the Rebels win). ✓

Star Wars is prototypical space opera, and its success launched a parade of other reasonably successful space opera films over the next few decades. Though space opera literature has perhaps never experienced quite the same popularity as it did in it’s very early days, it continues to have a solid following, and in my opinion, is poised for another resurgence.

Some notable space operas, other than those already mentioned, include:

–       The Buck Rodgers stories, first written by Philip Francis Nowlan

–       The Flash Gordon universe of fiction

–       Select novels from Iain M. Banks’ Culture series

–       The movie The Fifth Element (which amusingly enough features a scene with a real opera in space – well, on another planet really)

–       The Mass Effect series of video games

For those fantasy readers out there, I tend to think of space opera as the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy. Both deal with big, epic stories, both focus around a powerful, sympathetic hero character, both often feature battles between forces depicted as good and evil, and both emphasize magic/mysticism over realism. If you like one, chances are you’ll like the other as well.

So, what do you all think? What are some of your favorite space opera stories? What important contributions did I miss? Duke it out in the comments.

Image credits: Featured image by Andre35822 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Post image by Frank R. Paul [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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