Space Opera: SF On a Grand Scale
March 19, 2012
By now, dear reader, you are likely aware that I am a science fiction obsessive. While I enjoy all types of SF, perhaps my favorite type of SF story is the space opera. No, we're not talking about Italians singing in outer space. Broadly defined, space opera is an epic SF adventure set in space. While remaining popular with the public at large, space opera has seen its star rise, fall, and rise again in the world of serious SF.
Edmond Hamilton and E.E. "Doc" Smith laid the foundations of Classic Space Opera in the 1920s and 1930s. During SF's Golden Age (roughly 1930-1960), Classic Space Opera became one of the most popular SF subgenres. However, success spawns imitators, often of low quality. By 1941, the term space opera was coined by critic Wilson Tucker to describe the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn" so prevalent in the pulps (the allusion being that space opera was to SF what soap operas were to drama and horse operas were to Western films.)
At this point, you are probably wondering, what constitutes Classic Space Opera? I can describe it in two words: Star Wars. The original Star Wars trilogy is basically a primer in Classic Space Opera: Plucky band of heroes? Check. Adventure? Check. Romance? Check. Epic scope? Check. Starships? Check. Space Battles? Check. Menacing force of powerful evil, preferably some sort of Empire? Check. Planet-busting weapons? Check. A lot of scientific handwaving? Check.
In the 1960s, the New Wave SF movement tried to drive a stake through the heart of Classic Space Opera, seeing in it everything they felt was wrong with SF (and by extension, society): American dominance, militarism, triumphalism, imperialism, and unquestioning faith in capitalism. In other words, pretty much the whole roster of counterculture baddies. But while the SF elite may have been looking down their noses at space opera during the 1960s and 1970s, the public at large never lost their taste for Classic Space Opera, as shown by the success of Star Trek and Star Wars.
The resurgence of hard SF in the US in the 1980s brought a more scientifically rigorous SF back into play, leading to such modern space operas as David Brin ’s Uplift Universe novels. Cyberpunk exploded onto the stage in the 1980s, bringing such concepts as posthumans, nanotechnology and the Singularity. Meanwhile, across the pond, British SF writers were crafting revisionist space operas informed by the New Wave project, perhaps the best known being Iain Banks' early Culture Universe novels. Thus was born the New Space Opera, in which the epic scale and adventure of Classic Space Opera has combined with the scientific rigor of hard SF; the political and stylistic concerns of the New Wave; and the ubiquitous computing, nanotechnology and Singularities of Cyberpunk. The result has become one of the most popular and vital subgenres in SF today.
If you're interested in the past and future of space opera, I highly recommend the following anthologies:
- The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by David G. Hartwell.
- The New Space Opera and the New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner R. Dozois and Jonathan Strahan.
To infinity and beyond,