An Anatomy of Space Operas

Space operas are arguably the quintessential form of science fiction. With stories that feature alien species, artificial intelligence, advanced technology, and large-scale wars, space operas are in fact what most people think of when they hear the words ‘science fiction’.

Growing out of the Western fiction and sea adventure narrative traditions, space operas have always been adventure tales that focus on the voyage to and exploration of new worlds. They explore issues of war, peace, and diplomacy within and between factious empires bent on colonizing the universe. They also often examine larger nationalistic and imperialistic concerns, such as the foundation, preservation, and destruction of empires. Stories within this genre often have a sense of largeness or grandiosity—there are huge casts of characters, wars on unimaginable scales, and beautiful settings that evoke awe and terror.

These stories often contain time machines, wormholes, teleportation, and faster-than-light travel; parallel and pocket universes; and cryogenics and cloning. They focus on societies where highly advanced technology is ubiquitous and merely provides the background to the story.

Space opera stories first began to appear in the 1920s in Amazing Stories and other science fiction magazines. Though they were originally well-received in general, by the 1940s they had lost their appeal, and were seen as banal, unimaginative stories bereft of any literary or scientific merit.

The term ‘space opera’ was coined in 1941 by the writer and critic Wilson Tucker, in reference to the ‘horse opera’ genre of bad Westerns, as well as to the ‘soap opera’ genre of histrionic radio and television shows that were sponsored by soap and detergent companies.

Tucker used the term as a pejorative to describe cliché-ridden, derivative pulp. Many science fiction writers tried to disassociate themselves and their work from the space opera genre because they were embarrassed by its melodrama and loose scientific reasoning. At the time, there was a strong sentiment within the science fiction community that science fiction should be painstakingly accurate in its engagement with scientific fact, and that writers should only extrapolate on current scientific theories using rigorous logic. Most writers of space operas, however, gleefully departed from this tenet and abandoned logic in favour of constructing emotional plots with high-stakes.

Tucker famously defined space operas as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn” with a focus on “world-saving”. Though perhaps unnecessarily critical, Tucker’s definition does offer a useful starting point for understanding the conventions of this genre.

Most significantly, space operas deal with space-ships—this is where the influence from nautical fiction and sea adventure stories comes in. Space operas often involve long and tortuous journeys through uncharted parts of the universe, and often much of the story takes place within the confines of the space ship. Traveling through space also allows stories to incorporate concerns with diplomacy and territory, and the arrival at harbours allows for the introduction of issues of commerce and trade.

The word ‘yarn’ emphasizes that this genre is made up of adventure tales; the stories are exciting and filled with conflict that moves the plot forward. Space opera stories almost universally focus on ‘world-saving’, with epic battles between heroic individuals and irredeemable villains bent on the destruction of planets or the enslavement or genocide of various species.

Most of Tucker’s distaste for space operas is directed towards the genre’s repetitiveness and formulaic plots, which he believes bars high literary achievement. Because of the unimaginable vastness of space, popular space operas could go on ad infinitum by expanding the known universe in which the story takes place. There could always be another planet to explore, another black hole or supernova to evade, or another war or disaster to prevent. Although one might think that the never-ending frontiers of space would provide limitless inspiration for stories, many writers of space operas would simply stick to the tropes of Westerns and sea adventure fiction. Perhaps the overwhelming potentiality of space was simply too daunting to fathom, and in the face the unknown writers retreated to the familiar. Regardless, this perpetuation of tropes was seen as indicative of an arrested imagination.

By the 1970s, the negative cultural connotations associated with the term ‘space opera’ had been shed, and it was seen as simply a descriptive term for the subgenre. Despite concerns over its artistic merit, space operas have always held a position of prominence in speculative fiction and continue to have a strong hold over our cultural consciousness.

Perhaps the most iconic space operas are Star Wars and Star Trek, but there are many other ground-breaking examples of this genre. Lois McMaster Bujold’s military space opera The Vorkosigan Saga and the satirical space opera The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy show just how much diversity is possible even in a supposedly trite genre. Dan Simmons’s Hyperion series is often classified as an example of a postmodern space opera. And space operas continue to be popular around the world. In Japan, the anime franchise Gundam has spawned dozens of shows, novels, and video games.

With Ann Leckie’s phenomenal Imperial Radch Trilogy, space operas have once again become popular. The first novel of her trilogy, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BFSA, and Locus awards for best novel. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leckie’s trilogy is her exploration of gender. All characters in the Imperial Radch Trilogy are referred to using feminine (she/her/hers) pronouns, regardless of gender.

Leckie’s success will only make more readers interested in reading space operas and more publishers interested in publishing it. And if nothing else, her success shows that the space opera genre has not yet been exhausted of all possibilities—there’s still a lot left to explore out there.

In honour of one the most important subgenres of speculative fiction, over the next few weeks The Spectatorial will be publishing a series of articles that explore some of our writers’ favourite space operas. Fasten your seatbelts; we’ll be going at warp speed.

-Alex De Pompa, Editor in Chief

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