What is this weird term?
Never heard of it?
What is space opera?
Wikipedia defines space opera as “a sub-genre of science fiction or science fantasy that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, and risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology.”
The space opera genre has no relationship to music. Unless, it is the on-the-nose use of music as a plot device like in Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. Most space opera stories are melodramatic and large. Large battles, large drama, large everything. There is a certain lack of subtleties in narrative, character, protagonist or language. It is part of the charm.
The genre, as a whole, has gone through a few growth spurts since its original creation. Author Wilson Tucker originally coined the phrase “space genre” as a pejorative term. Now most readers look on space opera with fondness born of it’s importance in culture. We have Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly to thank for that.
Breaking the genre apart you have genre subsets of classic Space Opera, Space Opera New Wave, 80’s Space Opera, British Space Opera, and 21st Century Space Opera. These can all be broken down into further sub-genres, but you get the point. What was once a singular pejorative definition has grown into a vast empire of ideas. But all of these ideas boil down to one thing, a duality of plot. The science fiction elements of the story are as important as the dramatic, comedic or western elements. You take all these pieces as a whole and combine them and you get a space opera. Unlike, for example a book I read recently “We are Legion. (We are Bob) by Dennis Taylor. This can be considered straight science fiction. Although there are dramatic, comedic, and even western elements in the story, the science fiction is always at the forefront and is the most important in terms of plot. For example:
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
“Andrew “Ender” Wiggin thinks he is playing computer simulated war games; he is, in fact, engaged in something far more desperate. The result of genetic experimentation, Ender may be the military genius Earth desperately needs in a war against an alien enemy seeking to destroy all human life. The only way to find out is to throw Ender into ever harsher training, to chip away and find the diamond inside, or destroy him utterly. Ender Wiggin is six years old when it begins. He will grow up fast.
But Ender is not the only result of the experiment. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. While Peter was too uncontrollably violent, Valentine very nearly lacks the capability for violence altogether. Neither was found suitable for the military’s purpose. But they are driven by their jealousy of Ender, and by their inbred drive for power. Peter seeks to control the political process, to become a ruler. Valentine’s abilities turn more toward the subtle control of the beliefs of commoner and elite alike, through powerfully convincing essays. Hiding their youth and identities behind the anonymity of the computer networks, these two begin working together to shape the destiny of Earth-an Earth that has no future at all if their brother Ender fails.”
Good stories, especially good science fiction are rarely any one thing. But if you take a story like Ender’s Game, written in 1985 by the Notorious Orson Scott Card. Remove the science fiction elements. Ender’s Game is just as much a drama as it is a science fiction.
Science and technology play a big part in how the narrative of Ender’s Game plays out. It happens mostly in space and contains quite a bit of melodrama. But, it is more than that. (1) Because Ender’s Game has to be more that that. Space Operas have to be more than that.
- Ender’s Game is both a space opera and drama.
If you took out the story beats from Ender’s Game about science and space, you would have a weird story. But, you would have a drama about a boys need to prove and understand himself while dealing with great odds. A flat out drama. Add in the very important space bits, and you have Ender’s Game. Before I go much further and to head off hate mail. I am not saying that the science fiction in Space Opera is icing on a proverbial cake. It is as essential as the drama, comedy or western found in it. My point is that in Space Opera you need two things; science fiction and something else to make it a Space Opera in equal distribution. Here is another one:
Cities in Flight by James Blish
“Originally published in four volumes nearly fifty years ago, Cities in Flight brings together the famed “Okie novels” of science fiction master James Blish. Named after the migrant workers of America’s Dust Bowl, these novels convey Blish’s “history of the future,” a brilliant and bleak look at a world where cities roam the Galaxy looking for work and a sustainable way of life.
In the first novel, They Shall Have Stars, man has thoroughly explored the Solar System, yet the dream of going even further seems to have died in all but one man. His battle to realize his dream results in two momentous discoveries anti-gravity and the secret of immortality. In A Life for the Stars, it is centuries later and anti-gravity generations have enabled whole cities to lift off the surface of the earth to become galactic wanderers. In Earthman, Come Home, the nomadic cities revert to barbarism and marauding rogue cities begin to pose a threat to all civilized worlds. In the final novel, The Triumph of Time, history repeats itself as the cities once again journey back in to space making a terrifying discovery which could destroy the entire Universe. A serious and haunting vision of our world and its limits, Cities in Flight marks the return to print of one of science fiction’s most inimitable writers.”
I am mentioning this story for two reasons. First Cities in Flight is one of my favorite stories. It is easy for me to wax extemporaneously about it. Second, it is considered to be the great grandpa of the space opera.
- Cities in Flight is science fiction novel and a western.
The science fiction vibes in this story are cities flying through outer space. Technology that allows you to live forever and alien creatures. But, Cities in Flight is based on the migrant experience from the 30’s. Okies traveling across the US looking for work. Whole communities picking up and moving trying to feed their families. It has as much flavor as a western as it does science fiction.
You are going to say, “Aren’t all stories more than one thing. They have comedy, drama, revenge etc.” That’s true. A good story of any ilk is a balanced thing. All detective work and no drama makes Sam Spade dull boy. Yet, space opera needs a great balance, a greater duality then other genres. It helps balance out the melodrama and make it more readable.
Lastly, let’s talk about Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester
In this pulse-quickening novel, Alfred Bester imagines a future in which people “jaunte” a thousand miles with a single thought, where the rich barricade themselves in labyrinths and protect themselves with radioactive hit men—and where an inarticulate outcast is the most valuable and dangerous man alive. The Stars My Destination is a classic of technological prophecy and timeless narrative enchantment by an acknowledged master of science fiction.
This is a fast paced book, fast and exciting. If you haven’t read this story. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is considered by many to be one of if not the greatest science fiction story every written. Originally Alfred Bester has said that he based the ideas of this story on a newspaper clipping he read about a sailor trapped on a life raft for 133 days. Boats would pass him by for fear that he was a lure for a submarine attack. Within that article took root the idea of Gully Foyle. Bester never did come out and say, but many people, myself included, think that the arc and beats of the plot are based on Count of Monte Christo. Take away the space suits and jaunting travel and you basically have Count of Monte Christo.
The Stars my Destination is a space opera and a drama.
The dramatic revenge story can stand on it’s own without the space setting. But the story is infinitely better when combined with both. Same goes for space opera in general, it is the great marriage of plot types that makes the genre so outstanding and interesting. It is why it is so beloved in the reading community because it speaks to so many people.
1 “Tag Archives: Dialogue in Science Fiction.” Scriptangel’s Blog, scriptangel.wordpress.com/tag/dialogue-in-science-fiction/.