As David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer note in their 2006 anthology of space operas, "there is no general agreement as to what space opera is, which writers are the best examples, or even which works are space opera".(1) They further note that space opera has had several key and different definitions throughout its history; definitions that were significantly affected by literary politics.(1) They note that "what used to be science fantasy is now space opera, and what used to be space opera is entirely forgotten."(1)
The phrase "space opera" itself was coined in 1941 by fanwriter (and later author) Wilson Tucker, in a fanzine article,(2) as a pejorative term. At the time, serial radio dramas in the US had become popularly known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Tucker defined space opera as the SF equivalent: a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn".(3)
This usage of space opera as a term for the worst, "really bad" SF, remained in force till about the 1970s.(1) In other words, many works that are today classified as "space operas" would not have been called by that name originally.(1)
Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss' definition in Space Opera (1974) as (in the paraphrase Hartwell and Cramer) "the good old stuff".(1) Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey.(1) In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera.(1) By the early 1980s, space operas—adventure stories set in space—were again redefined, and the label was attached to major pop culture works such as Star Wars.(1) It was only in the early 1990s that the term space opera began to be recognized as a legitimate genre of science fiction.(1) Hartwell and Cramer define space opera as "colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, or on planets in faraway space.1 It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues and very large-scale action, with large stakes."(1)
Early works related to but preceding the genre contained many elements of what would become space opera. They are today referred to as proto-space opera.(4) The earliest proto-space opera was written by a few little-known mid-nineteenth century French authors, for example Star ou Psi de Cassiopée: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace (1854) by C. I. Defontenay and Lumen (1872) by Camille Flammarion. Not widely popular, proto-space operas were nevertheless occasionally written during the late Victorian and Edwardian science fiction era. Examples may be found in the works of Percy Greg, Garrett P. Serviss, George Griffith, and Robert Cromie.(5) One critic cites Robert William Cole's The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 as the first space opera.(6) The novel does depict an interstellar conflict between solar men of Earth and a fierce humanoid race headquartered on Sirius. However, the idea for the novel arises out of a nationalistic genre of fiction popular from 1880–1914, called future war fiction,(7) and many would therefore dispute its claim to be called the first space opera.
Despite this seemingly early beginning, it was not until the late 1920s that the space opera proper began to appear regularly in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories.(1)(4) Unlike earlier stories of space adventure, which either related the invasion of Earth by extraterrestrials, or concentrated on the invention of a space vehicle by a genius inventor, pure space opera simply took space travel for granted (usually by setting the story in the far future), skipped the preliminaries, and launched straight into tales of derring-do among the stars. The first stories of this type were Ray Cummings' Tarrano the Conqueror (1925), Edmond Hamilton's Across Space (1926) and Crashing Suns (in Weird Tales, August–September 1928), J. Schlossel's The Second Swarm (Spring 1928), in Amazing Stories Quarterly, and The Star Stealers (February 1929) in Weird Tales.4 Similar stories by other writers followed through 1929 and 1930. By 1931, the space opera was well-established as a major sub-genre of science fiction.
The author cited most often as the true father of the genre, however, is E. E. "Doc" Smith. His first published work, The Skylark of Space (August–October 1928, Amazing Stories) is often called the first great space opera.(4) It merges the traditional tale of a scientist inventing a space-drive with science fantasy or planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs.(1) Smith's later Lensman series and the works of Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell, and Jack Williamson in the 1930s and 1940s were popular with readers and much imitated by other writers. By the early 1940s, the repetitiousness and extravagance of some of these stories led to objections from some fans and the coining of the term in its original, pejorative sense.
Eventually, though, a fondness for the best examples of the genre led to a reevaluation of the term and a resurrection of some of the subgenre's traditions. Writers such as Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson had kept the large-scale space adventure form alive through the 1950s, followed by writers like M. John Harrison and C. J. Cherryh in the 1970s. By this time, "space opera" was for many readers no longer a term of insult but a simple description of a particular kind of science fiction adventure story.(1)
According to author Paul J. McAuley, a number of mostly British writers began to reinvent space opera in the 1970s(8) (although non-British critics tend to dispute the British claim to dominance in the new space opera arena1). Significant events in this process include the publication of M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device in 1975; a "call to arms" editorial by David Pringle and Colin Greenland in the Summer 1984 issue of Interzone;8 and the financial success of Star Wars, which closely follows many traditional space opera conventions.(1) This "new space opera", which evolved around the same time cyberpunk emerged and was influenced by it, is darker, moves away from the "triumph of mankind" template of space opera, involves newer technologies, and has stronger characterization than the space opera of old. While it does retain the interstellar scale and scope of traditional space opera, it can also be scientifically rigorous.
The new space opera was a reaction against the old. New space opera proponents claim that the genre centers on character development, fine writing, high literary standards, verisimilitude, and a moral exploration of contemporary social issues. McAuley and Michael Levy(9) identify Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, McAuley himself,8 Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton, and Justina Robson as the most notable practitioners of the new space opera.
Definitions by contrast
Some critics distinguish between space opera and planetary romance.(10) Where space opera grows out of both the Western and sea adventure traditions,the planetary romance grows out of the lost world or lost civilization tradition. Both feature adventures in exotic settings, but space opera emphasizes space travel, while planetary romances focus on alien worlds. In this view, the Martian, Venusian, and lunar-setting stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be planetary romances (and among the earliest), as would be Leigh Brackett's Burroughs-influenced Eric John Stark stories.
Space opera can also be contrasted with "hard science fiction", in which the emphasis is on the effects of technological progress and inventions, and where the settings are carefully worked out to obey the laws of physics, cosmology, mathematics, and biology. There is, however (according to some), no sharp division between hard science fiction and true space opera.
One subset of space opera overlaps with military science fiction, concentrating on large-scale space battles with futuristic weapons. In such stories, the military tone and weapon system technology may be taken very seriously. At one extreme, the genre is used to speculate about future wars involving space travel, or the effects of such a war on humans; at the other it consists of the use of military fiction plots with some superficial science fiction trappings. The term "military space opera" is occasionally used to denote this subgenera, as used for example by critic Sylvia Kelso when describing Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.(11)
Throughout years 1982-2002, and possibly throughout most of its history, the Hugo Award for best novel has commonly been awarded to space opera.(1)
Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe has as its protagonist a sober-headed science fiction magazine editor who suddenly finds himself transported to an alternative history timeline where all the Space opera clichés (a larger-than-life space hero fighting evil aliens who are totally bent on humanity's destruction, etc.) are concrete, daily life realities.
Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero parodies the conventions of classic space opera.12 The 1987 film Spaceballs, directed and co-written by Mel Brooks, is a Star Wars parody with many space opera characteristics. The American animated television series Futurama, created by Matt Groening, plays with the space opera genre from time to time, for example in the over-the-top military officer Zapp Brannigan.
- David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, The Space Opera Renaissance, Tor Books, ISBN 0765306174. Introduction, p.10-18
- Tucker, Bob (January 1941). "Depts of the Interior". Le Zombie 4 (1 (36)): 8. http://www.midamericon.org/tucker/lez36i.htm.
- Langford, David (2005). "74 Years of Space Opera". The Sex Column and Other Misprints (Wildside Press): 167–168.
- Dozois, Gardner amd Strahan, Jonathan, eds., The New Space Opera. Harper: NY, 2006. "Introduction" p.2
- See E. F. Bleiler, Science Fiction, the Early Years, Kent State University Press, 1990, pp. 147-48.
- See Everett Franklin Bleiler, Richard Bleiler, Science-fiction, the Early Years: A Full Description of More Than 3,000 Science-fiction Stories from Earliest Times to the Appearance of the Genre Magazines in 1930 : with Author, Title, and Motif Indexes, Kent State University Press, 1990, p. 147
- I.F. Clarke, Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900, Science Fiction Studies, #73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997
- See Paul J. McAuley, "Junkyard Universes," Locus, August 2003
- See Michael Levy, "Cyberpunk Versus the New Space Opera" in Voice of Youth Advocates Vol. 31, No. 2 (June 2008), p. 132-3
- SF Citations for OED, "Planetary romance"
- David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, The Space Opera Renaissance, Tor Books, ISBN 0765306174. Introduction, p.251
- Lilley, Ernest (August 2003). "Review". SFRevu. http://www.sfrevu.com/ISSUES/2003/0308/Space%20Opera%20Redefined/Review.htm. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
* David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, "How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera"
* Locus, August 2003: Special section on "The New Space Opera." Articles by Russell Letson & Gary K. Wolfe, Ken MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Gwyneth Jones, M. John Harrison, and Stephen Baxter. Interview with Alastair Reynolds. Interview with Charles Stross.
* Gary Westfahl's chapter on Space Opera in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
* Interview with M. John Harrison, Locus, December 2003. Harrison discusses his view of the nature of space opera in depth.