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Space Opera

Entry updated 14 July 2023. Tagged: Theme.

A popular item of sf Terminology, echoing the practice (dating from the 1920s) of referring to Westerns as "horse operas", and more immediately the term "soap operas" (from 1938) for never-ending Radio series: when Radio was the principal medium of home entertainment in the USA, daytime serials intended for housewives were often sponsored by soap-powder companies, and hence the nickname. "Soap opera" was quickly generalized to refer to any corny domestic drama. The pattern was extended into sf nomenclature by Wilson Tucker, who in 1941 proposed "space opera" as the appropriate term for the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn". It soon came to be applied instead to colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict. Although the term still retains a faint pejorative implication, it is frequently used with nostalgic affection, applying to space-adventure stories which have a calculatedly romantic element. The description might be applied retrospectively to such early space adventures as Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (12 January-10 February 1898 New York Evening Journal as "The Conquest of Mars"; 1947) or Robert W Cole's The Struggle for Empire (1900), the former including perhaps the first space battle and the latter being a remarkable precursor of the interstellar war epic. But since "space opera" was coined as a complaint about Pulp Cliché, it seems reasonable to limit its use to Genre SF. An early practitioner to whose story the term can be more plausibly applied was Nictzin Dyalhis with "When the Green Star Waned" (April 1925 Weird Tales).

Five writers were principally involved in the development of space opera in the 1920s and 1930s. E E "Doc" Smith made his debut with the exuberant interstellar adventure The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946), and continued to write stories in a similar vein until the mid-1960s; two sequels, Skylark Three (August-October 1930 Amazing; 1948) and Skylark of Valeron (August 1934-February 1935 Astounding; 1949), escalated the scale of the action before the Lensman series took over, the Spaceships growing ever-larger and the Weapons more destructive until Galactic Empires were toppling like card-houses in Children of the Lens (November 1947-February 1948 Astounding; 1954). Once there was no greater scale of action to be employed, Smith had little more to offer, and his last novels – The Galaxy Primes (March-May 1959 Amazing; 1965) and Skylark DuQuesne (June-October 1965 If; 1966) – are hardly more than exercises in recapitulation. In the 1970s, however, a reissue of the Lensman series enjoyed such success with readers that Smith's banner was picked up by William B Ellern, David A Kyle and Stephen Goldin (see E E Smith for details). Contemporary with Smith's first interstellar epic was a series of stories written by Edmond Hamilton for Weird Tales, beginning with "Crashing Suns" (August-September 1928 Weird Tales) and ultimately collected as Crashing Suns (stories August 1928-November 1930 Weird Tales; coll 1965) and Outside the Universe (July-October 1929 Weird Tales; 1964). Although he was a more versatile writer than Smith, Hamilton took great delight in wrecking worlds and destroying suns, and his name was made with space opera (he too continued to write it until the 1960s), other early examples being "The Universe Wreckers" (May-July 1930 Amazing) and the Captain Future series. In the late 1940s Hamilton wrote The Star of Life (January 1947 Startling; 1959) and the memorable The Star Kings (September 1947 Amazing; 1949; vt Beyond the Moon 1950), an sf version of The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Anthony Hope. The last of Hamilton's works in this vein were Doomstar (1966) and the Starwolf trilogy (1967-1968). Even before Smith and Hamilton made their debuts, Ray Cummings was writing interplanetary novels for the general-fiction pulps and for Hugo Gernsback's Science and Invention. His principal space operas were Tarrano the Conqueror (July 1925-August 1926 Science and Invention; 1930), A Brand New World (22 September-27 October 1928 Argosy All-Story Weekly; 1964), Brigands of the Moon (March-June 1930 Astounding; 1931) and its sequel Wandl, the Invader (February-May 1932 Astounding; 1961), but his reputation was made by his microcosmic romances (see Great and Small), and it was to such adventures that he reverted when he turned to self-plagiarism in later years. The two most important writers who carried space opera forward in the wake of Smith and Hamilton were John W Campbell Jr and Jack Williamson. Campbell made his first impact with the novelettes collected in The Black Star Passes (coll of linked stories 1953), and he went on to write Galaxy-spanning adventures like Islands of Space (Spring 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1957), Invaders from the Infinite (Spring 1932 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1961) and The Mightiest Machine (December 1934-April 1935 Astounding; 1947). Campbell had a better command of scientific jargon than his contemporaries, and a slicker line in superscientific wizardry, but he began writing a different kind of sf as Don A Stuart and subsequently abandoned writing altogether when it clashed with his duties as editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Williamson flavoured space opera with a more ancient brand of romanticism, basing characters in The Legion of Space (April-September 1934 Astounding; rev 1947) on the Three Musketeers and Falstaff; although he soon moved on to more sophisticated varieties of exotic adventure, he never quite abandoned space opera: Bright New Universe (1967) and Lifeburst (1984) carry forward the tradition, and his collaborations with Frederik Pohl, such as The Singers of Time (1991), retain a deliberate but deft romanticism which places them among the best later examples of the species. Another notable space opera from the 1930s is Clifford D Simak's Cosmic Engineers (February-April 1939 Astounding; rev 1950).

During the 1940s some of the naive charm of space opera was lost as standards of writing rose and plots became somewhat more complicated, and the trend was towards a more vivid and lush romanticism. Notable examples are Judgment Night (August-September 1943 Astounding; title story of coll 1952; separate publication 1965) by C L Moore and several works by A E van Vogt, including The Mixed Men (stories September 1943-January 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; cut vt Mission to the Stars) and Earth's Last Fortress (March 1942 Astounding as "Recruiting Station"; vt as title story of Masters of Time coll 1950; 1960 dos). By this time the Galactic-Empire scenario was being used for other purposes, most effectively by Isaac Asimov in the Foundation series (stories May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; fixups 1951-1953); by the 1950s it had become a standardized framework available for use in entirely serious sf. Once this happened, the impression of vast scale so important to space opera was no longer the sole prerogative of straightforward adventure stories, and the day of the "classical" space opera was done. But Asimov, like many others, retained a deep affection for old-fashioned romanticism, deploying it conscientiously in The Stars Like Dust (1951). Many of the more "realistic" space adventures of the 1950s incorporate space-operatic flourishes, including James Blish's Earthman, Come Home (April 1950-November 1953 var mags; fixup 1955; cut 1958), which features space battles between star-travelling Cities – although the other novels in the Okie series have rather different priorities. The old-style space opera seemed rather juvenile by this time, but it remained an important component of the fiction published by the more downmarket pulps while they were still being published, especially Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. New life could still be breathed into it by the better writers associated with those magazines; prominent were Leigh Brackett, as in The Starmen (1952), and Jack Vance, as in The Space Pirate (1953; cut vt The Five Gold Bands 1963; text restored 1980). There were Digest magazines which specialized in exotic adventure stories, including space operas – notably Imagination and the second of the two US magazines entitled Science Fiction Adventures (which survived as a UK magazine for some years after its death in the USA) – but they did not long outlast the pulps. When it was abandoned by the magazines, space opera found a new home in the Ace Books Doubles edited by Donald A Wollheim (see also Dos). Robert Silverberg published a good deal of colourful material in this format, including the trilogy assembled as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth (fixup 1958) as by Calvin M Knox, while Kenneth Bulmer, John Brunner and E C Tubb became UK recruits to this largely US tradition, the last-named labouring to preserve it with his long-running Dumarest series.

Space-operatic romanticism is still widely evident, usually cleverly combined with other elements. Twentieth-century examples include Gordon R Dickson's long-running Dorsai series, Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry series, H Beam Piper's Space Viking (1963), Michael Moorcock's The Sundered Worlds (fixup 1965; vt The Blood Red Game), Ian Wallace's Croyd (1967) and Dr Orpheus (1968), Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968), Alan Dean Foster's The Tar-Aiym Krang (1972) and its sequels, Barrington J Bayley's Star Winds (1978), Philip José Farmer's The Unreasoning Mask (1981), S P Somtow's Light on the Sound (1982) and its sequels, F M Busby's Star Rebel (1984) and its sequels, Ben Bova's Privateers (1985), Mike Resnick's Santiago (1986), Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas (1987) and other Culture novels, Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty (1990), Stephen R Donaldson's Gap series, begun with The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990) – which transfigures Wagner's Ring Cycle of real operas – Simon R Green's light-hearted Deathstalker sequence beginning with Deathstalker (1995), and Linda Nagata's Vast (1998). The tradition continues in the present century with Alastair Reynolds's Inhibitors sequence opening with Revelation Space (2000), Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (2003), Neal Asher's Orbus (2009), further popular Culture novels by Iain M Banks such as Surface Detail (2010), Michael Cobley's Humanity's Fire sequence opening with Seeds of Earth (2009), Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch sequence beginning with Ancillary Justice (2013), and many more. A romantic, feelgood approach to space opera informs Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014).

The subgenre seems in no danger of losing its popularity, given the winning of Hugo awards by space operas like C J Cherryh's Downbelow Station (1981), David Brin's Startide Rising (1983), Lois McMaster Bujold's The Vor Game (1990), Barrayar (1991) and Mirror Dance (1994), Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (2013). Relevant Nebula winners include David Brin's Startide Rising again, Greg Bear's Moving Mars (1993) and Catherine Asaro's The Quantum Rose (2000).

The traditional crudities of space opera – generally abandoned by modern practitioners – are easily parodied by such comedies as Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965) and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973), M John Harrison's darkly sardonic The Centauri Device (1974) and Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker books, but the affection in which it is held defies total deflation – as evidenced by the later (though greatly inferior) Bill, the Galactic Hero series of Shared-World adventures. The television series Star Trek has given rise to a long-running series of spinoff novels, many of which are more space-operatic than the studio budget ever permitted the television scripts to be; the Star Wars franchise, also hugely productive of novelizations, established space opera as a major contender in late twentieth-century cinema.

An excellent theme anthology is Space Opera (anth 1974) edited by Brian W Aldiss; his Galactic Empires (anth 1976 2vols) is also relevant. Later assemblies from the huge number of space operas published over the years include Gardner Dozois's The Good Old Stuff: Adventure Sf in the Grand Tradition (anth 1998) and The Good New Stuff: Adventure Sf in the Grand Tradition (anth 1999), both assembled as The Good Stuff (omni 1999); Infinite Stars (anth 2017) edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a more recent survey. The New Space Opera (anth 2007) edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan is an Original Anthology containing material of interest.

Jack Vance borrowed the term for Space Opera (1965), but with tongue in cheek: the novel records the adventures of a literal spacefaring opera company. Catherynne M Valente comedy Space Opera (2018) also centres on Music as Valente recasts the sf trope of humanity applying for admission to galactic society, with the entrance challenge here being to win a vast spoof version of the Eurovision Song Contest. [BS/DRL]

see also: Fantastic Voyages; Homeworld; Mass Effect; Space Flight; Star Control; Starflight; Traveller.

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