This is part of an ongoing series on the various subgenres within science fiction and fantasy. The rest of the series can be found here.
When I first heard the term “space opera”, I had visions of martians and space rangers singing in opera form on a stage. I was ignorant of this genre. A few people in my writing group talked very passionately about space operas and I had a hard time not laughing. However, in researching this series I was fascinated to find out what all is involved in this.
Space Opera is a subset genre positing a relatively optimistic future of grand technologies, space faring civilizations both Human and Alien and often a tumultuous relationship between them. Once considered a pejorative, it has slowly become an accepted term. (citation)
As with every subset of the science fiction genre, there are many arguments about what exactly, space opera is. The earliest most notable work is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s series Lensman and Skylark. Both of these series involved an almost “Old West” setting in outer space. These series involve grand universes, somewhat impossible technology, and impressive battles. The main difference between plain science fiction and space opera lies in the intent. Space opera is very melodramatic and over the top. Think soap operas set in space.
In my opinion, space opera seems like a marriage between fantasy and science fiction. For example, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dune are examples of space operas. But until I started researching for this post, I though all three of these stories mirrored fantasy as much as science fiction. I think this is a great example of how labels are not concrete, at least they shouldn’t be. I have heard people talk about Dune more as some kind of environmental fiction. (Hey maybe I’ll start a whole new punk subgenre- Green Punk).
A great example of this subgenre is a 2011 movie, Cowboys and Aliens. Set in 1873, a group of cowboys must fight against an alien invasion with only the technology available to them. Of course, the aliens are much more technically advanced, but the heroes of the movie find a way to triumphant over the bad guys. I actually liked this movie, but it may have more to do with the eye candy (hello Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford). As I watched it, I felt it was a parody and some kind of comical mashup of two types movie tropes. Now I see how perfectly this fits as a space opera.
So even though this genre doesn’t involve aliens singing in loud soprano or rich tenor voices, the drama and epic storytelling makes this a genre I enjoy and need to add more to my to-be-read shelf.