Space Opera!

A long, long time ago… in a galaxy far, far away… [cue amazing, soul-electrifying fanfare]

It is a period of civil war.

Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil GALACTIC EMPIRE.

During the battle rebel spies managed to steal the secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the secret plans that can save her people and restore peace to the galaxy…

I think I must have been about ten years old when I first saw those words scroll across a television screen. Oh boy, was it awesome.

I’ve seen it countless times since, and it never stops giving me that thrilling feeling. I think if I saw it for the first time now, it would probably seem two-dimensional, silly, and maybe even a little absurd. And now that I’m older, even having permanent childhood warm fuzzies about the Millennium Falcon doesn’t prevent such ironic adult pastimes as the Skywalker Drinking Game1, snickering at Robot Chicken parodies, and smugly commenting how much Lucas seems to have clearly ripped off from Foundation and other sources.

There’s something to it though, right? Hidden bases, secret plans, sinister agents. An evil GALACTIC EMPIRE, destroying whole planets with something called a DEATH STAR. And a princess! Wow. So, after recently finishing a draft of fairly hard-sf and also circulating some short stories of Serious Literary Fiction, I think I want to have some fun. Not that the others aren’t fun, but space opera seems to almost explicitly require not taking itself too seriously, which I think will be a good change of pace.

But what is Space Opera anyway? I think we all have a gut feeling, but I wanted to know. So I did some internet puttering on space opera and what it entails from a literary perspective. I won’t rehash it or claim to have a definitive description, but you are welcome to read TV Tropes, Wikipedia, io9’s 10 Rules of Space Opera, and this Guardian review of Guardians of the Galaxy for starters and form your own opinion.

Here are the common-thread tropes I definitely want to keep:

  • Huge Scale. Nothing says awesome like Really Big Things. Like space empires spanning multiple star systems or even galaxies. Like space cities and artificial planets and billions upon billions of lives depending on the actions of a few.
  • Far Future. I want to know what could be possible if we tried. Forward and outward, not inward and backward.
  • Giant Space Battles. Maybe a subset of Huge Scale, but I think it deserves special attention. Do you know how many soldiers it would take in order to conquer and hold a an advanced, spacefaring, populated planet? You’d need an attack force of tens of millions of units. Tens of millions. And space is so freaking huge that… well I’ll stop there.
  • Awe-Inspiring Places. Blow me away with how mind-bogglingly beautiful and diverse is universe is and could be. Make me want to leave this rock right now and treasure it carefully in the same breath.
  • Romance. Not just romantic relationships and the tension thereof, but in the looser, D’Artagnan sense: intrigue, political machinations, secret societies, idealistic causes, honor, and legends.

And then there are the elements that I see missing from traditional space opera, and would love to include. For example, here is a quote from the Guardian review I linked above:

“After 9/11, alien invasion narratives such as Cloverfield imagined the US as the innocent victim of an irrational attack,” says Bould, the author of Routledge’s Science Fiction Guidebook. “And even if we can believe Spielberg’s claim that his War of the Worlds was intended to show Americans what ‘shock and awe’ felt like, it nonetheless also presents the US as innocent. Battle Los Angeles does much the same, while panicking about the Latinisation of California and working hard to reinstate white patriarchy as natural leadership. Cowboys and Aliens is even more bizarre in its racial fantasy of whites and native Americans teaming up to fight space aliens who have invaded their land.”


“I would see space opera as providing an opportunity to return to the kind of colonial adventure fantasies that underpin Star Wars,” says Bould, “but which might have seemed too insensitive during a period of more obvious US/western imperialism.”

Why not critique US imperialism and the still-lingering after-effects of European colonialism on the developing world? Why not bring more diverse perspectives2 into the venerable, well-loved subgenre3? Space Opera is perfect for magnifying the effects of large scale issues like that. Climate change, intersection of science and policy, energy security, and the prison industrial complex are similar such issues.

And, fair warning, I have to go a a little hard-SF on the spaceflight part. The aerospace engineer within me just can’t help it. Almost everything on this list annoys me unless there is some REALLY AWESOME reason to violate them. But don’t worry… there will still be massive fleets and giant space battles, I promise.

Interestingly, there is a movement to modernize the space opera into something more respectable from a literary perspective. Often dubbed the New Space Opera, with an anthology of the same name, it is summarized by Wikipedia thus:

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 older 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[12] identify Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, McAuley[11] himself, Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton and Justina Robson as the most notable practitioners of the new space opera.

Sounds right up my alley, though I’ll have to read more into it. I did read and thoroughly enjoy McAuley’s The Quiet War, though I don’t remember associating it with Space Opera at the time. Ah well, yet more items on the end of the reading list.


Show 3 footnotes

  1. Every time Luke whines about something, take a shot. Try it. It’s not even fair.  “But I was gonna go down to Tosche Station to pick up some pooowwwerrr converters!” Goddamn it Luke, we are TWENTY FIVE MINUTES into this trilogy…
  2. “Diverse” does not mean “minorities and women who also happen to write futures dominated by white, cis, hetero, American males because that’s more marketable.”
  3. And no, Lando “token black guy” Calrissian does not count as diversity. I suppose Leia is a pretty strong female co-lead character overall, but the whole metal bikini thing sort of kills any claim to moving beyond classic pulp space objectification.

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