When I ran my genre poll a couple of weeks back, I got a request to address space opera. As this is easier than the other subgenres requested (splatterpunk, wuxia, and bizarro), I’m starting here. Oddly enough, I was recently trying to explain to my son what space opera is. First, however, I had to explain both operas and soap operas as concepts. I don’t think I’ll have to do that here.
Space opera, like horse opera for Westerns, started as a negative term. (See the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry on space opera for more history.) Many people still use it that way.
However, in many ways, space opera is the science fiction counterpart to epic fantasy. It often has large canvases, good vs. evil, galactic empires, and
magical weapons ray guns. Not always, of course, but the roots of space opera are in the pulps, and the tales are more about the big picture than about the science involved.
More modern space opera draws more heavily on science and on history — for example, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels or Kevin J. Anderson’s Seven Suns series. The Galactic Empire didn’t just appear out of nowhere; there are alliances and trade deals, betrayals and shifting allegiances. The characters have depth, and only people who disavow every genre but hard SF would sneer at the writing.
What’s your favorite space opera (book, movie, or whatever)?