Defining the genres: Space opera

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.

Good sources to look to for overviews of space opera include Hartwell and Cramer’s Space Opera Renaissance, and Dozois and Strahan’s The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2.

What’s your favorite space opera (book, movie, or whatever)?

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  1. My favorites (besides my own) are Firefly, Star Wars, Star Trek. πŸ™‚

  2. Mine would have to be David Webber’s Honor Harrington series. at last count he’s written 12 books, and a bunch more set in her universe.

  3. How cool is this, I have the Space Opera Renaissance on my to-be-read shelf! Great post, I really enjoy how you break it down. πŸ™‚

  4. My favorite would have to be The Fifth Element (I think that counts…). Hands down.


    • That’s great fun — Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, and Chris Tucker — what’s not to like? And the hovercars! Definitely a fun movie.

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