What is space opera?

Here’s a thought: there’s no such thing as the new space opera. — Jonathan Strahan

Of all sf’s subgenres, “space opera” seems to attract the most definitional fervour. Everyone seems to have an intuitive sense of what the term means, and no two people seem to have the same intuitive sense — as demonstrated in the comment thread on Jonathan’s post, where Ellen Datlow says

I find the current use of the term “space opera” exceedingly annoying and confusing.

To me “space opera” was and always will be simple adventures in space.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, of course, have argued, in an essay and in their recent mammoth anthology, that most of the confusion comes from the fact that the meaning of the term has shifted.

Space opera used to be a pejorative locution designating not a subgenre or mode at all, but the worst form of formulaic hackwork: really bad SF.

[…]

Many readers and writers and nearly all media fans who entered sf after 1975 have never understood the origin of space opera as a pejorative and some may be surprised to learn of it. Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focussed on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action [this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms] and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone.

Not everyone accepts this historical account (notably Brian Stableford in his NYRSF review of The Space Opera Renaissance), but the idea of a “new space opera”, which probably started either with Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas (1987) or with Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1991) (and with M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device [1975] as an ancestral text), has gained enough currency for there to have been an issue of Locus that focused on the topic a couple of years ago. But among other things, this version of NSO seems to get conflated with the so-called “British Boom”.

In a second post, Jonathan asks for other peoples’ definitions of space opera. My own previous attempt at wrangling with some space operas, from a couple of years ago, can be found here, but it sort of sidesteps the question of definition. I like the definition that Jonathan quotes in the comments — “lovesongs to the way the future was” — since an awful lot of modern space opera does seem to have that sense that we can’t get there from here. But he also lists “[Alastair] Reynolds, [Iain M.] Banks and [Stephen] Baxter” as definite space-opera writers, and while I think the first two are probably fair associations (granting that both have also written non space-opera work), I’m not so sure about the third.

In fact, Exultant is the only Stephen Baxter novel I’d really call space opera. The majority of his output is something else. An awful lot of his books certainly take place in space — Timelike Infinity or Titan, for instance — or have a vast cosmological scope — The Time Ships, Time, Space. But he’s also written a lot of less expansive books, from Voyage and Coalescent to this year’s Emperor.

I think you could make a case for Ring as a space opera, but I don’t think I’d be convinced by it myself, and thinking about why leads me in the direction of a definition of space opera I’m more comfortable with. Ring deals with a group of last humans touring the far-future ruins of the galaxy. It probably qualifies, just about, as “epic space adventure”, although that implies a rather more upbeat tone than I remember the novel having.

But I wouldn’t call it space opera because of how the setting is handled. One of the thumbnail definitions of hard sf that’s sometimes used is that in a hard sf story, the universe is a character. Ring fits this definition: the nominal “bad guys” in the story are the enigmatic and extraordinarily powerful Xeelee, but they never come on-screen, and there’s every indication that they pay as much attention to humans as humans pay to ants. In fact, what the characters in Ring are struggling against is the cold infinity of the universe. You could say that there is a space opera story going on — the Xeelee have their own enemies, the photino birds — but we’re not a part of it.

Exultant, though set in the same sequence, is much more a space opera, to my mind. For starters, it has space battles. Lots of space battles. Space battles that have been going on for thousands of years on fronts hundreds of light-years across. There’s lots of gosh-wow physics, and some nods to how big and unfeeling the universe is, but the universe isn’t a character in Exultant: it’s a stage set. At heart Exultant is a human drama, in exactly the way that Ring isn’t. So space opera, we could say, cuts the universe down to size.

None of which, of course, tackles Jonathan’s original suggestion, that there’s no such thing as the new space opera. I’m not sure I buy that; at the very least I think that the post-Banks or post-Greenland British space opera is new, if only because, Harrison, Dan Dare, and Journey Into Space aside, I have real trouble thinking of British space opera written before about 1980. Suggestions are, of course, welcomed.

7 thoughts on “What is space opera?

  1. As the term itself came from Soap Opera via Horse Opera, the latter has always been the basis of my definition: cowboys in space, substituting spaceships for horses and wagons, ray guns (or phasers!) for six shooters, aliens for Indians and so on. I see no reason to change this view now, so I’m behind Ellen Datlow….

  2. Now, Niall, that’s not ALL of what I said. And it does change what I meant. What I said was that space opera was a continuously evolving form, from the proto-space opera of the 1890s through Doc Smith and on up to Banks and Reynolds. It’s also a form that is steeped in nostalgia for some readers and writers, so you get generations of retro space opera, pastiches of the good stuff from days gone by. And that, in turn, confuses people when they talk about it. They get caught up in these echoes of the good old stuff, and so suddenly you hear people (me included) talking about the ‘new space opera’, when it’s simply modern ‘space opera’ – the latest retooling.

    As to David, his book’s mostly nonsense. The argument in his intro and notes is very weak, and not supported by a pretty spotty set of stories. In fact, the problem with David’s argument, for me, is that is supports this idea that because Bob Tucker defined ‘space opera’ in one way, that definition could never change. Language evolves, meanings change, so be it. I mean Tucker expressly meant badly written and cliche ridden when he coined the term, but no one goes *there* when they respond to this.

  3. Susan:

    I see no reason to change this view now

    Well, here’s one: if you pick up most of the modern books being described as “space opera”, what you find won’t meet your expectations. (Alternatively, if you’re avoiding books described as “space opera” because you think they will meet your expectations, you’re going to miss out on some good books.)

    Jonathan:

    Sorry for misrepresenting you. I do think you make a good point, that there wasn’t really an interregnum when there was no space opera being written or published, so drawing a line in the sand and calling something “new” is somewhat arbitrary. At the same time, though — and sure, this may well be parochialism talking — it does look like something new happened *in Britain* at the end of the 80s/start of the 90s (as part of a more general reinvigoration of sf). Which in turn fed back into other markets, recombining with things that were going on there. If I recall correctly, a number of contributions to the Locus issue reflect that idea.

    I haven’t actually seen a copy of The Space Opera Renaissance myself, but I’m right there with you on the idea that meanings shift over time (see also, er, slipstream :-) . The trouble is getting everyone to agree what the meaning has shifted to

  4. Space Opera isn’t the same as SF set in space. It’s got the operatic quality to it. Huge forces massed for insane battles, the raging of Godlike entities as they carve swathes across the galaxy/universe/multiverse, a sense of scale and mankind’s work undiminished in it.

    The kind of thing that you could play Carmina Birana to and not feel out of place.

    Stephen Baxter, I would say, is not it. (Not that he’s not good, but when he works at that scale it’s to show how small we are, not to show how big we could be.)

    (Feel free to sprinkle IMHOs liberally above)

  5. British space opera before about 1980: By British authors, but perhaps mostly for the US market, there’s a fair amount of John Brunner’s work — novels and short stories.

    For the British market: New Worlds, under John Carnell’s editorship, had more than a bit of space opera.

  6. I stumbled onto your blog tonight and find it very interesting. As a writer of science fiction – I was curious about the definition of ‘space opera’ after one particular reviewer used it to describe my series. While, based on some of the ‘definitions’ I see… I might find offense. But, based on others… I will accept the compliment.

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