Towards space opera…

I want to build up my own notes on space opera, which I have been thinking about. At the moment I don’t have a definition for it, but I do have some basic conditions for a work to be considered space opera. These are that:

  • we are in space – the action must take place primarily off-world (i.e. in space, on a spaceship, on a space station);
  • we are not alone – when our heroes step into space they find a galaxy that is teeming with life, that is populated by large and varied cultures  (these may be made of many species or could just be human);
  • we are in grave peril – everything takes places on a grand scale and there is a large amount of drama involved (ie the universe is at stake or similar); and
  • we need to do something – the protagonist in our story acts to change things, save the universe etc, and does so knowingly.

I am still convincing myself that these are the prerequisites for space opera, but I think they’re close. Space opera stories are space adventures that involve the highest stakes, both on a personal and on a broader level.

What do I consider to be a space opera?  Well,  E. E. “Doc” Smith and his Lensman, half of what A. E. van Vogt wrote, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta novels, C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur books, and some of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels.

What do I think are not space operas? This is almost so broad as to be meaningless, but Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, most of Heinlein,  Dune, and a lot more.

2 thoughts on “Towards space opera…”

  1. At some point in the last decade or so there has been so much definitional creep around the term “space opera” that I’m not sure it has much use now, or can ever be successfully reclaimed. A case in point would be Tade Thompson’s excellent “Far from the light of heaven” which was both marketed as, and reviewed as, space opera, when it is clearly nothing of the sort.

    I agree with your preconditions but I would include Dune as an edge case because of the larger background universe, even if the bulk of the book takes place on Arrakis.

    Al R

  2. I do think there’s a lot of definitional creep, and that ‘space adventure’ or ‘space setting’ even seems to sometimes be called space opera, when it is different. That said, I do think there’s value in it. The space adventure and the space opera are at the heart of SF and they change. Tracking those changes is interesting and worthwhile.

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