Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, and risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms "soap opera" and "horse opera", the latter of which was coined during the 1930s to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, television and video games.
An early film which was based on space opera comic strips was Flash Gordon (1936) created by Alex Raymond. In the late 1970s, the Star Wars franchise (1977–present) created by George Lucas brought a great deal of attention to the subgenre. After the convention-breaking "New Wave", followed by the enormous success of the Star Wars films, space opera became once again a critically acceptable subgenre. Throughout 1982–2002, the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel was often given to a space opera nominee.
Space opera is defined as an adventure science-fiction story.
The term "space opera" was coined in 1941 by fan writer and author Wilson Tucker as a pejorative term in an article in issue 36 of Le Zombie, a science fiction fanzine. At the time, serial radio dramas in the United States had become popularly known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. The term "horse opera" had also come into use to describe formulaic Western films. Tucker defined space opera as the science fiction equivalent: a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn". Fans and critics have noted that the plots of space operas have sometimes been taken from horse operas and simply translated into an outer space environment, as famously parodied on the back cover of the first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the stories were printed in science-fiction magazines, the stories were often referred to as "super-science epics".
Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss' definition in Space Opera (1974) as – as paraphrased by Hartwell and Cramer – "the good old stuff".:10–18 Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey.:10–18 In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera.:10–18 By the early 1980s, space operas were again redefined, and the label was attached to major popular culture works such as Star Wars.:10–18 Only in the early 1990s did the term space opera began to be recognized as a legitimate genre of science fiction.:10–18 Hartwell and Cramer define space opera as:
... colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.:10–18
Early works which preceded the subgenre contained many elements of what would become space opera. They are today referred to as proto-space opera. Early proto-space opera was written by several 19th century French authors, for example, Les Posthumes (1802) by Nicolas-Edme Rétif, Star ou Psi de Cassiopée: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace (1854) by C. I. Defontenay and Lumen (1872) by Camille Flammarion. Not widely popular, proto-space operas were nevertheless occasionally written during the late Victorian and Edwardian science-fiction era. Examples may be found in the works of Percy Greg, Garrett P. Serviss, George Griffith, and Robert Cromie.:147–148 One critic cites Robert William Cole's The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 as the first space opera.:147 The novel depicts an interstellar conflict between solar men of Earth and a fierce humanoid race headquartered on Sirius. However, the idea for the novel arises out of a nationalistic genre of fiction popular from 1880 to 1914 called future-war fiction.
Despite this seemingly early beginning, it was not until the late 1920s that the space opera proper began to appear regularly in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories.:10–18 In film, the genre probably began with the 1918 Danish film, Himmelskibet. Unlike earlier stories of space adventure, which either related the invasion of Earth by extraterrestrials, or concentrated on the invention of a space vehicle by a genius inventor, pure space opera simply took space travel for granted (usually by setting the story in the far future), skipped the preliminaries, and launched straight into tales of derring-do among the stars. Early stories of this type include J. Schlossel's "Invaders from Outside" (Weird Tales, January 1925), The Second Swarm (Amazing Stories Quarterly, spring 1928) and The Star Stealers (Weird Tales, February 1929), Ray Cummings' Tarrano the Conqueror (1925), and Edmond Hamilton's Across Space (1926) and Crashing Suns (Weird Tales, August–September 1928). Similar stories by other writers followed through 1929 and 1930. By 1931, the space opera was well established as a major subgenre of science fiction.
However, the author cited most often as the true father of the genre is E. E. "Doc" Smith. His first published work, The Skylark of Space (Amazing Stories, August–October 1928), written in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garby, is often called the first great space opera. It merges the traditional tale of a scientist inventing a space-drive with planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs.:10–18 Smith's later Lensman series and the works of Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell, and Jack Williamson in the 1930s and 1940s were popular with readers and much imitated by other writers. By the early 1940s, the repetitiousness and extravagance of some of these stories led to objections from some fans and the return of the term in its original and pejorative sense.
Eventually, though, a fondness for the best examples of the genre led to a re-evaluation of the term and a resurrection of the subgenre's traditions. Writers such as Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson had kept the large-scale space adventure form alive through the 1950s, followed by writers like M. John Harrison and C. J. Cherryh in the 1970s. By this time, "space opera" was for many readers no longer a term of insult but a simple description of a particular kind of science fiction adventure story.:10–18
According to author Paul J. McAuley, a number of mostly British writers began to reinvent space opera in the 1970s (although most non-British critics tend to dispute the British claim to dominance in the new space opera arena).:10–18 Significant events in this process include the publication of M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device in 1975 and a "call to arms" editorial by David Pringle and Colin Greenland in the Summer 1984 issue of Interzone; and the financial success of Star Wars, which follows some traditional space opera conventions.:10–18 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 identify Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Alastair Reynolds, McAuley himself, Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton, Ann Leckie, and Justina Robson as the most-notable practitioners of the new space opera. One of the most notable publishers Baen Books specialises in space opera and military science fiction, publishing many of the aforementioned authors, who have won Hugo Awards.
Space operas and planetary romances feature adventures in exotic, mostly extra-terrestrial settings.
Some critics distinguish between space opera and planetary romance. Both feature adventures in exotic settings, but space opera emphasizes space travel, while planetary romances focus on alien worlds. In this view, the Martian, Venusian, and lunar-setting stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be planetary romances (and among the earliest), as would be Leigh Brackett's Burroughs-influenced Eric John Stark stories.
Space opera can be contrasted with "hard science fiction", in which the emphasis is on the effects of technological progress and inventions, and where the settings are carefully worked out to obey the laws of physics, cosmology, mathematics, and biology. Examples are seen in the works of Alastair Reynolds or the movie The Last Starfighter. At other times, space opera can concur with hard science fiction and differ from soft science fiction by instead focusing on scientific accuracy such as The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld. Other space opera works may be defined as a balance between both or simultaneously hard and soft science fiction such as the Dune prequel series by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert or the Star Wars series created by George Lucas.
Several subsets of space opera overlap with military science fiction, concentrating on large-scale space battles with futuristic weapons. In such stories, the military tone and weapon system technology may be taken very seriously. At one extreme, the genre is used to speculate about future wars involving space travel, or the effects of such a war on humans; at the other, it consists of the use of military fiction plots with superficial science-fiction trappings. The term "military space opera" is occasionally used to denote this subgenre, as used for example by critic Sylvia Kelso when describing Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.:251 The key distinction of space opera from military science fiction is that the principal characters in a space opera are not military personnel, but civilians or paramilitary. Military science fiction also does not necessarily always include an outer space or multi-planetary setting like space opera.
Space opera parodies are often themselves examples of space opera.
Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe has as its protagonist a sober-headed science fiction magazine editor who suddenly finds himself transported to an alternative history timeline where all the space opera elements (a larger-than-life space hero fighting evil aliens who are totally bent on humanity's destruction, etc.) are concrete, daily life realities.
Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero parodies the conventions of classic space opera, as does his Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, and his short story, Space Rats of the CCC - the Combat Camel Corps.
The comedy film Spaceballs, directed and co-written by Mel Brooks, is a science fiction parody with many space opera characteristics. The anime Space Dandy by Studio Bones often parodies other science fiction works and the space opera subgenre.
Ancillary Justice is a science fiction novel by the American writer Ann Leckie, published in 2013. It is Leckie's debut novel and the first in her Imperial Radch space opera trilogy, followed by Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The novel follows Breq, the sole survivor of a starship destroyed by treachery, and the vessel of that ship's artificial consciousness, as she seeks revenge against the ruler of her civilization. The cover art is by John Harris.
Ancillary Justice received critical praise; won the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards; and was nominated for several other science fiction awards.
Another novel, Provenance (2017), and two short stories, "Night's Slow Poison" and "She Commands Me and I Obey", are set in the same fictional universe.Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game
The Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game is a role-playing game published by Mongoose Publishing in 2003.Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas, first published in 1987, is a space opera novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks. Written after a 1984 draft, it is the first to feature the Culture.
The novel revolves around the Idiran–Culture War, and Banks plays on that theme by presenting various microcosms of that conflict. Its protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is an enemy of the Culture.
Consider Phlebas is Banks's first published science fiction novel and takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. A subsequent Culture novel, Look to Windward (2000), whose title comes from the previous line of the same poem, can be considered a loose follow-up.Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending is a 2015 space opera film written, produced and directed by The Wachowskis. Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, and Eddie Redmayne, the film is centered on Jupiter Jones (Kunis), an ordinary cleaning woman, and Caine Wise (Tatum), an interplanetary warrior who informs Jones that her destiny extends beyond Earth. Supporting cast member Douglas Booth has described the film's fictional universe as a cross between The Matrix and Star Wars, while Kunis identified indulgence and consumerism as its underlying themes.The film was co-produced by Grant Hill, making Jupiter Ascending his seventh collaboration with the Wachowskis as producer or executive producer. Several more longstanding Wachowski collaborators since the creation of The Matrix films have contributed to the picture, including production designer Hugh Bateup, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, visual effects designer John Gaeta, supervising sound editor Dane Davis and costume designer Kym Barrett. Other notable past collaborators include Speed Racer composer Michael Giacchino, Cloud Atlas director of photography John Toll along with its editor Alexander Berner and hair and make-up designer Jeremy Woodhead, who worked on both.
The film received generally negative reception upon release, with most criticism focused on incoherence in the screenplay, the characterization and an over-reliance on special effects. Some critics praised the visuals, originality, world-building and Giacchino's musical score. However, the film received positive response from a niche of female science fiction fans who appreciated the film's campiness and deviation from typical gender stereotypes in a genre that is traditionally male-centered.Knights of Sidonia
Knights of Sidonia (Japanese: シドニアの騎士, Hepburn: Shidonia no Kishi) is a space opera and mecha manga series by Tsutomu Nihei, serialized by Kodansha in their magazine Afternoon between April 2009 and September 2015, localized in English by Vertical. An anime television series adaptation, produced by Polygon Pictures, aired between April and June 2014 and a second season aired between April and June 2015.Legend of the Galactic Heroes
Legend of the Galactic Heroes (銀河英雄伝説, Ginga Eiyū Densetsu), referred to as Heldensagen vom Kosmosinsel (incorrect German, translating to "heroic tales from the cosmic island") in the opening credits and sometimes abbreviated as LOTGH (銀英伝, Gin'eiden), is a series of science fiction novels written by Yoshiki Tanaka. In humanity's distant future, two interstellar states – the monarchic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance – are embroiled in a never-ending war. The story focuses on the exploits of rivals Reinhard von Lohengramm and Yang Wen-li as they rise to power and fame in the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance respectively.
An anime adaptation of the novels, produced by Kitty Films and animated for the most part by Artland and Magic Bus, ran from 1988 to 1997. There is also a manga based on the novels, with art by Katsumi Michihara. In addition, there are several video game adaptations with the most recent release in 2008 being a real-time strategy game. The series did not receive an official English release until 2015, when North American anime and manga distributor Viz Media announced they had acquired the license to the novels. On the same day, North American anime licensor Sentai Filmworks announced their license to the anime and the anime was later released on Hidive starting in June 20, 2017.Martian Successor Nadesico
Martian Successor Nadesico (Japanese: 機動戦艦ナデシコ, Hepburn: Kidō Senkan Nadeshiko, lit. "Mobile Battleship Nadesico"), sometimes referred to as Nadesico (ナデシコ, Nadeshiko), is a science fiction comedy anime television series, and a later manga series created by Kia Asamiya. The manga, published in English by CPM Manga, is significantly different from the anime.
In 2005 Anime News Network reported that plans for Nadesico 2 were scrapped, citing an entry on Stellvia director Tatsuo Sato's blog.Military science fiction
Military science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction that features the use of science fiction technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes and usually principal characters that are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets. It exists in literature, comics, film, and video games.
A detailed description of the conflict, the tactics and weapons used for it, and the role of a military service and the individual members of that military organization forms the basis for a typical work of military science fiction. The stories often use features of actual past or current Earth conflicts, with countries being replaced by planets or galaxies of similar characteristics, battleships replaced by space battleships and certain events changed so that the author can extrapolate what might have occurred.Peter F. Hamilton
Peter F. Hamilton (born 2 March 1960) is a British author. He is best known for writing space opera. As of the publication of his 10th novel in 2004, his works had sold over 2 million copies worldwide.Realm of Kings
"Realm of Kings" is a crossover comic book storyline published in 2010 by Marvel Comics. Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, it is a follow-up to the 2009 storyline "War of Kings" and introduced the setting known as the Cancerverse.Revelation Space
Revelation Space is a 2000 science fiction novel by Welsh author Alastair Reynolds. It was the first novel (but not published work of fiction) set in Reynolds' eponymous universe. The novel reflects Reynolds's professional background: he has a PhD in astronomy and worked for many years for the European Space Agency.It was short listed for the 2000 BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.Space Dandy
Space Dandy, stylized as Space☆Dandy (Japanese: スペース☆ダンディ, Hepburn: Supēsu Dandi), is a 2014 Japanese comic science fiction anime television series produced by Bones. The series follows the misadventures of Dandy, an alien hunter who is "a dandy in space", in search for undiscovered and rare aliens with his robot assistant QT and his feline-like friend named Meow.The anime has been licensed by Funimation in North America, Madman Entertainment in Australia and by Anime Limited in the United Kingdom. The series premiered in the United States before Japan on January 4, 2014 at 11:30 pm on Adult Swim's Toonami block. The series began airing in Japan on Tokyo MX at 11:00 pm on January 5, 2014, followed by TV Osaka, TV Aichi, BS Fuji and AT-X. The series is simulcasted in South East Asia at the same time as Japan on Animax Asia. The series has also been broadcast in Australia on SBS 2 since 3 October 2015.
A manga adaptation ran in Square Enix's Young Gangan magazine from December 20, 2013 to October 3, 2014. The manga is licensed in English by Yen Press. The 13 episodes of the first season aired from January to March 2014, and the second season (also with 13 episodes) premiered on July 5, 2014.Space Opera (novel)
Space Opera is a novel by the American science fiction author Jack Vance, first published in 1965 (New York: Pyramid Books).
This is a ‘stand-alone’ work, not part of any of Vance's numerous novel sequences. The term "space opera" is typically used in science fiction literature to connote interstellar adventures, clashes of spacefleets and galactic empires. Vance’s novel is instead about an opera company touring in outer space.Space opera in Scientology
Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard included space opera narratives in his writings, wherein thetans (the name given to human souls) were reincarnated periodically over quadrillions of years, retaining memories of prior lives, to which Hubbard attributed complex narratives about life throughout the universe. The most controversial of these myths is the story of Xenu, to whom Hubbard attributed responsibility for many of the world's problems.
Some space opera doctrines of Scientology are only provided by the church to experienced members, who church leaders maintain are the only ones able to correctly understand them. Several former members of the church have exposed these secret documents, leading to lengthy court battles with the church, which failed to keep the secret. Critics of the church have noted that some of the narratives are scientifically impossible, and have thus assailed the church as untrustworthy for teaching them. The space opera teachings have also been satirized in popular culture. Scholars of religion have described the space opera narratives as a creation myth designed to encourage reverence of Hubbard as a supreme messenger. Several academics have drawn attention to the similarity of the space opera myths to themes of the 1950s Cold War culture in which they were constructed.Steam Powered Giraffe
Steam Powered Giraffe (SPG) is an American steampunk musical comedy project formed in San Diego in 2008, self-described as "a musical act that combines robot pantomime, puppetry, ballet, comedy, projections, and music". Created and led by identical twins David Michael Bennett and Isabella "Bunny" Bennett, the act combines music and improvisational comedy on-stage, although their studio works focus almost solely on music.Steam Powered Giraffe has its own fictional universe and mythology, with the band members portraying characters both on stage and on record; its universe has notably been explored via several comic books mainly written and drawn by Isabella. Although SPG underwent several line-up changes, it always focuses primarily on three robot characters (played by the Bennett siblings and a third performer, although the original line-up featured four robots), with several "humans" assisting and performing comedy, music, and/or dancing on stage, and several smaller robots being performed via puppetry and/or voice acting. To date, they have released five studio albums, two live albums and one live DVD, and also provided the soundtrack for the 2015 video game SteamWorld Heist.The Mandalorian
The Mandalorian is an upcoming American space opera web television series scheduled to premiere on Disney+ on November 12, 2019. Set in the Star Wars universe, the series will take place a few years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and follows a lone Mandalorian gunfighter beyond the reaches of the Republic.
Jon Favreau served as a writer, creator, and showrunner, and will executive-produce alongside Dave Filoni, Kathleen Kennedy, and Colin Wilson. Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Nick Nolte, Giancarlo Esposito, Emily Swallow, Carl Weathers, Omid Abtahi, and Werner Herzog star. There will be eight episodes in the first season.The Thanos Imperative
The Thanos Imperative is a 6-issue comic book limited series published in 2010 by Marvel Comics. It was written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and was bookended by two one-shot comics, Ignition and Devastation. The story focuses on the cosmic, or space-based, heroes of the Marvel Universe, who band together to combat the imminent threat of the Fault, a rift in space-time formed at the end of "War of Kings"; and the Cancerverse that lies beyond it, a universe where death itself is extinct.
Space opera serials (1930–1960)