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Space Opera: Or, It's Not Over 'Til the Fat Venusian Sings

Astounding Science Fiction, May 1947Okay, so I'm kidding about the Venusian-- the term "space opera" doesn't actually have anything to do with singing (though it could).  It's a subgenre of science fiction that originally gained its name from a similarity to the melodrama of soap operas and "horse operas" (westerns). 

The phrase has had something of a mixed history.   Space opera as we define it today was once the meat and drink of the science fiction pulps-- magazines such as Planet Stories, Weird Tales, and Astounding Science Fiction.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s, they began publishing exciting tales of space-going derring-do like E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Space, Edmond Hamilton's The Star Stealers, and Jack Williamson's Legion series that were an immediate hit with the public.

By the 1940s, demand for such stories was so high that quality plummeted; the hackneyed fiction being churned out sometimes multiple times per month vastly outnumbered the better works.  Fanzine writer Wilson "Bob" Tucker coined the phrase "space opera" to refer specifically to this sort of shoddily-written, formulaic, rocket-and-raygun SF.*  Quality writers in the style of Smith and Williamson still existed, but none of them wanted to be associated with Tucker's perjorative label.

To some SF buffs, "space opera" remains a bad word, a literary slur meaning an overblown, galactic melodrama populated by cardboard stereotypes and trite cliches.  I'll be honest: space opera like that does still exist.  (Then again, I don't know of any genre that's completely immune to bad writing.)  But what began as a label defined by the worst examples of the category was gradually rehabilitated and redefined by the authors of the late '50s to '70s, and the now term is proudly claimed by some of the best writers in the field.  Case in point: Star Wars, one of the best-known and best-beloved SF series of all time, is considered a space opera.  (Edmond Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, was one of the principal writers for The Empire Strikes Back-- how's that for full circle?)

So what exactly does "space opera" mean today?  Critics still disagree over specifics, but in essence it's all about doing it big: a romantic adventure on a grand, interstellar stage.  Its earliest writers took the tropes of the late 19th century-- empire-building, westward expansion, and nautical adventure-- and gave them a new frontier to explore: outer space of the distant future.  Space opera looked at the vastness of the universe and saw an opportunity to discover untold marvels, to plumb the depths and test the limits of the human spirit, to play out clashes between cultures and civilizations on a massive stage.

Modern space operas retain the same grand, sweeping scope and generally optimistic outlook.  Journeys (in spaceships, naturally!) are measured in light years or parsecs; empires span entire star systems.  (Stories confined to just one planet are generally classed in a slightly different but related subgenre known as "planetary romance.")  Sometimes, aspects of technology are so advanced as to seem like magic.  New wonders and perils await our intrepid heroes in every quadrant; exotic and alien worlds abound.  The characters, of course, are more than equal to the scenery: dashing star pirates, brave space knights, and plucky adventurers go boldly where no one has gone before.**

True, a genre that produces such larger-than-life stories can sometimes tip over into corniness, but a little camp can be a fun change of pace.  That upbeat sensibility is what attracts many readers to space opera in the first place-- though not without its moments of crisis, I've never read a depressing space opera.  Even when things are at their grimmest, you know that sacrifices will not be in vain, and the good guys will triumph in the end no matter how long the odds. 

Rather than representing the worst of the genre, the term "space opera" now encompasses some of the best writing science fiction has to offer.  Easily half of the Hugo winners since the 1970s have been space operas: Vinge, Haldeman, Bujold, Simmons, Brin, Cherryh, Pohl, Niven... the list goes on, and will no doubt continue to grow.  Yes, there's still that other kind of space opera out there-- but there's a lot more that hits all the right notes.

Feeling ready for a grand adventure?  Charge your stunner, and let's hit the spaceways!

Grimspace by Ann Aguirre (Pbk-SF Aguirre)
Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson (SF Anderson)
The Imperial Stars by Poul Anderson (SF Anderson)
Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro (SF Asaro)
Excession by Iain M. Banks (SF Banks)
A Million Open Doors by John Barnes (SF Barnes)
Coalescent by Steven Baxter (SF Baxter)
Dust by Elizabeth Bear (Pbk-SF Bear)
Eon & Eternity by Greg Bear (SF Bear)
Cities in Flight by James Blish (SF Blish)
Startide Rising by David Brin (SF Brin)
Star Dragon by Mike Brotherton (Pbk-SF Brotherton)
Helix by Eric Brown (Pbk-SF Brown)
Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (SF Budrys)
Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold (Pbk-SF Bujold)
The Lost Fleet: Fearless by Jack Campbell (Pbk-SF Campbell)
The Best of John W. Campbell by John W. Campbell (SF Campbell)
Neptune Crossing by Jeffrey A. Carver (SF Carver)
John Grimes, Lieutentant of the Survey Service by A. Bertram Chandler (SF Chandler)
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (SF Clarke)
Glory by Alfred Coppel (SF Coppel)
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (SF Corey)
Beholder's Eye by Julie Czerneda (SF Czerneda)
Metaplanetary by Tony Daniel (SF Daniel)
Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres (Pbk-SF De Pierres)
Nova by Samuel R. Delany (SF Delany)
Four to Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson (SF Dickson)
The Real Story: The Gap into Conflict by Stephen R. Donaldson (SF Donaldson)
The New Space Opera (also The New Space Opera 2) by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, eds. (SF New)
The Reaches by David Drake (SF Drake)
Up Jim River by Michael Flynn (SF Flynn)
Flinx of the Commonwealth by Alan Dean Foster (SF Foster)
Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost (SF Frost)
Expendable by James Alan Gardner (SF Gardner)
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (SF Haldeman)
Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton (SF Hamilton)
The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (SF Harrison)
Light by M. John Harrison (SF Harrison)
The Amphora Project by William Kotzwinkle (SF Kotzwinkle)
Star Wars Trilogy by George Lucas et al. (SF Star)
Newton's Wake by Ken MacLeod (SF MacLeod)
Eternal Light by Paul J. McAuley (SF McAuley)
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (SF McCaffrey)
The Monarchs of Sol by Wil McCarthy (SF McCarthy)
Seeker by Jack McDevitt (SF McDevitt)
The Eternity Artifact by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (SF Modesitt)
Heris Serrano by Elizabeth Moon (SF Moon)
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (SF Morgan)
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (SF Niven)
The Solar Queen by Andre Norton (SF Norton)
Debatable Space by Philip Palmer (SF Palmer)
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth (SF Pohl)
Marrow by Robert Reed (SF Reed)
Legends of Santiago by Mike Resnick (SF Resnick)
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (SF Reynolds)
Natural History by Justina Robson (SF Robson)
Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (SF Rusch)
Dexta by C. J. Ryan (Pbk-SF Ryan)
The Android's Dream by John Scalzi (SF Scalzi)
The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz (SF Schmitz)
The Masque of Manana by Robert Sheckley (SF Sheckley)
Endymion by Dan Simmons (SF Simmons)
Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith (SF Smith)
The Complete Skylark by E. E. "Doc" Smith (SF Smith)
Rules of Survival by Kristine Smith (SF Smith)
Coyote by Allen Steele (SF Steele)
Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (SF Stross)
The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt (SF Van Vogt)
Ports of Call & Lurulu by Jack Vance (SF Vance)
The Golden Globe by John Varley (SF Varley)
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (SF Vinge)
Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams (SF Williams)
The Humanoids by Jack Williamson (SF Williamson)
The Golden Age Trilogy by John C. Wright (SF Wright)
Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn (SF Zahn)

 

** (Yep, Star Trek is space opera, too.  Beam me up, Scotty!)

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