Subgenre Study: Space Opera

This week on Subgenre Study we examine the science fiction subgenre of the space opera, a subgenre of adventure that tends to have more in common with most fantasy than other science fiction subgenres.  (I managed to get the word subgenre in that sentence four times.)

Kit, you say, what are you talking about?  Space Opera takes place in the far future and is often full of strange aliens and stranger landscapes.  What do you mean it’s closer to fantasy than other science fiction?

Well, it depends on your definition of science fiction.  I’d like to tell you there is a tried and true way to tell what is scifi, and better yet, where the line is between scifi and fantasy, but alas, it is not to be.  The lines are too fuzzy.

But let’s look at science fiction in general.  Science fiction tends to take place in the near to far future, involve technology that does not currently exist, and tries to extrapolate what society will be like in the future.  Check, check, and check, right?  But what separates space opera is that plot and character is what is most important, and setting is part of the background.  It’s not space adventures, it’s adventures in space.

In a lot of space opera, technology is there, but how it works is unimportant.  No character in Star Wars ever explains how hyperspace works.  It just does.   The characters tend to take it for granted.  There’s no science to back it up, and no one cares.  What you care about are things like the characters, whatever their quest is, and the other people/governments/species they deal with.  And alien species don’t need to be biologically possible either as long as they’re interesting.

That’s why I say it’s closer to fantasy, except you’ve Klingons instead of Dwarves and instead of stopping the evil wizard and his legions of the undead, you’ve got to stop the evil Emperor and his clone soldiers. 

That’s not to say that space opera isn’t real science fiction.  It is.  Like all science fiction, the author/creator does need to look into the future and think about where the human race will have ended up, or picture what will come to pass if some event in the future occurs.  A future with a nuclear-based World War III will be different from a future where Canada comes to their senses and takes over the entire world with politeness.

What are your recommendations for good space opera, Squiders?  How do you feel about it?

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christopher on 2011/07/15 at 6:50 PM

    Very nicely defined– and I agree, though you may catch grief from the “hard sci-fi” fiends.

    (Also? Klingons=Star Trek. Might want to change that to “Wookiees,” before fans of both come at you with pitchforks and phasers.)


    • Being a born and raised Trekkie, I am well aware. 😛 I consider both Trek and Wars Space Opera, though Trek is less so. (And it depends on which incarnation of Trek we’re talking, and even which episode specifically, but going there may be approaching ubernerd limits, and so I shall not go into it here.)

      (I shall take my chances with the Trek/Wars people. I shall arm the Landsquid.)


      • Posted by Christopher on 2011/07/15 at 7:33 PM

        Fair enough. I always loved both. Well… if we define both as “ST:TOS,” “ST:TNG” and the original Holy Trilogy. Didn’t much care about DS9 or Enterprise and actively loathe the Star Wars prequels.

        If you’re fond of space opera, see if you can find an old Harry Harrison book called “Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.” A very, VERY tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre, and a metric ton of fun!

      • I’m rather fond of DS9, but it’s more military scifi than space opera, and so out of the scope of this discussion.

        Thanks for the book rec! I shall see if I can hunt it down.

  2. […] Where Landsquid Fear to Tread: Subgenre Study: Space Opera […]


  3. Ender’s Game. Hands down. I am also partial to Kathy Tyers’ Firebird books.


  4. I do not agree with your interpretation of space opera being “It’s not space adventures, it’s adventures in space.” As I understand the term opera in terms of science fiction, it is rather the setting and the world created for the story that is ‘grandiose and ever expanding’. A world that is beyond the immediate setting and it’s existence is told through subtle clues, as the plot thickens and the characters ‘seek out their destinies’.
    When you read a Star Wars novel, the first few pages includes a map of the entire galaxy. Although the movies never explore all the planets, they are nevertheless there for authors to explore. The same can be said of Star Trek, Dune, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chronicles of Riddick, Stargate (SG-1, Atlantis or Universe) etc.
    Though my previous examples are adventures in space, there are science fictions like Babylon A.D., Minority Report, Aeon Flux, Ultra Violet, V: Re-imagined, Flash Gordon, etc. that are sci-fi operas without taking place in space.

    I’m not here to argue, merely to state an opinion. Thank you


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