By: Margena Holmes
Whenever I’m asked what I write and I tell them space opera, I either get a blank look, or the inquirer exclaims, “Space opera? Oh, I love opera!” I then have to explain to them, no, it’s not OPERA. My characters don’t sing their way across the galaxy. So, what IS space opera?
Let’s take a trip back in time, to the 1950s, back when radio was the main means of communication and entertainment. Radio stations broadcast serial dramas during the day, mostly when housewives were at home. The serials were often melodramatic, as operas tend to be, and open-ended, continuing with the story each weekday, and they were often sponsored or produced by soap manufacturers (“This program has been brought to you by Palmolive. Softens hands while you do dishes”), hence the term “soap opera.” Going back even further, to the 1930s, “horse opera” was first coined to describe a clichéd and formulaic Western movie. The term “space opera” was a play on words from both genres.
First of all, there’s no singing involved, just like there is no singing in soap operas, though the lone cowboy may sing about his troubles in a horse opera. In 1941, fan writer and author Wilson Tucker first used the term space opera, describing it as a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.” You can see why it was first used as an insult to describe some science fiction back in the day.
“Opera” in Italian means “work,” referring to the collaborative labor of all involved. Soap operas are known for their melodramatic plots, which is also true of most operas, and could also be said Westerns, and some science fiction. Take Star Wars, which is considered space opera. It also has its collaborative work, and the melodramatic storyline (save the princess, fight the bad guy, the hero saves the day), but is also (with its spin-offs and Expanded Universe books) an on-going story like the soaps.
I feel that space opera is one of those genres that gets lost in the shuffle. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction, but as opposed to hard science fiction, which is the more technology-based aspects and usually adheres to the laws of physics, space opera is “lighter” (for lack of a better word) though it can have hard science fiction elements, as seen with Dune. Space opera often emphasizes space battles, melodramatic adventures, and maybe a little romance, on an epic scale.
Because there is little understanding of what space opera is, I’ve taken to calling what I write “space fantasy” but that really isn’t what I write. The word fantasy tends to relate to made-up ideas and magic, which could be true about some space opera, but also could mean that no real technology is involved, no science, which space opera does have, albeit in unexplained or poorly explained ways (midichlorians, anyone?).
You may have inadvertently stumbled upon some of the best space opera authors. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams are just a few books which can be classified as space opera books.
Next time when someone mentions “space opera” perhaps now you will think more along the lines of Star Wars, and less along the lines of La Traviata, characters blasting their way across the galaxy instead of singing about their tribulations.
Margena Adams Holmes has been writing ever since she can remember, writing her first poem in 1st grade. At her day job, when she’s not kicking young kids out of R-rated movies, she’s sweeping up spilled popcorn from the hallways and aisles (she’s not your mother, though, so please take your trash out). Her days off consist of writing science fiction, short stories, and more movie theater shenanigans. Reading is a close second to writing, and she normally has her nose buried in a book. Her publications are available through her author page. Contact Margena via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.