Space Opera seems to be in people’s minds at the moment – I saw a tweet from Barnes and Noble about 55 Great Space Operas and then Sue Burstynski wrote a piece, prompted by a newsletter from Tor. Both of these got me thinking as there were some interesting inclusions on the list. For instance, Asimov’s Foundation series and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosiverse. I’d never really thought of either of these as Space Operas, because when I came across the term I was reading E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, and the term was, for me, irrevocably linked to his writing.
So what is Space Opera? A while ago I wrote a post where I weighed up SF and Sci Fi, and I made the bold claim that I’d come up with the first scientifically grounded definition of the difference between s.f. and sci-fi/fantasy. My argument, which you can read in all it’s glory if you have five minutes, was that SF requires that energy be handled with care, can be transmuted by known physical laws and cannot be destroyed. In Sci fi, we can chuck energy around however we wish and we don’t have to worry about what happens between point A and point B. For Space Opera, this definition could apply, or it might not; it could be SF or it could be Sci Fi, depending upon what the writer chooses to do with it.
By definition, Space Opera has to take place in space, for at least part of the story. In some ways it needs to be almost a character, rather than just scenery. If we consider Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, this is very much a Space Opera – true evil being battled by heroes who are finding themselves battles that could have been fought by Napoleon and Wellington (if they’d had access to lasers and spaceships). Fundamentally it is all on a Grand Scale. But you could achieve very nearly the same effect if everyone stayed on one planet. Not quite, but nearly. (As a note, B&N put PFH’s Commonwealth Saga – “the one with the trains” – on the list rather than Night’s Dawn. I’m not sure why. I think they are equally good, and there is a corner of my soul that is sobbing, because you would have thought that they would have put the earlier example on the list…).
Asimov, once wrote that science fiction (I’m using this here to catch both subsets!) was never ‘just’ science fiction. Science fiction is a detective story, or a western, a romance or a military history, or… it’s any genre you care to think of, but with an element of the scientifically fantastic. Sci fi is Phillip Marlow with a laser pistol instead of a gat; SF is Phillip Marlow waking up from cryogenic suspension…
In the same way then, Space Opera is never just Space Opera. Sure, sometimes it’s Flash Gordon, but it could just as equally be Don Giovanni, or the Marriage of Figaro, or even HMS Pinafore – providing you’re drifting somewhere light-years from Earth.