Guest Blog: Space opera and the history of Science Fiction


by D. Nolan Clark

            In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, magazines like Weird Tales, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, and Amazing Stories were the cradle of science fiction. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne might have invented the genre but it was the pulps that turned it into what we know today, starting the rich tradition of speculative work. The magazines each had their own editorial style and stable of fan-favorite authors, but they had one thing in common: their lurid, colorful covers. Even today we have no trouble imagining what those old magazines looked like—typically they showed a blond man in a space suit, wielding a raygun against an alien that had more tentacles than were strictly necessary.

            The stories in the magazines often had nothing to do with the cover images—even in this nascent era, science fiction was a wildly diverse field. The covers solidified the public’s impression of SF, though, and gave us the main tropes of what would come to be known as Space Opera.

            The term has always been pejorative, and was intended to be witheringly so when it was coined in 1941. Bob Tucker, in the seminal fanzine Le Zombie, described it as “the hacky, grinding, stinking outworn spaceship yarn.” He borrowed the term from the “Horse Operas” that dominated cinema at the time—cheap, formulaic western films, often shot in a matter of days in the dustier parts of California. The meaning was clear. Stories about rockets and space cadets were already clichéd before the Second World War.

            For a while, it only got worse. After the war SF diverged wildly from the movies. While Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still played in theaters, SF fans were already looking for headier stuff. This was the time when the great division between Hard (scientifically rigorous) and Soft (psychologically complex) SF began—a division which has since multiplied, giving us dozens of subgenres, from Military SF to Alternate Histories to the many –punks (Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Ribofunk, to name a few). The term Space Opera was always used to describe the lamentable early pulp stories that SF had outgrown. Both the New Wave movement of the 60s and the Cyberpunk renaissance of the 80s were direct reactions to the traditions and clichés of Space Opera. With its close association with colonialism and western expansion, Space Opera became a kind of political football, an emblem of the worst excesses of conservative literature—most recently this flag being taken up by the reactionaries behind the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies debacle of the last few years (of which no more need to be said here).

            Everything changed with the creation of Star Wars. Though not right away. Believe it or not there was a time when confessing to loving Star Wars would get you mocked at science fiction conventions. It wasn’t scientific enough. Spaceships don’t go “whoosh” in a vacuum. Lasers aren’t realistic weapons, and the Force… well, the Force was just pure fantasy (the regrettable inclusion of “midi-chlorians” in the prequel movies was probably a reaction to this criticism). Beyond that it didn’t explore anything, there was no “what if” moment in Star Wars, no connection to real world human concerns. Even the mysterious setting in a distant galaxy and time seemed to insulate it from having any greater meaning beyond puerile entertainment. The generation of SF fans who grew up before Star Wars was released roundly mocked the franchise, though the more honest among them would admit to seeing it multiple times in theaters. There were plenty of Star Wars books—what would come to be known as the Expanded Universe—but for many SF writers, having to contribute to this bastard canon was an indication that one’s career was in a slump.

            Space Opera, then, was one of the worst insults SF had to throw. There was only one problem. It was wildly popular, even then. The magazine covers were so lurid because lurid Space Opera images sold magazines. It’s even more popular now. Shows and movies like Star Wars, the Expanse, and Firefly are all pure Space Opera—and they remain how most outsiders see the genre, and what they crave.

            Star Wars was my personal introduction to the genre. I’ve written elsewhere how the movie led me, as a child, to a lifelong love of the books and stories that go so much farther in scope than the film trilogy. I suspect this is true for many of the current generation of SF writers—and I know for a fact it’s true for a huge percentage of SF fans. Space Opera is the gateway drug of SF, the dream we all chase when we first explore those rich and varied waters. Who among us has never felt the desire to jump into a rocket and adventure among the far stars, to meet bizarre aliens and robots?

            Nor is Space Opera so limited as it is often described. Star Trek has shown again and again that it can transcend its conservative roots, with multi-cultural crews onboard the whooshing spaceships, with robots and aliens that prove more human than human. Space Opera can be used to explore complex ideas from a universal platform (as I’ve tried to do in my own novel, Forsaken Skies, using Space Opera to engage a critique of transnational corporatism). Space Opera in the end is all about the rejection of limitations. Unfettered by the dry rigor of Hard SF or the claustrophobic humanism of Soft SF, it takes as its canvas the whole grand sweep of the human future, from the next decade to the end of time. It’s possible that it’s greatest appeal is the optimistic view that we will have a future, that humanity can always reach farther and try to solve its many problems.

            Truly well done Space Opera, like the books of Iain M. Banks, can still transport us, still fill us with the “sense of wonder” (a term which H.P. Lovecraft coined back in 1935) that critics have always identified as central to SF’s appeal. But even at its worst, Space Opera might be seen as the equivalent of what, in the world of thriller fiction, is known as the “cozy mystery”—the formulas may be well-trod but therefore they become comfortable and reassuring, a kind of comfort food of the imagination. It may, in the end, be its very familiarity that makes it so evergreen in popularity. Space Opera represents the common language of all the SF tribes, the tropes and shibboleths that bring us all together under a common enjoyment. Space Opera remains central to our experience of SF. It should be celebrated, not scorned.


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