Space and Opera seem to be an improbable pairing. Opera, a form of entertainment popularly known for being high-brow, and involving the ‘fat lady singing’ and the genre we refer to as space opera with the exploding spaceships and exotic galactic locales. So how did they come to meet, like chocolate and peanut butter? What is the origin of the phrase, as the earliest origins of space opera, and certainly today, involve no ladies (fat or otherwise) singing?
Last week, at the Mad Genius Club and later on my blog, I provoked a discussion on what Hard Science Fiction is, whether it is still relevant, and finally, a list of 18 Twenty-First Century Hard SF books recommended by those who read the genre. It was truly fascinating to me to see not only that there are varying opinions on what makes a science fiction tale ‘hard’ – that I had expected – but to see that some, indeed, many, have no real distinction of subgenres within science fiction.
If I had to break science fiction into parts, there would be three of them (yes, I know that I don’t have to, but you see, there’s this heart of a librarian which rumor has I keep in a jar on my desk…) comprised of Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera, and military science fiction. Or maybe not. Eyes list. I think I could take that further… but today is not the day.
Space opera, according to that trove of wisdom, TV Tropes, is:
“A space opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigues galore. Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.
Space opera has a lot of romantic elements: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring places, and insanely gorgeous women.”
So how does this have anything to do with, well, Otello, or Mozart, or… any of the singing ladies? The answer is that it didn’t originally. Between Space Opera and old-fashioned ladies belting it out before swooning gaily, is another step. The derisive terms of ‘horse opera’ and ‘soap opera’ lent more to space opera than Wagner’s Valkyries.
The term Horse Opera predates Soap Opera by about a decade, and was first recorded in 1927, Soaps, of course, got their name from the soap companies that paid for the programmes to promote their products. The thing they have in common is the use – some would say over use, of clichés, tropes, and audience expectations. Hold onto that last, we’ll get back to it.
Opera lends the grand, the epic, the melodramatic aspect to all of these genres. They are bound together with the common thread of plots that are over the top, improbable, and far greater in many cases than the everyday man will ever face. From saving the honor of their family, to saving the town, to saving the galaxy, and beyond!
Wilson Tucker coined the term space opera intending it as a pejorative. As so many others before have done, the weary unwashed who want stories to escape the workaday drudge seized on the term and made it their own. Millions now thrill to the space opera on the big screens, and demand authors to write more of their favorites. Far from being an insult, space opera is now big business. Audiences expect to have fun when they hear the term space opera. They don’t expect the author or movie maker to ‘count the rivets’ in the story, the science is very much in the background. With some space opera, you need to hang your suspension of disbelief out the nearest window, lean back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Popular opinion has always been in favor of having fun. Indeed, as we see with the popularity of science fiction, in particular space opera, which is regarded as playful and enjoyable, unlike the more science-accurate Hard SF, people don’t mind learning a little with their entertainment. When the stories of Doc Smith gave way to the silver screen, Space Opera was there, going where no man had gone before. It made perhaps the greatest impact on global culture with the hit success of the Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s. It is certainly not going away anytime soon, even if detractors still try to cut it down.
So what’s your favorite space opera? What do you look forward to when you hear the term? Spaceships, rayguns, and singing ladies. Oh, no, wait, not that last…