Cedar Sanderson

A Leftover Post

This post was originally published at the Otherwhere Gazette earlier this year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers, I think you all might enjoy a bit of history. if you’re looking for reading material in between naps to aid your digestion of yesterday’s feast, you might check out this space opera series, or this sweet urban fantasy novella, or if you really can’t stay awake, this edgy short story

I mustn't forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!
I mustn’t forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!

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!

commodore grimes
Space Opera: the art of the improbable

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…


  1. IMO there’s an overlap between Space Opera and Military SF so I consider Chris Nuttall’s SF as Space Opera. [Smile]

        1. I read about a joke (apparently a true story) where a bunch of kids where playing Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon and one kid started talking like a cowboy. When called on it, the kid said he was from “West Mars”. [Wink]

          1. Snerk. When I was doing the Renn Faire circuit in my misspent youth, we had a performer at one faire that had a thick, deep, Alabama accent you could cut with a butterknife.

            He always responded to criticism from the Authenticity Police on his inability to speak “in character” with a grave and dignified, “Madam, ah am from *Southern* England.”

  2. My favorite Space Opera? Easy. Star Wars. Hands-down it’s the three Star Wars movies. A New Hope is my favorite by far, though I readily acknowledge that Empire Strikes Back is by far the best film of the trilogy.

    Yes, I said trilogy. Prequels? What prequels? I have no idea what you’re talking about. No, they never happened! I reject your reality and substitute my own!

    1. For me, the one moment where the prequels were completely ruined – the moment where I could no longer suspend any disbelief and see them as anything but a means of making money with the star wars brand was that moment in Rots when they were killing all the Jedi and that one Jedi with the beard and the high forehead (I don’t care what his name was, so don’t tell me) charges across the bridge at those droids.

      I mean, I KNOW a few things about lightsaber fighting. The whole point of using the sword-weapon against ranged weapons was to block blaster bolts and reflect them BACK at the enemy, and so stop them from shooting. A peacekeeper’s weapon. The correct tactic in that situation was for the Jedi to jump into the midst of the droids so they couldn’t shoot, then start hacking and slashing at close range to break up their ranks.

      Instead the guy raised his lightsaber OVERHEAD, exposing his WHOLE BODY, and runs into droids with blasters.

      That’s what really hit home with me: they don’t care. They simply don’t care about their own damn story anymore. And if they don’t care, why should I?

      1. For me it was the midichlorians. It changed Star Wars from a story in which any young’un could daydream about being a Jedi into a tale about the divine right of kings.

        1. The trick is to not watch the first movie. Hell, then the only time you have to deal with Jar-Jar is when he’s Mind Tricking the Senate.

          1. I’m a little forgiving of the first movie. Jar Jar was awful but dammit at least they seemed to be TRYING, and at least Darth Maul looked cool and did his own fight scenes without the cgi garbage.

              1. But those acrobatics were still real, as opposed to a cgi Yoda vs Christopher Lees or Palpatines cgi face on somebody else.

    2. P.S. you can add this Episode 7 business to the dustbin too as far as I’m concerned. I wrote it off when I learn there’d be no more golden bikinis.

      I don’t get golden bikini shots, they don’t get my money.

  3. For me, it all comes down to whether the technology involved empowers humanity and makes them capable of the kind of heroics that the gods and heroes of the operas are capable of.

    There are also stories like the Quantum Thief trilogy or Dan Simmons’ Olympus books where technology has expressed itself through ancient stories and myths, and even given them tangible, physical form. Tad Williams’ Otherland books use some pretty interesting VR science, but the whole idea of tapping into the subconscious to create worlds based on stories from a variety of genres let the heroes carry on their adventures in a way that resonated with the themes of those stories. Almost operatic.

  4. I really like E. C. Tubb’s loooooong running (33 volumes!) Dumarest of Terra. Earl Dumarest was born on a nearly-forgotten Earth and stowed away on a starship as a child. Now grown, he’s trying to return home in a galaxy that believes Earth is nothing but a legend.

      1. Yes. You can probably skip some of the middle volumes (Dumarest doesn’t make much progress), but the last ten are fairly tight in continuity.

        1. I started to get bored after five or six, and dropped it. I know Dumarest found Earth but didn’t read any further in the series. If the last ten aren’t exorbitant on Kindle, I may get them.

      2. Yes but…

        Tubb appeared to be willing to have Dumarest search for Earth as long as people bought the books.

        However, the last Dumarest book for DAW happened when DAW in the process of changing the type of books DAW sold and Tubb’s books “won’t have fit in”.

        So that book contained a scene where Dumarest found the stellar location of Earth which Tubb had not written.

        Tubb wasn’t pleased but wrote at least two more Dumarest books from other publishers.

        The last one takes place on Earth and sets the scene for more Dumarest adventures on Earth. (To my knowledge none have been written.)

        Note, Tubb’s Dumarest novels are available in the Kindle store. [Smile]

        1. Tubb died in 2010, so there won’t be any more.

          The books are all short, though, so it wouldn’t take forever to get through them all, if one was so inclined.

        2. Some were better than others, most were decent enough. The search for Terra was the background reason for Dumarest to keep on going instead of settling down somewhere with a marriage and family.

          It was sort of like the TV series “Kung Fu”; Kwai-Chang Caine was looking for his half-brother. Otherwise, any sensible man would have picked up a noodle shop franchise in San Francisco.

  5. Favorite space opera? I’ll always have a soft spot for the Dray Prescot series. I picked up volume 8 when I was about 10 years old and the other volumes whenever I encountered them; thanks to the magic of ebooks, I’ve recently managed to read them all. It may well be that series that got me into science fiction; I don’t recall reading any before that.

    It also colored my approach to dealing with series of books. I’ll typically pick up a book in the middle of a series and, if I like it, work both ways.

    1. Now that series makes Dumarest look like a piker: Kenneth Bulmer wrote 53 Dray Prescots!

      1. Those never grabbed me. But I got hooked hard by “The Key to Irunium” when very young, and the other dimension-travel novellas he wrote.

  6. Hm. I always saw the Star Wars movies as the modern expression of “Pirate Opera.” Errol Flynn and all that.

    Star Trek was the embodiment of “Horse Opera” in space.

    Both of them do exemplify the idea of “Technology? Whatever we need for drama.” Light sabres, transporters, whatever…

  7. Andre Norton’s Solar Queen books are my favorite . . . but then the Lensmen series . . . and more recently, Miles Vorkosigan’s adventures.

      1. Been in the mood to read those lately. Now I’m almost finished again with the Wylie and Balmer “Worlds Collide” books.

        Thank goodness I finally got hold of the new Safehold book, though. The way the authors from the pre-Golden Age phrased things was beginning to sneak its way into my own writing. (Not that it is necessarily bad, when considering it – but, sadly, not particularly commercial these days.)

        1. Yeah. Last time I looked, I couldn’t find the whole set. They must have been boxed separately the last time we had to move shelves . . . and there’s easily a dozen boxes the rest could be in . . .

        2. The visions in Smith’s head exceeded his skill at putting them to paper… but where other authors used “a wide brush”, Smith was firing up the paint sprayer…

          Even as a child I recognized that his writing style was stilted and clunky, but that didn’t stop me from reading his books over and over.

  8. When I think Space Opera, I think Lee and Miller’s Liaden and Bujold’s Vorkosigan universes.
    But the library finally got in the last of the Dresden books, so excuse me, I’ve got Ghost Story. (Yeah, all out of order. Someone had Changes out and renewed it, and the same for Ghost Story, so . . . I need to read them again in order, next.) I’m gonna read it one more time before I take it back.
    Okay, maybe twice.

    1. I just finished Changes a few days ago. Those are some amazing books. I’m going to find a paperback used and dissect it.

  9. Dan Simmon’s “Illum” for that pure, literal epicness.
    There’s two Ian Bank’s Culture novels I really like-“Player of Games” and “Look to Windward”.
    In the Anime realm, “Gurren Lagaan” for the over the top AWESOME!!!
    By contrast, I’m also fond of “Evangelion”- even the apocalyptic and dark “End of Evangelion”
    For live action, OG Star Wars and the “Guardians of the Galaxy”

    1. If we’re talking anime, then Outlaw Star.

      Action, adventure, romance, caster shells, and a whole lot of stuff blowing up. Such a classic.

  10. Some of my favorites:
    Books –
    When Worlds Collide and its sequel was something I fell in love with in HS.
    Armageddon 2419 and its 4 Niven/Pournelle plotted 80s sequels were a lot more fun than any of the “Buck” Rogers stuff – and they even managed to turn “Lucifer’s Hammer” into an A:2419 prequel….
    If you’re in the mood for parody of Space Opera combined with a send-up of 50s-60s schlock movies, Harry Harrison’s “Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers” is a hoot.

    Outlaw Star is great fun – I really wish they’d tell more of Gene’s story.
    Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a great send-up of overly-ambitious Spaceship dramas. If you ever wanted to parody Legend of Galactic Heroes or Honor Harrington, this one’s for you.
    Martian Successor Nadesico must be seen to be appreciated – just the right mix of science and absurdity.
    Nadia is Ancient Aliens meets Jules Verne, starting from a plot proposal salvaged from rejected “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” ideas (and in the process, caused a bunch of anime purists to accuse Disney of ripping it off for “Atlantis” (even though their plots were nothing alike other than involving a love story and an Atlantean princess), when in fact both Nadia and Atlantis were both riffing on/ripping off the same sources independently and simultaneously – but anime production speeds got Nadia out first)

    I just wish that the planned “Mutineer’s Moon” anime had made it into production (ADV films was experimenting with US-sponsored original anime 15 years ago, then the markets went sideways thanks to internet anime proliferation, tanking the company)

  11. The James Blish novelizations of the original Star Trek episodes. Other than the original Dune, that’s the only SF series I read from beginning to end. The difference was by the end of the Dune series, it was more to finish the thing than actual interest.

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