Space Opera is Dead! Well, Maybe Not.
According to the science fiction book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, space opera is dead. In his defense, he was reviewing a book from Tor and generally only reviews books from the Big 5 imprints, and Pyr. The book had been listed as “space opera,” leading him to muse on Niven and Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Jerry Pournelle and James Schmitz. Did anyone write about Moties and ray-guns and wild adventure on strange new worlds anymore? What about galaxy-spanning empires and questions of galactic import? If the review book was an example, well… The book was not bad, but it was not space opera. The reviewer finishes by saying that the Dorsai and Kzinti are long-lost and gone. We don’t have the willing suspension of disbelief and the “macho sub-genre.”
As I said, in his defense, he reads Big 5 imprints and a very few small presses.
If you go by the Big Five, space opera does seem sparse. The definitions I’ve seen for space opera include adventure, melodramatic plots and events, simplistic good vs. evil stories, ray-guns, aliens, it covers tens of parsecs and hundreds of stars, even multiple galaxies, and heroic heroes. (Perhaps even “big d-mn heroes,” to quote Firefly.) T. V. Tropes quotes Brian Aldiss’ list of qualities. If that is the basic requirement, then the WSJ reviewer is correct that space opera is long gone – from most Big Five + A Few imprint lists.
On the gripping hand, I’d argue that some mil-sci-fi counts as space opera. The Honerverse certainly has a lot of the qualities, minus the scantily clad space chicks (maybe. I’m a few books behind.) Peter Grant’s “Cochrane’s Company” and “Maxwell” books fit into the genre fairly well, albeit with the emphasis on the military aspects more than the other characteristics. I’m sure you, Dear Reader, can think of others. The Liaden Universe has elements of space opera, when you take the series as a whole.
The point is that we might not have a single stand-out author right now who everyone can point to and say, “Yes, she writes 100% Simon Pure space opera!” We do have a lot of authors who write what looks, sounds, and catches the sense-of-wonder of the older space opera. The difficulty is digging for it, and sorting through the dross. Having people label non-space-opera as space opera certainly does not make things easier, as the aforementioned reviewer points out. If it doesn’t sprawl, or at least give hints of sprawling in the first book, then expand in subsequent books, it’s not exactly space opera. Maybe. Planetary romance [raises paw] oh yeah, but it needs to cover enormous distances to be space opera.
The trouble with “space opera” seems to be that it is melodramatic, good vs. evil, sprawling and romping, and determined to tell a cracking good story. The emphasis is not on a serious message of any kind, although many classic works do slip one or two in. Just based on my survey of the local bookstore shelves, the focus of Big Five sci-fi seems to be narrowing a little, with a lot less geographic sprawl and more emphasis on making a didactic point. The story takes place on one or two planets, or emphasizes the experiences of one person or ship (The Ancillary series by Leckie sounds at first like it might nudge space opera, but then… doesn’t.)
Is it because writers have lost the sense of wonder and ability to write rollicking stories featuring the exploits of manly men, womanly women, and creaturely creatures? Do readers want smaller, quieter, less adventuresome tales? Or are reviewers looking in the wrong places while publishers (and some authors) label things as space opera when they are not? Or is it a lot of things all swirled together?
What do you think? Is space opera a ghost of itself? Or has it just shifted a little, and changed addresses?