Space Opera is Dead! Well, Maybe Not.

Author photo of part of the column in question. From the March 30-31 Wall Street Journal.

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?


58 thoughts on “Space Opera is Dead! Well, Maybe Not.

  1. I think that the space opera genre in the West has been folded into the Mil-SciFi genre to some extent; and what’s been done to the genre as it’s known kind of killed a lot of my interest in reading it from the Big 5; though I’d probably still delve into it from the more solidly known space opera genre authors of before if I was going to look at tradpub.

    These days, I would probably look more into manga or light novels for that for newer authors, or indie.

        1. Small but significant correction: Baen handles their own publication, but their print distribution is contracted to Simon & Schuster.

          Baen technically counts as a small/medium publisher. The big 5? Are the multinational conglomerates that have divisions that create publishing groups, that create imprints. The imprints are opened and closed regularly with profits, politics, changes in editors, quarterly earnings, etc, not to mention mergers, acquisitions, downsizings, etc.

          For example:
          Lagardère is a multinational media conglomerate headquartered in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.[2] The group was created in 1992 as Matra, Hachette & Lagardère and once covered a broad range of industries. It is now largely focused on the media sector, in which it is one of the world’s leading companies. Headed by Arnaud Lagardère, the firm does business in almost 40 countries and is structured around four main business lines: its book and electronic publishing division (Lagardère Publishing) includes the major imprint Hachette Livre.

          Hachette Livre is the world’s third-largest trade book publisher for the general public and educational markets (number one in France, number two in the United Kingdom, number three in Spain, number four in the United States).

          In 2016 the group published 17,696 new titles in more than 150 imprints, including the trade publishing houses Grasset, Fayard, Stock, Calmann-Lévy and Lattès in France. In textbooks, Hachette Éducation and the Alexandre Hatier group make Hachette Livre the leading educational publisher in France. In the United Kingdom, Hachette UK was the second-largest publisher in 2016. It covers six divisions: Octopus for illustrated books; Orion; Hodder & Stoughton; Headline; Little, Brown for general literature; and Hachette Children’s Books in the Youth Works segment. Hachette Livre Spain has been the third-largest publisher in Spain since Santillana’s acquisition by Penguin Random House, and ranks as the leading publisher of textbooks through Anaya and Bruño. In the United States, Hachette Book Group is the fourth-largest trade book publisher with Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; FaithWords; Orbit; Twelve; and Mulholland.

          Hachette Book Groups’s US imprints include imprints of their own, currently including:
          •Forever Yours
          •Twelve Books


          •Center Street
          •Worthy Books

          •Back Bay Books
          •jimmy patterson
          •Little, Brown Spark
          •Mulholland Books


          •Orbit US

          •Avalon Travel
          •Moon Travel
          •Rick Steves
          •Basic Books
          •Seal Press
          •Hachette Books
          •Da Capo Press
          •Da Capo Lifelong
          •Bold Type Books
          •Economist Books
          •Running Press
          •Black Dog & Leventhal

          …Baen, on the other hand, is an independent publishing company, beholden only to its investors, readers, and employees.

    1. Agreed. I don’t know why he doesn’t review Baen, unless either 1. they don’t send books or 2. he doesn’t think Baen publishes things that WSJ readers would read. (Or that there is a potential conflict of interest between the ownership of the WSJ and the publisher that prints and distributes Baen.)

  2. Honor Harrington might qualify. David Drake’s Cinnibar series might qualify.

    Cutelildrow: Who else might qualify as one of the big five? Tor? Daw? Roc?

    1. Chris Nuttall’s Ark Royal series surely qualifies, but it is froma smaller house, though to judge from Amazon sales numbers and an interesting sales line from his publisher his sales are quite respectably huge.

      1. Chris Nuttall’s “The Empire Corps” series should also count. Pretty good stuff thus far.

        TANSTAAFL/TINSTAAFL/TNSTAAFL – Truth no matter how you slice it.

    2. Last I heard, Roc was going under, wasn’t it? Coz of something Jim Butcher said was happening with his books moving. Early morning, 1 cup coffee, gotta run.

      Tor? haven’t the foggiest. I haven’t touched their stuff since they outright said they didn’t want my business, even if there are some books I want.

  3. Glynn Stewart, Blaze Ward, Eric Thomson, and Kal Spriggs are Mil/SF Space Opera.

  4. Doesn’t Space Opera require “Fat Lady Singing At The End” (especially if she’s wearing a horned space helmet)? [Not enough coffee to be serious 😉 )

  5. Rebecca Meluch’s Tour of the Merrimack, which features a literal Roman Empire in Space, is about as Space Opera as you can get.

  6. To quote the eternal Leigh Brackett —

    “Space opera, as every reader doubtless knows, is a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure. Over the decades, brilliant and talented new writers appear, receiving great acclaim, and each and every one of them can be expected to write at least one article stating flatly that the day of space opera is over and done, thank goodness, and that henceforth these crude tales of interplanetary nonsense will be replaced by whatever type of story that writer happens to favor — closet dramas, psychological dramas, sex dramas, etc., but by God important dramas, containing nothing but Big Thinks. Ten years late, the writer in question may or may not still be around, but the space opera can be found right where it always was, sturdily driving its dark trade in heroes.”

    Like brainless musicians doing a new cover of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, it seems someone has to declare space opera dead on a regular cycle and the death notice is just as important as the song that never gets anywhere. 😀 That quote is from 1975, by the way. Someone should collect all the “space opera is dead!” articles and produce a timeline to poke fun.

    1. I own the book Brackett said that in. Best of Planet Stories, what a wonderful collection! Space Opera and Sword-and-Planet from some of the best authors of the 50’s.

      There’s something else I’d love to see. Real sword-and-planet. And heroic fantasy of the Conan/Jirel/Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stripe. Do any of the big publishers touch either of those any more?

      1. You can find Sword & Planet stories (aka Planetary Romance) from a wide range of indie authors, myself included. The big publishers aren’t likely to release any new stuff in the genre, though. I suspect the same applies to heroic fantasy (except that I haven’t written any of that). Correction: S.M. Stirling has a couple of recent releases from MacMillan that fit the bill.

        Finding the books on Amazon takes a little searching, though. There is no Amazon ‘sword and planet’ category, nor ‘planetary romance,’ but searching for ‘planetary romance’ will return some books worth reading. Limit your search to Kindle science fiction adventure to cut out the romance books with a science fiction background.

    2. Leigh Brackett is now my hero.

      And I think that “adventure” is certainly the key.

      My husband and I disagree on the rest. He views Space Opera as a story of civilizations while I view Space Opera as the adventures of an intrepid crew.

      1. The pulps that space operas got the crews from wrote about steamboats on a river, or various flavors of ocean ships. Civilizations, cultures, economics are the context that the idea of the boat sails on.

        Okay, modern aviation culture is very useful for space opera these days. But we entirely discard the Mississippi, the North Atlantic, and the South Pacific at our peril.

  7. Space Opera is euw, SF. We need REAL LITERATURE dammit!
    (Real Literature cynically defined as something no one reads for fun.)

  8. I think that any reviewer who reads only stuff officially published in English by businesses relying on Barnes and Noble for retail oversamples the part of the part of the market that will be impacted by Barnes and Noble going out of business.

    Isekai has a continuing future, despite what may be current over-saturation, because in the near future we can expect most people to have some need for fiction that deals with profound cultural differences at a safe remove from real life. Space Opera may also be a genre that scratches that same itch. I would expect space opera to be dead if and only if the appetites it used to satisfy are no longer present, or society has changed so profoundly that the conventions of space opera are no longer effective in satisfying those appetites.

    My official position on US society makes me skeptical that the profound changes are of degree, intensity, and direction to eliminate the appetite for Space Opera.

    1. If demand for Space Opera is dead, why Mass Effect?

      What I’m seeing looks more like a supply side problem, not a demand side. Movies and video games are complicated. There is a lot of work involved in producing them, the design needs to shared among people, and the work organized. The failures we see in movies, video games, and tv shows may simply be the difficulties of lining up the money, the leadership, and the work. If there were no demand, we would perhaps expect a project like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order to have been canceled after market research. But marketing gives approval for projects, and they probably aren’t entirely fabricating the demand. The issues we see may mostly be normal quality control issues for large complex projects.

      Novels have smaller budgets, and variations in both supply and demand, and other issues, mean that sane people are not doing large expensive well designed market studies to evaluate genre viability. Okay, Harlequin might be keeping track of market viability for Romance, if they have their act together better than any other large organization I’ve seen sign of in American publishing.

      1. As opposed to “Why, Mass Effect?”, which is what I was saying after Andromeda.

      1. Thank you for the word – makes it much easier to find things to watch. I’ve watched and enjoyed at least two of the “top five” according to one anime site I just looked at, without having any idea of what the subgenre is called.

  9. I’m waiting on the next generation of “space opera” authors, and hoping I find them soon.

    I definitely know they won’t come from Traditional Publishing, because they are all about staying “in” with the Manhattan Literary crowd and whatever shibboleth is currently going around the parties.

    1. Someone else mentioned him earlier but try Glynn Stewart and his Starships Mage series or J.A. Sutherland and his Alexis Carew series (highly reminiscent of the early Drake Cinnabar books)

  10. “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?”

    All kidding aside, clearly this is not down to writers. I myself, in my own small way, am trying to do Big Rollicking Stories with manly men and sexy robot girfriends, wacky aliens and the odd fantasy element thrown in. Because who doesn’t want to nuke Cthulhu? Larry nuked him, I want to nuke him.

    It has become clear that no publisher is going to touch a book with sexy robot girlfriends in it. Never mind the rest of it, if David Weber himself came down from Olympus with a sexy robot book, TOR wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. You can hear the reee-ing already, can’t you?

    Going by the Hugo and Nebula nominations this year (full disclosure, I read some reviews not the nominated dreck) we have the end of the world being very popular, use of child murder as an emotional device and/or plot point, pointless moralistic “dilemmas” and slagging American historical figures. There’s also some #MeToo and #OrangeManBad. There are very few space ships, and those contain wretched refugees fleeing the torched cinder of Mother Gaia, killed by her own ungrateful children.

    Seriously, this is the BEST!!! of SF/F this year. [muted swearing]

    For the people in capital P Publishing who consider these awards important, there’s no fricking way they’re going to even look at Manly Men and Comely Women fighting evil aliens and protecting Mom and Apple Pie in space. That’s like garlic chicken on a sunny afternoon and they’re vampires. They literally can’t print it, or the REEEE!!!! will come for them.

    But despite their best efforts the Honorverse rolls majestically onward regardless. That, for my money, is a space opera.

      1. Honestly, as things “progress” I wonder if they leave him alone in his Mil-SF milieu only as long as he doesn’t make any waves. He sits there and makes them money in that “uncool backwater of fiction”, that’s fine.

        But if he went and reached outside the Mil-SF and did something that the NPCs would REEEE about? I can see them telling him no.

    1. They would publish anything David Weber wrote, because he makes money and he’s not as “problematic” as people like Drake or Ringo are.

      (Idle fantasy-some POC non-binary “correct person” writes a novel series for TOR that is critically lauded, praised as the “newest and best voice in space opera science fiction, etc, etc, etc. Tom Kratman writes twice as many novels, in half the time, publishes them indie, and makes more money and can prove it.)

      1. I’m positing the notion that Weber wrote something excellent with robot girlfriends in it. Meaning a robot story that wasn’t Frankenstein and wasn’t “humans are eeeevile, oh the poor innocent AIs!”

        He’s almost done it already with all those Bolo stories. Add some Bolo-Human romance, and you’re there. Why do the immense super smart machines give Humans the time of day anyway? If the answer is “because Humans are awesome!” then I bet you he gets to publish it himself on Amazon Kindle, probably under a pseudonym to keep Tor from suing him.

        Doesn’t have to be Weber though. Take any Name author, let them run off the reservation a little way, and Big Publishing will, I think anyway, slam the door on their fingers.

        I could be wrong of course, I actually hope I am. Then things aren’t as bad as I worry they might be.

      2. “Tom Kratman writes twice as many novels, in half the time, publishes them indie, and makes more money and can prove it”

        I don’t remember the Col. publishing any indie novels. The only ones I know of were published by Baen: The Carerra Series, the M Day books, the ones he wrote in Ringo’s Aldenata Universe and his stand alones Caliphate and State of Disobedience.

        1. It was an idle daydream-they make out this new Great POC/Non-Binary Hope For Space Opera, and they spend so much money to pitch this author.

          Then, Kratman writes something, writes it faster, and makes MORE money…

  11. Random observation that maybe sort of doesn’t fit here and I can’t see anyone breaking into the airport book market but…

    Something else about a lot of those old space opera adventures (and westerns and…) was that they tended to 50K-60K words.

    In the airport the other day I noticed that the books for sale were all big fat thrillers. What stuck out to me wasn’t the “thriller” part but the fatness.

    And now I’m reminded of a micro-press book I bought last year that featured an insurance investigator on Mars. It was essentially a bundle of novellas. Our heroine bopped about on spaceships or monorails investigating claims and encountered aliens and intrigue and time travelling space stations… bunches of unlikely and amazing things.

    That format seems like a better idea for airplane reading than a door stopper.

    And I wonder, too, now that I think of it, if the “death” of Space Opera is the death of episodic adventure is the death of novellas or 60K word novels. The Martian insurance investigator encountered those “big” sci-fi ideas, those strange, weird events and then moved on. A fat novel would have to resolve them, explain them, and flatten them.

    1. Is there a reason you’re hoarding the name of this book? Because it sounds like fun 🙂 I’m looking for space operas in the Telzey Amberdon / Trigger Argee vein, or like the anime version of the Valerian & Laureline — the live-action movie was incredibly dull. Skip. But T & T and V & L have adventures similar to what you’re describing here. I don’t care as much for short stories, but novelettes / novellas are just long enough to be “restful” for me.

      I like EM Foner’s EarthCent series, which are based on the idea that the galaxy doesn’t always need to be a grim, dark place in need of saving. The EarthCent books are short, restful palate cleansers that I read between doorstoppers from Peter F. Hamilton and so on.

      I might quibble about the length of an airplane read, but that’s because I read fast. Four to five hours on a plane or train, with a stop over for several hours, means I might have to buy two or three books (if they’re short like the 50-60K words) instead of one longer book or doorstopper. But that was a concern in the pre-Kindle days, when I’d have to carry the books. I have to train myself out of old habits, I suppose.

      1. I’m hoarding the name of the book because I don’t remember it. I’ll have to find the book and look at the cover. 🙂

  12. My space opera is alive and well. Its just not published too often by the bigger companies. Or rather the “woke” ones.

    Looking at all the amazon best sellers in that category: Most are indies. With some of the older F Herbert, Asimov, Simmons or Revelation Space thrown in. Ever so often The Expanse or a handful of TOR drek makes it to the top 100.

  13. Does anyone read Big 5 books these days? The last print book I read was Ready Player One – and it was a gift. I can’t remember the last one I bought. Their ebooks have insane prices. I think the last one of those I bought was Hillbilly Elegy.

    Space Opera is alive and well in indie – as I’m sure everyone here knows. From my Kindle (in no particular order):
    The Kurtherian Gambit (and friends), Space Force, The Space Orphan, Crimson Worlds, Wine of the Gods, Golden Age of the Solar Clipper (three sets of these), Ark Royal, Bobiverse, The Frontiers Saga, The Pike Chronicles, The Maxwell Saga, Cochrane’s Company, Destiny’s Crucible, Pharim War, Warp Marines and I’m bored with scrolling through the list, now.

    1. OK, so Wine of the Gods doesn’t have many space ships (there is one world with a moon base), but they travel the multiverse; I think it counts.

  14. To me, Peter F. Hamilton writes “space opera” and is published by Ballantine which is owned by Random House which is owned by Bertelsmann.
    Since his publishers are charging a arm and a leg to read, I have not bought one of his for several years now.

    However about everyone of the KU published authors and books mentioned in these replies, I have or will read.

    Just finished Pam Uphoff’s, Tales from the Multiverse (Wine of the Gods Book 42).
    42 book in one series and counting pretty much counts as space opera. Have read everything else she has on KU too.

  15. Space opera is still out there, yes a quite a bit of it has been rebranded a mil-sf, but it’s still space opera, and there are still space opera out in the wild, just not from the big 5. For the big 5 propaganda machines if it doesn’t push the narrative they generally won’t publish it, and good luck getting your rights back when they trashcan your work.
    I know, I’m late to the party.

    1. and extending off what you’re saying i can tell you why: because a lot of space opera itself doesn’t fit their narrative. Anything where there is hope and there are resources to be found by getting off this rock, doesn’t fit their narrative.

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