If you’ve already read my first post on genres you may have already realized that the genres I’m talking about are not what you’re going to find in your typical library or bookstore. That’s because those genres are incredibly broad and ill-defined. For example, both steampunk and space opera can usually be found under the science fiction genre (or worse, under the sci-fi/fantasy genre) but, as we’re about to see, they’re wildly different kinds of stories.
So, how do we know a space opera when we see one? What are the forms and stylistic hallmarks of this genre?
1. It takes place in the future, often the far future, when mankind has traveled to and settled large parts of the galaxy. There’s almost always some kind of an empire, although it’s not necessarily owned and operated by humanity, and alien races that just can’t get along with humanity. Don’t expect the aliens to be too, you know, alien though. They’re probably analogs human cultures, belief systems or even corporations, used to give the reader a degree of removal from whatever is about to be said about them.
2. The struggle is political or sometimes ideological. If there are physical or military aspects of the conflict it will be quite clear that they are subordinate to whatever the major, galaxy spanning conflict is. In other words, it’s called space opera for a reason. The stories are big, lavish and about a subtle as a brick. Space opera is about the big, world-shaking stuff, and while there can and often are subthemes of romance (or other personal storylines) that’s not where the emphasis lies.
3. Technology is a prop or eyecandy, a part of the culture as opposed to a driving force. This is no small part of what sets space opera apart from other major forms of science fiction. Where many kinds of sci-fi focus on technology and progress, space opera is more a morality tale in new clothing, trying to jolt us out of our preconceived notions and into thinking about the world in a new way.
Generally, when people think of sci-fi space opera is what they think of. (And by that I mean Star Wars.) While there’s more to sci-fi than that, it’s still the most prominent.
What are the weaknesses of space opera? It’s tendency to create caricatures of people or groups of people is definitely a strike against it. When it’s not tweaking details to get it’s point across there can be full-blown unfortunate implications. In the hands of the careless, space opera is a dangerous thing. Also, in the midst of all that epic, space-faring action the importance of the individual character and his decisions can be lost, and much of the impact of the story with it.
What are the strengths of space opera? Quite frankly, a lot of people, myself included, find it cool. The scope most space opera reaches, along with the high quality special effects and tendency to memorable, over the top characters makes for great reading or watching.
As an author, space opera also gives you one of the best chances you’ll ever have to do some large scale world and culture building. (I haven’t written about culture building yet, in part because I haven’t done much of it myself. There’s also not much about it out there, which is a shame.)
But most of all, space opera is a great opportunity for fun, and there’s surprisingly little of that in sci-fi. If you have a space opera series you really love, whether in print or on the silver screen, share it in the comments. I’d love add a new title or two to my sci-fi reading list.