What is space opera, anyway? Wikipedia defines it this way:
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, and often risk-taking as well as chivalric romance; usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.
The term has no relation to music. Instead a play on the term “horse opera”, which was coined during the heyday of silent movies to indicate clichéd and formulaic western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and they continue to be produced in literature, film, comics and video games.
Notable space opera books include the Foundation series (1942–1999) by Isaac Asimov et al. and the Ender’s Game series (1985–present) by Orson Scott Card. An early notable space opera film was Flash Gordon (1936–present) created by Alex Raymond. In the late 1970s, the Star Wars franchise (1977–present) created by George Lucas brought a great deal of attention to the genre.
With Disney poised to turn everything in the world, lettuce, hammers and oranges into Star Wars paraphernalia it is getting harder to create space opera which doesn’t resemble fantasy more than it does science fiction. Star Wars is a science fiction space opera only in the most rudimentary ways. For the most part, if you substituted wizards for Jedi, and made the two factions governments on a planet, you could be telling a tale of epic fantasy and miss nary a beat, complete with Dark Lord, magic sword, peasant farmer and a princess to rescue.
What is the cure for this planet-romance space fantasy which is about to make everyone forget movies like The Martian even exist? You are going to have to write a space opera that people will take seriously.
It’s harder than it looks. You have lots of things working against you.
- People aren’t very bright. If you want to tell great and complex ideas, they better resemble something they already recognize or the subtlety will be lost on them. With the rate of scientific change we are living in, by the time you go to press, at least two of your ideas will be obsolete. Write them anyway.
- It’s better not break too many new barriers or go in too many different directions from what people are used to because if it does, it will languish on the vine. People hate change. If your space opera is to have any chance, it can’t change too many things at once. Perhaps a series of novels where it becomes MORE like what we want space opera to be and less of what we don’t.
- If you plan on introducing new science, you better do it slowly and friendly because people are more opposed to scientific thought and principles than ever before. Science is the enemy. People fear what they don’t understand so your science has to be friendly, understandable and easy to relate to, even if the underlying principle is quite sophisticated. Think: Droids or Transporters.
- You better have GREAT characters because no matter how amazing your science, no matter how accurate your star-drive, no matter how compelling your technology is, if people aren’t in love with the characters, you are just wasting your time.
- You have to hit this nail right the first time because you won’t get another chance. With the surfeit of options out there people won’t give you more than one chance to impress them with your scientifically accurate, brand spanking new idea of the future which uses almost none of the ideas of previous eras but somehow is supposed to make it past the barriers of preconceived notions into the realm of compelling, accurate and amazing futuristic super-science that has characters people love.
No one has done it yet. Star Wars has been around 30 years and we haven’t managed to eclipse it, not seriously. Not yet. Let’s go everyone, we’re not getting any younger and Disney isn’t going to get any smaller.
At the rate Disney plans to saturate the Star Wars market, there may be no alternative to its pap-filled space opera, for decades to come.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.