Space Opera has been a sub-genre that’s excited me since I discovered the subgenre of Science Fiction at about 12 years of age, when I first discovered Babylon 5 on television. Truth be told, I knew of it much earlier through Star Wars, but I didn’t recognize that as space opera until much later. All I knew at the time was that I loved the sense of wonder and exploration of alien cultures mixing with our own, watching as vast interstellar wars captured my imagination.
What is Space Opera and what differentiates it from other science fiction?
Your friendly google machine definition will come up with: “a novel, movie, or television program set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature.” Which can be accurate, but really what they mean by simplistic is not focusing heavily on detailing hard science concepts for the sake of an exciting plot and story. Star Wars doesn’t fret about the physics of their hyperspace, their communications between alien species on different worlds or how gravity works on their ships, those things are granted as a nice setting background to tell an epic story.
Now some Space Opera does go into certain harder science concepts of the story demands it. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is a great example of this, as several of her stories dial directly in on implications of what certain technologies would do to a society, most of it having some nasty side effects when things go wrong. But by the same token, the focus is on her cool world and characters that push and change that world.
Pushing and changing the world (or worlds) is something space opera tends to focus on. One usually sees a grand scale of events, or at least a slice of someone’s perspective during some grand changes to society. The worlds themselves become characters, going through arcs just as much as the characters do. In Babylon 5, we see the emergence of two great alien races dangling us lesser species around like puppets on strings, and through the show we come into our own and kick them out of our area of the galaxy, even though they’re much more powerful than us. The world changed, and with it came dynamic plot and character development.
In space opera you’ll usually see some hallmarks: Faster than light travel, space battles that may not have physical correlations, point-to-point communication between worlds light years apart, some form of artificial gravity on space ships, aliens or modified humans that relate to us on a close-to-human-but-not-quite level. A thought of science and technology’s consequences are there, but it’s not too concerned about feeling realistic.
That’s not to say an audience wouldn’t get sucked into very real moments. They should, if the book or film is doing its job. There’s poignant moments of battle in the Honor Harrington books by David Weber that will have you gripping your seat, with detail enough to believe that the procedures involved are deadly real as the characters feel in the moment. There’s relationship moment between Miri and Val Con in the Liaden Universe novels that will make you wish you could have as deep a connection as those two people have. And that’s what space opera ends up being about at the end of the day – ensuring there’s a vivid emotional response to the interstellar setting and the characters who live there. That’s why it’s endured from the Princess of Mars and Doc. E.E. Smith’s Lensman series to recent years with Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, the excitement involved in those epic moments dwarfs anything that can be done in real life, if it hits your imagination just right.
What’s cool is that space opera has played such a big impact in recent years on one of my favorite hobbies, gaming, to allow people to really feel like they’re in the middle of their own space opera. The Star Wars PRG from Fantasy Flight Games has taken the genre to new heights, really dialing in that focus on epic storytelling and fast-paced adventure to create a lot of fun around the table. On the lighter side, Tiny Frontiers (which I worked on and you can pick up now at DriveThruRPG.com! http://drivethrurpg.com/product/188485/Tiny-Frontiers ) let you stretch your imagination further without bogging down into too heavy of a ruleset. Board games like Tiny Epic Galaxies let you blast off rockets simply, while the Star Realms Card game gives you a great simulation of an interstellar campaign of a space fleet battle.
And that’s not to leave out video games, for you Mass Effect fans out there. I just don’t get to play those all too much.
I’ve followed the genre all my life, seen it come in and out of style as various books, shows, and movies hit the scene, some having a more lasting impact on society than others. I’ve roleplayed my own and started writing my own from a young age, some of which is about to be published and out in the world for the first time. It’s great stuff, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds as people reimagine and redefine the sub-genre in the coming decades.
The future never grows old.