If you click over to Tor.com this week, you’ll find a series of articles on that most beloved of science fiction tropes: the space opera. One post lists ten classic space opera universes, another reminds that women have always written space operas. What you won’t find is a clear definition of what space opera is, because that depends a little on where you stand in SF/SFR fandom.
If you’ve been around a while, you’ll know that the term comes from the time of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (approximately 1930s to late 1950s) and originally referred to the pulp stories churned out in the “rocket magazines” of the time. Rocket ships, space heroes, tentacled monsters and evil empires abounded in these stories aimed at mostly young male readers whose parents were sure they were rotting their brains with the things. These low-bar tales were compared with the “soap operas” aimed at housewives and “horse operas” aimed at Western fans. (I’m looking at a magazine cover from the time right now that screams “Alcatraz of the Starways—No Escape but Death from the Prison-Hell of Pradim!” The illustration is equally lurid.)
But not all science fiction was pulp fiction, and the term expanded to mean much more. Yes, a space opera needs spaceships (and preferably space battles), aliens and lots of action. But what distinguishes it from other stories set in space is most often scope and a sense of high stakes (the opera part of the title.) Not only must the ship be in danger, the galaxy must be in danger. Not only must two planets be at war, two empires must be at war.
That’s why, when we think of space opera nowadays, we think first of STAR WARS and STAR TREK. George Lucas stole very consciously from the Golden Age space opera tropes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, with their caped, “evil empire” villains and cliffhanging episodes. Similarly, STAR TREK’s multi-planet Federation is locked in galactic battle with the warlike Klingon Empire and the devious, secretive Romulan Empire. Every step Captain James T. Kirk takes is fraught with meaning for the galaxy. Empires. Galaxies. Scope. High Stakes.
There’s a common misconception that there’s no room in a space opera for romance. That, too, comes from a narrow view of science fiction that allows no romance in any kind of SF story. In fact, Golden Age stories often included a bit of romance (that cover I mentioned? A woman is busy fighting next to her man, apparently rescuing him from the “prison-hell of Paradim.”) Certainly Captain Kirk and Han Solo made plenty of time for romance. We’ve only expanded the depth of the relationships in our space operas as our characters have grown beyond mere cardboard heroes and heroines.
Romance is the centerpiece of my own foray into space opera, Fools Rush In, Book 3, Interstellar Rescue Series. But the relationship between Rescue agent Rayna Carver and pirate ship captain Sam Murphy is set against an alien civil war that may mean the end of slavery throughout the galaxy. This space opera has romance, yes, but it also has all the scope and high stakes it should. You can check it out in digital, paperback or audiobook on Amazon.