What is space opera?
Ask a few fans, and you’re most likely to hear a different answer from each person. Space opera, when the term was first coined in the 40’s, was meant as an uncomplimentary jab at bad sci-fi, a comparison to the radio soap operas of the time. By the 60’s and 70’s, space opera had come to be associated with sci-fi adventure novels, and as time has worn on, the original pejorative sting has faded away almost entirely.
A highly scientific sampling of opinions (from my friends who happened to be paying attention to Twitter when I asked) yielded up the following thoughts about what space opera means to fans these days:
Probably not the correct definition, but to me, it’s sci-fi that’s less about the tech than the characters, relationships and adventures.
Dramatic music composed only with the percussive properties of the space bar.
Seriously, space is vast, awe-inspiring, and boring as hell. Space opera uses human elements to highlight the first two.
Good science fiction Science fiction with well developed characters that you can relate to.
And when it was revealed that I was writing about the connection between space opera and romance:
OH! Then clearly my response is “an orgy set to the Imperial March!”
The Fifth Element: a good example both of what I consider space opera, and how to choreograph an orgy.
When I try to put it together as a concept, I think I come down to a lot of the same themes. Space opera, to me, is generally character-driven, frequently focusing on unlikely protagonists who find themselves in larger-than-life situations. It tends to play to the underdog archetypes, the damaged or reluctant heroine who wins in the end, not despite her flaws, but so many times because of the humanity those flaws lend to the otherwise vast, awe-inspiring, and ultimately cold universe.
I’d argue that the space western genre, rolicking adventure stories where a space ship replaces the trusty steed, is firmly a part of the space opera family. Firefly is probably the most popular recent example, but nobody is likely to forget the place that Star Wars has in that company. In contrast, as my friend mentioned above, the slick grandeur and messy future sprawled out for us in The Fifth Element is every bit as much a space opera, complete with actual opera.
Of course, there have also been more ambitious, and literal interpretations.
So, how does that relate to romance?
The themes in space opera tend to be huge. Saving the universe, or at least their own small part of it, is often the grudging lot of the space opera hero. Reluctant or unlikely, your space opera protagonists are often fringe dwellers; criminals with a heart of gold, idealistic young men and women who believe in doing what’s right, even if it’s dangerous. It’s a common bond that space opera shares with romance, where the bad boy or girl is almost always driven by a greater cause, or a personal demon they can’t shed.
The science in space operas isn’t always, or even generally, the focus. Small groups of flawed people navigate tense situations, and depending on the story, the technology can be integral to the plot, or shiny window-dressing, a costume drama set in a nebulous future. I love space opera for many of the same reasons that I like period romances; the details it adds to the world around the characters, the chance to see themes of love, loyalty, and adventure in another situation that lets them shine. In The Balance of Silence, the trauma that Ducks faces is a purely human one, and the story could easily have been recast in a contemporary setting, without losing he and Riv’s essential struggle to find a life after violent tragedy, and the love they stumble into along the way.
Space opera also gives you a great chance to play with expectations about sex, gender, and social mores. Most of the characters in our Ylendrian Empire stories are bisexual, with some skewing the scale towards gay or straight, and one of the founding races defaults to gender neutral, shifting to more masculine or feminine aspects as they wish. Lois McMaster Bujold, as an offshoot of her incredibly popular Miles Vorkosigan series, wrote Ethan of Athos, about a planet where the population is exclusively genetically male, and what happens when Ethan is elected to travel off-world and first meets and interacts with women.
I find the genre so appealing because I like romance that makes the same old tropes seem fresh. I like sci-fi that grounds itself in people. I like adventure, and life on a grander scale. I like seeing that no matter how far out into the universe we go, there’s always the push to go farther. A good space opera is about the people who inhabit it, and I think the best of them are all about the romance of life in the stars.
Recommended authors and books:
S. Reesa Herberth is the co-author of “The Balance of Silence”, a m/m space opera romance, just released by Samhain Publishing. You can read more about the Ylendrian Empire at their website, or more about Reesa at her personal blog.