Back cover of Galaxy #1, October 1950
Space opera is defined as an adventure science-fiction story.
The term “space opera” was coined in 1941 by fan writer (and later author) Wilson Tucker, in a fanzine article, as a pejorative term. At the time, serial radio dramas in the US had become popularly known as soap operasbecause many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Tucker defined space opera as the science fiction equivalent: a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn”. Even earlier, the term horse opera had come into use as a term for Western films. In fact, some fans and critics have noted that the plots of space operas have sometimes been taken from horse operas and simply translated into an outer space environment, as famously parodied on the back cover of the first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Still, during the late ’20s and early ’30s, when the stories were printed in science-fiction magazines, the stories were often referred to as “super-science epics”.
Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss’ definition in Space Opera (1974) as (in the paraphrase Hartwell and Cramer) “the good old stuff”. Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey. In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera. By the early 1980s, space operas—adventure stories set in space—were again redefined, and the label was attached to major popular culture works such as Star Wars. The term space opera began to be recognized only in the early 1990s as a legitimate genre of science fiction. Hartwell and Cramer define space opera as “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.”
Some critics distinguish between space opera and planetary romance. Where space opera grows often out of both the Western and sea adventure traditions, the planetary romance grows out of the lost world or lost civilization tradition. Both feature adventures in exotic settings, but space opera emphasizes space travel, while planetary romances focus on alien worlds. In this view, the Martian, Venusian, and lunar-setting stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be planetary romances (and among the earliest), as would be Leigh Brackett’s Burroughs-influenced Eric John Stark stories.
Space opera can also sometimes be contrasted with “hard science fiction”, in which the emphasis is on the effects of technological progress and inventions, and where the settings are carefully worked out to obey the laws of physics, cosmology, mathematics, and biology. Some examples are seen in the works of Alastair Reynolds or the movie The Last Starfighter. At other times, space opera can concur with hard science fiction and differ from soft science fiction by instead focusing on scientific accuracy such as The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld. Other space opera works may be defined as a balance between both or simultaneously hard science fiction as well as soft science fiction such as the Dune prequel series by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert or the Star Wars series created by George Lucas.
Several subsets of space opera overlap with military science fiction, concentrating on large-scale space battles with futuristic weapons. In such stories, the military tone and weapon system technology may be taken very seriously. At one extreme, the genre is used to speculate about future wars involving space travel, or the effects of such a war on humans; at the other it consists of the use of military fiction plots with some superficial science fiction trappings. The term “military space opera” is occasionally used to denote this subgenre, as used for example by critic Sylvia Kelso when describing Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.
The key distinction of space opera from military science fiction is that the principal characters in a space opera are not military personnel, but civilians or paramilitary. Military science fiction also does not necessarily always include an outer space or multi-planetary setting like space opera.
During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the fanciful space opera stories were seen in sharp contrast to the terse, scientifically plausible material that came to dominate mainstream science fiction typified by the magazineAstounding Stories. Although at this time, space opera stories were often relegated to the status of children’s entertainment, their freedom of imagination and romance proved to be an early major influence on the “New Wave” writers of the 1960s, who became exasperated by the limitations of “hard” SF.
After the convention breaking “New Wave”, followed by the enormous success of the Star Wars films, space opera became once again a critically acceptable subgenre. Throughout years 1982–2002, the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel was often given to a space opera nominee.