When you think of the words “sci-fi,” what do you think of? Spaceships gliding across glittering starscapes? First contact with alien life forms? Interstellar intrigue?
The truth is that all of these classic sci-fi elements belong to the same narrow genre–all of them are part and parcel of space opera. A subgenre that encompasses both Star Trek and Star Wars, space opera is one of the best-known types of science fiction–and one of the oldest, dating back at least as far as 1928, when E. E. Smith’s Skylark of Space was first published. Smith’s tale was one of interplanetary exploration, green-skinned aliens, and copper mining (of all things!), establishing space opera as a genre that looked beyond planet Earth for new adventure in the stars.
Classic Space Opera: An Optimistic Future
Initially, the term “space opera” was used as an insult–the deep space version of a “soap opera,” filled with schmaltzy dialogue and corny settings. Early space operas were adventurous and optimistic, like the Flash Gordon serials, which featured the travels of a guy named Flash to a planet called Mongo (these films would eventually, believe it or not, go on to inspire Star Wars). Through WWII, and then as America was plunged into a space race with the Soviet powers, American SF writers like Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson, and Isaac Asimov kept their eyes fixed to the stars with ever-increasing complexity. Through their strong writing and dedication to scientific progress, space opera began to grow into itself, and the label was sometimes even embraced by SF writers and fans. These stories weren’t uniformly happy, but they often encompassed an optimistic spirit of exploration.
Nowhere is this longing for adventure better seen than in the original Star Wars trilogy. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker gazes at the double sunset on Tatooine and imagines distant worlds far from home. In many ways, his desires reflect the wishes of the audience. Later, as Luke visits new, exotic locales like Dagobah and the forest moon of Endor, the audience was able to travel with him, even if they never physically left the theater seats.
And, because I’d be remiss in mentioning how Star Wars exemplifies space opera without bringing up how Star Trek does the same, Jean Luc Picard’s infamous monologue over the credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation does a good job of summarizing the core values of classic space opera:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
New Space Opera: Gritty Space Captains . . . in Space!
Since the 70s, space opera has enjoyed a fairly steady downward slide on the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism (with a few notable throwbacks, such as the 90s kids’ show Space Cases). Maybe it was due to the way the real space race puttered out; maybe green-skinned space babes didn’t seem nearly as cool in a post-feminist world. But for whatever reason, while today’s space opera still has mankind exploring the stars, it usually reflects far darker a universe. Television space opera like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica often reflect a gray morality where even the good guys are kind of bad, a universe where man is often alone in the stars or faces complicated moral questions when he gets there. This prevailing darkness has been reflected even in space opera literature for teens. Titles like Glow (check out last Friday’s review), Across the Universe, and KA Applegate’s Remnants series still explore rich space-based settings, but often use the claustrophobia of deep space to truly explore the human condition.
As the political and scientific world continues to evolve, space opera is likely to continue to change, too. Until the day when we settle every corner of the known universe, it’s unlikely to disappear completely–instead, our vision of the stars is bound to evolve right along with us.