Genre Explorer: Space Opera

by | Aug 24, 2020 | Genre Explorer, RA Blog

Aliens, spaceships, and interspecies conflict: a recipe for over-the-top drama. In space.

The term space opera was originally meant to be derogatory, like the terms horse opera (for formulaic Westerns) and soap opera (which is obviously still in common usage). It was meant to be condescending to science fiction books set in space, with overly dramatic plots and plots lifted straight from soapy Westerns. This was way back in 1941, when serial radio dramas were the origination of the term soap operas (they were sponsored by soap companies). Over time, the term has definitely become less derogatory–though you will still find people who are as disdainful of space opera as they are of modern-day soap operas.

These days, space opera is still characterized as high drama. The stories often have very high stakes (the future of all living things!!!), and almost always involve military action of some sort (though that’s not universally true). There is, in general, a very sympathetic main character. But I think mostly, they tend to skew towards an optimistic, light tone. They’re not dark and grim. They also tend to come in bunches–often they end up as looong series, so if you like the first book, you have many happy hours of reading in front of you.

Full disclosure: I’m quite a fan of space opera. I love the general harmonious feelings many of the stories have, even when there is lots of conflict and, well, death. In some ways they feel slightly akin to romances–some of them have minor romances in them–in that I’m never super worried that the ending is going to stress me out. You can almost always count on an ending that will lead you strongly into the next book, or if it’s standalone, leave you satisfied that all the ends were wrapped up nicely. Also, they’re just plain entertaining, and the world-building is often fantastically fun.

Essential authors: Ann Leckie, Becky Chambers, James S.A. Corey, John Scalzi, David Weber