What is it that makes Space Opera so good?

Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog are still running their space opera week event, so I’ll use this as an excuse to talk some more about one of my favourite subgenres.

First of all, we have another list, for at the B&N SFF blog, T.W. O’Brien posts a massive list of fifty-five essential space operas from the past seventy years, from Lensmen and The Star Kings all the way to Ninefox Gambit. It’s a great list which shows how broad and diverse space opera really is and that it’s much more than just manly men doing manly things in space (though there’s plenty of that, too). The writer demographics are much more diverse, too, than those of the almost all-male and all-white I linked to in my last post. The early years are very white and very male, though you also have Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey and Samuel R. Delany in there (though they did miss C.L. Moore, probably because she wrote most of the Northwest Smith stories before the 1937 cut-off point, though Judgment Night would fit in). And the further down you get, the more women and writers of colour appear. Lots of personal favourites are included, too, though I can’t help but notice that Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series and the Dredd Chronicles are sorely missing.

Another really fascinating piece to come out of the space opera week event is Liz Bourke’s post about space opera and the question of empire at Tor.com. Herein, Liz Bourke takes a look at four different space operas, namely David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, David Drake’s RCN series, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and sequel, and analyses how these four works tackle the question of empire and imperialism and its social and political implications. She comes to the conclusion that David Weber is mainly interested in military action and does not particularly care about the social and political implications of the universe he built. He also doesn’t question imperialism at all. David Drake (whom I have to admit I keep confusing with David Weber, though I have read books by both) also focusses on military action, but places more emphasis on the political and social implications of imperialism than Weber. on the other end of the spectrum, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee are far more interested in how their characters deal with questions of identity and position in strictly hierarchical imperialist systems than in big space battles.

Yoon Ha Lee himself makes a similar point in his contribution to space opera week, when he discusses the emphasis the space opera subgenre tends to place on big space battles. Like Liz Bourke, Yoon Ha Lee takes a look at individual works and diagnoses that in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series and Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, the focus is very much on big space battles and other space opera shenangigans rather than on politics and culture (he’s mistaken with regards to Green, though, because there is quite a bit of political commentary embedded in the Deathstalker series together with all the space opera fun Green could squeeze in). Meanwhile, other works such as Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series use the superficial trappings of space opera to make a sociocultural point about the effects of imperialism and the clash of cultures.

Talking of Yoon Ha Lee, Martin Cahill reviews Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, the sequel to Hugo, Nebula and Clarke Award nominated Ninefox Gambit. I’m not sure if this is just a regular review or a space opera week tie-in, but it certainly fits. There’s also an excerpt from Raven Stratagem at Tor.com.

Now empires and imperialism (and big space battles) seem to come part and parcel with space opera, since the overwhelming majority of space opera presents imperialist powers, even if the actual system is not an empire but a republic or a federation or – rarely – a quasi-communist/socialist state. Even the cheerfully collectivist and anarchist post-scarcity society of Iain Banks’ Culture frequently comes up against the imperialism of less enlightened powers and occasionally engages in a bit of imperialism of their own. Perhaps Ian Sales had a point when he called space opera an inherently rightwing genre, because it tends to default to imperialism, regardless of the writers’ actual politics.

I have to admit that my own attempts at space opera, the Shattered Empire and the In Love and War series, are both set in imperialist systems, an actual empire in the case of Shattered Empire and an empire and a republic, both of which are equally imperialistic, in the case of In Love and War. in both cases, this was due to a worldbuilding necessity. Shattered Empire is my attempt to write the sort of story about an epic struggle against an injust system that permeates much of the SF I love most. And you can’t really have a revolution without an evil empire. Though I didn’t pattern the Fifth Human Empire and its history after such obvious suspects as the Roman Empire, the British Empire or the Napoleonic wars, but instead did what space opera writers have been doing for a long time and used the politics of my own country as a base. The history of the Fifth Human Empire as recounted in History Lesson blatantly borrows from the politics of West Germany post-1945. Interestingly, no one has ever remarked on this, even though the borrowings are very blatant indeed.

For In Love and War, I needed a universe divided between two great powers locked in a generation-spanning war, with the few independent entities squeezed to the margins. In short, it’s basically the Cold War gone hot in space. My initial idea was that the Empire of Worlds is the British Empire on steroids, while the Republic of United Planets is the US at its most expansionist and imperialistic on steroids. However, while I was actually writing the stories, the Empire of Worlds turned into a hierarchical class/caste system that is a lot more strictly stratified than the British Empire ever was at its worst, while the Republic of Worlds turned into a technocracy governed by a body calling itself the Scientific Council. Both systems are extremely nasty, even the supposedly rational, democratic and egalitarian Republic. My protagonists, Anjali and Mikhail both come from the margins of their respective regimes. Anjali is a member of the lowest class from an exploited backwater planet (and remember that so far, we haven’t actually seen any members of the higher classes of the Empire), while Mikhail is a war orphan, an abused throwaway child who was only viewed as a burden on the state to which he lost his family. They both join their respective militaries, the only way out for people like them and manage to occasionally walk the corridors of power, though they never really belong there. See Mikhail pretending to be a guard and fading into the background in Graveyard Shift, while his superiors discuss the fates of human beings over tea and pastries.

When I write, I usually start with the characters or a situation and then build the world or the universe to fit. This is what I did with both Shattered Empire and In Love and War, both of which are set in imperialistic universes by ncessity.

Talking of worldbuilding, Kameron Hurley, who also has a post at Tor.com in which she explains how she created her space opera universe for The Stars Are Legion. I always enjoy posts where authors explain how they created their worlds and what was the initiating spark for a given novel or series, especially since it’s often something that didn’t strike me as very memorable when I read the books in question. Now I haven’t read The Stars Are Legion yet, but here is a similar post by Charles Stross about how he created the world of Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. Now I read both books back in the day and found them immensely frustrating (and indeed they’re part of the reason I have issues with New British Space Opera, as chronicled here). However, when I read Charles Stross’ post about the building the universe of those books, I found that even though I’d read them and remembered my whole frustration with them very well indeed, I had very little memory of this whole Eschaton stuff, because frankly, I didn’t find it very interesting (and that was before I discovered that it was heavily borrowed from Iain Banks’ Culture novels). But then, my own writing process is different, as described above.

Talking of the Culture novels, also at Tor.com, Karin L. Kross celebrates Iain M. Banks, the Culture novels and their revolutionary optimism. Now I have to admit that I’m not the world’s biggest Iain Banks fan. That’s more my fault than his, because I came across other New British space opera strongly influenced by Banks before I finally read my first Culture novel. And since I did not care for what I’d seen of New British space opera, I never gave Iain Banks a fair shot, because I always associated him with those books. Things might well have been different if I’d found Banks before I found his immitators.

In another Tor.com post, Molly Templeton shares her appreciation for the Lightless series by C.A. Higgins, which I haven’t read. Other offerings for space opera week include Leah Schnelbach revisiting Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany, a space opera which hinges on linguistics. I enjoyed Babel-17 a lot, when I first read it, largely for the combination of space opera and James Bond-style spy thriller. Though the linguistics aspect – sorry – is bunk. I know SF authors love the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, love it more than actual linguists, in fact (well, how could you not love a hypothesis that sounds as if it was cooked up by two Klingon linguists), but it’s a hypothesis and even if you accept it, no real world language will ever do what language can do in Babel-17 or Jack Vance’s Languages of Pao or Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” a.k.a. Arrival. I understand the fascination – hey, part of the reason why I chose sociology as my secondary subject at university was my love for Asimov’s Foundation series. But actually studying the stuff – both sociology and linguistics (I even taught the latter at the University of Vechta and wrote a paper on linguistics and SF) – tends to show you that neither sociology nor language actually work that way in the real world, anymore than FTL travel is possible in the real world.

Tor.com also reprints the space opera/military SF short story “Damage” by David D. Levine, narrated from the POV of an artificially intelligent fighter supposed to carry out the final strike in an interplanetary war. “Damage” was a Nebula finalist in 2016 and was also on my personal Hugo nomination ballot that year. It’s also a very poignant story.

Meanwhile, over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, Ross Johnson shares a list of ten space operas in comic and graphic novel form. It’s a pretty good list, though heavy on recent works. I mean, a list of space opera comics that omits Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers? Really? None of Jack Kirby’s many space opera comics make the list either, though the Green Lantern Corps gets a mention. The list is very US dominated, while largely ignoring European and Japanese comics. Valerian and Laureline get a mention, but they’re far from the only space opera found in Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics. Meanwhile, manga is omitted altogether. At Tor.com, Natalie Zutter takes a closer look at Brian K. Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’ multiple-award-winning Saga, one of the space opera comics on the B&N list, and how it focusses more on building a family and the theme of hope than on big space battles, even though Saga is chock-full of space opera weirdness.

Also at Barnes & Noble, Sarah Gailey offers book recommendations to what may well be the only actual opera diva in space opera, the tentacled and blue diva Plavalaguna from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. It seems Plavalaguna likes YA fiction, which is unexpected. Or maybe not, since opera thrives on drama and modern YA has plenty of that. Besides, my time of peak opera love was in my teens (So dramatic! So romantic! So thrilling! And music, too), so Plavalaguna, prime opera diva of the galaxy*, loving YA fiction makes an unexpected amount of sense.

Tor.com offers another excellent contribution to space opera week with Emily Asher-Perrin’s post tackling the frequent accusation that space opera is just fantasy set in space (as opposed to proper hard science fiction). She pretty much answers that question in the negative in the headline and then goes on to trace the history of the term “space opera” and how it went from derogatory description of a certain kind of science fiction story to subgenre designation. Emily Asher-Perrin also points out that space opera initially wasn’t compared to the fantasy genre at all, probably because there was no fantasy genre in the modern sense before the 1960s/1070s. Instead, the genres space opera found itself negatively compared to were the soap opera and the western a.k.a. the horse opera, which is turn received their monickers via a negative view of the melodramatic plots of some operas (which still persists – I’ve seen interviews with opera directors in which they complained about the melodramatic and silly plots of many classics).

Coincidentally, the overblown melodrama was a large part of what I loved (and still love) about actual opera. What initially drew my teenaged self to opera was that it combined two things I loved, namely music and stories, gloriously wild and exciting stories full of court intrigue and swordfights, deadly feuds, crossdressing and disguise, forbidden love, betrayal, dashing heroism, sacrifice, prison escapes, torture, executions, suicides, disastrous mix-ups (I can offhand name three operas where someone winds up killing their lover or child in an easily prevented mix-up), devastating tragedies, grand gestures of mercy, dramatic dying arias and much more. I still don’t get why there are concert productions of operas, because to me, the stories are as important as the music, so concert productions omit what to me is the best part of opera (and I was a kid who read opera libretti for entertainment). Of course, stage productions often don’t deliver either, since many directors are uncomfortable with the melodramatic plots of many operas and either try to subvert them or try to find some political or social relevance in them. Bonus points, if they take an opera that actually could have relevance to current affairs and somehow manage to twist a meaning from it that totally misses the obvious, e.g. Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (a personal favourite of mine) could be turned into a great commentary on relations between Islam and the West, so of course the director has to turn it into a treatise on the sex trade. Or Beethoven’s Fidelio, an opera about a political prisoner and his wife’s desperate attempt to free him, i.e. a story which can be so easily related to current affairs, is instead turned into a parable on deindustrialisation and mass unployment, complete with the chorus dressed up as stereotyped unemployed workers lugging discount store shopping bags across the stage, as happened in a production at the Bremen theatre in the 1990s. And of course, Bayreuth is infamous for Wagner productions that completely miss the point.

If you take a look at the plot elements that so thrilled me about classic operas that I listed above, you’ll notice that you can find many of them in both soap operas and space operas. Viewed in that light, it’s probably no surprise that my teenaged self which loved operas also enjoyed soap operas. And of course, I also loved space opera, fantasy and superhero comics, all of which I’ve been known to describe as “It’s like a soap opera, but with swordfights and dragons/with superpowers/in space”.

So while the affinity between opera proper, space opera, soap opera and epic fantasy is clearly visible, I recall that the comparison between space opera and westerns (or indeed anyone of the others and westerns) has always stumped me, because with obvious exceptions such as Firefly and Serenity, I don’t see a whole lot of similarities between space opera and westerns, at least not enough to call refer to space operas as “westerns in space”. Besides, like Emily Asher-Perrin, I have never much cared for the western genre or rather I disliked certain prominent elements of westerns so much that they turned me off the entire genre. Therefore, I was always stunned, whenever someone compared the genre I loved most to the genre I loved least, because wasn’t it obviously to anybody with half an eye that these two weren’t the same at all.

Though the question remains why I love space opera so much more than e.g. epic fantasy. The answer was always pretty clear to me. For while you can get your fix of the good stuff – adventure, love, heroics, wondrous worlds, conflict on a grand scale – in various genres, I have always preferred my fantasy with indoor plumbing. That’s why I prefer both urban fantasy, steampunk and science fiction, including space opera, over epic fantasy.

Meanwhile, the puppies or at least some of them are still pissed that they weren’t invited to the party (gee, I wonder why?), so they started their own space opera week event. All links go to archive.is, in case you’re worried about visiting a puppy site.

Jon Del Arroz complains that he is being oppressed and censored, because Tor.com moderators deleted his comments in which he promoted one of his posts at the Castalia House blog and also deleted the comments his friends left that called for Tor.com to give Del Arroz a guest post. He also quite grandiosely declares himself an important space opera writer and the leading Hispanic voice in science fiction (I guess Ann Aguirre, Junot Diaz, Malka Older, Daniel José Older, Carmen Maria Machado, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, etc… might have a few words to say about that). Dude, it’s not censorship if moderators delete self-promoting posts, since I’m pretty sure Tor.com does not allow any self-promotion in comments. Though Del Arroz doesn’t just promote himself, since he also offers a list of five current space operas he recommends at the Superversive SF blog.

Over at the Castalia House blog, Dominika Lein declares that space opera requires sense of wonder and should never be mundane, while Misha Burnett declares that space opera should follow the rules of myth and uses Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 as an example. Benjamin Cheah, who had a short story on the 2016 Hugo ballot, also weighs in on his own blog and declares that space opera should be grand and operatic and focus on adventure rather than on realism and details of mundane life. And at Superversive SF, Corey McCleary declares that “real readers/viewers” (TM) want action and adventure and heroics and not mundane realism and uses the box office figures of various recent Hollywood movies to prove his point. Ironically, he lumps American Sniper**, a film biography of a real life sniper with the US military, in on the action, adventure and heroics side (well, the movie does not question the questionable actions of its protagonist at all), while La La Land, a candy-coloured musical about two young people looking for Hollywood stardom and finding love instead, gets classified as mundane realism. Dude, these words don’t mean what you think they do. Meanwhile, at Tales of the Rampant Coyote, Jay Barnson explains what space opera means to him (sense of wonder, action and adventure, larger than life settings and characters, thrilling heroics). Barnson also shares a quote by Leigh Brackett on space opera and how it endures, when all the “important” science fiction has faded. Now I adore Leigh Brackett’s fiction, but her comments on writing and genre have never impressed me. Never mind that the reason why Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark stories and her Mars stories are still read today, while many of her contemporaries have faded away is because they offered something more (great characters and dialogue, mainly, cause Brackett was also a top-motch screenwriter) than just adventure in space.

Interestingly, several of the puppy contributions to space opera week specifically take issue with Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer’s post on the underrated importance of ordinary daily life in space opera, which they somehow read as “Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer hates space opera [No, she doesn’t. After all, she does the Vorkosigan reread series at Tor.com and you don’t do a reread with commentary of a genre you hate] and wants to take away our fun [Dudes, no one wants to take away your fun. We simply want something different out of the genre].”

The puppy contributions to space opera week also clearly show that they (or rather the pulp revolution and superversive SF offshoots, since the space opera discussion seems to be concentrated there) have a fairly narrow view of the subgenre, one that focusses on sense of wonder, thrilling action and adventure, larger than life heroics, usually of the military kind, a strict good and evil dichotomy and traditional gender roles. Now there’s nothing wrong about that and indeed, many of the Tor.com and B&N posters also declared their love for works that did just that, featuring heroic people, usually but not always male, being heroic in space. However – and this is something the various puppies and puppy adjacents don’t get – space opera can be more than just manly space marines (and occasionally feminine space princesses) doing manly things in space. To some people, the seemingly mundane interactions between realistic characters in decidedly non-realistic and non-mundane settings are as much as, if not more fun than the big space battles. And the beauty of the space opera genre is that it can accomodate all of those stories from the great space battles of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet to the small scale learning to the be human stories of Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit.

Comments are off. Puppies, whine elsewhere.

*Or maybe not, since one of the oldest surviving characters I’ve created is an immortal telepathic singer with a taste for opera. Since she’s immortal and has access to a time machine, she can literally pop up everywhere, and may well put in a guest appearance in the Shattered Empire series (The Empire has operas. You know they do) or the In Love and War series (The Empire definitely has opera and the Republic probably does, too) one day. She may even meet the Silencer one day, because hey, time travel.

**By the way, it’s fascinating that the same actor, Bradley Cooper both plays the lead in the hyper-propagandistic American Sniper and provides the voice for Rocket Raccoon in the cheerfully anarchistic found-family space opera adventure Guardians of the Galaxy and that he played both roles in the same year.

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