Space Opera is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction, and in recent years has gained a new lease of life (I recommend reading The New Space Opera anthology for good snapshot of the current state of affairs). Like all definitions, saying what exactly is and isn’t space opera can be a highly subjective exercise, but for me, works of space opera all try for a certain grand sweep: the canvas is broad, often involving a good chunk of at least one galaxy. The themes are big–space opera is where entire space-faring civilizations can collide–and awesome technologies are frequently brought into play.
So why didn’t something like Battlestar Galactica make the list? I excluded Battlestar because although the rag-tag fleet does move through the galaxy, visiting other star systems, it pretty much does so as a single group, meaning the colonials take their world–their psychological landscape–with them. The tone of Battlestar is often deliberately (and brilliantly) claustrophobic, and to me Space Opera is all about being expansive. I also excluded Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the various incarnations of Stargate and even Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, because although all these shows feature elements of space opera–and some even have full-fledged space opera episodes–the space opera isn’t central to their existence.
As for Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which is often quoted when discussing Space Opera, I just can’t get behind it. Like many, I first read Foundation in my teens, but it left little impression, unlike many of Asimov’s short stories or other novels (The Naked Sun in particular has stayed with me). When people got upset that I didn’t include Foundation‘s Terminus or Trantor in my recent list of 10 Best Science Fiction Planets, I went out and bought the trilogy to refresh myself and a) I still think neither Trantor and Terminus deserve to make that list and b) I found all three books heavy going.
For a yarn about the rise and fall and rise of galaxy-spanning empires, the books are surprisingly sparse. First, there are virtually no women at all in the first book–half of the human race simply doesn’t exist, except for a few lines from the shrewish wife of one of Foundation’s opponents, and a walk-on part with no words from a servant girl. There is one developed female character in each of the second and third books, but later it transpires that these two performed all their interesting actions as more-or-less meat puppets of the Second Foundation, robbing them of any agency. (And you can’t write this off as just a symptom of the 1950’s era that Asimov was writing in–for example, E.E. “Doc” Smith didn’t exactly smash gender roles in his Lensman books, written mostly in the 1940’s and described below, but he still managed to put women onstage and give them some agency, starting 30 pages in with Kinnexa, a lethal, efficient, and courageous secret agent who takes the lead in proposing a suicide mission to her male partner.) Even Asimov’s male Foundation characters tend toward a certain sameness — for example the heros of the first Foundation book, Hardin and Mallow, are essentially interchangeable characters, both cut from the same cloth of reluctant but idealistic and incorruptible pragmatism. All but one of several centuries worth of space battles occur offstage. There are no alien civilizations, which isn’t bad per se, but then the human worlds are largely culturally homogenous, with about as much variation between them as you’d get between rural and urban communities on contemporary Earth. And so on.
So all that said, here are my Top 5, in chronological order:
- The Lensman Series (1934-1954). Written by E.E. “Doc” Smith, in many ways this series is the granddaddy of the genre. Two vast and ancient superraces battle it out for control of the cosmos, mainly through proxy species, of which humanity is one. The books were especially notable for their space battles, and the scorch of beams splashing against hull shields practically wafts from the pages. The influence of the Lensmen series was huge and can be seen in things like Babylon 5 (see below) and the Homeworld series of video games.
- Known Space (1964- ). The setting of a series of novel and short stories by Larry Niven, the universe of Known Space brought us one of the most iconic artifacts in science fiction, the Ringworld, a vast and ancient habitat that encircles a star, apparently long since abandoned by its mysterious creators. If you’ve played a game of Halo, you’ve felt the influence of Known Space too.
- Star Wars (1977 – 1983) Space opera went mainstream with this swashbuckling epic. Exotic planets and aliens, fast-paced action and cool spaceships made this trilogy the ultimate exemplar of science fiction in the minds of many.
- The Culture (1987- ) Starting with Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks created a civilization of truly vast scope. His civilization doesn’t just discover alien artifacts of vast power or size–it makes them. His books focus on a branch of The Culture called Special Circumstances, where the high ideals of the civilization collides with unpleasant realities, with often messy results. His books are laced with a wry humor and have a literary quality matched by few.
- Babylon 5 (1993- ) Paving the way for shows like Lost and Heroes, J. Michael Straczynski’s creation was designed to be a televised novel, with a beginning, middle, and end. Although it had a slow start, and some elements were very Lensmen-like, the show had innovative ideas and originality throughout. (Incidentally, the first two season are currently available to watch for free on Hulu.)
What do you think? Any other space operas I should know about?
Links to this Post
- Off to (another) Fair « The Crotchety Old Fan | September 20, 2008
- I Come For Love: Getting Down With Aliens | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine | October 7, 2008
- Free RPG Day and space opera support | Gene's Worlds | June 27, 2011
- Good Reading – Legends of Dune: The Background | Most Popular Books | July 4, 2011