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A History of Space Opera in 5 Titles

By / May 18, 2017 / no comments

Space opera is big again, what with Tor promising a summer of space opera, and the fuss accompanying the announcement that Jo Walton’s new book, due in February next year, is a space opera, Poor Relations.

But space opera hasn’t always been popular. In fact, since it first appeared, about 90 years ago, space opera has gone in and out of fashion with remarkable regularity. Even the name, “space opera”, coined by Wilson Tucker in the 1940s, is a sign of the disdain with which it has been held. Early radio serials, corny, crude, often silly, tended to be sponsored by soap powder companies, so they quickly acquired the name “soap operas”. The name stuck, and variants were devised for any hackneyed story. Westerns became “horse operas”, and brash, colourful, ridiculous space adventures inevitably became “space operas”.

The Skylark of Space (The Skylark Series) (Volume 1)To go back to the beginning, science fiction had been telling stories about people going into space ever since the 17th century, but these tended to be journeys to the Moon or Mars, and mostly concentrated on what happened when the travellers reached their destination. But around 1915 E.E. “Doc” Smith, along with his neighbour, Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby, began writing a travel adventure set largely in space. This eventually became The Skylark of Space which was serialized in Amazing in 1928, and which is generally recognized as the first space opera. The hero, Dick Seaton, invents the first workable space drive, but it is sabotaged by his rival, “Blackie” DuQuesne, who then kidnaps Seaton’s fiance and sets of into space. The story then becomes an extravagant, colourful adventure as Seaton sets off in pursuit, on a journey that takes in a variety of strange planet and weird aliens. It’s pretty simplistic stuff, even compared to the space operas that would come a few years later, but it is still a rollicking adventure from a time when there was a buccaneering swagger to science fiction.

FoundationEven by the time of the Second World War, the sorts of space opera being written by Smith and Edmond Hamilton were seen as cheap and worn out. But science fiction wasn’t prepared to give up on the grand vistas and colourful adventures that space offered, so even as crude space opera was being supplanted by the hard sf model championed by John W. Campbell as Astounding, writers were finding ways to revitalise space opera. One of the key was of doing this was to imagine a distant future of interstellar empires, and probably the most successful example of this trend was the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. This imagined a vast interstellar empire under threat from various forces, and the scholars who perceive the threat and establish a foundation to preserve civilization. The situation allows for a series of dramatic adventures across a vast sweep of space and time, as the empire crumbles before a series of foreseen and unforeseen threats, and as different enemies seek to discover the hidden foundation.

NovaExciting as it was to play with these spectacular vistas, even this revitalized form of space opera quickly became stale. By the time the young turks of the New Wave came on the scene in the 1960s, space opera had come to represent everything that was dull, old fashioned and wrong about science fiction. If science fiction was to be reinvented and re-energized, then such tired and conservative forms as space opera had to be discarded. Even so, the new generation of science fiction writers could not entirely escape the allure of the space opera, even if, in novels such as The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison it was treated with an irony and a sense of disenchantment that would have been anathema to the previous generation of space opera writers. Probably the most significant of the new wave space operas was Nova by Samuel R. Delany. Here the quest plot becomes a platform upon which Delany can express a more liberal political perspective than was usually the case with space operas, he can take the opportunity to employ some of the literary experimentation that would become a more prominent feature of his later works, and he can subsume the romance of early space opera into a formal retelling of the Arthur myth.

Consider Phlebas (Culture)These relatively rare examples of new wave space opera, however, did not mean the survival of the form. By the mid-1970s it was all but dead. Then came Star Wars, and suddenly space opera was reborn as the visual image of science fiction. Not that this had much effect on written science fiction at the time; if anything it confirmed space opera as a form no-one wanted to use. The predominant form of sf at this time was cyberpunk, and though some examples, such as Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling, had space operatic elements, it was a type of science fiction that in the main acted against the sense of romantic adventure inherent in space opera. Then, out of left field (literally) came Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. Banks had already established a name for himself as the author of challenging, blackly comic, and iconoclastic mainstream novels, so when he turned to the hoariest of sf forms for his first venture into the genre, it was a shock to the system. But what he did with space opera was even more shocking: he turned an essentially conservative form into the setting for a communist utopia in the shape of the Culture, and he used the non-stop adventure of the form as an excuse for some very dark comedy. In other words he did something that no one had been fully able to do since E.E. “Doc” Smith: he completely reinvented and revitalized the space opera.

Revelation SpaceThe other thing that Banks did was kick start what became known as the British Renaissance, a revival of science fiction in the UK that mostly centred on the new hard sf and the new space opera. What these two related movements did was breathe new life into tired science fiction forms by giving them a predominantly left wing perspective merging this with the more serious literary techniques that had developed since the new wave had imported literary modernism into science fiction. By the dawn of the new century, space opera hadn’t just been rehabilitated as a form of science fiction, it had become one of the most popular forms. And that is a position it has continued to hold to this day. There are an awful lot of writers who could be chosen as exemplars of this new respectability of space opera, but the writer who probably best represents the movement is Alastair Reynolds. With his first novel, Revelation Space, he proved himself able to make space opera very much his own. He handled scale, both in terms of the extraordinary distances involved and the long sweep of time, with remarkable aplomb. He turned the colourful romance of space opera into something altogether darker and more threatening. And he kept up the high speed pace of incident piling upon incident that has been a feature of space opera ever since E.E. “Doc” Smith invented it.

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