You may have heard the term "space opera," but just what does it mean? Space Opera is a categorization of science fiction stories where the emphasis is on melodramatic adventure. It usually takes place in outer space on a very large-scale canvas.
Read more reviews of books by these space opera authors at Kirkus.
Like all categorizations, that definition is fluid and constantly changing. Indeed, in the early days of its existence, the term space opera was a pejorative. It was coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker, citing those stories as "hacky, grinding, outworn spaceships yarns" synonymous with TV's soap operas and western "horse operas." The negative connation stuck around for a couple of decades until the term took on a nostalgic inference and, ultimately, become associated with success and popular entertainment. (Thanks, Star Wars!)
Regardless of its sordid history, space opera offers what many fiction readers crave—escapist adventure.
The pioneers of the space opera subgenre, before it was even considered one, have written stories that are now considered classics. E.E. "Doc" Smith wrote both the Skylark and Lensman series—books that involve lots of action and derring-do. Edmond Hamilton was similarly shooting up the stars with his short fiction, including his popular Captain Future stories. Same goes for Jack Williamson in his Legion of Space series and Leigh Brackett in her Eric John Stark stories.
Naming a space opera series after its central hero has become something of a tradition. Poul Anderson's contribution to space opera is Dominic Flandry, a hero from the Imperial Intelligence fighting off threats to the Empire. Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan is an aristocrat born with physical disabilities resulting from an assassination attempt on his parents. David Weber offers a long-running military sf series about Honor Harrington, while Elizabeth Moon has Vatta's War, named for the adventurous protagonist Kylara Vatta. Meanwhile, Harry Harrison parodies space opera with Bill, The Galactic Hero.
If one still needed proof that space opera is no longer synonymous with bad sf, consider Nova by Samuel Delany, a Literary space opera which takes place when cyborg technology is ubiquitous. Also on the Literary end of the spectrum: Iain M. Banks' much-loved Culture novels, which are about a post-scarcity, semi-anarchist utopia administered by artificial intelligences; and Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, a series noted for being both complex and rewarding.
Other popular space operas include Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought novels; The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, about our first contact with aliens; David Brin's Uplift series, revolving around artificially increasing animal intelligence; Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire stories, which take place over several generations in an interstellar war of control; Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, combining hard science, posthumanism and horror into grand-scale ideas; Peter F. Hamilton offers the wonderful Night's Dawn Trilogy. His Commonwealth Saga (which includes the Void Trilogy) is ostensibly about who will control the evolution of the human race.
Short fiction readers will want to seek out The Space Opera Renaissance edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer and The New Space Opera series edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan.
What, you still want more reading suggestions? How about:
- Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns
- James A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes
- Marianne De Pierres' Sentients of Orion
- Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty
- Paul J. McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars
- Hiroyuki Morioka's Crest of the Stars
- S. Andrew Swann's The Apotheosis Trilogy
- Scott Westerfeld's The Succession duology
- Sean Williams' Astropolis series and (with Shane Dix) the Evergence and Orphans and Geodesica series
- Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring new s, reviews and interviews.