Blogs in Spaaaaaacccceeee!

Lieutenant Colonel Gar Cuttsit stared at the blue-haired, green-skinned alien sex slave. He ground his teeth, driving any feelings he had for this admittedly alluring creature away. His hand shook as he pointed the ray gun directly between her seven eyes.

“But Gar!” she cried in her husky, silken voice. “I love you!”

“Save it!” Gar growled, quenching back the multitude of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. “You’ve betrayed me for the last time!”

Oy. The Space Opera: a classic sub-genre of science fiction, it was once the fodder of serial novels and short movies. Nowadays, the serial novel is all but extinct, and movies that even show a hint of Space Opera-tude get laughed out of the theater. It’s been parodied extensively on television, from the Pigs In Space skits on the Muppet Show to Tek Jansen on the Colbert Report. But is all this ridicule really deserved? If one looks at a similarly bashed and battered genre, Romance, one would see that even though the general perception of the genre is very far off the mark. But talking about Romance isn’t my job (I’ll leave that to the Smart Bitches), nor am I even remotely qualified to do so. Instead, let’s focus on Space Operas and why they have the reputation that they have.

Space Operas are a sub-genre of science fiction, which in turn is a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is described by Wikipedia as:

…a term used as an inclusive descriptor covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps with one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

However, that description doesn’t really get at the heart of what speculative fiction is. Essentially, speculative fiction takes our everyday world and ponders what would happen if one (or sometimes more) thing was different. So a story might expound on what would be different if we had faster-than-light travel, or if the Allies had lost World War II, or if magic had existed since the beginning of time. While much of science fiction and fantasy fit into that category (take Stranger in a Strange Land or the Harry Potter series, for instance), some doesn’t quite fit the bill. For example, some science fiction or fantasy is so far removed from our current reality, and so many speculative assumptions had to be made on the way from our reality to that of the story, that it hardly counts as speculation any more. An example of this would be Star Wars. Though there are some tenuous connections between its universe and ours, it is so different from our world that it hardly counts as speculation. Similarly, fantasy stories set in unique worlds, such as the world of Forgotten Realms, are so far disconnected from our world that they barely qualify as speculative fiction. It would probably be more accurate to describe science fiction and fantasy as overlapping with speculative fiction rather than being sub-genres.
Overlapping genres
Speculative fiction may be the larger genre, and may overlap with most fantasy and science fiction, but there are areas that are independent of it.

But Space Operas are almost universally a sub-genre of science fiction. So what is science fiction? Well, trusty Wikipedia doesn’t tell us much on that front, other than

Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

This could encompass any number of things, and, indeed it does; everything from near-future fiction to, well, Space Operas. It can be very strict (the purple area of the ven diagram) or even involve some fantastic elements (such as steam punk; the orange area). And sometimes, science simply becomes a pat explanation for strange, impossible or highly improbable things, essentially acting as magic sometimes does in fantasy. The train of thought seems to be that if it sounds scientific, your deus ex machina is rendered believable. Star Wars (with its midi-chlorians), Star Trek (time and time again), Futurama (although there it’s intentionally played for laughs), Flash Gordon, and many others fall into this particular category. Space Operas seem to be particularly prone to this fallacy, thus earning their somewhat laughable reputation.

So Space Operas are science fiction, but what is it about them that sets them apart from the pack? The key is mainly in the plot. Generally, Space Operas are sweeping tales that focus on broad themes, playing out melodramatic adventures against the backdrop of space. Technology and science act more as a prop than as a focus of speculation or the drive behind the stories. This, perhaps, is what most strongly sets Space Operas aside from science fiction in general. Science fiction strives to predict what could happen if variable X is altered (spaceflight, nuclear war, etc). If you remove the setting, the variable that has been changed, then the story ceases to exist. Not so with Space Operas. Since Space Operas play on large themes — romance, melodrama, good and evil, tyranny and democracy, freedom and slavery — the setting can be changed dramatically without the underlying story being altered much at all. For example, say a Space Opera that tells the tale of a rebel alliance fighting to overthrow a repressive galactic regime. The fact that it’s set in space adds a “hook” to the story, but the underlying themes of tyranny and democracy wouldn’t change a whit if you set it in Stalinist Russia instead of the Galactic Federation.

Although largely defined by its broad themes and sweeping scope, Space Operas are also defined by the cliches that are specific to the genre. While a good Space Opera can be written without falling prey to these cliches, they are unfortunately common. These are oddities most readers are familiar with: faster-than-light travel with little to no explanation as to how, a vast excess of humanoid aliens (especially ones with compatible genitalia), larger-than-life heroes, an alien race bent on destroying planets for no concrete reason, guns that never run out of ammo and have a “stun” setting, etc. These cliches can be written well, but it is the (often highly visible) cases when they are not that end up giving the genre a bad name.

So are Space Operas inherently a trashy genre that’s made up of nothing but cliched pulp fiction? No, of course not. While they may not be my cup of tea (I’d much rather read “hard” science fiction any day), when done well, they are as much a piece of literature as a well-written fantasy (or “hard” science fiction, or mystery, or horror, or romance) story. However, if you’re setting out to write one, ask yourself two questions before you start. First, is it really necessary to set your story in space, or would transporting it into a different setting still get your point across? And second, does your story avoid the pitfall cliches of the genre? If your answer to both is a whole-hearted yes, then by all means, have at it.

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