The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Space opera

For other meanings of this term see Space Opera (disambiguation).

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic adventure, interstellar travel, and space battles where the main storyline is centred around interstellar conflict and character drama .



"Space opera" was originally a derogatory term, a variant of "horse opera" and "soap opera". Wilson Tucker suggested the term in 1941. It meant an action-oriented tale of space adventure instead of "respectable" science fiction story that concentrated on effects of technological progress and inventions. However there is no sharp dividing line and many authors manage to combine the space adventure and the supposedly 'respectable' elements, ensuring that the best written space opera is represented among the best of science fiction generally.

Originators of the first space opera stories were E. E. Smith, with his Skylark and Lensman series; Edmond Hamilton; Jack Williamson; John W. Campbell; and later Leigh Brackett.

In recent years, a resurgence in space opera has resulted in what some consider to be a sub-subgenre often called "new space opera." Typically, new space opera combines the interstellar scale and grandeur of traditional space opera with elements of hard science fiction. New space opera is therefore scientifically rigorous while ambitious in scope.

Among the practitioners of the new space opera are Stephen R. Donaldson, Dan Simmons, John Varley, David Brin, Iain Banks, Catherine Asaro, Orson Scott Card, John Clute, Charles Stross, Peter F. Hamilton, Lois McMaster Bujold, M. John Harrison, Donald M. Kingsbury , David Weber, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Mike Resnick, and C. J. Cherryh.

Anime has now become one of space opera's main contributors. Series such as Cowboy Bebop, Gundam series, Dirty Pair (Original and Flash), Crest of the Stars, Legend of Galactic Heroes and Martian Successor Nadesico are increasing in popularity and to a certain extent influence the genre.

Space opera forms a central part of the belief system of Scientology, whose founder L. Ron Hubbard was originally a pulp science fiction writer. The story of Xenu illustrates space opera themes in Scientology, which regards science fictional space opera as being an unconscious recollection of real events which occurred in the distant past. Space opera is defined in the Official Scientology and Dianetics Glossary as follows:

... of or relating to time periods ... millions of years ago which concerned activities in this and other galaxies. Space opera has space travel, spaceships, spacemen, intergalactic travel, wars, conflicts, other beings, civilizations and societies, and other planets and galaxies. It is not fiction and concerns actual incidents and things that occurred on the whole track [in the past].


The scientific veracity of various backgrounds varies tremendously. In some cases, the only violation of the known laws of physics is the faster-than-light travel . Although this can be seen itself as very divergent from reality, at the other end of the scale, stories tend to be even less realistic. Some protagonists use various mystical powers and are able to destroy whole planets and alien species. Star Wars, with its Death Star and 'Force' lies close to the original pulp science fiction .

Character development and description varies as well. Lois McMaster Bujold and Iain M. Banks write about very human conflicts.

A popular subset of space opera stories concentrate on large-scale space battles with futuristic weapons. Some of them take their military tone and weapon system technology very seriously. See military science fiction.

Many science fiction writers use variants of space opera background with less military fervor and planet-busting xenophobia. At one extreme, the genre is a speculation about future war in space or effects of war on humans; at the other it consists of the use of non-science fiction plots in a superficially SF background.

Many of the TV science fiction series from Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek are variants of space opera. Harry Harrison and Douglas Adams parody space opera clichés. Fritz Leiber's Wanderer tells a story about a situation when Earth sees one episode of interstellar conflict. Others, like Samuel R. Delany in Nova, refer to mythological concepts.

In his 1965 story Space Opera , Jack Vance parodied the genre by writing about an interstellar operatic company which brought culture to deprived worlds.

Sample space opera backgrounds





Many role-playing games, computer games and board games are set in the space opera type universes. Of those, RPGs have the most in common with the classic definition of space opera, basically allowing players to role play (create their own stories) in a space opera universe. Board games usually use space opera as a background for strategy games, most often representing military space battles. Computer games combine various space opera elements and have spawned many space opera related subgenres, some resembling RPG or board games, some unique like the 4X genre, where players can create an entire space empire civilisation.

Role playing games:

Board games:

  • Full Thrust, a popular 2D space battle simulation board (and miniatures) game
  • Hard Vacuum , a board/miniatures game of WWII space combat in an alternate universe where the Allies and Axis have both achieved space flight

Computer games:

Console games:

  • Colony Wars , a 3D space fighter sim
  • Xenosaga


See also


Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04