What do Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Star Wars, the anime Robotech, and the novels of Iain M. Banks all have in common? They're space operas, part of the scifi subgenre that goes back to the 1930s and includes practically any cool outer-space story with lots of awesome ships and intergalactic battles. Now critics (and a new anthology) say this creaky old genre is making a comeback.
A few months ago, Harper Collins released an anthology called The New Space Opera, which includes faves like Dan Simmons and Stephen Baxter, but also several hot new authors who are reinventing a genre whose name was originally intended as an insult. In the 1940s, scifi megafan Wilson Tucker derided bad pulp fiction by comparing it to the ladies' genre of soap operas. At the time, it was a kind of "you're a bunch of sissies" insult to books and movies that were supposed to be the most manly of the manly.
These days, though, space opera really is a pure blend of ladies' soap and manly warfare. Probably the best example is Ken Macleod, a Scottish writer included in the HarperCollins anthology whose books seamlessly combine interstellar political intrigue with sexual entanglements that rival those in any episode of Tip/Tuck. A good place to start with Macleod is his novel Newton's Wake: A Space Opera. It combines interstellar black market gang rivalry with several sexy subplots involving genetically-engineered gay people, a woman with a nanotech brain, and several love-struck clones.
Space opera is also being reinvented on Battlestar Galactica, where romantic entanglements between Cylon and human are at least as crucial to the plot as the battle scenes. And you can expect an even bigger helping of space opera in the upcoming movie version of Ender's Game, in which strange incestuous entanglements and other family melodramas unfold against a backdrop of space battles and alien invasion. Long live the new space opera!