Space Opera Has Come Of Age — But Has It Left Humans Behind?

Space opera has come a long, galaxy-spanning way since 1941. With a second book in the New Space Opera series out this summer, we examine the genre's origins, and see how the new book compares.

Space opera, with its themes of grand adventures, bold heroes, and of course, cool spaceships blowin' stuff up, has been one of Science Fiction most enduring and widely read sub-genres. Before we see what's new, let's check out where it's been. Its history might surprise some newer fans with the shifts in perspective and attitude towards it in the Science Fiction field.

The Lensman stories of E.E. "Doc" Smith are usually revered as the among the first quintessential space opera works, but they were never called that when they first came out. The term was originally created by science fiction author and hardcore fan Wilson Tucker back in 1941, to describe a type of story in the pulp magazines that was already falling out of favor. Here's that oft-cited quote again:

In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called "horse operas," the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called "soap operas," For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer "space opera."

Ouch. Throughout the 40s and 50s, space opera continued to be a byword for the worst sort of genre writing, reviled for its casual disregard of any real science. The over-the-top melodrama inspired snickering parodies, replete with tentacled BEMs menacing histrionic space-dames. By the 1960s, the New Wave writers like Moorcock, Aldiss, and Ballard dismiss all Science Fiction prior to them as hack space opera. Science fiction would only develop as Serious Art when juvenile themes about aliens and spaceships in the far future were consigned to the rubbish bin of history. The true destiny of SF as literature was in exploring the near future of society and the inner space of the mind. And there'd be lots of tripping out and freaky sex. Like far out, man!

In the next decade, the winds changed and there was a trend, spearheaded by publishers Lester and Judy Lynn DelRey, to embrace the groundling appeal and guilty pleasure of space opera. Screw this literary pretension, let's just bask in the Gee-Whizzery! The space adventure stories of Leigh Brackett and Poul Anderson were re-labeled as space opera. Authors like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle continue to turn out tales of star-spanning civilizations with current theories of astrophysics and complex cosmopolitics. Meanwhile, the cult followings of a canceled TV show and a new movie from the kid who did American Graffiti were continuing to grow. Like it or not, thanks to Star Trek and Star Wars, to the world at large space opera is Science Fiction.

The 1980s saw David Brin, C.J. Cherryh, Dan Simmons, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Vernor Vinge producing sophisticated works of thrilling adventure and galactic civilizations that never cheated the reader intellectually. In 1987 Iain M. Banks took the UK by storm with Consider Phlebas, his first novel of The Culture. Banks and other British authors such as Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter F. Hamilton have caused some to announce an age of New Space Opera, completely shedding the earlier pejorative connotations of the term. I really don't know if any of this is really "new", just maybe a bit more grown up. The writing got better, and some themes have changed, but we still love grand adventure stories with spaceships.

So how does this latest anthology fit in with this grand tradition? The New Space Opera 2, in stores in July, enjoys more well-known names than the 2007 volume. The collection contains nineteen previously unpublished stories by the following authors: Robert Charles Wilson, Peter Watts, John Kessel, Cory Doctorow, John Barnes, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Jay Lake, Neal Asher, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Bruce Sterling, Bill Willingham, John Meany, Elizabeth Moon, Tad Williams, Justina Robson, John Scalzi, Mike Resnick, John C. Wright.

Despite this gallimaufry of talent, I was disappointed overall by the offerings in this collection. I have enjoyed many novels of the last twenty or so years that could be pigeonholed as "New Space Opera." In particular, my love for the Culture novels could be described as unhealthy. So, why didn't any of these stories ever really fire up my warp drives? Perhaps the short story form itself is to blame. It's difficult to cram the sweeping grandeur and, well, operatic scale required into thirty or forty pages. I often felt as if some of the writers had to skimp either plot exposition or character development, leaving little more than a sketch of what could be a really cool bigger story.

I also have a personal pet peeve about the overabundance of Posthumans in these stories. Maybe it's just me, but it is difficult to empathize with omnipotent immortals with ineffable motivations. Surely after the Singularity, all of Human experience will be perfectly summed up in an eleven-dimensional olfactory haiku crafted from dark-matter. Until then, stories about these godlike characters — even ones as beautifully written by such smart people like Watts, Lake, and Wright — just leave me cold.

At short story length, it is also too easy to go for the giggles, becoming Space Operetta. The old conventions of classic SF offer just too much low-hanging fruit ready to fall into parody. The Bold Starship Captain is an obvious target in Doctorow's somewhat forced "To Go Boldly" and Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked", a sweet tribute to Asimov and Fleet officers everywhere. Mike Resnick threw all caution to the wind with a shaggy dog story that's so bad it's almost good, almost.

Someone who went to the lighter side with rather better effect is a newcomer to prose Science Fiction, Bill Willingham. The veteran comic-book writer most known for the popular Fables series spins a gleeful and zippy tale of space pirates and costumed adventurers. Maybe it was supposed to be a postmodern commentary on tired genre tropes, but I had pure fun reading it. Here's hoping we see more Willingham stories in Science Fiction soon. Another pleasant surprise from a writer usually not associated with spaceships is Tad Williams. He uses some of the world-building skills evidenced in his Otherland series in "The Tenth Muse". It's a nod to Old School Star Trek with comic touches and some actual opera that rises above mere farce

Would the Venture Brothers cartoon work without the broad humor? In Elizabeth Moon's "Chameleons" two boys and their faithful bodyguard find themselves in deadly peril on a seedy space station. This is probably my favorite story in the collection, with a catalog of gadgets and invention, along with memorable characters. Oh, and screaming good thrills. Interstellar espionage and intrigue has always been a prime ingredient in space opera. Updating these themes to good effect are John Meany's "From the Heart" and the nicely twisted "Lost Princess Man" by John Barnes. Also of note, for fans of Neal Asher's Polity universe, is the top-secret mission in "Shell Game".

While I cannot give The New Space Opera 2 my most glowing recommendation, there are some decent stories here. Adherents to the Transhumanist cause might find more enjoyment out of this collection than I did — some of the collection just left my poor l'i'l meatbrain behind. Space opera has been beaten like a red-headed stepchild and gone through an awkward adolescence. It may still have some growing to do, and who knows how it will mature? Despite the snide remarks and supposed "resurgences", Space opera has always been a major part of the science fiction family and I see no reason why we would ever abandon it entirely. It's just too much fun.

Well, I suppose you could buy it from Amazon.
But wouldn't you rather get The New Space Opera 2 from your local Independent Bookseller?

Commenter Grey_Area is known to the Cosmic Spear Carriers as Christopher Hsiang. There will be more reviews, really.