#SpaceOperaWeek — Delany and Heinlein are not Space Opera!

Saturday , 20, May 2017 33 Comments

Time and again we’ve seen it this week. People weigh in on the topic of space opera and then… somehow start talking about something entirely different that has nothing to do with it. It’s baffling really.

But it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about alternative marriage arrangements in Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 or the ultimate obsolescence of the incest taboo in the lifetime of Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long. If that’s your concept of what great science fiction is, then you are entitled to your opinion. If that’s your notion of how science fiction began, you are wrong. And if that’s your concept space opera… well, that’s just plain nuts.

The one thing that Heinlein and Delany have in common is that the entire point of the literary ethos that they hitched their wagons to was that it was inherently superior to space opera. To them and to the sort of people that tended to champion them, space opera is the worst sort of literature and it deserved to be sneered right out of not just the narrative, but the science fiction encyclopedias as well. Guys like them may well have consciously appropriated or developed space opera elements in their works. But what they wrote was not space opera by any reasonable standard.

Space opera is not a subgenre of science fiction. In fact, most definitions of science fiction are rigged in order to expressly exclude space opera from consideration at all. Space opera is a particular style of Heroic Fantasy. If you would like examples, here are three:

And really… just about everybody loves space opera. The enduring appeal of the Star Wars franchise is a testament to that. The original films had literary antecedents, too. And they don’t draw from either Campbellian style “Hard SF” or the New Wave for inspiration. Their roots reach farther back than even the pulp era and on into realms of legend, myth, and fairy.

Honestly, I can understand why people that don’t really care for space opera would want to appropriate the term. Written science fiction sells so badly these days, these people need all the help they can get! Still, that doesn’t absolve them from the need to actually get the terms right.

  • Mark says:

    “The one thing that Heinlein and Delany have in common is that the entire point of the literary ethos that they hitched their wagons to was that it was inherently superior to space opera. To them and to the sort of people that tended to champion them, space opera is the worst sort of literature and it deserved to be sneered right out of not just the narrative, but the science fiction encyclopedias as well.”

    I can’t speak about Delany, but Heinlein had nothing but praise for Doc Smith in his “Expanded Universe” book (a collection of short stories and essays). He wrote “Larger Than Life: A Memoir in Tribute to Dr. Edward E. Smith”, chronicling some of the cool stuff that Doc Smith got up to – quite an interesting read.

    • Jeffro says:

      That is extraneous to the point.

      Can you show me where Heinlein’s work was promoted by his editors and publishers as being space opera?

      Can you make the case for why he is an integral reference point in discussing what space opera is?

      You can do neither.

      • Brian Renninger says:

        Exactly. Heinlein was always promoted as the SF writer that broke into the slicks. He was pushed as anti-pulp. And, while his appreciation of E.E. Smith in Expanded Universe is nice, he also had his characters fleeing in terror from the Lensman universe in his novel The Number of the Beast.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        I’ve seen the term “Anti-Pulp” used in reference to Heinlein as well. And while I enjoy some of his books, he had a habit of turning on people he said he admired. His writing Stranger in a Strange Land as a take on Tarzan is an example.

  • I’m confused. What about Heinlein’s 1940’s and 1950’s juveniles? Citizen of the Galaxy? Isn’t there a fair amount of difference between his early and later work?

    • Jeffro says:

      Even in the 40s and 50s Heinlein’s work would have been touted as being far superior to the much maligned space opera. The “golden age of science fiction” which he helped usher in was a repudiation of space opera. It is a year zero event and the science fiction that preceded it was redefined as not even being science fiction.

      Relative to contemporary “literary” science fiction, Heinlein is pulpy. Relative to the stuff that was memory holed… it has many deficiencies.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Germain I think:


    Tucker was specifically criticizing Pulp when he coined the term in 41′.

  • anonme says:

    I’m going have to respectfully disagree here. Not with Delaney being crap, but I don’t think Princess of Mars is an appropriate example to use as space opera. I would think something like the Lensmen, Skylark, or Captain Future. Princess of Mars seems to be a better fit under Sword and Planet, or Planetary Romance. (https://infogalactic.com/info/Planetary_romance)

    If this opens up a debate about what is, or isn’t space opera, I’m okay with this, but as Princess of Mars is set mostly on mars, and doesn’t really have any space ships, or world hopping, I don’t think it falls under the category.

    Princess of mars is undoubtedly influential on space opera, and the genres share essential elements, but in the end, I think it’s a different beast.

    • jic says:

      It’s a Planetary Romance. Arguably, it’s *the* Planetary Romance.

    • Jeffro says:

      If you want to replace Burroughs and Brackett with Smith and Hamilton, my argument still stands. So we’re splitting hairs here.

      I will say though… Star Wars is unarguably Space Opera. Leigh Brackett not only wrote the first draft of Empire Strikes Back, she was also The Queen of Space Opera. Her work mostly patterned after The Gods of Mars by Burroughs. Her whole career started because of that, really.

      Therefore… Princess of Mars is Space Opera.

      But again… that’s a different discussion. Would you think it hard to find people in the 50s or 60s dismissing Burroughs or Brackett as mere space opera?

    • cirsova says:

      Space Opera was just a derogatory synonym for Planetary Romance.

      When Aldiss put out his “Space Opera” anthology where he referred to it as “science fiction’s little sister”, he even included the opening chapter of Sword of Rhiannon in the collection.

  • Misha Burnett says:

    Having read quite a bit of Delany’s non-fiction writing about science fiction, I think he had a good understanding of Space Opera. His goal was not to emulate it (although Nova probably comes closest) but to explore different sorts of mythic structures using the conventions of rocketships and rayguns. I, personally, think that his work stands up very well on its own terms, but obviously if you are not interested in what he was doing it won’t matter to you if he did it well or poorly.

    I think Heinlein was much the same. His work owes much more to Horatio Alger than to E E Smith. He wrote stories set in space because space was popular, but most of his stories could have been transported to the Earth of his time without any major dislocation.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    All this talk of EE smith, Brackett and Williamson I propose including Edmond Hamilton:


    “He was very popular as an author of space opera, a subgenre he created along with E.E. “Doc” Smith.”

    “he struck up a 20-year friendship with close contemporary Jack Williamson”

    “Hamilton married fellow science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett in San Gabriel, CA”

    Disclaimer: Aside from the forword of Best Of Brackett I have not read any Hamilton.


  • I agree with this which is why I pushed back on Sarah’s assertion that Heinlein was space opera in the interview. Obviously wasn’t worth picking a fight over as the goal was to get her thoughts,but what you say above was always my thought on what Heinlein stood for as well.

    • Jeffro says:

      Next time just start shouting, “heresy! HERESY!!!!”


      • Man of the Atom says:

        Allen Davis posted to Daddy Warpig’s GAB feed that ESR seems to have similar misconceptions of Pulp to Sarah Hoyt.

        I think ESR is a Hard SF guy, and he’s no SJW proponent. But what “Pulp” does he speak of here?

        How much is ‘heresy’ and how much is accepted history because “that’s how my friends and I discussed it at the time”?

        How much digging into the Pulp history have either ESR or Sarah done to back up their statements?

        I knew bits and pieces of what Jeffro discovered, only because I was reading 12 years prior to the 1980 Divide. The discussions here, Jeffro’s blog posts and book, and my own research have opened up my eyes on the scope and impact of Pulp in F&SF and Gaming … and what’s been lost/hidden to us.

    • cirsova says:

      Just like when Jagi and John suggest Earthsea be a part of Appendix N, amirite? 😀

  • What do people here think of Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, or similar?

  • I would say that PRINCESS OF MARS and SWORD OF RHIANNON were planetary romance, and are missing the essential element of Space Opera, which is gigantism.

    I would list GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith as the quintessential Space Opera, or NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST, and in movies, STAR WARS, or, more recently, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Vol 2.

    Any story where a Gray Lensman or a Dark Jedi could not walk onstage and feel at home is probably not a Space Opera.

    Space Operas I would submit are stories with larger than life characters, good and evil sharply distinct, with a setting involving grandiose and epic conflicts, battles, or quests.

    Any story where not even one planet is blown to smithereens by a superweapon of superscience is hard to categorize as a Space Opera.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I wentbto a toy museum and there were some toys from Capitain Future. I’d never heard of this character. Now I know who created him. Ax I’m till unfamiliarcwith Caitan Future does he qualify as Space opera?

    And is Star trek space opera lite?

  • Thomas Butler says:

    Both Heinlein and Asimov considered their writing to be speculative fiction. Heinlein was a Libertarian and Asimov was a Humanist. If either of their works fell into the genre of Space Opera, it was merely by chance.

  • viktor says:

    Please link to the article where someone said RAH and SRD were Space Opera. It’s the basis of your article.

    • Jeffro says:

      Tor.com ran a post on Delany for Space Opera Week there. I link it in this very post.

      Sarah Hoyt launches into a discussion of Heinlein vis a vis the topic of Space Opera in the embedded youtube video of this post.

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