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.