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Space Opera

"It'll be fabulous, believe me, Jerry. It's Grapes Of Wrath in outer space! Oh, it's got heart, it's got laser battles, it's got a timely message of interstellar poverty—!"
Lorne, Angel ("Life of the Party")

A space opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigues galore. Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.

Space opera has a lot of romantic elements: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring places, and insanely gorgeous women.

Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in sleek, cigar-shaped Retro Rockets, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.

Note that this is quite different from the original definition of space opera, which was derogatory. It arose from a long line of similar terms for substandard genre fiction: 'horse opera' was bad Western fiction and 'soap opera' (so named because soap operas began as hour-long ads for soap) was hackneyed drama. The phrase was coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker to describe what he called "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn". (It's said that before 1975 or so, the only author who ever intentionally set out to write a space opera was Jack Vance, who wrote a novel about an opera company in space.) Weirdly, this means that many works which were originally touted as examples of 'serious' science fiction, such as the Lensman series, are today held up as prime examples of Space Opera. As more authors and writers came to embrace the space opera style, the term came to lose many of its negative connotations. Assisting that process were writers who regarded all tales of action and adventure in space as bad, and so tried to pejoratively label it all "space opera"; they succeeded with the label, but not with keeping it pejorative.

Planetary Romance is an older variant, which is basically Heroic Fantasy In Space — or on a Dying Earth of some sort. While works such as John Carter of Mars and various fantasy novels set on a planet are Planetary Romance, characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon essentially codified the Space Opera concept in the popular imagination by the late 1930s.

Star Wars is probably the most famous modern example of space opera. (Indeed, The Empire Strikes Back was an important moment in changing "space opera" from an insult to a more neutral genre descriptor, due to the involvement of writer Leigh Brackett.) In Star Wars, technology is either magic (the Force) or slightly faster versions of today's gadgets (blaster rifles, hovercars, space ships) and the characters would be right at home in a fantasy novel (evil emperor, farmboy, princess).

The genre is useful for long story- and character-arcs but also expensive to film. Unless you do it in animated form, like dozens of anime series.

The opposite of Space Opera would probably be Hard Science Fiction. In recent years, however, there has been a trend towards incorporating hard sci-fi elements into space opera, as in Starship Operators, the 2000s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or especially Revelation Space — in fact, "New Space Opera" has gained some currency as a term referring to works that combine fast-paced adventure plots with some degree of hard SF rigor.

See also Two-Fisted Tales, Pulp Magazine, and Wagon Train to the Stars. In many ways, this is the science fiction equivalent of High Fantasy.

Note that while many more famous space operas go to the "ideal" side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, more recent ones are harder and more cynical: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly being most prominent in Live-Action TV.

Examples

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    Anime 
  • Dragon Ball gradually worked its way into this, starting with Dragon Ball Z. Though the series initially concentrated on Earth-based stories, the Saiyan Saga was where things began to exhibit a more galactic scope.

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    Literature 
  • Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, an extremely influential series inspired in part by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and which in turn partly inspired Star Wars.
  • The Culture books by Iain M. Banks, although again it does have a society changed by technology - in particular near-perfect medicine and a lack of the need for money due to massive technological advances.
  • Parodied and lampshaded in Jack Vance's Space Opera, which is a space opera about - yes - a touring Opera company.
    • Many of Vance's works - such as The Demon Princes- are more straightforward examples.
  • John Maddox Roberts' Space Angel has larger-than-life characters, epic space battles, exotic worlds, and an alien species that inhabits the cores of galaxies. Not a planet in the core of a galaxy, mind you - the whole core.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Stargate Verse is a borderline example. Technically the center-of-operations is on a single planet (Earth in Stargate SG-1, the Atlantis base in Stargate Atlantis), but with the instant wormholes provided by the Stargate, the bases function like a spaceship or space station in a standard Space Opera, as far as most story purposes go. Both series also have the Big Universe, Big Empires, Big Heroes, and Big Villains elements in spades, and it gets bigger yet once Earth has a space fleet. However, many individual episodes, especially in early seasons, feel more like Planetary Romance. Stargate Universe, the second spin-off, is probably closer to a traditional Space Opera.

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    Tabletop Games 
  • Traveller was the first RPG set in the Space Opera genre, and set the standard for those that followed. It's in the "semi-hardened" category of Space Opera and an incredible amount of work went into the Backstory including fairly realistic science and social science.
    • Traveller is a fairly flexible game that has a Space Opera like Backstory and can be played at the Space Opera level. Much of the point is that the Traveller Universe is a Framing Device of sorts, which means local circumstances can be adapted to taste quite a ways.
  • The forgotten board game Imperium was used as a source for some of the Traveller universe. It depicts a young and expansionist republic on earth, conquering a Vestigial Empire in space. There are a number of other Space Opera board wargames, but this one is notable for historical reasons.
  • Rifts has the Three Galaxies setting, a Space Opera with the same blend of magic, technology, and plain weirdness as the main setting. As may be expected, it's way way down on the hardness scale, but it has pretty much all the elements of the Standard Sci Fi Setting.
  • Despite Rocket Age only covering our solar system, the epic themes and intrigues of space opera are definitely there. Just replace The Empire with actual Nazis.

    Video Games 
  • The Mass Effect series could be seen as putting the Opera back into Space Operas, with lavish and often dreamy environments, exotic cultures, and tales of great personal tragedy. At the same time, it ranks suprisingly high on the Scale Of Science Fiction Hardness, is quite serious in tone, and takes place in the relatively near future (2180s to be precise). Like many other newer Space Operas, it also has Lovecraft Lite elements thanks to the series' main antagonists, the Reapers.
  • The Metroid series, although this slides more towards After the End Planetary Romance in the context of individual games. Played straight with Metroid Prime Hunters and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, as they are the only games in the franchise that internally take place on multiple planets, and the latter shows a bigger interaction with the Galactic Federation.

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