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Space Opera

"It's an epic saga of rebellion and romance."
Trailer for Star Wars: A New Hope

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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  • The long-running The Stars My Degradation, (a parody of the Alfred Bester classic SF novel The Stars My Destination), a cartoon strip that ran in the Sounds music paper in the 1970's-80's:
    Dempster Dingbuster is my name, Sputwang is my nation;
    The depths of space gob in my face,
    The stars, my degradation.
  • It was drawn and written by a then-nearly-unknown Alan Moore. Examples may be seen here

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 is a Space Opera setting, although it's about as cynical, grim and dark as you can get. Actually, it's that, turned Up to Eleven.
  • Battletech. The RPG, as distinguished from the series below.
  • Star Frontiers was TSR's attempt to do D&D in a space opera setting
  • 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.
  • Fading Suns
  • There was a RPG named Space Opera.
  • The Cathedral setting in Big Eyes, Small Mouth is intended for this kind of adventure.
  • The Star*Drive setting originally made for the Alternity system and later reused for d20 Modern.
  • Pacesetter's 1980s Star Ace RPG — definitely at least somewhat in the spirit of Star Wars, but set in its own original universe with fewer mystical undertones.
  • 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.

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SlipstreamSpeculative FictionSpace Western
Galactic CruciblesWeb Serial NovelThe Good Witch
Space NomadsTropes in SpaceSpace People
Southern-Fried GeniusImageSource/Western AnimationRocko's Modern Life

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