I was trying to write a blogpost griping about two plots I see far too often in space opera published in the past several years, and praising a Mike Resnick book I just finished for being so very, very different than those plots. I hit a snag. A very, very big snag: I needed to define space opera to make my argument, and . . . Let me show you some of the variety of definitions out there:
a novel, movie, or television program set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature.
Wikipedia, in the “Space opera” entry:
Space opera is a genre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology.
Wikipedia, in the “List of space opera media” entry:
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer define as “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.”
And, finally, TV Tropes:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women.
Tackling these one at a time:
Google’s is obviously stupid — there’s no other word for it — because its definition limits the media that can be space opera. I’ve read space opera short stories. By that definition, they were something else.
Wikipedia’s, in the “Space opera” entry, is better, but I think it sells the genre short too, by making it seem like it must have space warfare and interplanetary battles to qualify. I’m pretty sure most people consider Firefly space opera, and I don’t recall much in the way of big scale fighting in it. (I refuse to watch Serenity, so it may be different if you count it.) Also, I’m pretty sure most sf readers count the Vorkosigan books as space opera, and I only recall warfare playing a major role in one of the ones I’ve read (which is far short of the whole series, I admit, but most of the people I know who read the books aren’t fans of military sci-fi, so I assume my point stands.)
I like the definition given under “List of space opera media” better, mostly because it uses words like “often” and “usually”. The only thing it gives as definite characteristics are “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure” and “competently and sometimes beautifully written.” It’s that last part I take issue with. I’ve read lots of works that were space opera by any sensible definition, but they were far from competently written. And I think we can all think of at least one movie that qualifies . . .
The TV Tropes’ definition is, I feel, the best. Partially, yes, because it doesn’t limit the plot to action stories, and obviously because of the kinds of things I write I’m going to prefer definition that don’t. But mostly because it emphasizes the epic character of . . . everything. That, in my opinion, is what makes space opera space opera. As I’ve put it before in conversations about Universal Nexus, the difference in their reality and ours is in ours, the dials go from 1 to 10; in theirs, they go from 0 to 11 . . . at least.
(Also, I could go on a very, very long tangent about the bit about technology being secondary to story and how very, very wonderful a thing that is, so I’ll save that for another day. Well, not quite. Quick question: Does anyone actually think that all of the scientists over the years who’ve been inspired to become scientists because of science fiction did so because of books that went into excruciating detail about how everything worked? I’ve never read an interview that supports that idea. Also, if you’re writing with the idea of influencing people to become scientists, then you’re probably not writing a good story anyway. Ones written with a goal like that rarely are.)
Space opera isn’t, or rather, doesn’t have to be, about big battles. It doesn’t have to be about intergalactic war. It can be a simple love story. But the backdrop of that story, and the characters in that story, have to be larger-than-life. And if there are big battles . . . or even small ones, for that matter . . . nothing as silly as the laws of physics should get in the way of the story.