While I was talking with people about my Hyperspace Opera setting, at some point there came the inevitable comment that the name doesn’t fit because it’s not actually space opera. This always happens when you mention a genre in the context of anything you work on. It’s only a working title anyway, but out of morbid curiosity I went to look up descriptions of space opera across the internet a few days later. (And of course, it is totally space opera.)
Like all genre titles, some people use it extremely loosly, to the point of calling everythig that has space ships in it space opera. That mostly happens with journalists who put together a “30 best space operas of the last decade” list. People who actually talk about the genre itself tend to get much narrower, but being a genre don’t really reduce it down to any hard and fast rules that have any wider consensus.
In the end, space opera is something that is more defined by a feel or an aesthetic than by specific plot or setting elements. Which is of course much harder to nail down, but when looking into and comparing various descriptions of what space opera is, there are some clearly recognizable patterns.
When it comes to something feeling like space opera, there are only a few really necessary elements, whithout which a story becomes something else. In my perception, a space opera needs at least three different planets that are home to three different cultures or at least very different living conditions. If you have just Earth-Humans interacting with the aliens of one other planet, the resulting dynamics change very significantly. The story automatically becomes about this one interaction or relationship.
But the true essence of what creates the feel of space opera is the sense of a vastness of space, that is home to many things never seen or even considered possible on Earth, and which no single person can ever all explore in one lifetime. The setting in space opera has no known limits. You can always keep exploring and will always discover new strange things. Another critical element is that this sense is percieved as something positive. A space opera setting is one of endless wonders, not one of endless horrors. Space opera is full of things people want to see, not things they wish were never discovered. This is also what distinguishes it from strictly military science fiction. Those stories are about war and defeating the enemy, with no time to marvel at the wonders of the universe.
Ultimately, space opera is an expression of Romanticism (in Space!), rather than modernism. It’s an inherently fantastical genre, rather than an exploration of what could be possible, like how science fiction is commonly percieved. Space opera is about the wonder of impossible things, which really makes it more a child of fantasy than sci-fi. The technology of space flight and other marvels is an integral part of the aesthetic of space opera, but it is rarely important to the plot.
With those criteria in mind, I’ve been going through all the works .i am reasonably familiar with that one could argue as being space operas, and where I would put them.
Clearly Space Opera
- Babylon 5
- Mass Effect
- Star Trek (60s)
- Star Wars
Maybe Space Opera
- Cowboy Bebop
- Star Trek (80s and 90s)
- The Fifth Element
Not Space Opera
- Dead Space
- Riddick Series
- The Expanse