It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

space opera vs science fiction?


In 1941, Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” to describe the “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn”. Sixty-nine years later, space opera is still going strong. Not only that, it’s often seen as the defining form of science fiction. It might even be the most successful form of science fiction.

Because it is science fiction.

So you can’t have “space opera versus science fiction“. That would be like, well, like “Londoners versus Brits”. Or “Brie versus cheese”.

That’s because science fiction is not defined by its trappings. Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is set in an interstellar federation. It is generally considered to be space opera. Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories are set in… an interstellar federation. They are not considered to be space opera. Iain M Banks’s Culture novels feature spaceships; Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity features a spaceship. The former are space opera, the latter is a defining example of hard sf.

To confuse sf with its trappings is one thing. To then consider space opera a different genre entirely, though it possesses the same trappings as sf, is another. And to subsequently claim that science fiction – but not space opera – requires science, real science, is… nonsense.

Are stories featuring time travel not science fiction? What about faster-than-light travel? Aliens? Artificial Intelligence? Are stories featuring gravity, planets, stars, orbits, computers… not space opera, then?

If you’re going to write science fiction, I would respectfully suggest it helps to know what it is. Or isn’t.

7 thoughts on “space opera vs science fiction?

  1. Ha! I knew right away what you were referring to as soon as I saw the title of the post. I read that the other day and couldn’t even be bothered to comment because it was so off base. I did find that the author was taking the bashing quite well though, so I give kudos for that.

  2. I agree, not a meaningful comparison. I’d expect this title from a proponent of hard SF, someone who would not feel the need to say “Space Opera vs Hard Science Fiction”,(which would be a meaningful comparison), because they all but discount any form of SF that isn’t hard as carbon-carbon nanonails.

    That said, I always used the argument that Star Wars wasn’t really SF; it wasn’t a speculative fictionalisation of future events, or tied in any way to scientific or cultural advances. I’d admit that this argument is like trying to argue that the new millenium started in 2001. It’s technically true, but totally irrelevant.

  3. It seems that if one is trying to systematically analyze genre wtriting so that one can figure out how to write a better story or be a more accomplished reader- more power to it. The problem is so often this seems to be just a defense of a dogma that matters more to the self identification of hard core fans than anything else.

    What matters about Star Wars is that it was, in some episodes, a captivating story that connected with many people in its audience while having horrible misrepresentations of how the universe apparently works. I honestly wonder if trying to pigeonhole it really accomplishes more or loses a whole lot in any greater simplification. As it is, this should only be an opening in the discussion of a work.

    I apprreciate the desire of some to write mundane or hard SF. When the science is wrong it is, for me, like having an anachronism in historical fiction. But then Shakespeare wrote awful history but great plays.
    He would probably write bad science Dr Who episodes today- if we were so lucky.

    Is it an irrevelevant discussion? Probably not, it might help people come to understand the voice they want to give to their own work. As a reader though, I hope I can engage with Shakespeare and Arthur C Clarke- who, in my opinion was not the best at human characterization.

    • Shakespeare got away with bad history – and bad ecology, such as lions and giant snakes in the Forest of Arden – because few in his audience likely knew better. Nowadays people do – or they can go look it up, easily and simply.

  4. Ian, thing is, the writers can easily look up stuff too, so there’s no real excuse for bad science. Most of those writing space opera (like me) perfectly understand where they cross the line (FTL of course) but do so because crossing that line enables them to pack the stories with more entertainment.

    • Neal, I agree entirely. But the author of the post I linked to seemed to think that space opera wasn’t science fiction because the science in it wasn’t “real”. As far as I’m concerned, stuff like FTL – the “not-real science” – are literary devices. You set your stories in an interstellar polity, so you need FTL for that to exist. Makes perfect sense to me. The FTL enables the plot.

  5. Actually, I think that it is fiction, the science is secondary. Genre should be an attempt to group similarity not to enforce dogma.

    I respectfully put forward that if you are going to write fiction, write the best damn fiction you can write. To understand Genre helps to understand why certain ideas and constructions have worked well together in the past. Genre should be a starting point not an end. I actually think this is why books like China Mieville’s The City and the City, or Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which in my mind are really good books) are so hard to pigeonhole into Genre.

    I wish that Neal were always right and author’s always knew where they were taking fictional jumps for only the stories sake. I think it is a noble ideal, and one worth working towards. I sadly think that none of us are that perfect in our constructs.

    Many people have problems making the “willing suspension of disbelief” when one feels that the world one knows is not be authentically portrayed. I believe this is especially true in where real worlds, knowledge, etc. are used.

    For the record, I love Space Opera. I look for it in SF. I don’t think that Space Opera and Hard/Mundane SF have to be mutually exclusive. I frequently think people like Neal make incredibly right decisions in service to the story- which is what I value most.

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