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Space Opera - Phil's Rambling Rants — LiveJournal
July 7th, 2005
05:51 pm

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Space Opera
In a discussion on the filk community, I attempted to define "space opera" in an attempt to persuade people not to nominate songs that I don't think fit the category of "Best Space Opera Song" for that Pegasus Award.  And I realize that my attempt wasn't very satisfactory.  As I said over there, I am having a Potter Stewart moment -- "I can't define it but I know it when I see it."

What, exactly, distinguishes space opera from other science fiction?  To qualify as space opera, I think a story must involve space travel more advanced than present-day human technology and it needs to be fast-paced and action-oriented.  But that doesn't seem to be enough.  Bad science seems to the hallmark of many space operas.  I don't think that that means that any work that tries to be scientifically sound, but if serious scientific speculation is central to the story, I don't think it can be space opera.  I can't call Hal Clement's novels space operas; scientific rigor is too central to them.  When I catch Clement in a scientific error (which is rare), it dramatically affects my appreciation of the story.  A scientific error in a space opera is usually something to chuckle at and keep going.  Is Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire series space opera?  I'm not sure.  Classic space opera also seems to be characterized by cardboard characters and black and white morality.  Believable characters with nuance and depth don't make something not space opera, nor does moral ambiguity or good writing in general, but somehow it seems that spending too much time on the character's feelings, motivations, and development do, as does significant, meaningful social speculation or illumination of the human condition.  The Honor Harrington series is space opera; the early Miles Vorkosigan books are, but the later ones less clearly so.  Ender's Game is not space opera.

Does anyone have any thoughts about what makes space opera?  Does anybody care?

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From:daev
Date:July 8th, 2005 12:50 am (UTC)
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I know the feeling you're having. I'm used to "Space Opera" used unquestioningly to mean bad-science bad-writing pulp adventure in space. But nowadays the term is most often used to describe writers like Iain M. Banks, whose novels are quite philosophically sophisticated. I think the common thread is Big Space Machinery, galaxy-spanning empires, displays of enormous technological power, and a sense that the driving mechanism for the story isn't the interaction of characters.
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From:filkerdave
Date:July 8th, 2005 02:53 am (UTC)
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Basically, what makes a good opera?

Human themes played out larger than life and exagerated. Do that on TV or radio and have it sponsored by Lux and you have soap opera. Do it in space and you have space opera.


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From:msminlr
Date:July 8th, 2005 10:52 am (UTC)
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DOWNBELOW STATION and many of the other Merchanter/Stationer stories by C.J.Cherryh are on MY list of "favorite space opera".

I agree with you about the Honor Harrington series; less-so with Bujold's books. SHE has always been interested in pushing the envelope of the definition of "human" in that universe (which includes FALLING FREE and ETHAN OF ATHOS), and the Dendarii adventures seem more a side-effect than a central plot driver.
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From:msminlr
Date:July 8th, 2005 10:52 am (UTC)
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Maureen O'Brien's "Crossing Myths Some" is a GREAT Space-Opera lyric, btw.
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