On the topic of Space Opera

AsyouknowBob, Steve and I write Space Opera, starting when it was neither popular nor profitable, and continuing to, oh, Right Now.  Along the way, we’ve heard our novels described as “Military SF*,” which is where Space Opera goes to take cover when it’s out of fashion; “Adventure SF;” “Romantic SF;” “SF Romance;” “SF Lite;” and “What Do You Call This, Because it’s Not SF, Really, Is It?”

Happily, Space Opera has come ’round again on the guitar as being a recognized, if not exactly lauded, sub-genre of SF.  Unhappily, there are a lot of odd ideas about what Space Opera is, which do seem to arise whenever it surfaces again as a sub-genre.

I recall, for instance, when Mr. Feintuch was still with us and writing his version of Space Opera, which was Very Bleak, and some readers (and editors, too) wouldn’t touch any thing calling itself Space Opera, because Enough With the Bleak, Already.

My personal definition of Space Opera has always been that, on some level — though, yes, we are Saving the Universe and All Like That — at some level, I say, Space Opera needs to be fun.

And, yanno, just like Real Operas, Space Opera is a place where any old unlikely thing can happen (so long as the authors make it believable, which, to be fair, isn’t always the case with Real Opera), including telepathy and all the other Psi skills, if you want them; Giant Turtles; FTL drives; Deathless Wanderers of the Star Lanes; True Love, and whatever yer havin’ yerself.

So, anyway. . .in another part of the InterTubes, someone has put forth the observation that Space Opera has drifted away from including aliens, in order to focus of the diversity of human cultures.  It’s an interesting observation, and certainly we here in the Liaden Universe® celebrate the richness of human cultures.  But we also celebrate the strangeness of Clutch Turtles, and of Korval’s Damned Meddling Tree.  And while we didn’t exactly celebrate them, the Iloheen were certainly aliens.

However, as mentioned above, we started down this path more than a quarter-century ago.

What about newer Space Operas?  Have we moved away from aliens, in favor of more human-centric stories?  Or is it all in what you’re reading?  And, if that’s the case, what are you reading?

Have at it.


*I had the. . .surreal. . .experience of standing in an elevator with two young men at the Chicago WorldCon-but-one.  And the first young man was describing this Really Cool Military SF Book he had just read.  The plot, as he short-formed it, sounded Awfully Familiar, and just before they got off at their floor, the second young man asked after the title, and the first young man said, “Conflict of Honors.”


17 thoughts on “On the topic of Space Opera”

  1. I have loved Space Opera since I discovered E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s books as a teenager. You can keep your bleak stuff. I want a great plot, characters I’d like to have adventures with, and twists that delight me. Situations and/or dialogue that make me laugh or need to share RIGHT THEN are a definite plus.
    The books that you and Steve write meet all those criteria. I would also say Miles Vorkossigan’s adventures are Space Opera, as are some of Isaac Asamov’s early novels, and the Pip and Flinx books.
    I read constantly, and your books are ones I eagerly await. Please keep inviting us into your universe!

  2. I think of your books as being character-driven, with really interesting opportunities for character growth from the plot. That’s not to understate the importance of an interestering plot or a well-described setting. But I usually read (and then enjoy re-reading) character-driven, fun, smart, and interesting books. Like your books.

    I’m not really sure why books like yours (or the Vorkosigan series, also a favorite) get tagged as space opera. Rather than simply good SF.

    My hypothesis is that space opera doesn’t suffiently focus on big ideas and technology and science, like a serious SF book does (such books sometimes skimp on character). I think of these sorts of books as conceptual SF.

    We as a society tend to think that conceptual art (including writing) is better than other art. As someone who appreciates many types of art (books, film, tv, prints/paintings, music, etc.), I am drawn to art that affects me emotionally. If it touches me, I’m often more interested. I appreciate some conceptual art, from an intellectual stand point but I rarely return to it again and again. And much conceptual art is pseudo-intellectual drivel, which I have no use for.

    My point is that I think it is silly that space opera gets looked down on (maybe because it is not conceptual enough). And your books touch me emotionally because your characters are complex and intriguing.

  3. I love space opera. I was introduced to science fiction through Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel, and I was hooked. Then came Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov and the entire science fiction section in the local library, first kid’s then adult’s. By the time Soylent Green was in the movies, I was sick of doom and gloom sci fi. I only read my favorites, Elizabeth Moon, Anne McCaffrey, and Tanya Huff. I found your books one day browsing the section at Barnes & Noble and picked up Fledgling. Since then I look for your back list and new publications. It doesn’t seem to me that you and Steve are favoring one element over another. You do have aliens in your stories, and you examine human interactions and manipulations. As for me, I still read my favorite sci fi authors, but not to the exclusion of other genres. In fact, i read more, gasp, cozies than anything else. I have added you and Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and Gini Koch (more comedy than sci fi) to my favorites. Keep your space operas coming, please!

  4. My favorite reads are space operas, for me it is a selling point. I write them, too, (the romance variety). Love aliens as characters but only have one that is non-humanoid. Hmm, now my imagination is popping.

  5. I enjoy your books. I do not care what they are called, except that they are fun to read and the characters make you either love or hate them. That is what brings the reader back for more. The reader needs to care about what happens to the characters. You and Steve do that with humor and intelligence. I love the cats and the tree. The changes in the universe are fantastic. And hating the DOI is something I love to do! LOL Thank you!

  6. I LOVE Space Opera and have since I was a kid back in the ’50s. Back then I had to deal with teachers and school librarians trying to steer me away from “boys” books, some of which were actually titled “The Boys Book of” SF or Sea Stories or Sherlock Holmes or Adventure, etc. I am utterly delighted that there are now “officially” available exciting and eventful stories aimed at the female market. The most hilarious thing is that I was led into modern romance novels, nothing like the boring, sappy stuff I ignored as a child, through my love of SF. Some of my favorite SF authors were winning Romance Novel prizes 🙂 (You know who you are!) Now I am enjoying a wider range of fiction and discovering great stories by authors I never knew before. Onward into the Universe, Space Opera!
    PS – I’m also an early adopter of ebooks and own every Webscription Baen has published since 1999. I bought all your books in print, then bought them again in eformats 🙂
    Can’t wait for the next!

  7. “Space operas should be fun.” Yes. “Rollicking” is what I found missing in SF at the time I started writing space operas. There was a lot of rollicking in the SF I read as a kid in the ’50s and ’60s (written earlier for the most part, and found in the school and town library.) For me, the ideal space opera has serious stuff going on underneath (and sometimes exposed on the surface)–serious stuff that may be about, for instance, the socio-economic effects of increasing longevity, or a different focus for human bigotry than skin color, or sociopathy in politics–but the surface has rollicking adventure bits and funny bits.

    I will take “just rollicking” over “deeply depressingly serious” but it’s not a hatred of “serious”–it’s a dislike of finishing a book and feeling that there’s no hope or light in the world. (Having a history of depression means I don’t like to kick that monster and see if it’s awake.)

    Aliens…well, your stuff obviously has aliens. (I love Korval’s Tree, even though when I first read about it in your books–coming to them later than I should have–I cussed up a storm, because I had just written a sentient tree into one of my stories. And took it out, muttering, but admitting that though my sentient tree wasn’t like your sentient tree, it wasn’t different *enough*. Tree sentience now exists only in the Paksworld stories, far enough from space opera to be safe. And it was already there in multiple books, so no way to root it out.) Anything set on another world with indigenous life has aliens, although some people don’t count an alien as an alien until it talks or holds a weapon aimed at a human. I was/am quite proud of some of the alien lifeforms I’ve stuck in here and there to annoy or confuse or intrigue various characters.

    I suspect that the many complaints about the depiction of aliens in SF are one reason many writers now stick *mostly* to humans…or maybe it’s that you and Cherryh do such a great job with yours that it’s intimidating to try. For myself, I’m fascinated by the point at which genetic and other modifications of human are perceived as alien. We can do that now, with skin color or religion or culture–and with some prostheses–but what will happen when far more advanced changes are in playz/

  8. I hadn’t thought of it, but you may be right — that some authors may be intimated by the folks who want Really Alien Aliens, and will nitpick “mistakes” to the exclusion of enjoying the story. There seem to be a fair number of folks who demand rigorous science in their SF, or they’re loudly, and extensively, displeased. Funny thing about that — when I first started writing SF, I thought that the story was the thing, because, for me, as a reader, the story is the thing. Obviously, some people have different reading protocols.

    Over in another arm of this conversation, on Facebook, John Hemry says that he thinks many of the aliens in early SF were stand-ins for a particular human culture. He may be on to something there — one of the things SF is for, after all, is for exploring potentially “hot” subjects in a safe place.

    I’m sorry you threw away your tree! We need more sentient trees!

  9. My definition of space opera is that is covers everything: tragedy, comedy, conflict, diplomacy, manners, politics. I *prefer* that the character development outpace the technology development, but I like gadgets (my fave. part of the Bond movies) so I can get as geeked out over a cool concept as any.

    I got tired of the Mil SF for awhile because it was unrelentingly serious. Through that period, I managed because I adored Huff’s Sgt. Kerr because of the way she dealt with her superiors AND her grunts. Moon’s (Hi!) Capt. Serrano, along with Frezza’s and Drake’s cohorts all had dry, dark humour woven in.

    Now I find it hard to find new space opera because the publishers are just. not. accepting. new work. Nathan Lowell’s stuff should NOT be self-published! Small presses like Padwolf and DarkQuest seem to be the only guys publishing new space opera.

    Mind you, there’s still a lot of Star Trek/Star Wars/Star Gate
    licensed books coming out but they’re Known SF.

    As for aliens, I still see McDevitt bringing in new aliens. I guess because he has already had a following.

  10. I got into SF with Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, which appealed to me greatly as the son of a chemistry professor. This drove my fiction desire for a while, until my brother handed me Zelazney’s “Doorways in the Sand” and “Roadmarks” in quick succession. Then a friend got me into the rest of Zelazney’s works, with a certain reverence for the writing in “Lord of Light”.

    He then handed me the Foundation series, and Caves of Steel.

    It was the moving back and forth which set up my mindset, plus some really awesome short stories from Analog and Asimov which were speculative, but not really SF or F. For me, genre started to break down.

    Then someone pointed out the Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    And, well, love is real enough, and very fierce individuals exist. So, then, what use is genre?

    I now view such pronouncements as aiming points, rather than properties. For me, Space Opera is quite broad. My only real expectation is that it will be a wide ranging story, set in space.

    In the end, the main thing that I really want to know is, to paraphrase Cantra, “1. Does the recommender share some of my tastes in books, and 2. Will they point me to their favorites?”

  11. I agree with Elizabeth Moon about space opera, which makes sense given that I have read all of her books. 🙂

  12. Actually, space opera can be downright hilarious, deadly serious and hot damn sexy at the same time.

    People who write UF just think they developed this bent. Ha! Not so.


  13. Have we moved away from aliens?

    No way! Every one of my best-selling space opera books have aliens. I LOVE aliens. I love the friendly ones and the unfriendly ones. At least four of my books have an alien on the cover so that potential readers understand they’re different from most of the books you’ll find.

  14. I am a writer of a new Space Opera series (“Chariots of Heaven” first published in April of 2013)and I definitely have aliens in it. Actually my series is almost completely about an alien civilization, although the main protagonists are Human and the eventual ending to the series will be a transition to how this alien civilization effects Earth and Humanity as a whole. Does that count as moving away from aliens?

  15. After reading some more of the other comments I have to agree that Space Opera functions more on telling a story about characters and the dramas that play out between them, and less about the technological advances present in such a story line. There are certainly those out there who care a lot about the techno-drivel but as a story teller, I care more about building a world you can understand and imagine that has strong characters. I want to give you the keys to the kingdom of my imagination, but I want you to explore it on your own. All writing is interpreted by the reader and as such, I feel there should be some room for their imaginations to work in the story. They get to build the technology as much as I do when I leave it somewhat vague. Obviously the technology in my books doesn’t exist in our world so any attempts to really explain it would just be guesswork and in my opinion, decreases the story’s value. I want to tell the story of people, emotion, and events, not write a treatise on possible scientific advancement, but maybe that’s why my book tip-toes along the line of fantasy.

  16. Fun is important, as is people accomplishing something without angst dominating. I scooped up Hamilton and the Lensmen, but I like the increased characterization of more recent series. Everything in moderation, the heavy military stuff is too prevalent for me of late.

    What I find alarming is the ones who hate any romance themes, like the stories have cooties and aren’t real SF. What early SF (that rarely had believable, competent major female characters) was missing was the gripping emotional component of the story. And yes, emotional components should include love and loss of that, it’s as much a part of life as space flight would be, because it already exists.

  17. Space Opera is to me- *UNARGUABLY* a brilliant facet of the gem called Science Fiction&Fantasy.

    I am mindful of placing lightly any story or author above or below others so I fall gracefully upon the phrase:

    First Among Equals.

    As describing all in this niche:>

    Still and all? I’ve said before and will say again- in keeping with my faith of not lightly placing… I owe debt unlikely of Full Balance to Sharon and Steve for All Things Liaden.

    I’ve tried to be aware of how easily mere humans can get wrong which aspects of a fictional society we adopt or reject…

    Sigh- there’s much of Liaden mores&ethics that is admirable and unlikely to be adopted by the mundanes.

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