I have for obscure reasons been rummaging around the history of science fiction sub-genre, Space Opera. The definition of space opera has changed over time, partly because new interpretations being added in. But if it doesn’t develop, then it will go stale on the readership, so no surprises there.
The generally accepted father of Space Opera is E. E. Smith with his Skylark and Lensmen series. The Skylark of Space was first published in three parts in the 1928 August to October issues of Amazing Stories. This does not mean to say there were no space stories before then. It is just that they did not have the combination of serious scientist inventing a space drive type of thing with the planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In the 1930s and 1940s, E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell and Jack Williamson led the way, with a hoard of writers following in hot pursuit.
The actual term Space Opera was invented in 1941 by Wilson Tucker who defined space opera as the science fiction equivalent: a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn” As you see, he had seen too many space opera stories to be enjoying them any longer.
By the 1950s we had Isaac Asimov writing the Foundation series, Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Poul Andersen’s and Gordon R. Dickson’s Hoka series, and many many more.
Although new stories kept on coming out, people in the 1960s (e.g. Brian Aldiss) were starting to think space opera was the ‘good old stuff’. By the 1970s this opinion was universal.
Just when science fiction was heading for one of its periodical doldrums eras, the 1980s saw not only cyberpunk erupt on the scene, but also darker type of space opera, which involved newer technologies, stronger characterisation and more scientific rigour. The New Space Opera has many proponents: Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod and Peter F. Hamilton.
To my mind, this is what I call the turn of the millennia space opera, because I feel there is new generation of space opera at play now – one where space opera is heavily intertwined with cybertech. Think of John Meanny’s To Hold Infinity or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series that took the science fiction world by tornado. In my mind I would like to call this Cyber Space Opera.
As with all categorisations of sub-genres, there will always be stories that pre-empted the big waves, but in general, they did not quite get the model for that sub-genre reader-attractive. Equally, stories are still being being published along the older sub-genre lines. These things are never as black and white as they appear.
But to summarise:
- 1930s – 1950s – Traditional Space Opera
- 1960s – 1970s – ‘Good Old’ Space Opera
- 1980s – 2015 – New Space Opera
- 2015 – ? – Cyber Space Opera