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Space Opera Redefined by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
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Links: Hartwell & Cramer's Space Opera Anthology /

Originally we ran this essay by David Hartwell in our August 2003 issue. But with the new anthology, The New Space Opera, we thought we'd give it another go.
The editors.

How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera
by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer


A moment of transition: in 1976 Leigh Brackett edited a Del Rey anthology, The Best of Planet Stories, #1

"It was fashionable for a while, among certain elements of science-fiction fandom, to hate Planet Stories. They hated the magazine, apparently, because it was not Astounding Stories. . . Of course Planet wasn't Astounding; it never pretended to be Astounding, and that was a mercy for a lot of us who would have starved to death if John W. Campbell, Jr., had been the sole and only market for our wares. . . . we who wrote for Planet tended to be more interested in wonders than we were in differential calculus or the theory and practice of the hydraulic ram, even if we knew all about such things.
(I didn't.) Astounding went for the cerebrum, Planet for the gut, and it always seemed to me that one target was as valid as the other."

For the past twenty years (1982-2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera -- from David Brin, C.J. Cherryh, and Orson Scott Card to Lois Bujold, Dan Simmons, and Vernor Vinge. (The shorter fiction awards have been distributed much more widely over the range of SF and fantasy styles and possibilities.) One might go so far as to say that the Hugo award for best novel has always gone primarily to space opera, as currently defined, though many of the earlier winners, up to the end of the 1970s, would have been mortally offended to have their books so-labelled. Space opera used to be a pejorative locution designating not a subgenre or mode at all, but the worst form of formulaic hackwork: really bad SF.

A lot of people don't remember this and that distorts our understanding of both our present and our past in SF. Perfectly intelligent but ignorant people are writing revisionist history, inventing an elaborate age of space opera based on wholesale redefinitions of the term made up in the sixties and seventies to justify literary political agendas. To say it flatly, before the mid-1970s, no one in the history of science fiction ever consciously and intentionally set out to write something called space opera (except Jack Vance, who accepted the assignment from Berkley Books in the late 1960s to write a novel to fit the title, Space Opera -- at the same time Philip K. Dick got the assignment to write a book called The Zap Gun. These were editorial jokes to be shared with the fans).

On the other hand, there are a number of examples of works from the late 1940s on published as intentional parodies of space opera, that in effect apply the term to works either fairly or unfairly for humorous effect, often poking fun at the big names of the past. This, too, is literary politics. Nevertheless, there is now a real body of work that gets nominated for awards and often wins them, that is authentically and consciously written as space opera. Much of it was on one cutting edge or another of SF in the last two decades--and there are a number of cutting edges.

Here is the origin and description of the term from the early dictionary of SF, the Fancyclopedia II (1959):

Space Opera ([coined by Wilson] Tucker) A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.[to here, the entire entry from Fancyclopedia, 1944]. Of course, some space operas are more crass about their nature than others; early Captain Video TV casts were a hybrid of original space scenes and footage from old Western movies (purporting to represent a Spy Ray checking up on the Captain's Earthly agents). Terry Carr once unearthed a publication genommen Space Western Comics, in which a character named Spurs Jackson adventured in a futuristic Western setting with his "space vigilantes", and the old prewar Planet Comics intermittently ran a strip about the Fifth Martian Lancers and their struggles with rebel tribesmen.
What Bob Tucker actually said in his fanzine in 1941 was:

In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called "horse operas," the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called "soap operas," For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer "space opera."
We emphasize that this original definition applied to all bad SF hackwork. It did not refer to good space stories in Astounding, or to Doc Smith and Edmund Hamilton, leading lights of the field, but to the subliterate hackwork appearing in, say, Amazing, in those days and never reprinted or praised today. It did not confine itself to the future, or off-Earth settings, or refer to any "good old days." Those twists of the term were introduced much later.

Space opera was still a negative term in the 1950s. An ad on the back cover of the early issues of Galaxy (then an ambitious new magazine) bore the headline, "You'll never find this in Galaxy . . . ," that gave a stereotypical example of space opera for the time. When the term appeared in review columns in the 50s, I recall someone, perhaps even Damon Knight, referring to Hamilton's hackwork series, Captain Future, as an example of space opera, while distinguishing it from his better work. And I recall Knight praising Leigh Brackett. There was no sense of space opera meaning anything other than "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn" SF stories of any kind. Still, as the fifties ended, the term became associated specifically with space stories and its meaning began to be contaminated with fondness for outworn, clunky, old-fashioned SF, guilty pleasures.

We don't know the first time anyone used the term in reference to Doc Smith, but by the 1960s it was so used, though not universally. That was the first real signpost of a shift in meaning to give space opera an air of nostalgic approval.

The next signpost was the New Wave project in England. Pushing for a revolution, Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard in the early 1960s used their prestige and polemical gifts to condemn most SF of prior decades. They declared space fiction over with, and the fiction of the near future, inner space, and the human mind the only true contemporary SF. In the process they conflated all SF adventure in distant futures or distant in space with space opera and said it was all bad, all literary history, and no longer a living part of SF. Their associates in the later 60s and early 70s, including Harry Harrison (in the parodies Bill, The Galactic Hero, and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers), M. John Harrison (in the Besterian deconstruction The Centauri Device), and Brian Aldiss in his two-volume anthology, Space Opera and Galactic Empires, enforced these ideas by example.


From Aldiss' intro to Space Opera (1974):

"The most potent symbols are not abstract but concrete. And maybe the most potent symbol of them all is SF's own invention, the Starship."

The Starship is the key that unlocks the great bronze doors of space opera and lets mankind run loose among all the other immensities. . . . At the center of Van Vogt's ["The Storm"] rides his great galactic battleship, Star Cluster, glowing like an immense and brilliant jewel: "Silent as a ghost, grand and wonderful beyond all imagination, glorious in her power, the great ship slid through the blackness along the special river of time and space which was her plotted course."

When Aldiss edited Space Opera in 1974, he was approaching the height of his reputation both as a writer and as a literary critic (and was also editing with Harry Harrison a prestigious SF: The Year's Best anthology series). In his introduction, he pronounced space opera dead, except as a hothouse cultivation: Essentially space opera was born in the pulp magazines, flourished there, and died there. It is still being written, but in the main by authors who owe their inspiration and impetus to the pulps.

He presented space opera as a guilty pleasure for readers of good, serious SF: This is not a serious anthology. Both volumes burst with voluptuous vacuum. They have been put together to amuse.

Aldiss also said,

The term is both vague and inspired, and must have been coined [here Aldiss is being especially coy] with both affection and some scorn. . . . Its parameters are marked by a few mighty concepts standing like watch-towers along a lonely frontier. What goes on between them is essentially simple "a tale of love or hate, triumph or defeat" because it is the watch-towers that matter. We are already familiar with some of them: the question of reality, the limitations of knowledge, exile, the sheer immensity of the universe, the endlessness of time.
In effect, this elaborate description is a wholesale redefinition of space opera as the good old stuff.

It used to be possible before about 1973 for SF critics to distinguish space opera (from the 1920 to the 1970s) from popular SF adventure (as written by, for instance, Poul Anderson or Henry Kuttner, and sometimes called "planetary romances"). The SF adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs and later, Leigh Brackett, were fast paced, colorful, heroic, and (at least in Brackett's case) well written, for all their pulp clichés. They were not considered mere hackwork, although a taste for Burroughs, say, was often considered a guilty pleasure. But that distinction has collapsed with. It is still the working definition for some SF people.

The redefinition of space opera collapsed all adventure forms into merely a varieties of space opera and they are since then usually indistinguishable in SF discussions--as are the aforementioned works of Edward E. Smith, once an early model of good, hard SF adventure. Doc Smith got published in Astounding, even in the Campbell Golden Age years, and Robert A. Heinlein respected, and praised, Smith's works. But Smith's now the poster child of early space opera. And the days of SF before the 1950s are often referred to as the days of Space Opera, and that's at least a partial triumph for the New Wave.

And now for the next signpost. Leigh Brackett, by the mid-1970s, was one of the respected elder writers of SF: in the middle and late 1970s, Del Rey Books reissued nearly all her early tales, calling them space opera as a contemporary term of praise!

Here's how that happened: Lester Del Rey had set out to bring SF back to its roots as non-literary, or even anti-literary, entertainment, to specifically reject the incursions of Modernism into SF after what he declared the pretension and excesses and failed experiments of the New Wave. Lester and his wife Judy Lynn accepted the New Wave conflation of SF Adventure and Space Opera and used the terms synonymously -- both in Judy's marketing for Del Rey books and in Lester's review columns in Analog -- as terms of approbation.

I often heard them speak about space opera in public without realizing, until years later, the effect it was having: to finally and entirely reverse the polarity of space opera. Back then I thought they were just crass marketeers. At the time, while Gardner Dozois and Terry Carr and Charlie Brown and I and a bunch of others sat around at Worldcon dead dog parties in the late 1970s joking about the Del Rey's passionate, lowest-common-denominator, anti-literary, SF populism, space opera was becoming a term of approbation denoting the best kind of contemporary and past SF as just the type of SF Aldiss had described as dead.

Lester even went to the extreme of denying that any writer could set out to write SF as art. This of course flew in the face of both the Knight/Merril/Sturgeon axis in the USA, and of the New Worlds crew in the UK. Moorcock, Ballard, Aldiss and the rest, all believed that SF could be good art and that good writers could aspire to art through SF--if they discarded the traditions of space opera.

It took nearly ten years to accomplish the redefinition, but by the early years of the 1980s the Del Reys' efforts succeeded in altering the perceived meaning of space opera. Their model by the end of the 1970s at Del Rey became Star Wars (the book, and the film) and its sequels. And in the end Del Rey books attached Brackett's considerable prestige and authority to the Star Wars project when Brackett, also an accomplished screen writer, did the script for The Empire Strikes Back. The Del Rey novelization of the film has both her name on it as well as the novelizer's. And so in the popular mind, within a few years, Star Wars was conflated with Star Trek fiction to contour the new image of space opera: by the mid-1980s space opera was a code term in US marketing circles for bestselling popular SF entertainment.

Here's the big irony: the Del Reys were conservative, and were shooting for a restoration of past virtues, and instead hit the future. What they did was to allow the postmodern conflation of marketing and art, the inclusion of media in the artistic project of SF, and to permit the mixing of all levels and kinds of art in individual works. They established the artistic environment for works they would never have considered publishing or supporting. They set the stage for postmodern space opera.

Many readers and writers and nearly all media fans who entered sf after 1975 have never understood the origin of space opera as a pejorative and some may be surprised to learn of it. Thus the term space opera reentered the serious discourse on contemporary SF in the 1980s with a completely altered meaning: henceforth, space opera meant, and still generally means, colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action [this bit is what separates it from other literary postmodernisms] and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. What is centrally important is that this permits a writer to embark on a science fiction project that is ambitious in both commercial and literary terms.

The new traditions, of contemporary space opera come only partly from the Del Rey marketing and philosophical changes, though they start there. Good writers immediately began in the 1980s to trace their own roots back to space opera classics of the past. The most ambitious parts of contemporary space opera now derive from such models as Brackett's The Sword Of Rhiannon, and Charles Harness's "The Rose," Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, the Norstrilia stories of Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R. Delany's Nova, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye, Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, Norman Spinrad's Riding The Torch and The Void-Captain's Tale, C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, Gene Wolfe's four volume The Book of the New Sun, and particularly its sequel, The Urth Of The New Sun, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, et. seq., David Brin's Uplift series, Melissa Scott's Five Twelfths Of Heaven, Mike Resnick's Santiago, Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigian series, Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty, et. seq., and Iain M. Bank's Consider Phlebas, and the succeeding novels in his Culture series. Together such works formed not one cutting edge but many, a constellation of models (once the definitional barriers were removed so they might all be considered as part of a space opera tradition) for ambitious younger writers by the end of the 1980s, an exciting decade for space opera indeed.

Because Banks's novels were bestsellers in England, spectacularly and unexpectedly successful, Banks, in spite of his relatively small impact in the US, was the foremost model in the UK as the 1990s began. Paul Kincaid, in an essay on 1990s SF, The New Optimism, called him the most influential writer in Britain today, and said:" His huge commercial success (bigger than any genre writer except for Terry Pratchett), has spawned a host of successors, from those opportunistically likened to him in publishing blurbs to those who have genuinely been inspired by his approach, his vigorous literary style or his view of the future."

There is no one thing that is the new space opera though, no matter how the Brits would like to think so, and claim it. There are a number of dissimilar yet important and ambitious individual writers in the SF world, all of them sometimes stretching genre boundaries, including Dan Simmons, John Varley, David Brin, Iain Banks, Catherine Asaro, Orson Scott Card, John Clute, Peter Hamilton, Lois McMaster Bujold, M John Harrison, Donald M. Kingsbury, David Weber, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Mike Resnick, C. J. Cherryh, and many others. All of them have made a valid claim to be writing ambitious space opera (some of the time), and all of them are or have been popular and influential. Since the reversal of polariity of the term space opera in the 1970s was a covert literary battle, not a public argument and discussion, the nature of space opera boundaries has been fluid and imprecise, constantly updated by new examples--hey, look at Startide Rising; look at Ender's Game, look at Santiago; look at Use of Weapons; look at Hyperion; look at Appleseed. The new space opera of the past twenty years is arguably the literary cutting edge of SF now.

In closing, we note that the majority of websites devoted to space opera today are media fan sites, and with deadpan sincerity they generally trace the origins of film and TV space opera back to Captain Video. The authors of Fancyclopedia may be laughing.


Our Readers Respond

From: Taras Wolansky
    Jack Vance's work is not widely available any more -- the Vance Integral Edition of his complete works, with no copies for sale, turned out to be little more than an ornate mausoleum -- so a word or two about his novel, Space Opera, might be appropriate.

    It's not really a "space opera", but a satirical travel tale in which a grand opera company brings the benefits of high culture to alien worlds and alien races -- who often don't quite understand what it is they're being shown. It's a very funny book, but also a dark meditation on the inevitable decadence and decline of civilizations.

    Furthermore, while Vance's early -- novel? collection? -- The Dying Earth may be an influence on the "new space opera", it is not anything like a space opera itself. It's set on a far future Earth under a dimming, red sun, in which the remnants of unimaginably high technology are indistinguishable from magic. Indeed, the book is often considered a seminal work in the development of modern fantasy.

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