What is space opera?

Okay, so I’ve been saying all year that NO FOREIGN SKY is space opera and INVICTUS isn’t, that it’s something else. What criteria, you may wonder, am I thinking of when I say that? Both take place in space. The settings are spaceships in both cases. We never even see a planet. What is the difference that I think is so important that these stories wind up in different subgenres?

What defines space opera? Well, let’s try to define the subgenre by example.

  1. Elizabeth Moon, Trading in Danger
  2. LMB, The Warrior’s Apprentice
  3. CJC, Chanur
  4. Kate Elliot, Unconquerable Sun
  5. H Beam Piper, Space Viking

As a side note, did you know you can pick up an H Beam Piper collection of 33 novels and stories for a dollar? Nice to see someone bringing back classic SF repackaged in accessible ebook form.

What’s not up there? Military SF, which intergrades with space opera, but is something different.

  1. Dave Weber, Honor Harrington
  2. David Feintuch, Seafort Saga
  3. Jack Campbell, The Lost Fleet series
  4. Joel Dane, Cry Pilot series
  5. Tanya Huff, the Valor series, my personal favorite by a lot.

For me, space opera means a fast-paced adventure story … set in space … with normal SF tropes, such as wormholes … where the stakes are high and keep ratcheting upward, with big consequences for winning or losing … and there are probably multiple battles against increasing odds … and the good guys win.

Military SF means that we’re following one or more military personnel … with a focus on the military organization … and there are probably battles … but not necessarily with increasing stakes … and the tone can be gritty rather than adventurous … and the good guys probably win, but not necessarily.

The focus on military personnel and the military organization is a big difference between space opera and military SF. If a book has those features, it’s military SF. If it doesn’t, it’s not. If you were drawing a venn diagram, there would be plenty of overlap, but also lots of books that belong to one subgenre or the other, not both.

What’s still not up there?

  1. CJC, Foreigner
  2. CJC, Cyteen
  3. KSR, the Mars trilogy
  4. Herbert, Dune
  5. Corey, The Expanse series, and I know that it lands on a lot of space opera lists, but I disagree.

I thought of grabbing stuff off “sociological SF” lists, but I don’t want to imply that everything that’s not space opera or military SF is sociological SF, because obviously it’s not. That’s why I picked The Expanse. It keeps appearing on lists of all-time-great space opera and I just don’t think it is. Maybe I should add, I just read the first book. But I don’t think it’s space opera. It’s too slow-paced. It’s too gritty. The focus isn’t right. It isn’t a romance in the technical sense — it’s not an adventure story. Adventure happens, but that’s not the same thing as being an adventure story. Ender’s Game keeps popping up on space opera lists too, and again, I don’t agree. As far as that goes, I disagree much more vehemently about later books in the series.

In my opinion, Invictus fits in this third group. It’s not an adventure story. I mean, at all. It’s got some exciting moments, but it’s definitely not swashbuckling in space. It’s not a fast-paced story with ratcheting stakes. The stakes are high throughout, but the reader can’t see clearly what those stakes actually are until halfway through. It’s got heroes yes, but not quite in the traditional mode.

Is it sociological SF? I would say, not exactly, or not quite. Of the books up there, it’s most like Cyteen, because it’s kind of a take on some of the same questions Cyteen addresses.

Side note: What is WITH publishers, anyway? Cyteen is not currently available in Kindle form. Sometimes I really cannot believe how ridiculous publishers are. If they’re reissuing Cyteen as an ebook, why first make it unavailable? If they’re just not bothering to make it available, what the hell is wrong with them?

Regardless, Cyteen is a book I love. I mean, I really love it. I’ve read Cyteen innumerable times, starting when Young Ari appears because the first bit is pretty grim and I don’t care to revisit that part. But even though I love this novel — I love Young Aris and Caitlin and Florian, and Justin and Grant — and I think this is just a fantastic novel, the society shown in Cyteen is honestly very iffy.

If you squint at it at all, you have to realize this is a society founded on large-scale slavery. The azi are slaves. Not using the word doesn’t change the basic fact that they are slaves. Creating them was not a great thing to do, founding the whole society on them, on their labor, was not a great thing to do, and yes, the azi who are important characters are amazing characters, but the whole society is founded on some pretty terrible ideas.

The Ubezhishche in Invictus were created just like the azi, or very nearly — I added one tweak which is, depending on how you look at it, actually not very far removed from how CJC did it.. But, unlike the azi, the Ubezhishche broke free of their creators, went off, and founded their own society. That’s the deep backstory here. And yes, this is very much a response to the society shown in Cyteen.

If you’ve read the Tuyo World Companion — I mean the part about inspirations — then you know that a huge source of inspiration for me goes like this:

A) I’m reading a book I really love

B) I run into something awful. Some terrible thing happens to a character I care about.

C) I think, “Oh no, aargh, how awful! That should never have happened! What should have happened is a much better thing, which is now in my head.”

And then later (often much later), this appears in one of by books as the situation leads toward a moment when a similar awful thing might happen, but instead a much better thing happens.

It doesn’t have to be quite like that. It might be a great scene, but one that didn’t fulfil the potential I think the scene had. I’ll rewrite the original scene in my head and then it’s pretty likely I’ll put something similar in a different context later. Or this can happen with characters, where I think the author misses the chance to really bring a great character front-and-center and I develop a character who is similar in some ways and put that character in the foreground, not the background. Lots of variations on this basic idea.

For Invictus, the inspiration was one hundred percent the azi in Cyteen. If you create a genetically engineered slave caste that is completely under the control of born-men supervisors, then if your slaves decide this is wrong and bring your society crashing down around your ears, you totally deserve that.

This story isn’t about that part. That’s the backstory. The Ubezhishche went in their own direction, and about the only thing they share with the azi now is that they really do not want to be born-men — in this case, Elysians. They’re just fine the way they are, thank you, and when their genomic designers tweak the designs, they have their own priorities in mind.

Despite this kind of backstory, this really isn’t sociological SF, or I don’t think it is. I honestly don’t know what subgenre it fits. As categories, I picked SF–General, SF-Adventure, and SF-Genetic Engineering. I don’t think this is actually an adventure story, but the categories are limited and I had to pick something. However, that doesn’t seem to be what Amazon is saying. Amazon shows the categories as SF-Space Fleet and SF–Space Marines. Well, the word “marines” does appear in the book, but really? I hope the wrong readers don’t pick it up on the theory it is Military SF. Or rather, if they do, I hope they love it, even though it isn’t Military SF.

Maybe in a few days, I’ll try to lay out all the recognized subgenres of SF and see if I can better identify where INVICTUS fits.

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10 thoughts on “What is space opera?”

  1. I basically think of space opera as the sf equivalent of epic fantasy – big scale problems, lots of characters, eventual triumph.

  2. I really don’t. I think of space opera as the equivalent of adventure fantasy — no need for lots of characters, no need for a sprawling world or universe. Fast pace, lots of excitement, ratcheting stakes, good guys who are actually good guys trying to achieve good things, and eventual triumph. AND not too gritty either.

  3. I think space opera can vary wildly in tone but most of the definitions you’ll see focus a lot on tone– upbeat, adventurous, with a happy ending, clear divisions between good and evil.

    To me, space opera is the story of the space empire, and I’m fairly permissive in allowing the space empire to be in the background (all those planetary romance stories about the space empire that collapsed and all the isolated planets have become weird) or just at its beginnings in the near future (a little bit of overlap with near-future SF if it’s on that trajectory) or way in the far future (all of the older pulp stories set five thousand some years in the future!) This means that to me the boundaries between space opera and other subgenres are always somewhat fuzzy and overlapping.

    About Cyteen, a big important chunk of Cherryh’s catalogue (Cyteen, Heavy Time and Hellburner, Rimrunners, Finity’s End, Tripoint, Rider at the Gate and Cloud’s Rider) came out through the now-defunct Warner/Aspect/Questar imprint and I think no one ended up with the ebook rights to them. Heavy Time and Hellburner were self-published back into print through her imprint with her wife Jane Fancher and their friend and fellow author Lynn Abbey as a project called Closed Circle (closed-circle.net) that has been officially shut down indefinitely earlier this year and my guess would be that the others had been planned to be reissued also before health and life issues got in the way. I do wish that DAW or someone would make an offer and take them over though! There was a fairly recent audio edition of Rimrunners that had gotten my hopes up but I think it’s been a couple of years since that came out now.

  4. Sandstone, if no one has the ebook rights, doesn’t that mean the author must have the ebook rights?

    No doubt it’s all complicated in some annoying way and health and life issues are preventing CJC from prying the rights back into her hands from wherever, but it’s really too bad, and yes, I wish DAW or someone would make an effort.

    To me, tone is very important as a defining characteristic of space opera, so I’m on board with that particular aspect of the definition.

  5. Rachel,

    Yes that’s what I was trying to say, since Warner is defunct I believe that CJC does hold the rights herself based on her having been able to republish Heavy Time and Hellburner even if it seems those editions have disappeared (they don’t seem to be listed on Amazon anymore either). I think that Cyteen may be the only remaining Hugo winner that is not available in ebook in North America besides possibly Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s They’d Rather Be Right/The Forever Machine (a cursory search didn’t turn it up, but the multiple titles and authors might mean I just didn’t find the listing.)

  6. Oh, got it! So it’s solely down to whether she has time and energy and so on to deal with it. Well, I hope she does manage to do it eventually. Cyteen is way up there for me as a major favorite — as long as I skip the beginning.

  7. In my usage, space opera is primarily denoted by its star-spanning scope and high stakes. The prototypical space opera when I’m using the term is E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, which starts with pirate battles and ends with antimatter planets and death rays powered by entire stars being thrown around to resolve a billion-year conflict between galaxies.

    The Lensman books are centered on a military protagonist and frequently features fleet actions, so it would fall under milSF in your taxonomy. But to me, any definition of space opera that rules out the Lensman series can’t be reconciled with my understanding of the term.

    (Smith is also responsible for the other central example and origin point for what I’d call space opera, The Skylark of Space et seq. Though in that case the key figures who wind up deciding the fate of galaxies are four Terran civilians.)

    Other works I’d call space opera:

    Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep (but not its prequel or sequel)

    Babylon 5

    (Star Trek, by contrast, generally isn’t space opera, though arguably the Dominion War arc of Deep Space Nine may be in shouting distance. Star Wars would be space opera if it were trying harder to be sf. The Death Star and its escalating copies are very much space opera things.)

    David Brin, Startide Rising (but not the other Uplift books)

    Mass Effect (video game series)

    I’m not sure that I’d call any of Cherryh’s work quite space opera, though Downbelow Station is probably the closest, followed by the middle three Chanur books.

    Iain Banks’ Culture takes place in a totally space opera universe, full of vast energies, wars on an unimaginable scale, immortal hyperintelligences, etc. But his stories are mostly smaller. If he’d done the main action of the Idiran war as a novel, it would have definitely qualified.

  8. Cyteen must have been available as an ebook sometime in the past, since I managed to track down a professionally edited-looking ebook file once upon a time.

    (We bought it in hardcopy at least twice between us, and would have paid for the ebook if the option had been available, so my conscience is clear enough under the circumstances. But if she makes it available for purchase I’ll probably buy it again.)

  9. Mike, I think there’s a lot of overlap between military SF and space opera in the Venn Diagram of SF — the Lensman series was actually the one I was trying to think of as the Ur-Example of space opera, but for some reason I couldn’t pull it up. Oh, I know why, it’s because I was thinking of H Beam Piper and could not remember EE Doc Smith. I’ll blame that on getting old, but probably it’s just one of those moments.

    If Cyteen came out as an ebook, I’d buy it, even though I like my paper copy just fine.

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