Space opera isn’t a new thing. It’s not the oldest thing either, but people have been dreaming up stories of adventures in space ever since we figured out that space existed. The phrase ‘space opera’ was coined in 1941 by an author called Wilson Tucker. Space Operas weren’t stories about hard science, but adventures with bold heroes and heroines and fights between good and evil, the kind of thing that made you gasp and hold your breath and wonder what would happen next. Tucker didn’t like them, and he put them firmly in the same category as the radio serials that were popular at the time. Often sponsored by soap companies, which was where the term ‘soap opera’ came from, these were stories designed purely for entertainment, with a hook at the end of each episode that would keep the listener coming back for more.
There was romance and intrigue and all the wonderful, marvellous things you find in any adventure story, but these stories dared to push themselves literally out into space. There were spaceships and ray guns and aliens. Writers ignored the rules of what was physically possible, limited only by their imagination. They didn’t concern themselves with details of how space ships would travel, or how humans would cope with radiation on other planets. This was about excitement and drama tied in with a flair for the wild and ridiculous. Yes, we know that there aren’t really green men living on Mars even though John Carter found them there, and we know that it isn’t physically possible to travel between planets in a matter of hours in a battered space ship whilst looking like Harrison Ford circa 1982, nor could an American Football player and Brian Blessed with wings really save the world, but isn’t it fun to watch them do it anyway?
Space opera isn’t always hard science fiction, and too often the word hard is used to imply that you’re dealing with the really good stuff, that you’re edgy and daring and clever. The word soft is a bat to beat space opera with, a way to imply that those who enjoy it aren’t really taking their science fiction seriously and perhaps even lack the intelligence to do so.
It has fallen in and out of favour over the years, as everything does, but when space opera gets it right, it grips the imagination like nothing else. Star Wars and Star Trek are both evidence of that. So why does space opera do this? What does it offer that other scifi subgenres cannot?
There are several things in my opinion. Firstly it’s exactly because the science is soft. I’ve had people who have read my space opera Blue Shift comment that they had always assumed that science fiction was not for them because it is difficult and inaccessible, that they didn’t know it could be exciting and sexy and page turning and fun. They don’t want to know the complicated physics of space flight. They don’t care. They want the social comedy of the Vorkosigan Saga, the intricate plotting of The Snow Queen, the joy of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
Secondly, I think space opera is vital because it is fundamentally optimistic, and that is something that we all need right now. We’re facing global warming which we seem completely unable to derail. Every day, we see more and more evidence of the inability of humankind to act kindly, to share, to push for the betterment of all, and the less time we have left before Earth can no longer support us, the worse this seems to get. We elect political leaders who have only their own interests at heart. We ignore children trapped in warzones, we throw away an endless mountain of plastic and cheaply made clothes, we sit in our cars in car parks with the engine running, and we worry more about how many likes we have on social media than any of this. But space opera tells us that we can be better. It gives us hope that we will somehow manage to make it away from the mess that we have created. It gives shape and form and life to the feeling that we all have when we look up at the sky on a dark night and wonder what else is out there. It tells us that there might be other species both similar to us that we can communicate with them and yet different enough that we can learn some valuable lessons, perhaps even ones which will stop us from repeating the mistakes we are making on Earth.
And who doesn’t want to read about that?
Jane O’Reilly would like to say that she’s the secret love child of Wonder Woman and grew up on a tropical island in the Pacific, but in reality, she grew up in the north of England where it was quite cold and if anyone had any superpowers, they kept them well hidden. After university and a brief and very misguided spell as a teacher, she decided it would be better for everyone if she stayed at home and looked after her children. But what she really wanted to write was a book about a space pirate in which she could blow things up .
You can find her on twitter as @janeoreilly, on Instagram as @janeoreilly2032 or at her website www.janeoreilly.com. Her latest novel, Blue Shift, is available from Waterstones, Amazon and in bookstores.