Diving into Sub-Genres: Space Opera

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

The term “space opera” was originally coined as a dismissive term applied to some science fiction. It was essentially a variation on the term “soap opera” and was used to convey a similar, high-minded rather snobby view of the book being described. Often, these would be ensemble cast stories featuring a space ship, a crew, and the shenanigans they would get into. The use of the term often indicated that the reviewer thought there wasn’t enough “hard science” in the story, and the book had an over-reliance on character beats and corny adventures.

“Star Wars” is the classic example of a space opera film. It’s light-hearted, features a story that revolves largely around the personal stories of its characters, jumps from planet to planet, and isn’t too interested in getting into the how’s and why’s of how its space elements work (how is the “Force” different than magic? how does the Death Star’s planet killing ray actually work in space?, etc.) However, over the last several decades, the term has begun to not only be used in a much less negative light (science fiction reviewers must have realized everyone seems to love “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”), but it has also begun to describe a different sort of science fiction story altogether.

Today’s space opera is essentially the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy more than anything else. There are no hard and fast rules (like all sub-genres, really), but more often than not, modern space operas operate on a grand scale. There are multiple planets and space systems with layered political maneuverings taking place between these players. Most stories include interstellar travel with characters who move between various locations and who are influenced or influencing the larger movements between these forces. While there is still an emphasis on adventure and character, the stories are often of a more serious nature, veering even further away from the “soap opera” caricature from which the term was derived.

Here is a list of some examples of space opera science fiction. I’ve read most of them, but not all, and have varying opinions on my enjoyment of some. But each, in their own way, helps represent the scope and range to be found within this sub-genre.

Book: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This and its sequel, “A Desolation Called Peace,” are the two most recent space opera science fiction books I’ve read recently. They are also perfect examples of what the sub-genre represents to modern readers. The title itself makes the grand scale of the story clear. This isn’t a book concerned only with the small happenings on one planet. It covers and entire Empire and the continuous tug and pull this sprawling force on the outlying stations and planets that have not yet been consumed into this grand, but overwhelming, force. But on a smaller scale, the story follow the more straight-forward adventure of a diplomat who finds herself entangled in the political maneuverings within the Empire itself, all while trying to maintain her own entity and that of the independent station that she represents. On top of all of that, there’s a clear, focused use of scientific advancements that allow these societies to exist. They all feel appropriately futuristic, but they are also easy to imagine as the next step to technologies we see in our own world currently.

Book: “Red Rising” Saga by Pierce Brown

“Red Rising” is an example of a series that starts out with a book that only walks the line of space opera but is the beginning to a set of books that definitely fits the bill. On its own, “Red Rising” can be summed up as “Hunger Games in space,” essentially. There is reference to the multitude of planets and systems that make up this universe, but the story itself feels more contained and insularly focused. But as the series continues, the focus broadens and by the end, the story is fully re-focused on huge battles and political movements that are reshaping the way these planets and systems have organized themselves. These books also have a stronger helping of action than “A Memory Called Empire.” In the beginning, we see smaller fights between the young adults battling each other to earn spots in the greater spectrum of society. And from there we see action-packed space battles with large forces coming together with a clash. While we have one hero, he is surrounded by a larger cast of characters, another common trait found in space operas where the stories follow ensembles and ships with large crews.

Book: “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is a classic example of “space opera.” It’s also part of a very loose series (there are concepts and references to technology that are the focus of other books, but it can be read as a standalone story). This book stands out from the first two I highlighted in that it has the more old-fashioned space opera focus on interactions between humans and the native alien species of the planets they encounter (the first two I mentioned above are mostly focused on the politics between various human factions). The story itself follows a fairly traditional colonization conflict. The human race show up at a planet whose environment is essentially one huge forest. The native people have built their entire system of life around this habitat. They are also unfamiliar with the concepts of tyranny and slavery, so the culture clash is real and painful. When a terrible event sparks resistance, the trajectory of both cultures is changed forever. The story definitely is of the time it was written (the late 70s), but it’s an excellent example of classic space opera.

Book: “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey

I mean, it’s right there on the front page: “kickass space opera.” But it would also be fairly impossible to create this list currently without including this book, the first in the “Expanse” series that inspired the popular Amazon show. While “Star Trek” reigns alongside “Star Wars” as some of the most popular space operas stories to grace the silver and big screens, the “Expanse” series is one of the few, popular science fiction shows that is currently running. Fantasy seems to be in vogue a bit more at this time (the lasting affect of “Game of Thrones,” likely). Like “Red Rising,” “Leviathan Wakes” focuses on the politics of various human colonies within our solar system, Mars, the Moon, and the Asteroid belts. But it also narrows in on a group of individuals who begin to uncover secrets that will forever shake the boundaries of these systems and their conflicts. It deftly balances the grand scale of various factions within the solar system with the smaller, personal stakes of one ship’s crew and a few key players. It’s a long-running series and definitely one to check out if you’re interested in a multi-book space opera story.

Book: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

This is space opera at its most removed. The story is set far in the future and features such a shift in the culture and world-building that in many ways very little is recognizable. Which makes the book particularly challenging and definitely one that will likely only appeal to the strongest science fiction fans. In a time where gender is essentially not even recognized and “she” pronouns are used to identify everyone, a individual crew member who was once a great starship wanders a remote planet. With a sharp focus on loss and the collective nature of a ship and its crew, the story is a slow build of redemption and justice. It’s probably one of the hardest books to tackle on this list, but it is also very beloved by many science fiction fans and an award-winner to boot.

Book: “A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

This is a more recent example of a science fiction novel that meets the more classic definition of space opera. It features a crew made up of quirky individuals, both alien and human, and the story essentially follows their adventures as they travel the galaxy. It’s more light-hearted than any of the other books on this list and places a greater emphasis on the characters themselves and how their escapades affect each of them individually. It’s not a soap opera, by any means, but it’s definitely the kind of book that the original penners of the term “space opera” would have thought was beneath the dignity of “true” science fiction. It’s a fun read and probably the most approachable book on this list for those looking to dabble their feet into science fiction and “space opera.”

What’s your favorite space opera??

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