Universes Brimming with Life, (Im)possibility, and Extreme Violence: My Problems with Space Opera

I’m the first to admit that I love the space opera sub-genre. I remember watching Battlestar Galactica (the new rendition — sorry, crusty grognards) for hours on end, wondering when (or, rather, if) the human fleet would find the promised land: Earth. I spent months (actually, years) combing through novels set in the Star Wars expanded universe (may it rest in peace — thanks, Disney), traveling to (im)possible worlds set against the beautiful (and problematic) backdrop that is the Star Wars universe. I, like many of the kids in my generation, saw the reboots of fan-favorites like Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica. Although many might not admit it, space opera fulfilled a need that many of us had in the new millennium. I remember wanting to be a part of these universes, where I could see new lifeforms, experience the (im)possible, and partake in the extreme violence that seemed to fill my head when I thought of the space opera sub-genre.

Space opera was my escape — for a short time, anyways.

Then I met someone who’d take a hammer to that brittle escapist literature I enjoyed so much. It was akin to losing one’s virginity on prom night in the back of your uncle’s car, which you borrowed and promised to have back by midnight. Anyways, I digress. The person I am thinking of will be named Mr. Zed. Mr. Zed was a tech guru, who worked for the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Dulce, New Mexico. Mr. Zed dressed like one of those Mormon missionaries we’ve all seen, riding their bicycles down Main Street, or wherever, to spread the Good News. Mr. Zed wasn’t there to convert me to Mormonism — I believe, even to this day, he ran unaffiliated in a league of his own. Instead, Mr. Zed offered me a copy of Alastair Reynolds’s Chasm City, a beautiful work that is often classified as hard science-fiction by Reynolds himself. However, much to Reynolds’s chagrin, Chasm City has a legacy it can’t seem to get away from: space opera. It is, technically speaking, a space opera tale, albeit in a more nuanced form. The gritty nature of Chasm City was enough to ruin me to any kind of kid-glove-wearing-space-opera. That meant I couldn’t take Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, or even Battlestar Galactica seriously anymore. Nothing quite compared to that reading experience — and it still haunts me as I write this and work on my own space opera tale. Reynolds’s insight into the human soul, the human condition, and what makes the universe tick, has had a profound impact on my relationship with traditional space opera.

I’m not the only one.

The problem with traditional space opera is that it promised a bright and shiny future — sort of. Or, at the very least, a future where good triumphed over evil, where humans could spread across the vast expanse that is the surrounding universe, and a future where certain things were a given. We’ve assumed, with the help of (classic) space opera, that habitable worlds are a dime a dozen, intelligent (sentient) life is abundant, and that the universe is teaming with (im)possibility. With a bit of handwavium, we could travel between stars in the blink of an eye. People weren’t trapped by their socio-economic barriers anymore. Grand heroes could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and defeat unimaginable enemies.

The hard science-fiction or woke (i.e., contemporary) space opera approaches to these classical assumptions have had a profound impact on my psyche as a reader and consumer of space opera literature (yes, space opera is literature). Instead, of being promised a universe teaming with life, we have been challenged (fundamentally) by hard science-fiction and contemporary space opera. This challenge has offered that a universe teaming with sentient lifeforms might not be the greatest bargain. Alternatively, taking Reynolds as an example, hard science-fiction suggests that the universe might be (nearly) empty of sentient lifeforms. We could be all alone or living in a celestial graveyard — which has profound implications for the human race or those races that evolve from this planet. Moreover, the handwavium devices we’ve been promised by classical space opera — faster-than-light travel, ansible tech, sentient artificial intelligence, etc. — are but a dream, something the inhabitants of the new space operas wish existed. Even if they do exist, they are expensive, controlled by small numbers of people, and, ultimately, have unintended consequences that ripple throughout the universes they exist in. Even the mass-violence we’ve been promised by series like Star Warshave been challenged by the new authors filling the space opera void we all have in our hearts. Violence is expensive on a galactic scale (hell, on a global scale it requires some significant cash reserves and plentiful natural resources). No dogfights between space destroyers or carriers. No ground pounders (i.e., Marines, airborne, etc.) dropping down onto enemy planets, to liberate the masses, who pray for such things. No, things are more complicated, messier in fact, and definitely expensive (prohibitively so). No galactic empires or republics, as human politics, especially for humans who only manage to live around one hundred years, maybe less, are quite fragile and fickle things.

My problem with classic space opera is that it appears to be vacant of consequence. It appears to suggest the universe is a bountiful basket, ready for our pilfering. Classic space opera also tends to make a lot of blanket assumptions concerning the nature of the universe, assumptions that are quite problematic to the logical mind. Although I admit that I am more of a hard science-fiction writer, my love for space opera can’t be denied. I like the stakes. I like the drama that comes with a good space opera reading. Moreover, I enjoy the scale that often comes with a space opera tale. However, like many writers today, I am concerned with some of the problems challenging the relevance of space opera today. I certainly hope that my kids or grandkids get to enjoy space opera, much like I did when I was younger. Like any (sub-)genre, things have to change. New life has to be breathed into the writing, and we need to move away from the tropes that have worn out their welcome. We need to search the stars and look for something that really (and truly) brings the space opera sub-genre into the twenty-first-century.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico