SPACE OPERA


SPACE OPERA
   When RADIO was the principal medium of home entertainment in the USA, daytime serials intended for housewives were often sponsored by soap-powder companies; the series were thus dubbed "soap operas". The name was soon generalized to refer to any corny domestic drama. Westerns were sometimes called "horse operas" by false analogy, and the pattern was extended into sf terminology by Wilson TUCKER in 1941, who proposed "space opera" as the appropriate term for the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn". It soon came to be applied instead to colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict. Although the term still retains a pejorative implication, it is frequentlyused with nostalgic affection, applying to space-adventure stories which have a calculatedly romantic element. The term might be applied retrospectively to such early space adventures as Robert W. COLE's The Struggle for Empire (1900) but, as it was coined as a complaint about pulpCLICHE, it seems reasonable to limit its use to GENRE SF.Five writers were principally involved in the development of space opera in the 1920s and 1930s. E.E. "Doc" SMITH made his debut with the exuberant interstellaradventure The Skylark of Space (1928; 1946), and continued to write stories in a similar vein until the mid-1960s; 2 sequels, Skylark Three (1930; 1948) and Skylark of Valeron (1934-5; 1949), escalated the scale ofthe action before the Lensmen series took over, the SPACESHIPS growing ever-larger and the WEAPONS more destructive until GALACTIC EMPIRES were toppling like card-houses in Children of the Lens (1947-8; 1954). Once there was no greater scale of action to be employed, Smith had little more to offer, and his last novels - The Galaxy Primes (1959; 1965) and Skylark DuQuesne (1966) - are mere exercises in recapitulation. In the 1970s,however, a reissue of the Lensmen series enjoyed such success with readers that Smith's banner was picked up by William B. Ellern (1933-), David A. KYLE and Stephen GOLDIN (E.E. SMITH for details). Contemporary withSmith's first interstellar epic was a series of stories written by Edmond HAMILTON for WEIRD TALES, ultimately collected in Crashing Suns (1928-9; coll 1965) and Outside the Universe (1929; 1964). Although he was a more versatile writer than Smith, Hamilton took great delight in wrecking worlds and destroying suns, and his name was made with space opera (he too continued to write it until the 1960s), other early examples being "The Universe Wreckers" (1930) and the CAPTAIN FUTURE series. In the late 1940sHamilton wrote The Star of Life (1947; 1959) and the memorable The Star Kings (1949; vt Beyond the Moon), an sf version of The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Anthony Hope (1863-1933). The last of Hamilton's works in this vein were Doomstar (1966) and the Starwolf trilogy (1967-8). Even before Smith and Hamilton made their debuts, Ray CUMMINGS was writinginterplanetary novels for the general-fiction pulps and for Hugo GERNSBACK's SCIENCE AND INVENTION. His principal space operas were Tarranothe Conqueror (1925; 1930), A Brand New World (1928; 1964), Brigands of the Moon (1931) and its sequel Wandl the Invader (1932; 1961), but his reputation was made by his microcosmic romances (GREAT AND SMALL), and it was to such adventures that he reverted when he turned to self-plagiarism in later years. The two most important writers who carried space opera forward in the wake of Smith and Hamilton were John W. CAMPBELL Jr and Jack WILLIAMSON. Campbell made his first impact with the novelettescollected in The Black Star Passes (1930; fixup 1953), and he went on to write Galaxy-spanning adventures like Islands of Space (1931; 1957), Invaders from the Infinite (1932; 1961) and The Mightiest Machine (1934;1947). Campbell had a better command of scientific jargon than his contemporaries, and a slicker line in superscientific wizardry, but he began writing a different kind of sf as Don A. Stuart and subsequently abandoned writing altogether when it clashed with his duties as editor of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION. Williamson flavoured space opera with a moreancient brand of romanticism, basing characters in The Legion of Space (1934; rev 1947) on the Three Musketeers and Falstaff; although he soonmoved on to more sophisticated varieties of exotic adventure, he never quite abandoned space opera: Bright New Universe (1967) and Lifeburst (1984) carry forward the tradition, and his collaborations with FrederikPOHL, such as The Singers of Time (1991), retain a deliberate but deft romanticism which places them among the best modern examples of the species. Another notable space opera from the 1930s is Clifford D. SIMAK's Cosmic Engineers (1939; rev 1950).During the 1940s some of the naive charmof space opera was lost as standards of writing rose and plots became somewhat more complicated, and the trend was towards a more vivid and lush romanticism. Notable examples are Judgement Night (1943; title story of coll 1952; separate publication 1965) by C.L. MOORE and several works by A.E. VAN VOGT, including The Mixed Men (1943-5; fixup 1952; cut vt Missionto the Stars) and Earth's Last Fortress (1942 as "Recruiting Station"; vt as title story of Masters of Time coll 1950; 1960 dos). By this time the GALACTIC-EMPIRE scenario was being used for other purposes, mosteffectively by Isaac ASIMOV in the Foundation series (1942-50; fixups 1951-3); by the 1950s it had become a standardized framework available foruse in entirely serious sf. Once this happened, the impression of vast scale so important to space opera was no longer the sole prerogative of straightforward adventure stories, and the day of the "classical" space opera was done. But Asimov, like many others, retained a deep affection for old-fashioned romanticism, deploying it conscientiously in The Stars Like Dust (1951). Many of the more "realistic" space adventures of the1950s incorporate space-operatic flourishes, including James BLISH's Earthman Come Home (1950-53; fixup 1955), which features space battles between star-travelling cities - although the other novels in the Okie series have rather different priorities. The old-style space opera seemed rather juvenile by this time, but it remained an important component of the fiction published by the more downmarket pulps while they were still being published, especially PLANET STORIES and THRILLING WONDER STORIES. New life could still be breathed into it by the better writers associatedwith those magazines; prominent were Leigh BRACKETT, as in The Starmen (1952), and Jack VANCE, as in The Space Pirate (1953; cut vt The Five GoldBands). There were DIGEST magazines which specialized in exotic adventure stories, including space operas - notably IMAGINATION and the 2nd of the 2 US magazines entitled SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES (which survived as a UKmagazine for some years after its death in the USA) - but they did not long outlast the pulps. When it was abandoned by the magazines, space opera found a new home in the ACE BOOKS Doubles ed Donald A. WOLLHEIM (see also DOS). Robert SILVERBERG published a good deal of colourful material in this format, including the trilogy assembled as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth (fixup 1958) as by Calvin M. Knox, while Kenneth BULMER, JohnBRUNNER and E.C. TUBB became UK recruits to this largely US tradition, the last-named labouring to preserve it with his long-running Dumarest series. Space-operatic romanticism is still widely evident, usually cleverlycombined with other elements. Examples include Gordon R. DICKSON's long-running Dorsai series, Poul ANDERSON's Ensign Flandry series, H. Beam PIPER's Space Viking (1963), Michael MOORCOCK's The Sundered Worlds (fixup1965; vt The Blood Red Game), Ian WALLACE's Croyd (1967) and Dr Orpheus (1968), Samuel R. DELANY's NOVA (1968), Alan Dean FOSTER's The Tar-Aiym Krang (1972) and its sequels, Barrington J. BAYLEY's Star Winds (1978), Philip Jose FARMER's The Unreasoning Mask (1981), S.P. SOMTOW's Light on the Sound (1982) and its sequels, F.M. BUSBY's Star Rebel (1984) and its sequels, Ben BOVA's Privateers (1985), Michael D. RESNICK's Santiago (1986), Iain M. BANKS's Consider Phlebas (1987) and other Culture novels,Colin GREENLAND's TAKE BACK PLENTY (1990) and Stephen R. DONALDSON's Gap series, begun with The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1990), which transfigures Wagner's Ring Cycle of real operas. It seems in no danger of losing its popularity, given the recent winning of Hugo awards by space operas like C.J. CHERRYH's DOWNBELOW STATION (1981), David BRIN's STARTIDE RISING (1983) and Lois McMaster BUJOLD's THE VOR GAME (1990). Thecrudities of the subgenre are easily parodied by such comedies as Harry HARRISON's Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) and Star Smashers of the GalaxyRangers (1973), M. John HARRISON's The Centauri Device (1974) and Douglas ADAMS's Hitch-Hiker books, but the affection in which it is held defies total deflation - as evidenced by the much more recent Bill, the Galactic Hero series of SHARED-WORLD adventures. The tv series STAR TREK has givenrise to a long-running series of spinoff novels, many of which are more space operatic than the studio budget ever permitted the tv scripts to be. An excellent theme anthology is Space Opera (anth 1974) ed Brian W.ALDISS; his Galactic Empires (anth 2 vols 1976) is also relevant.
BS

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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