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Space Opera

Space Opera is a science fiction subgenre that is known for having large-scale, often over-the-top characters, themes, and plots. The setting is nearly always in outer space, and themes tend toward the romantic and melodramatic, and often follow an adventure-style format.

How Long Has Space Opera Been Around?

The term itself didn’t come around until 1941, when a sci-fi fan named Wilson Tucker wrote an article for a fanzine, which were magazines published by fans of the sci-fi genre. The term quickly took on negative connotations, and until the 1970s, anything called space opera was seen as poor science fiction writing. That all began to change when science fiction became more mainstream in the 1980s. With popular films such as Star Wars and Star Trek introducing many to the science fiction genre for the very first time, book sales grew and older space opera stories were reissued, especially by publisher Del Rey Books.

What's the Difference Between Space Opera and Science Fiction?

Space opera differs from other “hard science fiction” in that it doesn’t always hold to the accepted laws of science, mathematics, or the nature of space as we know it. And some writers contend that there’s actually a separate sub-genre of space opera, as well, that would be better classified as military science fiction, which often involves large-scale battles and weapons of the future. Still, space opera offers a wide-range of futuristic worlds, peoples, and technologies.

New Characteristics of Space Opera

In recent years, many fans and writers of space opera have grown dissatisfied with the directions the genre was taking.  A darker-mood evolved in many works that came out in the 1980s, many heavily influenced by the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction.  These changes also saw a heavier-reliance on technology, strong character development, and a more rigorous adherence to hard science.

Other Features of World Government Science Fiction

  • Level of Real Science


  • Level of Characterization

    Decently high.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate to Complex

  • Level of Violence


Related Science Fiction subgenres

  • Space Opera usually includes a heavy aspect of "military" to it. Because of this Military SF is a closely tied science fiction subgenre to Space Opera, often incorporating or being incorporated by it.

  • Because (some) Space Opera often incorporates more emphasis on story, plot, and characters over hard science, Soft Science Fiction is sort of related.

Popular Space Opera Books
  • 1 Amazing Stories

    By E.E. "Doc" Smith. The first great space opera came out in 1928 in Amazing Stories Magazine.  Written by E.E. “Doc” Smith, who many consider to be the father of the space opera subgenre, The Skylark of Space told the story of a scientist who stumbles upon a device that allows space travel through the use of the recently-discovered element “X.”  Like many examples of the genre that would follow, E.E. Smith went beyond his single story to a multi-volume series.

  • 2 Foundation Series

    By Isaac Asimov. Many other notable works have followed since then.  One of the most well-known and respected series that qualifies as space opera is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series.  These books, which began as stories published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1950, really pushed the genre in new and exciting directions. 

    The stories revolve around a mathematician who creates a new type of mathematics which allows him to predict the future, but only on large-scale events.  He realizes that the Galactic Empire will fall, bringing about a dark age, and goes about creating havens of knowledge, or Foundations, to see humanity through.  The series itself was so highly regarded that it was awarded a one-time Hugo Award in 1966 as “Best All-Time Series.

  • 3 Ender's Game Series

    By Orson Scott Card. Another notable series is the Ender's Game Series by Orson Scott Card. These novels focus on the young boy Ender as he progresses through a military training academy created for the sole purpose of training new pilots. Through near-constant training on video game-like programs, Ender soon becomes the star student. He is then recruited into the war against an insect-like alien race called the "Buggers."  The first two titles in the series, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, each was awarded the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which went a long way in cementing the series for all time as one of the greatest in science fiction.

  • 4 Hyperion Cantos

    By Dan Simmons. A more recent example of a winning space opera series is the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. The series contains four novels and several short stories, and they've been wildly successful with fans and critics alike.  In 1990 the first novel in the series, Hyperion, won both the Hugo and Locus Awards. The next year the second-volume, The Fall of Hyperion, won the Locus Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award. The final novel, The Rise of Endymion, fared well also, taking home the Locus Award in 1998.