Space Opera at WorldCon

Mark Kelly, editor of Locus Online, has posted a WorldCon Day 2 Report in which he said, among other things, the following about Space Opera:

The next panel was a debate about the ‘Space Opera Renaissance’, subject of a recent anthology by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, with panelists Hartwell, Charles Brown, Wil McCarthy, Mike Shepherd [Mike Moscoe], Gardner Dozois, Al Reynolds, and Toni Weiskopf. There was less dissension among panelists than I expected, though the result was like the joke about blind men describing an elephant; each panelist talking about the same ostensible subject, but each saying something completely different from what the others said. Brown established that ‘space opera’ has to have spaceships and be in space (as opposed to ‘planetary romance’), and described its history as rooted in the manifest destiny theme of US history; Dozois discussed its origin in the ‘super science’ stories of the 1930s and ’40s, with pendulum swings since then on the acceptability among young writers of writing in the form, and the quality of flamboyance that’s essential to make something space opera; McCarthy claimed the ‘renaissance’ has involved traditional space opera’s incorporation of first relativity, then chaos theory, biotech, and all the rest; Reynolds noted that this ‘renaissance’ actually began 10 years ago, and cited Cordwainer Smith as the earliest of the new space opera writers; Weiskopf talked about sincerity and Honor Harrington; Shepherd talked about space opera’s renaissance as the corrective to all those downer ’70s stories, and stressed that space opera should by fun, fast-paced adventures with happy endings, as his own (prominently displayed) books are; and Hartwell explored the distinctions between space opera and hard SF and the evident overlap of the two from writers like McCarthy, Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter. Other writers mentioned were Scott Westerfeld, John C. Wright, Iain M. Banks, Walter Jon Williams, Vernor Vinge, John Clute, and M. John Harrison. If there was a consensus among the panelists, it might have been that the coolness of space opera has waxed and waned over the decades, but the form hasn’t gone away, nor will it in the future.

This peaked my interest quite a bit because I am currently in the middle of reading the HUGE anthology The Space Opera Renaissance edited by Hartwell and Cramer. It occurs to me that space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that is about as hard to define as sf itself. TSOR includes much discussion on the history of space opera (including a super-size version of their space opera essay from 2003) that comes across as pedantic but doesn’t quite nail down the definition. Perhaps that’s the point; that space opera is a fusion of many other subgenres. (Indeed, there is a David Drake military sf story contained within it that is only marginally associated with traditional space opera characteristics, and then only at the very end of the story.) I guess like Mark observed through the varied definitions at WorldCon this week, Space Opera has many facets.

2 thoughts on “Space Opera at WorldCon”

  1. Thanks for the link, Derryl. That was an excellent article. Very enjoyable. I’ll be linking to it in the next tidbits.

    TSOR also notes the pejorative nature of space opera perceived by many. But given its longevity, I would suspect that many of those the denounced it secretly enjoyed it.

    What I seem to gather from the various definitions floating around is that people try to classify it by its properties: it has spaceships, it has space travel, its protagonist is heroic, etc. But the lines get fuzzy when one or more of these characteristics is missing. For example, the Colin Greenland story “Wishing Well” has a spaceship, but it lands on the planet Umbriel in the opening scene and stays there for the rest of the story. Am I supposed to call this space opera by virtue of its inclusion in TSOR?

    This is all a bit nitpicky, of course. I (and I hope others) am less concerned with pigeon-holing a story in one sub-genre or another than I am with enjoying the story.

Comments are closed.