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Daniel Adams
Professor Notter
UNIV 200 1:00 PM
28 March 2016
The Effect of the Space Opera on Modern Science Fiction
If you were to ask someone for an example of science fiction, there are some fairly
common answers that could be expected from almost anyone that would be asked. Some
prominent examples such as Star Wars or Star Trek are sure to come to mind. These series are
ingrained into pop culture based on their sheer popularity and the fan base that they have
accumulated. What most people do not know, however, is that these two series share a common
predecessor: the space opera. In fact, several of the most popular science fiction series in recent
years have all fallen under the subgenre of space opera, including Firefly and Babylon 5. While
very few people are even aware of the space operas existence, there are multiple avenues in
which one can view its effects, namely in the way its popularity extends throughout much of
todays mainstream audience, as well as the precedents it set for modern science fiction and the
effect it had on science fiction fan culture. Even for individuals who are not a fan of science
fiction, theres no denying the evidence that history has laid out: no matter how one looks at it,
the space opera has had a significant effect on the development of modern science fiction.
As the space opera is not well known, it is important to define exactly what constitutes a
space opera story as opposed to another subgenre of science fiction. Several labels have been

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used in the past to attempt to describe space opera fully, which author Patricia Monk lists in her
article Not Just Cosmic Skullduggery: A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera. While
extensive, such labels as romantic, action-oriented, imaginatively circumscribed, optimistic,
socially nave and more are all very much applicable terms in the realm of space opera (16).
Gary Westfahl, scholarly author and reviewer of science fiction, offers a shorter and more
succinct summary of space opera: fast-paced adventures in outer space or on alien worlds (2).
While somewhat general, Westfahls summary captures the essence of the space opera. It should
also be noted that examples of space opera exist along a very lengthy time period. There are even
examples of proto-space operas, which date all the way back to the late 1800s and show signs
of having some of the earliest features of space opera that we now identify the genre by. The
earliest examples of proto-space opera come from little know French authors such as
Charlemagne Ischir Defontenay (or as he was known by his pseudonym, C.I. Defontenay) who
created the work Star ou Psi de Cassiope: Histoire Merveilleuse de lun des Mondes de
lEspace, translated as Star, or Psi of Cassiopeia: The Marvellous History of One of the Worlds
of Space (Roberts 108). When comparing modern series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon
5, or Firefly, the similarities between them can be clearly seen, and this is owed largely to the
similar roots in early space opera that they all share.
Ease of accessibility is one of the key factors that has allowed space opera to receive
widespread popularity throughout the population, and is a large contributor to its effect on
modern day science fiction. When discussing early space opera literature, it is also important to
take note that almost all early science fiction stories in general developed from common story

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models popularized in late nineteenth century to early twentieth century magazines. One could
argue this is likely responsible for the perceived immaturity of early space opera, as the stories
that came before it would be geared towards a wide audience of magazine readers, resulting in
more pulpy pieces of literature (6). One key point of early space operas was that they ignored
proleptic continuity, which is to say that not too much attention was paid to the building of the
history of the world, instead opting to thrust the viewer into the action immediately.
Additionally, due to the timeline in which many were set being in the far future, they had the
bonus of being timeless and able to be enjoyed by multiple generations (Monk 15). In a time
where the main source of science fiction media was in literature, this was absolutely a benefit in
being able to spread stories to as many readers as possible.
This idea of being able to easily attract audience members to space opera media also
persisted into the early days of space opera television shows, which were both numerous and
watched by countless individuals as part of their regular programming. In addition to that, J.P.
Tellotte describes in Space Opera TV: Seeing the World of Tomorrow, that early space opera
television shows had a very lighthearted, self-aware feel about them, both traits that allowed
more viewers to more easily be entertained by the show itself. Such television shows included
Captain Video, Space Cadet, Space Patrol, and many others. Captain Video is an example he
explores deeply, describing the manner in which it incorporated the advertisements during the
program as a sort of higher narrative level in comparison to what the show was previously
operating on, as well as how it affected audiences (Tellotte 116-117). However, there would
soon be a shift from the early lighthearted feel to a more grounded, immersive, and serious space
opera series: Star Trek. Star Trek was notable in that its tone was unlike the shows that came

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before it, with the inclusion of not only action-packed sequences but philosophical ideas intended
to make the viewer think as well. It also managed to attract a fan-base so large that the series was
brought back from cancellation after its third season based solely off the efforts of the fans, and
as of today is one of the most notable science fiction franchises. Space opera also extended to
film as well, Star Wars being the most prominent example with the release of A New Hope in
1977. While both Star Wars and Star Trek conveyed their stories in fairly distinct ways, they
both share the common elements that define space opera.
However, with the advance of technology, science fiction media is no longer limited
solely to books and television. The internet is just as prominent, if not more, of a tool in
spreading science fiction, as well as other types of media, when compared to books and
television. In particular, the ability to create personal webpages, as wells as the existence of
forums and message boards, have allowed the potential for discussion and sharing of science
fiction and space opera to skyrocket. From this, we can see that connectivity is the catalyst for
exposure to newer types of media, and as such the further propagation of space opera (Kulovitz
59). Space operas overall accessibility to the public is arguably the key point in why it is so
influential, but it is only one of multiple reasons that contribute to its significance as a whole.
Another key aspect in demonstrating the influence of space opera on modern science
fiction is the precedents it set for modern science fiction, particularly in regard to common
themes, overall narrative structure, and storytelling techniques. For example, a simple but
arguably critical aspect of the space opera is some sort of action taking place between at least
two groups, whether it be on an interplanetary or even interstellar scale. As Monk states in her
essay Not Just Cosmic Skullduggery: A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera, readers of

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early science fiction magazines made a point of mentioning how much they enjoyed action in the
stories and in each storys heroes, with such readers as Walter Boyle saying, I like em big,
tough, and kind to their grandmothers (8). Of course, this by itself is very general, as action
could be said to be necessary for a multitude of genres, not specifically science fiction or space
opera. However, action is only one component of many that make space opera what it is.
Another crucial element is overall story structure. Like the other science fiction stories of its
time, early space opera stories followed a similar model of a beginning catastrophe that
ultimately sees itself resolved at the conclusion of the story. Along with this, internalized conflict
was rare, in favor of focusing more on outward conflicts, real physical battles characters would
engage in as opposed to personal ones. There was a critical difference, however: stories that fell
under the label of space opera also took heavy influence from the detective stories of Conan
Doyle in their strong conclusions, as well as influence from the stories of O. Henry (8). This
distinction allowed space opera stories to stand apart from typical science fiction and further
solidify their place as a legitimate subgenre of typical science fiction. Lastly, there are multiple
specific themes from early space opera that would soon spread to other forms of science fiction
and future space opera. One theme or element that is arguably the most prevalent in space opera
stories is the idea of the existence of other races in space, whether they be humanoid or alien
(16). Additionally, its very typical for there to be some sort of interplanetary or interstellar
organization of races, which in turn allows for stories to have the backdrop of an interstellar war
between feuding races or even cases of political intrigue, though it should be noted that action
tends to remain at the forefront. Between these two themes, one can see how much modern

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science fiction has taken from the early space operas, including the modern space operas Star
Wars and Star Trek. Both paint the picture of a universe rich with diverse alien life and coalitions
of races that span planets and star systems, with conflicts able to be magnified to a scale that
simply isnt possible when a story is restricted to the bounds of the Earth.
While theres no denying that the early literary space opera works had a noticeable effect
on future science fiction properties, there is the opinion held by many academics that early space
opera works were lacking in literary value: that is to say, when compared to other science fiction
novels of the time, space opera works fell short in terms of plot depth, character depth, and
overall writing. Even the name space opera was originally a pejorative term coined in a
critique. The term itself derived from the term horse opera, which itself was a pejorative
reference to westerns (Monk 4). Additionally, some felt that space operas, while being under the
classification of science fiction, fell short on the science aspect in their storytelling. Authors such
as Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr. felt that many space operas had lapses in
scientific fact and logic, which detracted from the validity of the space opera as a subgenre of
science fiction (Westfahl 5).
It should be acknowledged that these opinions held are not invalid criticisms of early
space operas. Indeed, early space operas were lacking in areas such as scientific validity or
overall quality of writing. However, what was important about these early literary works were
not so much the quality of the individual works, but the overall ideas and themes that were
shared throughout them. One poorly written work could easily be cast aside when referencing the
history of early science fiction or space opera, but the ideas that are present in it, the ideas it uses
to develop its story are inescapable. Therefore, their importance can arguably be said not to be

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diminished despite any concerns of quality, as long as the discussion is focused on themes and
storytelling techniques as opposed to individual literary quality.
The last major focus in what makes space opera such a viable subgenre of science fiction
is the sheer size of the fan culture it has created. The very idea that we collectively have of what
science fiction fan culture is like, whether it be fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, or even
more, has only come about because these properties were able to be made in the first place, and
this in itself is due to the advent of the space opera. As noted in "Sense of community in science
fiction fandom, Part 1: Understanding sense of community in an international community of
interest," science fiction fandom began as a result of the efforts of Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback
launched the magazine Amazing Stories, which published mainly science fiction stories, and also
included a Discussions column, where readers could have sent-in letters featured. Gernsback
made the decision to begin publishing the full names and addresses in these sections, which
would eventually lead to a growing web of correspondence between readers, followed soon after
by the formation of some of the first science fiction fan groups (Obst, Smith, and Zinkiewicz 9293). When discussing early influential space opera writers, Isaac Asimov is arguably one of the
most prominent names in terms of his contributions to the genre and also in the quality of his
work. Unlike the stories that were written while space opera was still in its infancy (also referred
to as the pre-atomic subdivision), Asimovs works such as the Foundation trilogy painted
space operas in a more mature light than before, offering a much more strict and rigorous
approach to devising future technologies and also constructing a world with significantly more
depth (Reynolds 13). Arguably, without the help of Asimov in moving the space opera forward
through his works, the development of space opera as a whole, as well as its maturity, could have

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been delayed for far longer. But even with the acclaim that the Foundation series would come to
bring, as well as the efforts of Hugo Gernsback, science fiction fan culture truly started to make
itself known as soon as science fiction (and especially space opera) television shows began to be
As mentioned before, Star Trek is a notable example when discussing significantly large
fan-bases. Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, with the original television series airing
from 1966 to 1969 and spanning seventy-nine episodes before its cancellation by NBC. As
Elizabeth Thomas describes in "Live Long and Prosper: How Fans Made Star Trek a Cultural
Phenomenon," the fans, who also refer to themselves as Trekkies, were able to bring the series
back from cancellation after its seventy-nine episode run through letter-writing campaigns and
constant calls. This was especially significant when taking into consideration that studios like
NBC would typically not even consider syndicating an off-network program under one hundred
episodes. But the sheer dedication of the fan-base made it possible, and is only one of many
examples of what was accomplished. Fan-created Star Trek literature would soon turn into a
multi-million dollar industry thanks to the creative efforts of the fans, with many stories being
published through Star Publishing in the 1970s (Thomas 11). In addition, the culture of science
fiction conventions, at which Trekkies were once barely tolerated, would be affected greatly
following the rise of Star Trek from obscurity into the mainstream (13). Space operas would
soon start to become some of the biggest attractors to science fiction conventions, especially
considering Star Wars and Doctor Who are included under this label.
Fans of science fiction and space opera would not be limited solely to spreading their
love of the genre just in real life, however. As mentioned before, the Internet provided and

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continues to provide one of the quickest and easiest platforms for spreading information and
facilitating communication between like-minded fans and even nonfans alike. Through the use of
forums and message boards, individuals have the opportunity to share their thoughts, opinions,
arguments, and numerous many more subjects. But this is not all. Participation in forum culture
can help to shape the individual in various ways as a direct result of their interactions on the
forum with other members. As noted by Kimberly Kulovitz in Assimilate This! ComputerMediated Communication and Star Trek Fan Culture, forums dedicated to a specific niche
subject tend to breed an us vs. them mentality in their user-base, with the users collectively
seeing themselves and other forum-goers as the us, and any outsider or person that doesnt
share their interest them (58). This trait may be the result of tendencies that have always
existed in the science fiction community, but at the same time may have actually further
cemented it as a classic science-fiction nerd stereotype as a result of internet behaviors
transferred to the real world, though the further details and implications of this are beyond the
scope of this paper. In essence, because the space opera gave rise to such influential series in
science fiction, it can be argued that science fiction fan culture was permanently affected and
was shaped into what it is today. Just to provide perspective, the first international Star Trek
convention, expected to have no more than five hundred attendees, instead broke over three
thousand in attendance, making it the largest science fiction convention to have occurred at the
time (Montgomery). At a more recent convention (Star Trek Las Vegas), attendance numbers
broke twelve-thousand, speaking to the sheer size and willingness of the fans to make known
their dedication (Shackleton).

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From the earliest days of the French proto-space operas to the sprawling expanse of
science fiction series available today, including still Star Wars and Star Trek, it can be seen that
the space opera has indeed had a significant influence on the development of modern science
fiction. So many of the most well-known names in science fiction today are a direct result of the
groundwork for story structures and narratives laid out by the authors of early space opera. This
was helped immensely by the ease of accessibility to early space opera material, which in turn
allowed it to spread at the rate it did. The early story models, even from those in the arguably
less literarily sophisticated stories, set a precedent for future authors to follow and also expand
on, which itself would then lead to the development of modern science fiction fandom, as well as
arguably having an effect on what is considered geek culture as well. Though the realm of
science fiction is constantly shifting and growing as time passes, there is no doubt that the space
opera will continue to have a place in the genre as a story model that has withstood the test of
time and entertained countless fans of science fiction, as well as inspiring many more.

Works Cited
Kulovitz, Kimberly L. "Assimilate This! Computer-Mediated Communication and Star Trek Fan
Culture." Fan Phenomena: Star Trek. N.p.: Intellect, 2013. 53-62. Print.
Monk, Patricia. "Not Just 'Cosmic Skullduggery': A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera."
Extrapolation 33.4 (1992): 295.
Montgomery, Paul L. (1973-03-11). "'Star Trekkies' Show Devotion". The Ledger (Lakeland,
Florida). The New York Times. p. 34. Retrieved May 12, 2011.
Obst, Patricia, Lucy Zinkiewicz, and Sandy G. Smith. "Sense of community in science fiction
fandom, Part 1: Understanding sense of community in an international community of
interest." Journal of Community Psychology 30.1 (2002): 87-103.
Reynolds, Alastair. "Space Opera: This Galaxy Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us." Strange
Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-genres of Science Fiction. Houndmills,
Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 12-25. Print.
Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Shackleton, Kay. "Las Vegas to Host a Record-breaking Star Trek Convention." Examiner.com.
AXS Digital Group LLC, 01 Aug. 2013. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Telotte, Jay P. "Space Opera TV: Seeing the World of Tomorrow." 1950's "rocketman" TV
Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2012. 115-30. Print.
Thomas, Elizabeth. "Live Long and Prosper: How Fans Made Star Trek a Cultural
Phenomenon." Fan Phenomena: Star Trek. N.p.: Intellect, 2013. 11-18. Print.

Westfahl, Gary. "Beyond Logic and Literacy: the strange case of space opera." Extrapolation
35.3 (1994): 176.