Hey, folks! Yeah, I know. You’re stuck with Auntie Andi this week. But have no fear! I’ve got some more folks lined up in the wings getting guest blogs ready for all of y’all. 🙂
Anyway, today’s theme is opera. WAIT! COME BACK! Not just any opera! SPACE opera! Yeah, for real. That’s one of the genres I write. What the heck is THAT, you ask. Thank goodness I’m here, right? Because I can answer. Space opera is a sub-genre of science fiction/spec fic. It emphasizes romantic, melodramatic adventure, and it’s generally set entirely in space. No, it doesn’t feature people singing (like, say, rock opera). Rather, the term “opera” here is a nod, of sorts, to the larger-than-life themes at play in a space opera plot.
You into it? Wanna know more about this stuff and why it means so much to me? Read on…
I’m bringing all this up because I’m writing a space opera series for Bedazzled Ink Publishing. The first in that series is Friends in High Places, published last year. The second is with the publisher. We’re waiting on the cover art. This is a series written in space opera tradition. That is, it’s designed like space opera pulp fiction, in that yes, it’s almost serialized in its approach. The books are short (much shorter than my usual fare, which includes my New Mexico mystery series through Regal Crest). That is, they come in around 50K-60K words. That’s okay. They’re supposed to. And yes, they’re designed to leave you wondering what happens in the next one. That’s okay. That’s part of the space opera/pulp tradition.
I say this because I want to make sure that if you have not read space opera or sci fi/spec fic and your usual fare is lesbian fiction, you may not like this series. It’s not coming from a lesbian fiction tradition. It’s coming from a space opera tradition–a genre that is historically male in terms of writers and characters, and in which women play a secondary role. I took that space opera tradition and populated it with strong women (some of whom hook up with other women) who are the main characters. It follows space opera tenets and rules, not lesbian fiction formulas. So if you’re expecting lesbian fiction in space, that’s not what you’re going to get. And in a little bit, I’ll tell you what some of the space opera rules are so maybe if you decide to give my space opera series a chance, you’ll understand a little better where I’m coming from on that.
The term itself was coined in 1941 by a guy/author named Wilson “Bob” Tucker, and he used it in a pejorative sense. Tucker put out his own fanzine for a time, called Le Zombie because for whatever reasons, several rumors over the years circulated about his death, which wasn’t the case. Anyway, Tucker’s “space opera” designation referred to badly written, B-movie types of sci fi that stank of hack-jobs and half-rate authors (think: soap opera in space = space opera). And yeah, those early attempts were truly suckfests. But they had the roots of other worlds, neat characters, and cool gadgets, all of which are hallmarks of the subgenre.
During the 1960s and certainly by the 1970s, space opera had come to mean the “good ol’ stuff” (after author Brian Aldriss‘ 1974 designation). Space opera thus came to mean “adventure story in space,” and took on sort of a nostalgic kind of sheen, which was cool for those of us who grew up reading pulp sci fi and westerns. Back to that in a minute.
Then, in 1977, one of the biggest mass-media space operas EVER hit the movie screens. That, my friends, was Star Wars.
Let’s think about that for a bit. Most of you, no doubt, have either seen that original episode or you’ve heard of it. What’s interesting is that it’s actually Episode FOUR, and it’s called “A New Hope.” So why is that? Why did the franchise start with episode 4 of the series? Well, because it’s a space opera, it can pretty much drop you right smack dab into whatever adventure the writer/director wants you to experience. That’s one of the really neat things about the genre. Remember, space opera is SUPPOSED to be bigger than life. It’s supposed to have over-the-top themes and, like westerns, you have to be able to figure out who the bad guys are. Well, duh. Darth Vader, anyone? And the episode it started you with seemed, to the writers and director, like the one that would get you sucked in. Well, it worked.
Let’s talk a bit about the beginning of Star Wars. Here. The opening scene (about 4 minutes, minus the scroll that tells you “in a galaxy far, far away…”):
link at youtube
This is classic space opera. You’re dumped right into the middle of an intergalactic war, in which the bad guys are clearly delineated. You know there’s something BIG at stake because there’s a princess involved and when you first lay eyes on Darth Vader, you know this is one bad dude. That is some serious melodrama. And you’ve already got your first quirky characters–C3PO and R2D2. All of these are hallmarks of space opera. Star Wars is a western in space. Black hats versus white hats. Important female character at stake. Major universe domination at stake. Unlikely hero Luke Skywalker, a farmboy on the desert outpost planet of Tatooine. Mismatched rogue captain of junker space craft with a giant walking furball for a first mate. These are the guys who are going to save the universe?
HELL, YES! And that’s another aspect of space opera that makes it so much fun. Average, every day people get to do really awesome stuff.
And while we’re on the topic–Star Trek is a space opera. All different versions of it. So is Battlestar Galactica. All different versions of THAT. My current fave space opera is the Joss Whedon series Firefly. Here’re the opening credits to the TV series.
link on youtube
That gives you a flavor of it and the characters. Captain Mal and his crew are bandits, avoiding capture from the evil galactic alliance that sprang up. They make their living running legit (sometimes not so legit) cargo and they meet up with all kinds of crazy stuff. What I really love about this series is the mix of space tech geekoid stuff and the ol’ skool cultures of old earth. That, to me, is great stuff because it keeps the series accessible and it doesn’t throw you into ultra hoity-toity sci fi hard science stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But space opera, my friends, is about high adventure, intrigue, action, maybe some romance, and big, big themes and emotions and CHARACTERS. Star Wars wouldn’t have been Star Wars without the CHARACTERS.
Okay, all that said–space opera has a certain formula. Back in the day, when I started reading it, invariably, the main characters were all men and the women were sort of arm candy/plot devices for men to do stuff like rescue them (because they never rescued themselves). I grew up reading the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who churned out series after series (like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, for example). His stories were horribly sexist, horribly racist (he was writing during the nineteen-teens and twenties), and full of manly men doing manly things. But I understood the context in which he was writing (I’m a history buff), so I instead read them as a particular genre and I really liked them because they took me to worlds of possibility and because they were filled with adventures and gadgets and political power plays and dramatic interpersonal relationships. They were, in a phrase, the ultimate space/adventure soap operas. I also spent a lot of my time back in the day re-thinking those pulps and making women the bad-asses. And when I started writing fiction, it was spec fic and sci fi, with some strong women characters, and it was in that adventure and space opera tradition.
The other thing about classic space operas is that they are specifically designed as a series. They will fling you right into something, take you on a wild adventure, then end in such a way that sets you up for the next go-round. They’re pulp fiction–short bursts of entertainment, with backstory woven in throughout. In book form, the pulps are around 40K-60K words per novel. They’re also designed to be serialized, which is how Burroughs got his start. He wrote serials during the early part of the 20th century that were run in pulp magazines. 10K-20K words a pop per episode and readers would often be left hanging on the edges of their seats until the next installment. That was part of the fun of them. Serialized in book form, space operas (and other pulp genres like westerns) were designed to be short, guilty pleasure novels that left you wondering what happens in the next episode.
That type of stuff isn’t around as much anymore, so if you decide to give my space opera series a whirl, be prepared for reading something that is in that ol’ skool serialized vein. They’ll take you on a ride, and leave you thinking that it’s not quite over and guess what? It’s not. It is, in fact, specifically designed to be a series and to end with maybe not everything fully resolved.
Now, like other genres, there are certain rules that space operas follow. Why? Because they freakin’ WORK and they make us come back for more! They allow us to escape and engage worlds and life forms that we don’t get to do in our day-to-day. I found this great blog by Annalee Newitz, who gives us the top ten rules.
Here they are, in order, paraphrased, and with my additions and alterations:
1) Giant object in space. There’s got to be a massive planet, a battle cruiser, a death star, some kind of sucking life form, or black hole. Alternatively, the “giant object in space” can be an evil force at work in the galaxy. Like, say, some overlord trying to take over the universe. That works, too.
2) Set the action in motion by dumping readers/viewers right into the middle of a complicated intergalactic regime change. Like, say, a power grab through a military coup initiated by the discovery of a rare but important substance that will revolutionize warfare and ensure that whoever controls it will control the universe. Enter the scraggly band of rebels trying to back up the failing power structure that opposes the coup. That bring us to…
3) A rag-tag band of rebels, whose secret hideout should be some cool-ass asteroid or something like that. There should be lots of scenes showing really awesome underground passageways and hidden rooms and wild life forms and nutso weather (that helps, too–think Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). And there have to be a bunch of skirmishes between the forces of evil and our scrappy band of heroes.
4) A giant freakin’ mothership or base ship (think Death Star) and invariably, it should be attacked by a raging swarm of fighter pilots cobbled together from our scrappy band of rebels. Barring that, a few scrappy rebels should be able to infiltrate some large structure run by the forces of evil and blow the crap out of it or at least most of it. Or blow the crap out of the massive ship (and, of course, escape before it plummets to the surface and crashes in a giant fireball).
5) You must always, always fill your settings (like spaceports, cities, and settlements) with random weird aliens and gadgets. They should not have lead roles, but they should totally make us feel like we really are somewhere/somewhen else. We enjoy seeing freaky creatures, and we like it when they’re secondary characters. But they should never be the main characters. Think: legendary bar scene in Star Wars. What the hell? Here it is:
6) The heroes of your space operas should always revisit the painful sites of old battles, the locations of terrible, heinous accidents, and the areas in space where their people were wiped from the face of the universe. But only if they don’t want to. The best part of this “reluctance factor” is that it gives you instant conflicted, deep meaning and adds another (albeit kinda cheesy) layer to your heroes. Leader of the rebel forces says: “You’re the only one who can get in there. You escaped from those swamps.” Hero: “No, I won’t go back there. That’s where my entire squadron was wiped out. I can’t go back.” Leader: “We need you. We can’t get in there without you.” Hero: “Dammit. Okay. But I’m not sure I can do this.” BAM. Deep meaning.
7) If the bad guy is male, he should have a really buff body or amazing weapons. Bonus points if he’s got both. If there’s a female bad guy, she should have some kind of sparkly outfit and a sidekick–usually some totally buff slave-type dude or a weird little freaky dude. Barring that, the female bad guy can be some totally bad-ass sexy uniform-wearing hot space chick that you’d probably be all over if she weren’t out to take over the whole universe. Bonus points if the male bad guy is kind of charming and offers a drink before he tortures the heroes or abandons them on a frozen penal colony planet.
8 ) There should be at least three types of weapons and three types of spaceships. Each will have a name and the names will be used repeatedly. “Jasper! Blow the crap out of the X-9 tailfighter! Leave the cruiser for me!” and “Hold on. My pulsestar cannons are jammed! Give me a blaster!” A reader will not know what the heck exactly these objects are, but he or she will be able to deduce what they are from the context of the use, which is part of the space opera fun.
9) There should be a captain. If there’s no captain, go for a special agent. If the agent angle doesn’t work, there should be a cadet with a future. If there is no cadet with a future, there should be a mercenary with a dark past or some other really weird character like a scientist or a witch type of a consort, maybe. Or, alternatively (and like my book Friends in High Places), there should be two cadets with complicated, tangled, dark pasts that constantly collide in the most inopportune places and ways.
10) Somebody should predict something (usually somebody wise, like Obi Wan Kenobi or something), but nobody will pay attention or be able to understand the prediction. And this theme should be repeated throughout, and it should be really cryptic and portentous until something is revealed at the end that may or may not have much to do with the original warning, but it adds instant deep meaning to the various layers you’ve piled on.
And yes, these are tenets of classic space opera and yes, I use them in mine. And I actually learned them as a kid, when I read book after book of pulps and sci fi. I tweak them a bit and stretch boundaries a little, but I do use them still. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because they work and they’re a vehicle for some great adventure.
All right. That’s your intro to space opera. Hope you had a good time and if it’s not your thing, that’s cool. There’s lots of great stuff out there to read, after all! Hope your weekend goes well, and