Sci-Fi or Space Opera?

So, this is a little different a post than normal, but I was having a good conversation on one of the discords I hang out on, and I thought that this might be worth expanding out to a degree. And that discussion was “What makes something a Space Opera instead of Sci-Fi?”

The first thing is to nail down a bit more as to what is “Space Opera” in general. Sci-Fi is easy enough to define, but Space Opera is a bit trickier. There’s a few different definitions, so there clearly isn’t a hard consensus:

  • Merriam-Webster – “a futuristic melodramatic fantasy involving space travelers and extraterrestrial beings”
  • Collins – “a television or radio drama or motion picture that is a science-fiction adventure story”
  • Urban Dictionary – “An increasingly popular genre of Science Fiction. The term is largely self explanatory in that a space opera is a drama that is simply put in the context of science fiction. Although it can be “hard” science fiction, space operas typically focus on the characters to a point where the actual setting (space obviously, but more specifically, a technological future) is largely unimportant.”

Of the three, the first two are… not much better than Sci-Fi to begin with, but the latter one is probably the best insofar as not only is it specific, but it also tends to fit with the general gestalt or “theory of form” of Space Opera. But what are some more specific things that make something a Space Opera, and just as importantly what doesn’t?

1. Outer space has to be a key part of the setting background, not just a detail. This one might seem a bit obvious, but it’s fairly basic. Movies like Blade Runner make allusions to outer space settings such as “Visit the offworld colonies!” as well as Roy Batty’s final speech, but neither of them are truly critical to the story. Both could be dropped without any impact at all.

2. The core struggles/antagonists have to be social or moral, not technological. Technological challenges have comparatively “easy” technological solutions, and generally are capable of being optimized in an “objectively correct” way. While satisfying, these solutions are often easily done as a “deus ex machina”. A social or moral problem usually has no equally acceptable solution.

3. The plot must not rely on science or technology. This is similar to #2 above, but also somewhat different. If you were to take the plot from Star Wars, Legend of Galactic Heroes, or parts of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and remove ALL the modern technology, the core story would still hold together. To use a pair of examples (both from Star Trek), Voyager has the episode “Blink of an Eye” about a planet that has time moving faster for them than Voyager. This story relies on weird science of the planet; without it, the story cannot hold together. Conversely, Deep Space 9 has the episode “The Siege of AR-558“, which can almost seamlessly be translated back into modern or even as far back as Renaissance times.

4. The story is concerned at least in part with the Big Picture. Even with an emphasis on the smaller players and characters, the core story itself is working to address or respond to the Big Issues from #2. The characters may not be able to accomplish much, if anything, or the end of the battle may seem pyrrhic, but the story being told is not just attempting to deal with mundane, day-to-day issues. While this can be subtle, more often than not it should eventually seek to bring those issues to the fore.

5. The big question is not How, but Why. This one ties in with #2 and #3 at the same time. Legend of Galactic Heroes asks “What is better, a well-run and competent dictatorship, or an incompetent, sloppy democracy?” and then works to provide points and counterpoints to both sides, working to cause the reader/watcher to question which side is better.

6. Continuity is critical. Space opera is concerned with cause and effect. Person A does something that affects Group B, that causes Leader C to do something, which in turn influences Person A again. Thus, one cannot take the story in random packets, otherwise it rapidly becomes incomprehensible.

Based on these points, there’s a few series that are fairly solidly space opera: Star Wars, Babylon 5, and the redone Battlestar Galactica. Two other franchises on the other hand straddle the line between Space Opera and Sci-Fi: Star Trek and Stargate. Star Trek swings hard from being the most basic Sci-Fi in some series and episodes, with DS9 being the most space opera, and Voyager being the least (even moreso than the original series).

An interesting little discussion about Space Opera, I thought…

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