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The History of Space Opera
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This presentation is intended as the foundation of a book I’m
that will expand on this material and include some of the old,
public-domain stories that are directly referenced or alluded to in
This material was first given as a PowerPoint presentation on
9/10/23 at LegendsCon in Burbank, CA, and includes the notes
prepared for that presentation, some of which I was unable to read
due to lack of voice and time.
Of all the books that look at the history of SF, Westfahl’s is the
most rigorous in its research and conclusions, and while we
ultimately draw different conclusions, his is evenhanded and
nonjudgmental. Brin and Stover’s
Star Wars on Trial
debates the place Star Wars has or should have in the context of
The confusion arises over the fact that SF—despite
have clear definitions by its most influential proponents—has
repeatedly seen the inclusion of stories that defy those
definitions. Also, popular entertainment journalists have never
known or cared about the distinctions and academics don’t always
understand the genre.
As to where SW belongs,
provided a few different responses to this question,
so that there are
no wrong answers to the question, depending on your point of view.
But something he said in one of the film’s commentaries is
“Since [Star Wars] is based on a very,
kind of, old story, and not a high-tech story, it’s more of a
fantasy film than a science-fiction film… And in terms of fantasy
films… I can’t stand it when you sit around and try to explain why a
teleporter works.” We’re going to see why this latter statement is
actually significant and specific and not incidental, as it might
to hate the idea of genre since they often find themselves
constrained within it by their publisher or fans.
So, is it only a marketing concern?
Although the origin of the term Space Opera comes from SF writer and
fan, Wilson Tucker, who in 1941 said it represented the "hacky,
grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn,“ writers came to
embrace the term if not the definition.
is well enough understood and Science Fantasy reflects a more modern
we’re going to focus on Science Fiction and Space
Opera today and the differences between them.
The second most influential voice in SF
history emerged at the end of the 1930s, replacing Gernsback in the
not a fan of Campbell, said that he was “the single most important
formative force” in modern SF.
A lot of authors from earlier eras are problematic. The issue with
Campbell was that for a decade he ran the most prestigious
controlled the narrative, and served as gatekeeper for the kinds of
voices that were heard in the 1940s. His dominance over the field
began to wane when the magazines
Fantasy & Science Fiction
’50 (and when his authors grew tired of him). And in the ‘60’s,
Michael Moorcock’s British
in the New Wave of SF, whose authors sought to overthrow all that
and Gernsback had decreed. Moorcock, never
one to mince words,
that it was “a crypto-fascist deeply philistine magazine pretending
While Gernsback believed it was important to cater to the masses,
Campbell encouraged elitism, rejecting the average
reader, “the man on the street” who “could not appreciate SF.” He
wrote: “SF is written by technically-minded people, about
technically-minded people, for the satisfaction of
technically-minded people,” which he believed made them ideally
suited to running (or at least advising those running) the world.
Westfahl’s analysis is astute but missing key points. While
Gernsback and Campbell (and several authors and fans inspired by
them) spoke against Space Opera, not a few big name authors were
fans. Henry Kuttner, Harlan Ellison, Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon,
Jack Williamson, and Ray Bradbury not only cite fantasy, horror, and
space opera as direct inspirations, or wrote it themselves, but you
have authors like Michael Moorcock writing and defending Space
Opera, as did Leigh Brackett, who demonstrated that it could be both
popular entertainment and high literature.
While the indignation
of being lumped in and dismissed with juvenile stories was certainly
a factor in their attempt to disparage and distance themselves from
Space Opera, it remains that Space Opera did not—with few
exceptions—conform to the criteria Gernsback and Campbell had
established for what SF was. But it goes much deeper than that…
Here you can see the
variety of early influences that directly went into Space Opera as a
Adventure Fiction: H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne.
Gothic Fiction: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew
Nautical Fiction: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville,
Lost World: Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, A. Merrit,
Mystery fiction or Detective fiction: ETA Hoffman, Edgar
Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Scientific Roman: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells.
Weird Fiction: Edgar
Allan Poe, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood,
Robert W. Chambers, William Hope Hodgson
MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, L. Frank Baum
As we’ll see, Space
Opera is old. In the era of the dime novels, there was the German
series, “Captain Mors, the Air Pirate," which ran 165 issues from
1908-1911 and was reprinted in Italy, Poland, and Russia. Mors is an
inventor whose family was killed by a group of evil men who wanted
to use him for their own wicked ends. He creates an armored,
technologically-advanced airship and weapons to take vengeance on
them and on those who oppress the innocent, both on Earth and in the
planets of the solar system. Enter aliens, robots, and monsters! The
series was banned in 1916 by the military who feared it might give
The U.S., however, had the popular
magazine, which ran from 1882 to 1978. These were the first pulps.
Pulps are so-called because they were printed on affordable wood
pulp paper, at 7x10 inches, in 128 pages. They had an anthology
format (though sometimes they’d publish single long-form works) and
were successors to the Penny Dreadfuls and Dime novels.
featured a variety of literary genres, Westerns, romance, adventure,
war, crime, and what was then called Planetary Romance or Scientific
Romance with authors like Abraham Merritt, Ray Cummings, and Homer
Eon Flint, whose stories
Modern American Literature
says, “speculate on the success of political ideologies in imagined
galactic settings.” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series really
captured the public imagination and ran from 1912 to 1943 over the
course of 11 novels and some short stories.
Burroughs’ stories are all interconnected, so that his Mars tales
connect to his Venus tales, the Pellucidar books, and even his
Tarzan series. He wasn’t the first to do this. L. Frank Baum brought
his other fantasy stories into the Oz series in 1909. But Barsoom
didn’t end with Burroughs. Otis Aldebert Kline loosely connected his
Mars stories, even referencing John Carter in-universe. (Burroughs
returned the favor with his Venus adventures.) Later, a host of
Space Opera authors told unofficial expansions of Burroughs’ solar
system stories, skirting the legal issues by setting theirs in other
time frames and/or locations. Contributing to this unsanctioned
shared universe were C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Clark Ashton Smith,
Lin Carter, Manly Wade Wellman, Michael Moorcock, Ralph Milne
Farley, Ray Bradbury, W. Elwyn Backus, Bertram Chandler, and others.
As most of their stories were considered Space Opera in the decades
to follow, this essentially demonstrates that Planetary Romance is
essentially the same thing, with the supposed differences between
Of course, Burroughs wasn’t the first to write adventures on Mars;
he was preceded by Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1905 novel
Lieut. Gullivar Jones
Journey to Mars
by Gustavus Pope. But Burroughs caught the public imagination in a
way that few before and after him did and went on to inspire an
generation of readers and writers (including the superhero genre).
were somewhat “safer” magazines with a wide variety of genres, by
the mid-to-late 1920s, pulps began to specialize to catered tastes
who wanted specific genres, and
unlike Gernsback and Campbell, who reluctantly
published Space Opera due to the fact that it was popular and sold
chief editor of
welcomed it. We’ll talk about four of the most influential of these
authors in the genre…
While Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard were
the shining stars of
throughout the 1920s and ‘30s,
only one of them wrote Space
Opera: Clark Ashton Smith, he who Edmond Hamilton and C.L. Moore
looked upon with awe and Lovecraft praised as “unexcelled.”
With an eidetic memory and lust for reading, CAS, of Auburn, CA, was
first and foremost a writer of cosmic and macabre poetry in the vein
of Edgar Allan Poe and George Sterling. He
began writing at 11, wrote his first novel at 14, and by 19, was
held in high regard for his first book of poetry,The
He got a fan letter from H.P. Lovecraft in 1922, which began a 15
year correspondence, and led to him writing a meld of SF/F/and H in
the pulps. Smith is best known for his rich command of language,
what Ray Bradbury said fills one’s “mind with incredible worlds,
impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures…
Take one step across the threshold of his stories, and you plunge
into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture—into language."
1932 letter to
CAS wrote that, “One of the most glorious prerogatives” of
literature “is the exercise of imagination on things that lie beyond
human experience—the adventuring of fantasy into the awful, sublime,
and infinite cosmos outside the human aquarium.” The poem above, “To
the Daemon” is an ode to the creative spark that looks at the
heights of what Space Opera can attain.
Reared in Indianapolis on Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs,
C.L. Moore was one of the first women in genre fiction, a phenomenal
writer, and a hugely influential voice in the genre, even before she
married fellow pulp writer, Henry Kuttner in 1940 (and merged
together with him as Lewis Padgett and others). Moore entered the
field with “Shambleau,” which deals with themes of addition and sex.
Moore and Kuttner would go on to mentor and befriend none other than
Leigh Brackett is often left out of the complaints about
Space Opera from critics, even Campbell, who published her in
because her stories—character-driven, socially complex, and
literary—utterly destroy their arguments…
LA-based Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was a major voice in SF/F, and
later in Hollywood. Moorcock called her "one of the godmothers of
the New Wave." If she failed to get the attention she deserved, it’s
because the stories she chose to write did not fit into the John
Campbell house style that SF historians preferred. Moorcock writes
that her works were “looked down upon as a kind of bastard progeny
of science fiction (which was about scientific speculation) and
fantasy (which was about magic). Critics of the 50s hated it because
it was very uncool to be as blatantly, gorgeously romantic as
Brackett, to combine the natural and the supernatural so
Brackett wrote mainly for
from 1939 to 1955 and specialized in space opera. While not as
it featured works by Bradbury, Asimov, and Phillip K. Dick. And the
1950s was the start of the paperback revolution, which was a game
changer for genre writers since it afforded them another revenue
Brackett’s most famous character was Eric John Stark, which Lucas
called, “a two-fisted anti-hero with shades of the savagery and
brutality of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.” Brackett also wrote mystery
novels, which is what brought her to the attention of director
Howard Hawks, who was surprised to find she was a woman, which her
led to a new career as a screenwriter in 1946, the same year she
married the “Father of Space Opera,” Edmond Hamilton. Near upon two
decades later, she would meet George Lucas…
understand how important they were to the genre,
Brackett and Hamilton went on to mentor Ray Bradbury and influence
Michael Moorcock, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Philip José Farmer, Andre
Norton, John Brunner, Gene Wolf, E.C. Tubb, Poul Anderson, and Jack
Hamilton also wrote for early DC comics, including issues of
Superman and Batman.
series had popular anime adaptations.
Following the success of Space Opera at the movies, a subject that
warrants its own discussion, in the 1960s, Space
Opera found a new home in the television screens of millions of
viewers around the world staring with Irwin Allen’s
Lost in Space,
loosely based on Gold Key’s
Space Family Robinson,
it was about a family, their robot, and Dr. Smith, the sometimes
friend/sometimes enemy stowaway aboard their ship, the
as they explore strange worlds after getting thrown off course. The
saw Allen change the format to a campier one in the second season,
though it continued to prove popular through it’s third and final
season before it was cancelled due to budgetary issues.
Next came Gene Roddenberry’s perennially popular
focused on the crew of the
as they explored space and alien civilizations.
featured the services of genre writers, Robert Bloch, Harlan
Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon. But it was hampered by a poor budget
and endless studio interference until it too was cancelled after its
third season. But unlike the other three on this list, Star Trek
would return in movies and later series.
In 1975, there came Gerry Anderson’s
which dealt with the crew of a moon base that is hurled out of orbit
across the universe. The most promising and somber of the three,
with quality actors, a decent budget, and solid stories that echoed
its pulp forebears, it was sabotaged after its successful first
season, ostensibly to make it more appealing to American audiences,
though despite some very good episodes in its second season, the
studio had no interest in financing a third.
vindicated Space Opera as a
premier genre beloved by audiences the world over. It not only led
to a literary renaissance of the genre—which itself had been doing
decently—but its own expanded universe, along with new space opera
on television and film, from sincere takes on the genre, like
Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Battle Beyond the Stars, Flash
The Last Starfighter,
to satires like
There was a lot of animation and anime that came in its wake. And
without Star Wars, there is likely no resurgence of
Firefly, Farscape, Babylon 5, Guardians of the Galaxy,
and the forthcoming
Now that we’ve looked forward, let’s look to the distant past. There
is no consensus amongst SF historians or fans as to what constitutes
the corpus of SF, with even Campbell contradicting himself as to
whether it was a brand new genre of literature or a long and storied
one, and, if so, what authors and stories belong in the canon. Some
start at the beginning of the 19th Century, others at the end,
usually with Verne and/or Wells.
Whatever the case, more than half of these constitute what would
later be considered Space Opera. One can see the progenitors of the
two genres go back centuries, possibly even millennia… and while
some influenced others, the majority were inspired by the individual
author’s own tastes and literary influences. In other words, the
concept of a structured, separate genre, like SF, did not exist in
these years. But what we do see is two separate traditions (that
sometimes cross over) emerging.
In conclusion, Space Opera fiercely maintained its freedom to be as
creative and weird as it wanted and never felt bound by the
didactic, elements of Science Fiction that were defined by Gernsback,
Campbell, and their proponents. And that’s because it’s inherently
Romantic (in the literary genre sense) and opposed to the
Enlightenment worldview. That’s why they hated it… they saw it as
undermining the genre that best represented their worldview.
But it need not be a contest of wills.
If Space Opera isn’t the bastard child of SF, and is at least as old
as SF, if not older, then it’s not and never was a subgenre but is
genre, related certainly, but with no need to conform to the rules
Of course, if one softens the criteria established by the two most
significant influencers of SF—which our modern entertainment critics
and publishers have—then that’s another matter, though that dilution
introduces a host of other problems—which Gary Westfahl’s book goes
into some length about (e.g., if you remove the science criteria
from Science Fiction then you have Fantasy and/or Space Opera).
Rather than accept that SF has become “a shaky coalition of warring
factions,” the simplest solution is to allow Space Opera to be its
own genre with its own traditions and criteria, which would free SF
to become the more “unified organism” that it’s advocates have
always strived for it to be.