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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 planning that will expand on this material and include some of the old, public-domain stories that are directly referenced or alluded to in Supernatural Encounters. 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 SF/F history.

 

 

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, Lucas has 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 illuminating, “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 seem.

 

Artists tend 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. Since Fantasy is well enough understood and Science Fantasy reflects a more modern subcategory, 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 role. Harlan Ellison, although 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 science-fiction magazine, 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 and Galaxy appeared in 1949 and ’50 (and when his authors grew tired of him). And in the ‘60’s, Michael Moorcock’s British New Worlds ushered in the New Wave of SF, whose authors sought to overthrow all that Campbell and Gernsback had decreed. Moorcock, never one to mince words, said of Astounding that it was “a crypto-fascist deeply philistine magazine pretending to intellectualism."

 

 

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 genre.

Adventure Fiction: H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne.
Gothic Fiction: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis.

Nautical Fiction: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad.

Lost World: Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, A. Merrit, Samuel Butler.

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

Fantasy: George 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 away secrets.

 

The U.S., however, had the popular Argosy/All-Story 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.

Argosy 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 them negligible.

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 and 1894’s 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).

 

While Argosy/All-Story 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 magazines, Farnsworth Wright, chief editor of Weird Tales, 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 Weird Tales  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 Star Treader. 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."

In a 1932 letter to Amazing Stories, 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.

Leigh Brackett is often left out of the complaints about Space Opera from critics, even Campbell, who published her in Astounding, 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 effortlessly.”

 

Brackett wrote mainly for Planet Stories, which ran from 1939 to 1955 and specialized in space opera. While not as high-brow as Analog or Galaxy, 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 stream.

 

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…

 

 

To better 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 Vance.

Hamilton also wrote for early DC comics, including issues of Superman and Batman. His Captain Future and Star Wolf 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 Jupiter 2, as they explore strange worlds after getting thrown off course. The success of Batman 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 Star Trek, focused on the crew of the Enterprise as they explored space and alien civilizations. Star Trek 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 Space 1999, 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.

Star Wars 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 Gordon, and The Last Starfighter, to satires like Quark and Red Dwarf. There was a lot of animation and anime that came in its wake. And without Star Wars, there is likely no resurgence of Star Trek, let alone Alien, Firefly, Farscape, Babylon 5, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the forthcoming Rebel Moon

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 instead its own genre, related certainly, but with no need to conform to the rules of SF.

 

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.

The End

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