Star Wars to Iain M Banks: A short history of space opera

To celebrate the release of Iain M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, we take a look at the genre it sprang from

The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M Banks
The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M Banks
The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks is out 4 October 2012

If the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” make the hairs on your arms stand up, you’re already familiar with space opera and you’re probably. Its name is evocative of sweeping scale, grandeur and romance where heroes are heroic and villains crave domination.
 Enter a world where anything is possible…

Space opera, for all its trappings of high science – robots, cosmic gods, ancient alien technology, climatic space battles, galaxy-spanning superstates – hinges on the oldest of tales. Pure mythical stuff, your average space opera has more in common with Tolkien than Asimov. It’s a world of high adventure, endless thrills, romance and intrigue, where the individual quest feeds into something greater. Luke’s yearning for adventure on dusty old Tatooine bringing about the collapse of the Galatic Empire, taking in scoundrels and space knights, good and evil wizards, love and revenge, and a helluva lot of swashbuckling.

It’s these solid archetypes, and often outright stereotypes, that made the term ‘space opera’ so dismissive on its first use in 1941 by serious writers sneering at the formulaic, yet hugely popular radio serials and adventure magazines that they felt was cheapening their art – the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers clones where square jawed Earthmen punched out aliens for the benefit of swooning princesses. Kin in scorn to ‘horse opera’, the equally condemning cattle brand for the many generic cowboy series around the time, the two are closely related. Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “a wagon train to the stars”, Han Solo is an unapologetic Old West gunslinger, and Joss Whedon’s Firefly proudly embraced the trappings of the Western, from themes down to language. A triumph for populism over elitism then, in that many of the best-loved properties in science-fiction sprung out of not just its own discredited sub-genre, but a whole discredited strand of popular culture.

Maligned in literature throughout the Sixties and Seventies – the decades that gave us Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and most importantly, the first two parts of Star Wars – in the mid-Seventies Del Rey Books started to re-apply the definition to its back catalogue, fearing that literary sci-fi was accelerating up its own arse at Warp Five, while populist sci-fi was dominating the small and big screen, captivating young minds and emptying wallets. 
Steadily the genre lost its stigma, and as a result the Eighties became dominated by veteran writers unashamedly exploring mythic far futures and high octane adventure – most notably Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe.

Star Wars space opera
No where is the divide between literary SF and populist sci-fi more pronounced than Star Wars

By the dawn of the Nineties, space opera was in the hands of brash newcomers such as Iain M Banks (who entered the fray with 1987’s Consider Phlebas and is second to only Terry Pratchett in the UK in terms of bestselling genre fiction – his latest book, The Hydrogen Sonata is out 4 October 2012), Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton, and others who combined a lust for cosmic adventure, with a message, and used the unrestrained scope of space opera as Play-Doh for their ideas. TV followed suit, blending thrills with thought-provoking subtext in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987 and jump-started the franchise, and the incomparably dense Babylon 5 appeared in 1993, followed by more irreverent offerings like Lexx and Farscape in 1997 and 1999, both of which relied on the tropes of space opera being so well known, that they could effortlessly subvert them without alienating the viewer.

Aside from a few obvious big screen epics like Dune and Star Wars, and lightweight follies like Black Hole and the baffling Masters Of The Universe, and somewhere between the two, The Fifth Element, space opera is largely the preserve of literature, its concepts too big and outlandish to be rendered on anything less than a blockbuster budget. Similarly, space opera TV series are rare compared to, say, contemporary fantasy that you can put together with a bunch of teenagers, a high school, an alt rock soundtrack and a bag of prosthetics, and yet its offerings remain the dictionary definitions of sci-fi.

Sometimes complex and insightful, sometimes formulaic and clichéd, but at its best space opera ignites the imagination and fires up a sense of wonder, like our young friend Luke Skywalker, dreaming of a life beyond moisture farming and power converters.

Iain M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata is out 4 October 2012, buy it now from Amazon.co.uk for £10.